#Human Orbit

Are We Still Cancelling People?

Social cancellation was a proven and powerful tool for change. Is it still so today? How can we use the lessons of Cancel Culture to influence future movements?


Neon sign reading 'Canceled'

Cancel Culture - its utterance alone sparks fierce debate. Being a popular form of social protest over the last few years, it now begs the question: has social cancellation aided or hindered its efforts, and has its power faded?

I wholeheartedly support fighting for what you believe in and the right to protest. There are many atrocities and injustices committed globally, and those responsible must be held accountable. Cancel culture succeeded in bringing attention to the misdeeds of powerful figures, spurring movements that led to much needed change.

Grayscale image of a woman holding a sign that reads respect existence or expect resistance
Resistance is punk rock

The instrumental use of social media to rally change and drive progress was undeniable.

So What Changed?

Movements like #MeToo and the removal of harmful monuments demonstrated the power of social pressure. These successes emboldened others to attempt to recreate those effects over a wider and wider range of issues. What started with a focus on major societal problems morphed into a form of online mob justice.

Groups splintered from organized movements, expanding their “cancel” targets. The focus shifted from addressing undeniable injustices like assault and discrimination to scrutinizing and punishing others based on their words alone.

People gathered in front of concrete buildings carrying torches
He's hiding in there!

Undoubtedly, how we choose language matters, and those choices have the potential to perpetuate harmful biases and stereotypes. Understanding the impact of language is important and a key to reducing prejudice.

Fueling the Fires

The challenge is that these are delicate conversations, especially in a nation that prides itself on personal freedom. Any perceived attempts to control speech elicit fear of a slippery slope towards thought control and the erosion of free will. Using forceful tactics to silence others, regardless of intent, often fuels opposition.

Man getting hit in boxing match
The beating will continue until your actions meet my standards.

By using social cancellation indiscriminately, opportunities for dialogue were quickly shut down. People criticized for the use of unpopular language and ideas or questionable jokes faced disproportionate public shaming and the direct loss of careers and livelihood. This stemmed from mob tactics targeting everyone and everything associated with the target in their attack.

This heavy-handed approach did prompt people and businesses to toe the line in fear. However, it did little to change the hearts and minds of the populace. The opportunities for dialogue around the use of language were effectively ruined. Instead of conformity, resistance was ignited.

bonfire selective focus photography
Maybe not the fire we wanted, but the fire we got.

Additionally, the relentless focus on language diverted attention from other urgent issues - economic inequality, homelessness, and the looming threats of social media control. During a time when potential for social change and reform was at a peak, sewing dissension instead created division where unification was needed. By spreading efforts so thin, efforts for change became diluted and lost in the noise.

Cancel Culture Today

The very groups that cancel culture targeted have instead been emboldened. Brute force to bring silence instead prompted defiance. Cancellation became a ‘badge of honor’ to which politicians, celebrities, and comedians alike that were the targets of cancellation have since gained larger followings.

The wide and indiscriminate use of social cancellation made it easy to paint the efforts in a negative light. Supporters of the movement were painted as overly sensitive children silencing anyone they disagree with. Regardless of what the movement was really about, the meaning behind it was lost.

Cancel culture is not a substitute for justice, it's often a distraction from it.

~ Roxane Gay

While social cancellation still occurs, its influence has greatly weakened, and broader social support has fallen.

Lessons Learned

With the goal of influencing social change, it’s important to learn from the mistakes of “cancel culture.” I sympathize with its underlying motivations, but its methods proved counterproductive. True change is a process, requiring time and a strategic approach. That said, here are some key takeaways:

  • Force has its limits: Forceful tactics are extremely useful when used precisely and sparingly. Overuse of force often backfires and creates defiance.
  • Focus is essential: No war has been won by over extending efforts. Clearly define your goals, and pursue those goals. A scattered approach dilutes power and confuses supporters.
  • Change hearts and minds: Lasting change requires public support and buy in. Understanding the mindset and motivations of the opposition is the key to winning support in unlikely places.
  • Adapt your tactics: Predictability is easily countered. Diversify your toolkit and find new approaches to influencing change that may be unexpected.

By learning from these principles, we can create stronger social movements. Shock and awe might open doors, but thoughtful social influence is what keeps them open. Be clear with your goals and honest about how different approaches can help or hinder your goals.

Change is not impossible, but it is a process.


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