A Closer Examination of the Negative Effects of Cancel Culture:
A personal introspection
In recent years, being “cancelled” has become a significant point of contention in the realms of social media, entertainment, and public discourse. While proponents argue that it serves as a tool for accountability and social justice, there is growing concern about the negative effects of cancel culture. I am an author and poet. My poetry is in the realm of social and political commentary. I have always tried to be a balanced writer and so in many of my poems I try to show the reader both sides of an argument. However, even for me, there are certain topics I would not publish for fear of someone misunderstanding and using the ‘cancellation’ card through a knee-jerk reaction. It is a fine line to walk, and it is certainly a stressful one. Thus, one of my most glaring concerns surrounding cancel culture is its potential to stifle free speech and open dialogue. Cancel culture often results in self-censorship as individuals, fearing backlash, choose not to express their opinions, even if they are well-intentioned or thought-provoking. In an atmosphere where one misspoken word can lead to public shaming, many may opt to stay silent rather than face the risk of being "cancelled." This stifling of free speech hinders intellectual and social progress, as robust debates and discussions are essential for growth and understanding.
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One of the problems is that cancel culture often lacks due process and this tends to undermine the principles of justice and fairness. In the court of public opinion, allegations can lead to swift and often disastrous consequences. There is an easy path to condemnation without thorough investigation or consideration of evidence. This rush to judgment can result in the wrongful destruction of a person’s reputation, career, and personal life. I don’t dispute that there may be legitimate cases of misconduct that deserve public attention, the fact is that the absence of a fair process can lead to unjust consequences for those wrongly accused.
Earlier on I spoke about my stress for ensuring that I choose my words carefully but that aside, cancel culture can take a significant toll on the mental health of the person subjected to public scrutiny and online harassment. The relentless attacks on social media, coupled with the fear of losing one's livelihood, can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The intense pressure and vitriol can make it challenging for those who have been cancelled to recover emotionally and professionally.
As a writer I can tell you that cancel culture has the potential to stifle innovation and artistic expression. I know because I have experienced this firsthand. Artists, writers, and entertainers may find themselves self-censoring their work for fear of backlash, leading to a homogenized cultural landscape devoid of challenging or controversial content. In an environment where "cancelling" is prevalent and used as the ‘big stick’ to keep people in line, the risk-averse may thrive while risk-takers may choose to opt out. This, however, ultimately limits the range and depth of creative endeavors.
This homogenization is more than likely to create natural echo chambers where like-minded individuals amplify each other's views and disregard opposing perspectives. This reinforcement of echo chambers can hinder social progress and understanding. When individuals only engage with those who share their beliefs and cancel anyone who thinks differently, it becomes increasingly difficult to find common ground and foster empathy, which is essential for addressing societal issues effectively. Inevitably this serves to separate and polarize people. Now, split into different camps, they are no longer concerned with dialogue or conversation. Instead, they remain at the ready to provide a vicious verbal beatdown of anyone who crosses “their line.” So, undoubtedly cancel culture contributes to the polarization and division we currently see within society. The concern is that cancel culture frequently revolves around ideological, political, and social differences, and by its very nature, it deepens existing divides. When individuals are more focused on cancelling those who disagree with them, they are less inclined to engage in constructive dialogue and seek common ground, exacerbating the fractious state of public discourse.
The problem is that we know one of the key aspects of a just and compassionate society is the ability for individuals to grow and learn from their mistakes. Cancel culture however does not provide that opportunity. On the contrary, it often makes it challenging for people to seek redemption or make amends for their past actions. This unforgiving environment discourages personal growth and development, as individuals may feel that there is no hope for rehabilitation once they have been cancelled. Our society codified laws and created organizations to protect us against those who would break those laws. Albeit often we may have come short in both the codification of the laws and how we tend to uphold them. However, even those things are contemplated in our laws. Though not always blind, Lady Justice is capable of being held accountable. Cancel culture's informal approach to dealing with perceived wrongs is not. If someone is wrongfully accused and this results in a loss of their job and career, there is no tangible way for them to recover from that. Cancel culture becomes an exercise in mob mentality and vigilante justice. The online "cancel mob" may seek to harm individuals, both personally and professionally, as they take matters into their own hands. This can result in collateral damage, affecting not only the individual being cancelled but also their family, friends, and colleagues.
I recognize that while cancel culture may be intended to promote accountability and social change, the problem is that it often fails to achieve these goals. The backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash cycles can create a sense of fatigue and desensitization, causing people to tune out from important discussions about real issues. Instead of driving meaningful change, cancel culture can become a form of performative activism, where the focus shifts from addressing injustices to punishing individuals. This can then lead to unintended consequences. For instance, when a person is cancelled, their supporters may become even more entrenched in their views, viewing the cancellation as an unjust attack. This entrenchment can result in a strengthening of extremist positions and further polarization within society.
We cannot deny that cancel culture arose as a response to perceived injustices and inequalities in our society today. However, its negative effects cannot be ignored. The suppression of free speech, lack of due process, impact on mental health, and other consequences pose significant challenges to a just and equitable society. It is crucial to strike a balance between holding individuals accountable for their actions and providing opportunities for growth and reconciliation. Cancel culture tends to be black and white, while a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to addressing misconduct and promoting positive change may ultimately prove more effective. But how can we bring ourselves back from the abyss? More importantly, how can anyone do this without the risk of being cancelled themselves? I don’t have any answers, but for now, that poem that I wrote about that thing that’s currently happening…it’s going to remain unpublished.
Bio: Brian Sankarsingh is a Trinidadian-born Canadian immigrant who moved to Canada in the 1980s. He describes himself as an accidental poet, with a passion for advocacy and a penchant for prose, an unapologetic style, he offers his poetry as social and political commentary.