You’ve seen the hashtags, you’ve witnessed the trends. More and more celebrities, spokespeople, and athletes are being #canceled for holding often hostile opinions. It seems like the right thing to do, right? Kick out the wrongdoers and press on. But what if that practice is only adding to the overall systemic problem?
We’re going to look at the cancel culture phenomenon, explore how it resembles the practice of exiling from ancient history, and see how mental health professionals look at marginalization through exiling means – determining whether or not it’s helpful. We’ll also learn other means of holding people accountable while not flat out outcasting them from the greater society.
The History of Exiling
Throughout history there have been instances where those that have done egregious acts have been punished by excommunication, typically through exile. Exile is when society or a group of concerned citizens take it upon themselves to remove a problematic person and forcing them out of the place and the community in which they have wronged. Notable figures in history that were exiled from their state are: ¹
- Aristotle, the noted classical Greek philosopher, was exiled from Athens after being accused of impiety in 322 BCE and fled to his family estate in the city of Chalcis on the Greek island of Euboea.
- Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France and the former leader of the French military, was exiled not once but twice following many political and military defeats as Emperor.
- Victor Hugo, famous French novelist who was responsible for creating such classics as Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was exiled to the island country of Guernsey in 1855 due to his outspoken beliefs and negative comments of the French ruler Napoleon III. Hugo spent 15 years on the island before returning to Paris shortly before his death, where he was a celebrated countryman by the French citizens. ²
- Roman Polanski is a Polish Oscar winning filmmaker who fled his home country during WWII because of the Nazi invasion to France. He would create such classic films as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Pianist. Polanski would eventually have to flee America later on in his life after being convicted in a sexual abuse case involving a minor, becoming a US fugitive. Since then, Polanski has been culturally cancelled due to the rise of the #MeToo movement and has lost opportunities to make and release films a result. ³
- Edward Snowden is a recent example of exile as he was exiled from the United States due to his involvement of declassifying the NSA probing of US citizens through mobile phone and internet usage. Snowden fled the United States in March 2013 to Hong Kong, China. He was granted temporary asylum by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in June of that year which he accepted. He currently resides in Moscow. ⁴
Cancel Culture: The New Modern Exile?
Cancel culture has become more or less the new social exile as the movement has been seen as a way to essentially cast out problematic members from society after allegations of either reprehensible behavior or egregious actions .⁵ Notable examples have been comedians like Bill Cosby, Louie CK, R&B singer R. Kelly, and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly are just a few to be cancelled over the past few years .
The concept of shunning those that have done wrong isn’t a new trend. However, unlike other times in history, the rate of those being cancelled and the spectacle behind cancellation is unlike anything we, as a society, have seen before.
Questioning Cancellation as a Social Practice
The ethical and moral quandaries that have surrounded this new movement are heavy and the consequences of being #cancelled are long-lasting and emotionally devastating. When someone is cancelled, the most obvious repercussion is the loss of standing in whatever field that canceled person is in. The loss of a job, being blacklisted, and losing revenue streams is sure fire way to punish someone who has used their profile and their professional careers to demonize and prey upon victims.
However, the extent of damage doesn’t just end at the canceled individual losing their professional standing. Oftentimes there are other punishments like losing friends, family, and overall support of those that that particular person may rely on to get them through tough times. And if one is cancelled, whether it be for legitimate reasons or not, they often feel that any action they take to try and fix the issue or apologize for their wrongdoings aren’t taken seriously or aren’t taken at all by the large community of people that have cancelled them in the first place.
Complications With Cancel Culture
Cancel culture has shown real changes in the way that we interact with one another. We have become mindful of the way we phrase, interpret, and perceive language as well as context. There have been beneficial outcomes of this social development of language but there have also been some pretty negative consequences as well.
There’s also the question of censorship as it applies to cases of those utilizing their platforms to advocate on issues that they feel are important to them as well as to voice their opinions. When one is forcibly removed from society through the means of cancellation it also takes away opportunities for those to speak freely, to share their feelings, and emotions.
Cancel Culture & Freedom of Speech
We walk a fine line when we tell people that they have the freedom of speech and then turn around and limit that speech due to fears that it may offend others. An obvious case that comes to mind is the recent cancellation and calls to fire of Gina Carano, a notable actress and entertainer. Her opinions on immigration and anti-semitic comments which were shared on social media to the public caused her to eventually be fired from Disney’s Star Wars series, The Mandalorian. What’s interesting about Carano’s case is the fact that she was punished for speaking her mind, a freedom that we as Americans and others around the civilized world take for granted.
When thoughts and opinions are wielded by others as means to get rid of a person that they might not agree with, that’s a cause for concern. While there are certain cases where cancelling an individual may be justified, there are often times cases where people are simply presenting an opinion. Cancelling those that speak freely isn’t helpful at all and, in fact, only adds more to the overall problem.
In the cases of Gina Carano, Kevin Hart, James Gunn, and now seemingly Dr. Seuss as well, the cancellation comes through the means of digging up past comments, social media posts, and previous behaviors to try and publicly shame these people out of their careers and their futures. And while it is true that these people have made mistakes, said inappropriate things, perhaps made some jokes in bad taste – does it mean that they should have their whole lives and careers and reputation upended over a Tweet or sharing some thoughts?
Not to mention, do such actions prevent others from speaking out on their opinions? From developing ideas that may differ from those setting out to cancel others? An even more important question may be, who decides what ideas are cancellable?
Holding someone accountable for their actions is the right thing. However, we have to be mindful in the way that we call out others for their perceived behaviors or actions, as it is so easy to ruin someone’s life and career with just a few social media posts. Cancel culture has only metastasized in today’s socially and politically mindful society and while it has done some good, it has also caused unneeded suffering and lasting ruination for those that have made mistakes rather than performing awful acts.
Cancel culture needs to be mitigated – used only as a last resort measure when all other options and opportunities have failed.
¹ PastFactory: Most Famous Exiles in History
² Island of Guernsey Magazine: Why was Victor Hugo Exiled?
³ The Guardian: Roman Polanski Says “The Media ‘Making Me a Monster’
⁴ NPR: Edward Snowden Speaks Out About Asylum in Russia