We are all familiar from one extent to another with the term cancel culture. The wider understanding of the verb ‘to cancel’ (someone) expresses the turning point in which the public opinion of an individual shifts from indifferent -or, more commonly, favorable- to actively negative because of actions they have taken in the past. This shift is represented in general ostracism of the individual by means of vocal humiliation, calls for boycotting, and a cultural block, so to say, from holding a public platform or any sort of public career.
A tool of social justice.
In one sense it can be seen as a promoter of democracy by providing a tool of social justice that is not tainted by years of systemic discrimination. It is unbiased and free, at least theoretically so. People can share their experiences of oppression, call out offensive or discriminatory actions of celebrities and public figures in an attempt to prevent such comments from being expressed in the future, and promote a more respectful and safe online space.
So, what is the issue? The internet acts as an amplifier: an amplifier of information, of access, of control. Anything that enters the digital sphere -especially social media-, however pure and just, can easily be abused. People become quick to judge and often don’t take the time to review and reflect upon a situation before forming opinions.
Good intentions can very easily lose purpose when they seem to gain material power and popularity.
Proper due process.
Canceling someone online skips the most crucial step in due process, the right to a fair trial. Civic punishment without an impartial court case is a violation of human and political rights. (It is protected under article 11 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental right.) The very foundation of our judiciary systems relies on the presumption of innocence. This is not by accident, as it is based on a long history of shaming sanctions dating back to ancient Mediterranean civilizations and the well-known medieval “Public Square Trials”.
A bit of history.
Sixth-century Roman law provides us with the rule of Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat —”Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies”, in which most modern-day judicial systems are rooted, including the Italian one.
The importance of the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” is evident in its unwavering status as the basis of criminal proceedings even in modern times.
The act of canceling takes away the chance to look at the evidence (or lack thereof) of the case and skips straight to the punishment, which most often includes but is not limited to loss of employment, public humiliation, revoked admissions, harassment, and psychological hardship.
By skipping the whole process of the trial we essentially return to basic mob intimation practices in which a group of people decides and enforce their opinions about an individual on the public.
This can be seen in medieval Public Square Trials where people would gather in public spaces and decide the fate of those who have transgressed. The loudest, most intense voices would prevail and would inspire a wave of violence and uproar directed at the accused, without any actual proof or a fair proceeding, eventually determining the fate of the process.
Similarly, when it comes to cancel culture, if we don’t take time to consider the full length and severity of the situation and just follow the wave of anger, we revert back to a mindless sheep mentality.
Hiding behind a “woke facade”, and automatically canceling anyone that has misspoken in the past, takes away from the actual, practical use of the act, which is to equalize the playing field, giving everyone a chance to speak on their experiences and call out problematic behavior that is causing real pain to marginalized communities.
The thin line between justice and vengeance.
In cases of cancel culture, proving that someone did what they are being accused of is not really the issue, since everything happens online, what is being defended is the intention of the action and the stance of the individual after the fact.
If the person seems to have grown from their ill-advised action -genuinely so- and has taken steps in trying to repent towards the communities their action/words have affected, then punishing them for their indiscretion can very often be exposed as an act of vengeance, not justice.
The New York Times’s Jennifer Senior said it best when she wrote, “purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power.”
Which is it, then? Is cancel culture a valuable instrument for social justice or a modernized version of ruthless mob intimidation?
Canceling can be an important instrument in building safer online spaces, as long as it is applied mindfully and reflects the views of the people. “Canceling” cancel culture takes away an outlet for people to share their experiences and defend their position. Mindlessly following canceling trends ends up doing more harm than good. Finding balance is tricky, but it is a task worth striving/aiming for.
Senior, Jennifer. “Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/opinion/teen-fiction-and-the-perils-of-cancel-culture.html.
-, Team @Law Times Journal, et al. “Ei Incumbit Probatio Qui.” Law Times Journal, 29 Sept. 2019, https://lawtimesjournal.in/ei-incumbit-probatio-qui/.