At its essence, cancel culture is simply a form of online shaming. More specifically, cancel culture has become the ultimate form of public shaming in the 21st century. Social media has increased the effectiveness of this method of control over others. Whether through social media, the mainstream media, or even print media, we can hardly go a day without digging up the past misdeeds or mistakes of a public figure.
From one perspective, cancel culture has its origins in muckraking, a term used to describe the activities of journalists who report corruption, secrets, or scandals through questionable means, especially from influential figures.
Although media reports typically bring out scandalous information about influential figures, the actual act of weaponizing a mob against those people typically comes from social media, with thousands of people picking up on the report. The website Tumblr has often been filled with trending posts about the problematic histories of users and stars. A common form of “canceling” comes from delving into a figure’s social media history to find evidence of scandalous behavior and beliefs – even if the remarks were more socially acceptable when they were made, perhaps years earlier.
Most of the causes for “canceling” tend to come from disdain for someone’s controversial past, or as a method of achieving political goals. Influential celebrities and bands like One Direction have been “canceled” for cultural appropriation, fat-shaming, female objectification, or disregard for their supposed white privilege.
Although the public shaming of influential figures has happened countless times before the 21st century, only recently has “cancel culture” been the official term used by the public. Google Trends shows that the phrase “cancel culture” was not massively searched until 2018.
Cancel culture is used either as a weapon to silence dissenting voices or as a boogeyman to minimize and discredit the public opposition to your beliefs and actions. Cancelling has become connected to politics because of its power to manipulate social media and the public perception of any target. Politicians saw the power of canceling both positively and negatively, happy to use it against their enemies but feeling threatened when it was used against themselves.
This type of manipulation is not restricted to politics. Recent history has shown that some are happy to see people with controversial beliefs canceled by calling for their employers to fire them, schools to expel them, or for other citizens to endlessly harass the target until they can no longer live their lives normally.
Supporters of cancel culture argue that powerful people can only be taken down when their reputation is tarnished, and that they seek to empower those without money or power against the ruling class. Opponents have argued that this culture has gone too far and that it has simply become a tool abused by the mob to achieve their goals of overthrowing their enemies.
Cancel culture has taken down notorious public figures who had committed terrible crimes, but it has also sparked a desire to shut down unpopular or controversial opinions on social media. Today, many people think of cancel culture as a toxic, negative phenomenon that arose out of pop culture, but it shows no sign of ending anytime soon.