Cancel Culture: What Does it Mean for Our Mental Health?
Holding people to account for their behavior is an important social custom throughout history and across cultures. As a society, we keep each other in check by calling out actions that are harmful to the collective, in order to maintain peace and prosperity within the community. But where do we draw the line between accountability for poor judgment and gratuitous public shaming? How do we decide what behavior is forgivable, and what is inexcusable? And how can we reconcile our own fallibility with an urge to act as judge, jury, and executioner when somebody in the spotlight is put on the metaphorical stand? As social media has changed the landscape of public debate, “cancel culture” has risen, and appears to be here to stay. Let’s explore the impact it’s having on our mental health.
What does it mean, to be “canceled”?
Cancel culture is a phenomenon that involves the public shunning of somebody with a high profile. They are unfollowed from social media accounts en masse, and any media appearances, commercial partnerships, professional commitments, or other opportunities for exposure are literally canceled. The person in question will be uninvited to events, fired from movies, TV appearances, or other career prospects, and will likely feel humiliated. Many recent high-profile instances of cancellation have been a response to indictments of sexual misconduct and abuse, racism, LGBTQ-phobic comments, and other kinds of offensive and harmful behavior.
The plus side of Cancel Culture: vindication and agency
When a high-profile perpetrator of harmful conduct gets held to account in such a publicly shaming way, it can be a lifeline for survivors of similar behavior. As well as vindication for the direct victims of the perpetrator, it shares a wider message about what will and won’t be tolerated in society, which helps otherwise marginalized people feel seen and heard. Witnessing a celebrity being called out in such a big way, for instance, can give people the strength to stand up to or call out their own perpetrators, and activate communities into affecting change in policy and social custom. Additionally, the cancellation of a celebrity means that people who feel demeaned and attacked by their opinions are freed from encountering them on public platforms. There’s also individual agency to be felt from clicking the “unfollow” button to make a damning collective point.
The negative side of Cancel Culture: fame, blame, and toxic shame
Yet scapegoating one individual fails to address the wider systemic injustices that can prevail. It can let governments off the hook, and prevent us from looking at our own participation in the social inequities that uphold widespread issues like racism and misogyny. When we can simply pass the blame, cancel someone, and feel self-righteous, we bypass the discomfort of our own ethical investigation and that of society. Some cancellations have been made on precarious evidence, and many call it a toxic trend that amounts to bullying. And the finality of cancel culture leaves no room for growth and forgiveness. We are all fallible, and part of being human is about learning from our mistakes. Cancel culture tells us that we aren’t allowed to explore or make errors, which can lock us into fear and shame about our own lives. The stress of internalized shame is extremely damaging to mental health, and can lead to anxiety, self-harming behaviors, and illness.
Navigating cancel culture
Figuring out how to co-exist as harmoniously as we can is an ongoing project of humanity. It’s something that’s in constant negotiation, especially since what we deem “acceptable” is subjective and ever-evolving. We all have a right to different political opinions, personal agendas, beliefs, and moral codes, and there’s plenty of room for debate and discourse for those who wish to have it. There’s nuance in every situation, and we are all ignorant until educated otherwise—so take each case on an individual basis and ask questions. Get clear on who is being harmed, what systemic forces are at play, what was the intent, how much remorse is being expressed, and how big the platform is. Examine your own motives for joining the brouhaha, like a Twitter pile-on. If you feel personally offended, find a safe space and take care of yourself. Spend some time offline if you need to, rest up, and get support from your community or a counselor. And ultimately, remember to make your own choices. Forgive yourself for your mistakes, and don’t be afraid to change your mind; hold yourself to the integrity you wish to see, and back yourself on it. No matter what, don’t ever cancel yourself.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Drag Them: A Brief Etymology Of So-Called “Cancel Culture”; Understanding Cancel Culture: Normative And Unequal Sanctioning; Enforcing Social Norms: The Morality Of Public Shaming; The Portrayal Of Online Shaming In Contemporary Online News Media: A Media Framing Analysis; The Problem Of Public Shaming; Does Shaming Have A Place In Public Health?; Making Public Shame Bearable And Entertaining: Ritualised Shaming In Reality Television.
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