Cancel Culture – Vigilante Justice or Modern Witch Hunt?

19 Min Read
Illustration Credit: NBC News

“All persons ought to endeavour to follow what is right, and not what is established.”


Koushin Unber, Yashfeen Karim

Cancel culture, from its roots in call-out culture, has been prevalent on the internet for the past few years. It is a form of social and online shunning, better worded as cyber ostracism, that boycotts an individual or a group of individuals found participating in any activity that is deemed hurtful, offensive, or inappropriately incorrect. 

Behaviour that is questionable or controversial needs to be addressed and corrected that is what the phenomenon of cancelling somebody started as. People generally called out someone on social media and confronted them about their actions, in the hopes of creating awareness about predators and similar other people. This helped bring important issues into light and created awareness on topics that were often avoided and overlooked in the hopes of preventing them from being repeated in the future. 

However, cancel culture has today evolved into an outlet that not only exposes sexual harassers and corrupt delinquents, but social criminals in general. Calling out people on social platforms has created progress in terms of shifting narratives, albeit for the better or worse. It provides a voice to marginalised and less powerful people, whose only medium to express themselves and fight for their rights can be the internet. It can also exclude people from certain opportunities, including the exerting of pressure on organisations to cancel the individual’s public appearances or speaking engagements and, in the case of businesses deemed offensive, organising boycotts of their products.

When fashion retailer Shein faced backlash on the internet in July 2020 for cultural appropriation in their products, the fast-fashion brand ultimately apologised for their inconsiderate items in sale. Shein ultimately removed the items from sale and made the following statement: “As a global brand, we vow to do a much better job in educating ourselves on different cultures, religions, and traditions to ensure our diverse community is respected and honoured.” 

Similarly, prayer rugs with pictures of the Kaaba, a sacred building in Mecca to Muslims, were being sold and labelled as ‘frilled Greek carpets’ and swastika necklaces displayed as ‘metal swastika pendant’ necklaces. While the symbol represents spirituality in Buddhism, it also connoted hatred as the Nazi swastika which is offensive to many around the world. 

Although, the fashion world has been subject to such apologies in the past as well, the attempt to educate on diversity gives an example of how criticism on brands via social media can also improve customer service. 

In political situations as well, declaring the names of racists and sexists, for instance, has created a momentum in protests. Spencer Kornhaber pens in a piece published by The Atlantic, “The naming and shaming of alleged bigots, misogynists, and assorted other pigs—and the institutions that support them—has in recent years propelled anti-racist movements, #MeToo, and, of course, many situations unrelated to broader political matters. In clear ways, such callouts embrace the leveling effects of social media to empower marginalised voices.”

However, while social media is a good platform to confront others’ mistakes and call out injustice, it also provides a space for statements that may not necessarily be the truth. What initially began as well intentioned and necessary criticism has developed into a toxic and dangerous trend today. Currently, cancel culture has been harming more than healing. What should have always been an educational experience has transformed into a vicious and hostile episode by keyboard warriors. 

Cancel culture initially set out to be a communal form of restorative justice, where the accused would be called out online and were expected to take accountability of their crime by sincere means of apology, followed by an assumption of responsibility and taking action to repair harm. Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice where the victims play a cardinal role and it focuses on the rehabilitation of the offenders. Dialogue, apologies, and effective interaction between both parties were required to expiate the crimes of the accused.

But as the trend of cancelling people grew, the scale tipped its balance and online justice transformed into a nasty case of retributive justice that has no mercy and falls in the hands of the masses. The justice system that Cancel Culture proposes is a makeshift and dilapidated version of the pre-existing retributive justice system. But what is dangerous about it is that it pretends to be restorative, which is what it may have started out as, but as the trend grew more popular into the zeitgeist, it became a lynching free-for-all. Baseless accusations, untrustworthy witnesses, and an extremely biased jury — are what take upon each case.

Cancel culture flies in the face of restorative justice. Rather than having a conversation about how to restore those involved in criminal acts, perpetrators are just cancelled. There is no path to healing, to learning, or to making things right. It resorts to mass defamation of a person/organisation/entity without a proper investigation of a case. The perpetrators are not given an opportunity to make amends or address the underlying issues which resulted in their behaviours.

How ethical is online humiliation?

Even though this method of vigilante mob justice has grown roots into the spirit of our generation, it remains globally criticised. Chiefly because once a story is disclosed to this drama-hungry crowd, accusation is proof enough. Little evidence is required to stir the pot of social media outrage and turn the public against a prominent figure, for example the well-known rape and murder case of Aurna Amin: The perpetrators were already cancelled and berated across different platforms devoid of proof, only to be proven innocent upon extended investigation.

Battered amongst a million shares online, the once carefully formulated accusation suffers a great deal of dilution, and is delivered to the hoi polloi as a story that berates not what the offender did, but what he/she is. Famous beauty-guru and online personality James Charles was “cancelled” in 2019 after being accused of “trying to trick straight men into thinking they’re gay” by another well-known Youtber Tati Westbrook. However, after being circulated from social media to social media, the headlines eventually read “James Charles is toxic and manipulative”.

It is quick to pick up on the most meagre bits of evidence to fuel the raging and undying fire circulating around the now cancelled person. Due to the lack of a proper framework around this new version of retributive justice, everyone becomes the judge, everyone a witness, and everyone a lawyer. In the case of more well-known celebrities, this snowballing effect is more discernible.

Instead of leeching of to the stories of the victims, it rather focuses on the behaviour of the culprit following the outrage. In the case of Ellen DeGeneres, the allegations were of her creating a toxic workplace employment but as the hashtag #cancelellen took over Twitter, the headlines read ‘Ellen is a hypocritical boomer’. And to the millions of eyes and ears that do not delve into the specifics of an article but just gloss over the title or the intro of a Youtube video, Ellen was a hypocrite. James Charles’s cancellation at the beginning of the year 2020 turned his original accusation from ‘James Charles tried to trick gay men into thinking their straight’ into ‘James Charles is toxic and manipulative’. Thus creating a significantly different narrative from what the accuser first started out as, is a deep-rooted problem of the cancel culture.

