The rise of cancel culture and the fall of many

Photo by rodrigoferrari via Wikimedia Commons.

Problematic celebrities might face backlash on social media, but does it have any actual effect? “They’ve been cancelled.”

If you’ve been floating around social media lately, you’ve probably heard the phrase.

A seemingly C.I.A.-trained army of Twitter users are constantly digging through the internet’s decades-old backlog to uncover unsavoury content and, somehow, the internet always provides. With prolific (and problematic) musicians, actors and all-around famous people facing backlash online every other week, don’t be too concerned if you’re not on top of the latest scandal.

So, what does it mean to “cancel” someone? Loosely, it means actively revoking support for a particular person based on perceived wrongdoing. Sometimes it works; a lot of times, it doesn’t.

Recent examples involve the rediscovery of several celebrities’ old tweets, the contents of which are decidedly not politically correct.

Vine-star-turned-Twitter-celeb Kelvin Peña, better known as Brother Nature, recently saw the repercussions of his past ripple through his fan base as tweets from 2011 and 2012 resurfaced containing anti-semitic, racist and abusive language. In an apology, he said that being young, dumb and impressionable was not an excuse but that he had since grown as a person.

In late August, Internet phenomenon and R&B artist Doja Cat had a similar scandal as a tweet from 2015 in which she used homophobic slurs to describe the members of hip-hop collective Odd Future resurfaced. Her reaction, however, was a little more provocative.

In an era of extreme fans (or “stans”), losing your following could mean losing your livelihood. Theoretically then, cancel culture wields a lot of power, but its implementation is often haphazard as there are no defined standards or criteria upon which someone should face cancellation.

Lately, the movement seems to be fraught with hypocrisy as celebrities cancelled for relatively minor offenses, like tweets containing inappropriate or offensive language, have faced heavy retribution while others accused of serious criminal wrongdoings have maintained an active and dedicated fanbase.

Tekashi 6ix9ine, XXXTentacion and R. Kelly have all faced allegations of past abuse and wrongdoing and have, to some extent, been cancelled or called out by select demographics. The difference here is that, despite these allegations, their core fanbases still support them and they remain unfazed by their favourite’s actions instead of falling off the bandwagon.

Not even evidence of criminal wrongdoing can sway the dedication of some of their fans, as was shown after the recent murder of Florida rapper XXXTentacion. Fans showered the artist, whose real name was Jahseh Onfroy, with posthumous messages of mourning and admiration, calling the rapper an icon while critics pointed to his history of domestic abuse — namely, a recently uncovered tape in which Onfroy confesses to abusing his girlfriend and other violent crimes.

R. Kelly has been plagued by sexual assault and misconduct allegations for years, routinely being hit with dozens of accusations that allege he has engaged in sexual acts with minors, yet his career has not suffered.

Neither has rapper Kanye West’s, even after rebranding himself into a prolific supporter of President Donald Trump, telling crowds he would have voted for him in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and even meeting with Trump at the White House earlier this year.

Eminem also remains iconic, despite his notoriety for using homophobic slurs in his music. His 2013 song Rap God, for example, features lines like, “That I’ll still be able to break a motherfuckin’ table / Over the back of a couple of f*ggots and crack it in half.”

But perhaps the strangest cancellation of late has been that of Tyler, the Creator. Early in his career, the artist was known for using shock-rap as an artistic trope — his lyrics included lines like, “Rape a pregnant b*tch and tell my friends I had a threesome.” He was even banned from performing in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Through it all, though, his fans have stayed loyal and chalked his actions up to artistic expression. His style has since drastically changed.

The questions raised by critics of cancel culture is this: should we define people by their history, and is it right to apply the politically correct culture of today to actions of the past? The debate continues, but cancel culture is arguably nowhere near perfect because it lacks nuance. It paints every person with the same evil pen, regardless of whether they seem to have shown genuine growth, change and remorse, or not.

One key reason cancel culture seems particularly ineffective lies in who it tends to target: people in the entertainment world like artists, musicians, rappers and YouTubers. They say and do a lot of inappropriate and sometimes even criminal things, get “cancelled,” and yet still have successful, prolific careers until enough time has passed that their actions are forgotten. Why?

We have a tendency to equate greatness with immunity; we excuse an artist’s actions because we don’t want to sacrifice their talent. The art and the artist are very difficult to separate and we often don’t want to give up one to condemn the other.

If we’re going to start holding people accountable, cancel culture needs to pick the right fights instead of insignificant ones and shed its hypocrisy if it wants to influence a genuine change in celebrity behaviour.