If you take a few minutes and search for examples of “cancel culture” on any search engine, you will get lists upon lists of people claiming to have been canceled.
Among these lists are actors/celebrities like Will Smith, who lost favor within acting circles after he slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards. Another celebrity you’ll see listed is the infamous rocker Marlyn Mason, who was dropped by his record label after multiple women came forward accusing him of sexual assault and sex trafficking.
You may ask yourself, “don’t these people deserve to be canceled?” Well, it’s more complicated than that. Cancel culture is not the same as accountability.
Here are four ways in which cancel culture is different from accountability.
First, holding people accountable for their actions means their punishment should be tied to the action they took. For example, when Smith violated the rules of the Academy Awards, he was banned from attending the awards ceremony for 10 years. That’s accountability.
It would be a different story if all of Smith’s movies, TV shows, and music were suddenly pulled from all streaming services because he struck Rock.
Mason was held accountable by his record company for alleged sexual assault and sex trafficking. The company cut ties with Manson, and one of the reasons was that some of his alleged victims were assaulted during the production of his music. Being dropped by his label to protect women working for the company is accountability.
Second, cancel culture is often based not on criminal actions, but on unpopular conduct. At least, conduct that is unpopular with a loud minority.
A good example of this was the recent firing of a New York University professor for grading his students too hard. In that case it was students who complained. But really, did anyone expect organic chemistry to be easy?
Third, cancel culture means going against the person’s supporters, not just the person targeted for cancelation.
Take for example a Ben Shapiro speech in 2016 that occurred at California State University, Los Angeles. I remember seeing the vitriol and violence that erupted outside the auditorium, where agitators attempted to create panic in the audience by pulling a fire alarm while using their bodies to block every exit. The goal of this mob was clear from the beginning – they wanted Ben Shapiro’s supporters to panic and hurt themselves while trapped inside the auditorium.
But sometimes, you don’t even have to be a supporter to invoke the ire of the mob. Sometimes you can be on their side and still be canceled.
Because despite the fact that CSULA President William Covino tried to unilaterally cancel Ben Shapiro’s speech, the mob went directly to his office after the talk to hold a sit-in for having allowed the event to take place. If there is one thing clear is this, unless you are part of the mob, you are a target.
Fourth, cancel culture means getting personal.
Getting fired from your job or facing criminal charges for your conduct is one thing. At the end of the day, everyone has the opportunity to redeem themselves and choose to live a better life.
Yet, cancel culture is like being branded with a hot iron. It is a scarlet letter that cancel culture supporters hope will ostracize you in all aspects of your life without the ability to explain yourself or seek redemption.
Cancel culture means getting banned from applying to a good college, eating in your favorite restaurant, or having an account on the social media platform of your choice. And, if those institutions refuse to ostracize you, then the tiny minority turns on them in outrage to try to cancel them as well.
Holding people accountable is a good thing – people should pay for what they broke. But cancel culture demands unreasonable and cruel social ostracisation without the ability to seek redemption.