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The Rise And Influence Of Cancel Culture

Embedded in the rise of social media, cancel culture has secured its place as a powerful public tool. From celebrity sexual assault allegations to political controversies, public figures and organisations often fall victim to widespread cancellation. This can take the form of a general public outcry, boycotting, and complete ostracization.  

Cancel Culture As Divisive 

Amidst this growing phenomenon is the increased call for a rejection of the practice altogether. Many mainstream arguments against cancel culture see it as nothing more than virtue signalling, where people are left with no room for mistakes or gaps in their knowledge. 

There is a prominent conception that it enables scapegoating and false accusations, setting up a certain trial by mob mentality. The arbitrary nature of cancel culture often leaves many frustrated when only certain attempts at cancellation stick. Yet such opinions are acutely contentious in nature. 

The effects of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were felt across the globe when George Floyd, an African-American man was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. In Britain, this led to several anti-racism protests which saw demonstrators topple statues of slave traders. The removal of such statues has become hugely controversial, with campaign group Save Our Statues fighting against such protests and working to preserve the statues of Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth and Clive of India in Shrewsbury. 

The protestors in this instance are representative of the desire for cancel culture. When public figures no longer uphold the values of society, they can simply be removed from its spotlight much like these statues. Where statues reveal a part of history, they also celebrate and uphold historical figures. This connection is what creates such divisiveness, where groups, like Save Our Statues see such demonstrations as an eradication of history, and anti-racism protestors see it as the decentring of morally corrupt values that no longer hold a place within society. 

The subject of cancel culture creates very staunch divides. A statue can either be dismantled or upheld, in the same way that public figures can either be removed from our view or supported. In cases of cancel culture, there are no alternative options, just two choices with nowhere to meet in the middle. Such a culture is strongly reminiscent of political divides and often manifests itself as such. 

Starbucks Controversy  

Cancel culture is used by many as a way of upholding their political beliefs. It is often seen as an important and beneficial tool for promoting change without possessing any intent to destroy people. For many, cancel culture is simply the act of decentring people or corporations from positions of power and influence when it no longer aligns with their values, or when that power and influence has been abused.

Cancel culture is often synonymous with the idea of holding people accountable for their actions. This usually takes the form of boycotting. One current example of this would be the cancellation of Starbucks. Within the last 7 days social media posts with the #boycottstarbucks have been viewed 218 million times on TikTok, often coupled with the #freePalestine. 

In October of last year, Starbucks Workers United uploaded a social media post that said "Solidarity with Palestine!" The backlash from this has been extensive with pro-Israel supporters initially boycotting Starbucks before they put out a statement saying that they “disagree with the statements and views expressed by Workers United and its members. Workers United’s words and actions belong to them, and them alone.” The company went on to sue the Workers Union which led to further boycotting from pro-Palestine supporters across social media. 

Starbucks’ market value dropped by almost $11 billion during this time, seeing a 9.4% decline. Though these statistics could be related to any number of unrelated factors, many on social media see such developments as indicative of their collective power in upholding companies to certain moral standards. 

Cases like this where political beliefs and moral condemnation invoke cancellation speak to a wider issue of seeking justice outside of the law. Starbucks’ statement is not a criminal offence, it cannot be condemned legally, yet it can be condemned on social media which holds the potential to change its everyday business. 

The Justice System VS Cancel Culture

So, what happens when legal forms of justice are ineffectual? When cancel culture continually demonstrates its impact and the justice system often falls under scrutiny for failure, it is little wonder that sexual assault, rape and discrimination victims often rely on cancellation as a way of seeking justice. 

In 2021, there was an all-time high of 67,125 rape offences recorded in the UK. Yet the number of prosecutions drastically declined from 5,190 in 2016-17 to just 2,409 in 2020-21. Only 5% of rapes that were given an outcome by the police in 2021 resulted in a charge. One response to the Victims’ Commissioner survey in 2021 revealed that “the whole process has been more traumatic than the actual rape”, and stated they had “zero belief in the justice legal system.”

Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird stated in her 2021/22 Report that, “in my first annual report in 2020, I made headlines by saying that we were witnessing the effective decriminalisation of rape. During my subsequent years in post as Victims’ Commissioner, little has swayed me from that perspective.”

Transformative Justice

Cancel culture is not the only alternative form of justice. Transformative justice critiques the idea of punishments, instead looking to change the faults in the systems that create abusive behaviour. For those who adopt this way of thinking, punishments are not seen to look for the cause of such behaviour or help situations and are therefore deemed impractical. 

This form of justice exposes the main issue residing within debates about cancel culture. It forces us to decide whether people should take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable for them, or whether the systems encouraging these actions should be dismantled and critiqued. 

In her book We Will Not Cancel Us which advocates for transformative justice, Adrienne Maree Brown writes that “cancelling is punishment, and punishment doesn’t stop the cycle of harm, not long term. Cancellation may even be counter-abolitionist…instead of prison bars we place each other in an overflowing box of untouchables – often with no trial – and strip us of past and future, of the complexity of being gifted and troubled, brilliant and broken.”

Such ideas have actually been put into practice by musician Daryl Davis, a black man, who has spent over 30 years forming connections with members of the Ku Klux Klan. In that time, he has convinced over 200 members to give up their robes, spurred on by the simple question “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” 

In simply having dinners and interacting with people Davis has managed to dismantle their racist worldviews. He rejects the desire for punishment, not playing into standard forms of cancellation that shut people down without investigation or conversation. Instead, he engages with these distorted views seeking to actively unpick them. 

He gives the advice, “Take the time to talk with your adversaries. You will learn something and they will learn something from you. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting, they’re talking. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So, keep the conversation going.”

Yet within controversial and often hard to forgive acts, tensions and divides are inevitable. Cancel culture is seen as a necessary tool for many, one which is expressive of public power and agency. There are undoubtedly alternative forms of change and justice, but perhaps it is more a question of accessibility and effectiveness. 

Edited by Mariyam

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