The unseen perils of such an enormous online trend show themselves in cases such as Johnny Depp’s. With the MeToo era comes a new progressive slogan “Believe victims”, and taking advantage of the internet’s gullibility and susceptibility, Amber Heard finds the perfect audience for her weaponised victimhood. Cancel culture constantly provides the benefit of the doubt to the accuser, and in cases like the one discussed here, such gullibility can lead to demolish a person’s career. Warner Bros had asked him to resign from the Harry Potter prequel franchise, Fantastic Beasts, whilst he had reportedly been fired from The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise, where he played the unmistakable role of Jack Sparrow.

This not only creates an incredibly grey area of judgement between actual victims of domestic abuse (what Johnny Depp was accused of) and Amber Heard, it also outright disrespects them. The actual repercussions of this comes when future victims lose the courage to come out with their own stories of abuse, something which takes a lot of effort and brevity to surface.

As this is a directly conflicting method of justice to the conventional ones we have been seeing since the past century, it begs the question of whether or not justice is actually brought to those who deserved to be punished. Whether or not someone deserves to lose their source of income, after being guilty of tweeting something problematic way back when the world around us wasn’t as socio-politically aware anyway, is still debated amongst many people.

The mob mentality spares no one, and is the first to jump in on a story and draw out as many conclusions as possible. It judges actions as subtle as ‘collaborating with a transphobe’ to actual criminal offences such as possession of child pornography and sexual assault on the same metric, which is dangerous because one may undervalue the other or vice versa. Even then, the main target of being called out remains powerful men, who otherwise, would wriggle away from facing the music by abusing their wealth and power. However, upon closer examination, one realises that these men escaping dire consequences is inevitable.

Although many have lost jobs or lost the status they once had, they have been able to spring back up again and shed off the crumbs of accusations on their thousand-dollar-suits. Louis CK admitted to masturbating in front of female comedians. He was dropped by his agency, and HBO and Netflix cut ties with him, but he has recently sold out five shows in his home city of Toronto. Harvey Weinstein—who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women (he has denied the allegations) and charged with predatory sexual assault, a criminal sexual act and rape (he has pleaded not guilty)—lost his job, but when he showed up at a young artists’ event in October, a comedian who called him out in her set was booed and two women who confronted him were asked to leave.

This can also be recognised in recent scenarios in our local sphere. When Fakree Saad’s apology post on Facebook spread like wildfire, only for him to take it down later when people retaliated, the inspection of the case went as far as calling him names such as ‘Bakree’. A similar story played out for Robab Ali as well — who belonged to the same circle of acquaintances — his exploitative actions turned him into a ‘breaking chair’ meme.

As observed, ordinarily the cancelling is only limited to naming and shaming, without any validation or confirmation of the source of information, or any legal actions taken. In other instances, even where evidence is plenty, they are limited to jokes on the internet and ultimately, justice is never served. This further perpetuates a cycle of people getting away. 

Balancing the scale

Self expression on the internet has now become endangered with very real consequences. So, perhaps private confrontations can be more effective and thoughtful as it can prevent the feeling of everyone attacking a single individual at the same time. 

The humiliation of the accused, whether proven guilty or not, is a natural human reaction by the public that cannot be avoided in the beginning. People are outraged by a story circulating in their newsfeed and forwarded by mutuals, and they react to the post, comment about it, and share it with others. In cases where the accused is rightfully liable, this condemnation becomes a force for good, stressing on their fault, but it leads to unnecessary harassment of an individual if they are not to blame. Ultimately, the mortification becomes redundant and computes to nothing of significance when the trolling just amounts to one viral anecdote among countless others.

In other cases, extreme aggression over a small issue has exaggerated a person’s fault. An article on call-out culture by The Guardian reflects how “some people feel that call-outs are an excuse for petty drama – a way to stir up gossip more than to promote social justice”. And this has been proven right in multiple circumstances. 

Anna Richards, a therapist specialising in conflict mediation who reasons that brutal call-outs cannot be completely beneficial, says that in such circumstances “you’re taking this moral high ground, with a lot of righteous indignation, and inviting others to participate in a public shaming exercise.”

According to Richards, albeit it is crucial to genuinely gain an understanding of the subject and apologise, it is equally essential to “analyse our own motivations when offering criticism, and considering the context and possible consequences of the situation we’re contributing to — help call-out culture work productively.”

Calling out someone publicly is acceptable when a person is consistently and unashamedly wrong. Cancel culture is only okay in scenarios wherein an individual has a repeated history in acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other kind of bigotry. 

By demanding reform online, a new pattern of behaviour can be established in society. Instead of opting for a harsher, more punishable route of expulsion, often self-reflection and resolving matters on a smaller scale can ensure a more fruitful result. This can be done through reconstruction of the methods used to contribute to positive change. An effort to listen and learn (and unlearn) to become a better ally to other disparaged communities can subside wrongful and objectionable behaviour in the future.

Concurrently, it is important for those who step forward to vocalise about right versus wrong to extract themselves from the mob mentality that arises so often in the present time. As a result, restorative forms of justice that attempt to educate and rehabilitate offenders are more sensible approaches than retributive means.

Whilst the cancel culture provides an easy and convenient way to fix the spotlight on those guilty of wrong-doing, it has transformed into a double-edged sword knowing no rules and no bounds. And even though it continues to get sharper with every retweet, share and repost, the only way to create sense out of the profound mess is to calm the crowd.



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