TW: Depression & Suicide

Cancel culture is an unavoidable and complex phenomenon. Whilst ultra-rich and powerful celebrities are somewhat of fan favourite when it comes to online outrage, others are plucked out of relative obscurity. Several individuals have already been placed under intense scrutiny during the COVID-19 crisis, when people are at their most anxious and their most bored. Is it fair to say then, that the public revels in the punishment of a common enemy? You’ve given us your opinions below.

Luke Roberts discusses pseudo-martyrdom during the COVID-19 crisis:

There is a man, N, in my local ‘Covid-19 Mutual Aid Group’, that typifies the country’s general response to the current pandemic: a form of communal self-flagellation, borne out in individual acts of pseudo-martyrdom and witch-hunting. Without doubt, it is a source of intense gratification: a way for the public to entertain itself in moral lust.

N has in the last month turned his righteous gaze on a child playing alone in the park (“do [the parents] really have a clue what we are dealing with… get a grip”), a group of dog-walkers, and finally, in response to a general invitation for the street to come out and sing happy birthday to a man in self-isolation: “No sorry unessential travel but happy bday”. Of course, N’s vitriol may in some instances be justified and well-directed – his various attacks on members of the community, doctors wasting PPE, and the inactivity of the government really do serve to cover all possible ground – but what this response does is obscure complex solutions and practices. Indeed, its aim is not at all to bring an end to the crisis but is instead simply to bathe in a moral certainty that is in normal times unavailable.

Orwell noted (in 1944) that there is a peculiar Englishness in assuming that “against the law” is a synonym for ‘wrong’, so when Boris instructed N to stay at home, his moral code was affirmed to an extent greater than ever before. As has been noted, this is the Boomer’s War: The War They’ve All Been Waiting For. For perhaps the first time, N has a captive audience for his social commentary, and intends to make the most of it: our proto-sadomasochist will inflict his wrath on as many possible, and simultaneously revel in his own enforced suffering.

During an actual war, Sartre noted the indignation amongst those called up (N) towards those shirkers at home (the woman inviting people to celebrate her husband’s birthday). Rather than allowing their outrage to rise to its appropriate target, they turn upon those positioned most like themselves. It is far easier to take aim at the neighbour down the road, partaking of his second walk of the day, than it is to abstract to those in positions of power who did not take the threat seriously and provide our healthcare services with the resources necessary to protect the population. “In this sense, wishing war for their fellows, they’re indeed fit to wage it: they deserve it.”

Obviously, nobody would wish illness upon N, but it is hard to escape the sense that he has earned this opportunity to thrust his moral outrage out into the world. He’s waited a lifetime to demonstrate his uniquely English capacity for self-perceived martyrdom, and who are we to take this perverse pleasure away from him.

Lily Kershaw explains why some are hit harder than others:

Currently, if you have internet access, you are probably more than aware of the existence of public enemy number one, Carole Baskin. From Twitter to Instagram, it’s almost impossible to escape the barrage of memes about ‘that bitch Carole Baskin’, with the Instagram page @carole.baskin.memes, an account with incredibly low quality memes, boasting over 18k followers. As somebody who was introduced to the Carole Baskin hate-train long before I actually watched Tiger King, I initially believed that a woman so widely abhorred must have done something to deserve this response, yet, this global disdain seems to be more complex than it first appeared.

Upon delving into the deluge of hate aimed at the American zookeeper, there appears to be a sense of community around it. Everyone loves to hate Carole Baskin: man or woman; rich or poor; young or old – usual social divisions do not appear to apply. This, of course, is not unique to Baskin’s case, as, often cancel culture allows internet communities to form.

This has been seen countless times; another recent example being the criticism of celebrity responses to lockdown. From Ellen comparing self-isolation in her multi-million-dollar home to prison or Gal Gadot and a host of other celebs singing ‘Imagine’, many have taken to Twitter and other media platforms to share their frustration at these tone-deaf reactions. Hatred has enabled thousands of people to become connected in a world where, thanks to self-isolation, many are feeling more cut-off than ever. It’s easy to unite and feel a sense of community when you have a common enemy.

The reality is that hate is fun, particularly when it’s aimed at a group or an individual who has become abstracted by media attention. When people hate Carole Baskin, they are not hating an individual, they are hating what she has come to represent. It is no coincidence that the only woman to regularly feature in Tiger King is demonised, while Joe Exotic, a man who allegedly kept both of his husbands addicted to substances such as meth and has admitted to shooting some of the tigers in his care, is treated by many as some sort of folk hero. This is not a defence of Baskin, but rather a criticism of cancel culture and the role of the court of public opinion in online communities.

Unfortunately, cancel culture is totally ineffective at its end goal. While today Elon Musk may be cancelled for calling “coronavirus panic […] dumb”, being a billionaire celebrity means that, to some extent, he escapes criticism. When these super-rich celebrities are cancelled, they, for the most part, get over it because they have the wealth and recognition to do so. In contrast, Carole Baskin does not, and, in time, when most people have forgotten who she is, she will be left with nothing but a ruined reputation and no credibility. The true victims of cancel culture are those who are not equipped to deal with fame.

