OPINION: Internet ‘cancel culture’ perpetuates hostile, witch hunt mentality



The idea of “canceling” someone publicly on Twitter seems harmless at first, but can actually lead to a harmful mob mentality where groups of people gang up and consistently harass a public figure on social media.

JACOB HERSH, Evergreen columnist

As I write this, there’s a pervasive stench of censorship in the air.

This isn’t the kind performed by corporations or governments, as I’ve repeatedly railed against in past columns. This variety of censorship is much harder to define, but it exists nonetheless, perpetuated and perpetrated by mobs of people foaming at the mouth for a villain, and if they can’t find one, they’ll invent one.

There’s a name for this variety of censorship — cancel culture. The name comes from the symbolic act of “canceling” somebody online, having originated in a hotbed of hurt feelings and needless apologies — Twitter.

Since the term’s inception, it’s been used to ritualistically publicly shame individuals whose behavior has been found problematic.

Kanye West has been “canceled” a few times, as have comedians Dave Chappelle, Nick Mullen and Chris Rock. Director James Gunn has been taken to task by the cancellers, and so has Elon Musk.

Inevitably, it seems as though no one is safe. Warhol’s concept of “15 minutes of fame” has flipped 180 degrees to “15 minutes of shame.”

I’m canceled and so are you. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because all it takes is one or two anonymous Twitter accounts to call you out for some alleged crime or social misstep, and you’re through the rabbit hole. The tea has been spilt, and it’s boiling, sis.

To clarify, some people absolutely deserve to face punishment for their actions. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar should face the full force of the law for their heinous actions, and for the most part, the stories of their assaults were spread and shared online.

However, that’s not what we’re discussing when we define cancel culture. As a side note, neither Weinstein nor Cosby will face anything resembling a fair prison sentence, given their immense wealth, power and status, but that’s a subject for another time.

“For example, someone who has been found (proven) with offensive material such as a sexual offender, would it matter if they say they changed?” WSU communication professor Porismita Borah said in an email.

This speaks to another point. Sometimes public outcry is warranted, even in cases where legal boundaries have not been crossed.

If legitimately incriminating material or viewpoints are brought to light, it is often worth questioning or investigating the perpetrator.

Past material or content may in fact be indicative of a larger trend of racial, sexual or other harmful biases, which are often worth a confrontation with the original speaker.

“I’d hate for people not to be able to express opinions in a public forum because of concerns about what’s going to happen to them … but there is a line,” said Travis Ridout, a WSU professor of political science. “Express support for a neo-Nazi party, and that’s over the line for me.”

However, when cancel culture is denounced, it’s not because of legitimate legal or political grievances brought by victims. It’s because of the way it disintegrates discourse and turns constructive dialogue into mob rule.

Once canceled, an individual’s viewpoint is no longer part of the equation: they’ve become a social pariah. Their viewpoints may have changed since the original incident, but that doesn’t matter.

Tweets and material from decades ago are considered fair game in the mass defamation of character that is a hallmark of cancel culture.

“In cases where the material was from many years ago, the person’s viewpoints may have changed and they should have the opportunity to articulate that,” said WSU communications professor Traci Gillig.

Cancel culture has no room for differing opinions or contextual arguments. It is, by design, a witch hunt that has legitimate, detrimental effects for all those caught in the crossfire.

Comedians have lost jobs, politicians have been forced out of office and actors have been shouted out of movie roles, all in the name of preserving online sensibilities. Scarlett Johansson recently had to back out of a movie due to inflammatory statements about how she should be free to play a trans character, and, back in 2013, Paula Deen’s cooking show was canceled over racist comments that had happened years prior.

On a more personal note, we are one of the most technically and socially connected generations in history.

As college students, we have to acknowledge that our online presence helps define who we are, not only to our friends, but to employers and the public. Our old tweets, posts and videos seem like ancient history, but as we’ve seen, they can be dug up and spread around in an afternoon, and the damage can be devastating.

“Our online profile and social media history is our first introduction to companies and businesses,” Borah said. “Anyone who is hiring will check us online just as we check companies [and] products online before we make a purchase.”

“Keep your online presence something that you’d be OK with your mother or grandmother seeing,” Ridout said.

We need to drastically reconsider the ways that online callout culture affects public discourse. It silences opposing voices, many with actual arguments. It pushes a “one-strike” culture, where one misstep is grounds for expulsion. It enforces arbitrary speech codes, that are constantly changing from day to day, based on who’s the online flavor of the month. Finally, and most inevitably, those doing the canceling are destined to one day be the canceled.

Cancel culture is a toxic, messy swamp of dramatic narcissists. It’s a baseless, self-eating system, an ouroboros of hurt feelings and sensitivity, and it must stop, for the good of public discourse, for the good of the marketplace of ideas and for the good of human interaction as a whole.