Cancel Culture's Next Victim: Unknown

By Emily Henkel

This photo was taken from the New York Times Article “Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture”.

On September 21, 2021 I conducted a small experiment.  Although limited in participants and lacking a hypothesis, the results were astounding. I asked friends, peers and acquaintances alike to send me a list of as many celebrities they could think of that had been “canceled”.  After sending that message to a handful of individuals, I received thirty names within the course of two minutes.  Shocked by this initial turnout of celebrities, I decided to consult the internet where I found an exhaustive list of individuals who have fallen prey to the social media phenomena of “cancel culture”.  A limited version of that list included Shane Dawson, Chrissy Teagan, Sia, Morgan Wallen, Dr. Suess, JK Rowling, Billie Eilish, Mr. Potato Head, Chris Harrison, Will Wilkinson, Aunt Jemima, DaBaby, Paw Patrol, Roseanne, Ellen and Steve Harvey. The names previously listed only represent a fraction of media personalities, artists and brands that have received criticism and inevitable cancellation for previous comments or actions deemed unfavorable to the vociferous public.

In order to fully analyze the concept of cancel culture, it’s imperative to define this term.  It’s important to note this definition is fluid thus resulting in multiple understandings through varying perspectives. Pew Research Center conducted a nationwide survey studying citizen’s varying definitions and general outlook on cancel culture and received the following responses:

“Cancel culture is a movement to remove celebrity status or esteem from a person, place, or thing based on offensive behavior or transgression.” - Woman, 30’s, Liberal Democrat

“Cancel culture means rewriting history and stopping the acknowledgment of facts because they are offensive to a racial, religious, ethnic, economic group, etc.  It is the rewriting of history to make people comfortable by ignoring facts- things that really happened- good or bad.” - Man, 70’s Moderate, no partisan leaning

In September 2020, approximately 44% of Americans had been exposed to the phrase “cancel culture” according to data collected by the Pew Research Center. With a population of roughly 333,406,000 individuals, approximately 145,650,000 of those US citizens interacted with this concept through participation or general discussion. Statistically, individuals between the ages of 18-29 demonstrated significant exposure along with groups identified as “liberal” and those “attending college”.  As further noted by the study, a substantial difference of opinion was noted when participants were asked “does calling people out on social media represent accountability or unjust punishment?”  58% of individuals claimed holding people accountable for their actions was achieved through cancel culture whereas 38% asserted this phenomenon punishes individuals who don’t necessarily deserve to be punished.

From award-winning actor Kevin Spacey to comedian Kevin Hart, no individual who enters the public sphere is safe from criticism.  Although criticisms aim towards construction, this line becomes blurred when voicing one's opinion results in the loss of another individual’s livelihood.  Cases involving unwarranted sexual advances demonstrated by Kevin Spacey leaves no room for question as to the merit of his cancellation. However, disagreement quickly arrises in cases deemed more questionable, encapsulating a “grey area”.

This picture was taken from Instagram in 2018.

To better understand this “grey area”, let’s look at a case study.  Sebastian Stan, most notorious for his role as Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, began dating Spanish actress Alejandra Onieva in the summer of 2020.  A twitter user found an old Instagram photo of Onieva posted by a close friend captioned “ASIAN NIGHT”.  The twitter user was quick to call out Stan for the cultural appropriation demonstrated by his girlfriend citing it as “extremely disrespectful and racist”.  Within hours the hashtag “#sebastionstanisoverparty” began trending on twitter with public harassment and exhaustive bullying quick to accompany it.  Stan was again cancelled in May 2021 for posting on Instagram on world meditation day with the caption “Happy World Meditation Day.  Find your zen, f***rzzz.”  Once again, the hashtag “#RIPSebastianStan” began circulating as users were offended by his mocking of Buddhist culture.

Sebastian Stan simply serves as an example to the greater problem at hand.  People have taken the responsibility as judge, jury and executioner concerning racial injustice, gender neutrality, political correctness, and every other concept imaginable.  Sebastian Stan did not appropriate Asian culture, his girlfriend did.  Cancel culture has become so diligent in acknowledging micro-aggressions but has failed to accurately punish those who perpetuate them.  People quickly forget the importance of context and deliberation when fifteen second videos surface that inevitably dictate the character of someone who has lived for fifteen plus years.  Don’t be misled, if the object of cancel culture is to hold those guilty of cultural appropriation and racial intolerance accountable, that is a virtuous mission.  However, cancel culture leaves no room for growth, understanding or reflection.  Those who have access to public platforms via social media are now equipped to remove livelihoods, careers and reputations through anonymous comments left based on limited perspective.

Instead of canceling individuals, let’s educate the intolerant. Instead of perpetuating hate through millions of online comments, let’s give humility. If the aim of those participating in cancel culture is to create a more progressive and tolerant environment, let’s allow for the maturation of humans.

Emily Henkel is a junior at Davidson College double majoring in Political Science and Communication Studies. She is also a member of the women’s cross-country and track and field teams.