Natalie Vriend points out cancel culture’s biggest flaws:

As I’m sure we’ve all noticed as we’ve watched our screen time slowly creep up into the double digits with dread, being stuck at home for weeks in isolation has driven many of us further than ever before into the wonderful world of the Internet. In lieu of real-life social interaction and with no real way to differentiate between each passing day, watching the lives of celebrities, as so kindly documented for us on their daily livestreams and reality shows on Netflix, can provide some much-needed relief from current everyday life.

Without the excitement of real-life interactions, however, our dependence on the lives of these public figures, not just their shows and podcasts, for primary sources of entertainment has grown an extortionate amount, satisfying our cravings for drama and gossip. The release of the docuseries Tiger King on Netflix perfectly encapsulates that: its core impact on pop culture has been the emergence of memes vilifying Carole Baskin, a woman who has spent decades campaigning against the very animal cruelty that Joe Exotic, who has somehow become a kind of antihero as a result, promotes, due to baseless allegations that she murdered her husband. Rather than focusing on the hugely important moral issue of breeding and selling tigers, the general public, encouraged by their boredom, has chosen to turn Baskin into a public enemy for their own entertainment purposes.

This fits into the wider pattern of cancel culture, a relatively recent trend. What began as a way to give the general public a voice, the power to boycott powerful yet ‘problematic’ people (where ‘problematic’ ranges from homophobic and racist to not having the ‘right receipts’, from present-day to 10 years ago) has quickly become ineffective, as people turn it into a spectator sport for their own entertainment. Tweeting #____isoverparty has essentially become a type of performative outrage, something done for brownie points to make it seem like you care about social justice when really you just want praise and approval.

Not only does this encourage a mob mentality without room for people to grow and redeem themselves, but it means that ‘cancelled’ celebrities rarely face any real long-term repercussions because the public have moved onto their next victim for entertainment. Although Kevin Hart, after being cancelled for a series of homophobic comments, was unable to host the Oscars, less than a year later, his stand-up specials on Netflix were a major success.  

Cancel culture’s evolution into a cathartic release of short-term anger to entertain ourselves has poisoned it. We can’t expect something which functions as both a social justice movement and a means of entertainment for us to be effective. Holding celebrities accountable is important and they deserve to be called out from time to time, but we need to find a way to express our anger in a more reconciliatory way: allowing them to learn and change if possible, without allowing certain behaviours to go unchecked. As for healthier forms of entertainment during the lockdown, maybe go make some banana bread and run 5k.

Elizabeth Bircham looks for voices of reason among the ‘mob’:

COVID-19 has dominated discourse for so long that it seems an age since tributes were pouring out for Caroline Flack. The image of the presenter, who passed away on February 15th, became a mirror in which we were all forced to gaze. Who were we as a society, and what had we done to the vivacious woman who featured in so many of our childhoods? It seemed like a moment of reckoning. Caroline’s ordeal was perhaps just as much about tabloids and courts as it was about Twitter – there is never a simple reason for suicide – but it was on social media that soul-searching took place, and here where the promise to “Be Kind” emerged. Here, we hoped, there could be redemption.

If anyone had been looking for a sign this promise was void, Sam Smith’s trial by Twitter was perhaps it. Little over a month after Caroline’s death, the singer had posted photos of themselves during “stages of a quarantine meltdown”, and social media retaliated. Responses ranged from the purely vitriolic (“name a worse person on this terrible planet than Sam Smith”) to those criticising Smith for behaving in such a way inside a £12m mansion whilst others risked their lives on the front line. Public punishments were abolished in most US states by the 1800s, but now, in March 2020, Smith found themselves in the virtual stocks.

The “Twitter mob” trope has now found its way into common parlance. There were indeed users carrying pitchforks – some ablaze with misogyny and homophobia- as they called for Flack and Smith to be destroyed. However, not all of the so-called “mob” were mindless trolls. Whilst Smith’s post was seemingly made in jest, it was rather blind to their own privilege. Many angry Twitter users were key workers understandably upset by their tastelessness. Meanwhile, Flack had been accused of a serious crime, and people took the opportunity to remind others that domestic violence is gender-neutral; after all, movements like “Me Too” have much to thank in social media. Is it wrong to ask for accountability?

The problem is that both reasonable and extreme comments will be made in any mass discussion, and Twitter exposes the object to all of them, throwing proportionality out of the window. It is revealing in itself that analogies can be drawn between the treatment of Flack and Smith, given the drastic difference in what they were accused of. It is a reminder that in the Twitter court, there is no due process. Furthermore, we might question our outrage at celebrities on Twitter when the societies we live in fail to hold our most powerful leaders to the same standard. Of course, this does not mean we should stop holding anyone to account; it has never been more important to do so. However, there is something odd about a society that “cancels” people for less than we put others in power for, and whilst both practices continue, there is something democratically adrift. ​

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