- The intention of cancel culture is to hold people accountable for hateful behavior.
- However, there are effective means of holding someone accountable without cancelling them.
- Cancel culture can ultimately damage the mental health of both the cancelers and the cancelled.
From Chrissy Teigen to the late author Dr. Seuss, numerous public figures have been the objects of cancel culture.
Because of the power it wields, “cancel culture” now ranks among the most loaded buzzwords in modern language.
It’s a form of boycott in which the public ostracizes someone for perceived bad behavior.
For example, Chrissy Teigen was canceled for cyber bullying and Dr. Seuss was targeted for allegations of racism.
Some people think canceling public figures is an effective way to shame bad behavior and deter it in the future.
Yet, cancel culture has faced its fair share of criticism. The social exclusion from cancel culture can be counterproductive and, when put into the wrong hands, cancel culture can actually help fuel similar hate and oppression to what it aims to address.
Why is cancel culture toxic?
While the idea of holding people accountable for their actions via cancel culture is a commendable one, there’s a lot of things wrong with how cancel culture plays out in reality.
1. It encourages shame, not accountability
Cancel culture focuses on individual accountability and fails to acknowledge the systemic issues that are often at the root of hateful behavior.
In other words, cancel culture shames the person into realizing their individual beliefs aren’t always acceptable, but it fails to educate the person on why these beliefs are problematic and hurtful, which allows the hateful ideology behind cancellable offenses to exist unchecked.
Shirani M. Pathak, a retired psychotherapist and DEI consultant, argues that cancel culture creates an us-versus-them dynamic that “amplifies the problem rather than addressing it.”
2. It can backfire
Even if cancellation does seem to work temporarily, the effects can backfire entirely, says Matt Glowiak, a psychologist and licensed clinical professional counselor whose specialties include how technology and culture affect mental health.
“In many cases, the object of cancellation disappears for a while only to return with a vengeance,” he says. That is to say, the canceled person might double down on the claim that got them canceled, and might even be empowered with more public support as a result.
In situations like these, the cancellation attempts only lead to more attention on the negative act. “Instead of allowing something to go unnoticed, many become caught up in the controversy and now become involved themselves,” he says. “Now, the object of canceling has become more powerful.”
Consider what happened when mainstream social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram restricted accounts belonging to Ye (F.K.A. Kanye West) for antisimetic content. One week later, he was set to buy the ring-wing platform Parler as an alternative means of amplifying objectionable messages.
3. It can be more about entertainment than accountability
When the focus of cancel culture becomes more about punishment than about the offense that took place, “the attempt loses focus and becomes more of a sideshow for entertainment than anything else,” Glowiak says.
Social media and the 24-hour news cycle only fuel the consumption of cancellation as entertainment.
Beyond just the lack of effectiveness coupled with the inherently thorny entertainment value, cancel culture can cause severe negative mental health effects on both the person being canceled and the people doing the cancelling.
Hateful and discriminatory comments are extremely distressing for the targeted groups — for example, online racism has been directly correlated with poorer mental health. This can help explain why people may feel motivated to react in cancellation, even if that is not the most effective way to hold someone accountable.
“When one’s words or actions are deliberately taken out of context, it can understandably lead to anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even suicidal ideation, says John G. Cottone, a licensed psychologist with a private practice.
Consequences of cancel culture
Cancel culture can also severely affect a victim’s mental health.
For example, Asian American content creator Jesse Concepcion says he was canceled among his peer group and social media followers in 2020 after an anonymous TikTok account popped up “with the sole purpose of sending hate to me,” he says.
The account perpetrated what he calls “false claims,” including that he was a bully and a liar.
The account blew up. “I remember seeing quite a few comments that basically said that I look like the person that would be a bully or a liar,” he says.
Ultimately, he reported the account and it was taken down, but the mental health damage was already done.
“It’s amazing how overnight, how dramatically your situation can change over cancel culture,” he says. In response, he partially retreated from social media in fear.
“I’m a full-time student in college and my family owns two businesses,” he says. “If I was subjected to a worse accusation, I definitely could have been kicked out of school and had my family’s businesses disrupted. It’s just incredibly scary that people can easily believe an accusation with no evidence. Cancel culture does not only affect one person, but it can also affect the people surrounding that person.”
Even high-profile celebrities including Teigen have discussed their mental health struggles in response to being canceled.
“Going outside sucks and doesn’t feel right, being at home alone with my mind makes my depressed head race… I feel lost and need to find my place again,” she wrote on Instagram in 2021. “Cancel club is a fascinating thing and I have learned a whole lot. Only a few understand it and it’s impossible to know til you’re in it.”
Cottone says he has worked with numerous patients who have experienced intense symptoms after being a cancellation target. Having their lives and their families’ safety threatened, people may become scared to leave their homes, he says.
How to healthily hold someone accountable
Glowiak suggests these steps on how to hold people accountable without shaming them:
- Gather the facts. Fully lay out what happened and why it is a problem.
- Reach out directly to the individual or institution when possible.
- Afford an opportunity for the other side to be heard. If an apology is given and remediation agreed upon, there is potential to move forward once everyone feels ready to do so.
If not, then including legal proceedings, public outreach, or other action may be necessary. “With all this, again, the focus must be on the aggression — nothing further,” he says.
Calling in, rather than calling out, is also an effective way of holding those with hurtful beliefs accountable without deviating into cancel culture.
Cottone says that it’s always more effective to convince people to take accountability for their own actions than to have others shame them publicly. “If we can gently show people how their words and deeds have negatively affected others, in a way that is compassionate and sympathetic, more times than not they will take accountability for themselves without us having to force it upon them,” he says.
But when others make a public show of canceling another primarily for the sake of virtue signaling or control, the target of the response can “become understandably unwilling to take accountability, even resisting change just to spite those who are forcing it upon them.”
Cancel culture was born out of an attempt to hold people accountable for bad behaviors by de-platforming them and knocking them out of their positions of influence.
Sometimes it works. But in many cases, the effort devolves into unproductive shaming or mob-rule entertainment.
Efforts to cancel someone can backfire by drawing more attention to the matter. They can also have serious negative mental health consequences.