PHOTO COURTESY SHUTTERSTOCK
Existing in the public eye has often gone hand in hand with a hypercritical focus on one's personal life. There's no shortage of public figures who have been the subject of criticism and the center of scandal. But recently, that criticism has taken on a new shape.
Whether it's over a controversial comment, an unpopular opinion, a long-forgotten tweet or picture, or even outright criminal activity, many high-profile people have been subject to a rise in widespread and aggressive shaming by the masses, usually on an online stage. From celebrities and social media personalities to world leaders and business figures, no one is exempt from this relatively new level of scrutiny, often referred to as cancel culture, call-out culture, and even sometimes outrage culture.
At first glance, cancel culture seems to be all about holding people accountable for problematic behaviour, but oftentimes it becomes more about a cry for blanket condemnation and less about someone taking real responsibility for what they did.
Many take issue with this idea that one wrong move could define someone's entire life. Besides, does cancelling someone even work? Not nearly as often as it doesn't. There are cases where cancel culture sticks and a public figure is cast out, but generally the online fury is very brief and any significant social consequences are short-term or lacking in severity compared to original calls for boycotts or bringing careers to an end.
Personally, there are certain things people can do and have done that are more than enough to make me not want to bother engaging with ideas of second chances or forgiveness, but I don't think writing people off or blacklisting them should be the automatic answer to any and all incidents of wrongdoing. Taking a step further, another issue that comes up with cancel culture is that applying the same response and treating every incident with the same outrage diminishes the weight of things that deserve more attention and concern than others.
Complete moral purity is an impossible standard. If our first and only response to perceived moral faults is to ‘cancel’ someone permanently, we deprive ourselves of any chance to grow and learn.
But letting things slide without comment or criticism of any kind isn't the way to go either. We should be able to acknowledge and engage critically with our faults. Taking public figures off of their historic pedestal and holding them accountable for their actions is a step in the right direction. The key is to find a middle ground between the extremes of zero responsibility and a one strike policy.
Cancel culture as it is does not allow for true accountability. It robs us of the opportunity to do better. We all say and do things we shouldn't at times throughout our lives, and we should have space to consider questions of responsibility and to take steps toward positive change. Perfection is not achievable, but progress and self-improvement are.