Cancel Culture: Mob Justice, or Long-Overdue Accountability?

Making sense of what is likely internet culture's thorniest topic to date.

For many, the discourse surrounding cancel culture hasn’t moved beyond arguing its very existence–conservatives will declare any attempt to marginalize their politics a cancelation act even though they maintain substantial cultural power still, and liberals are eager to stifle any discussion of the phenomenon if simply to spite conservatives in a show of negative polarization. The meta-discourse aside, cancel culture is a real thing that people on both sides of the political aisle have been exposed to, and instead of dubbing it either good or bad without any real nuance, the true nature of cancel culture can’t be gotten at unless the testimonies of those on its receiving end are thoroughly examined.

At its most-basic, the term refers to a tendency among online users of social media to exact justice through a form of collective action that may impart the feeling of an organically-formed consensus, when it’s in reality a concocted frustration that draws on often-frivolous concerns. It doesn’t matter if the brand of canceling itself is seen as righteous or worthy of enactment–if the canceled party is perceived as having crossed a line they might not even have drawn in the first place, group pressure is exerted to make the presence of the aggrieved distinctly known. Whether it is a right-wing mob motivated by the thought of suppressing progressives, or a left-wing mob who sees their vanguards as unworthy of their representation unless ideologically pure according to (largely) arbitrary standards, the result is quite roughly the same–unduly emotional torment for the canceled subjects, and an ungratifying sense of accountability for those in command of the guillotine.

For his podcast, New York Times columnist Ezra Klein invited Natalie ‘ContraPoints’ Wynn and Will Wilkinson who have witnessed first-hand what cancelation feels like, and it’s been all but pleasant for both. “It was a shock,” says Wilkinson of his abrupt firing from the Niskanen Center. “There was an immediacy to what happened. I had tweeted, the tweet created controversy, I [did it] a minute before I went to bed and first thing in the morning I wake up to just a world of shit. I’m just getting piled on by all sorts of opportunistic right-wingers who were taking my very funny joke out of context and claiming that I was really calling for the hanging of the Vice President of the United States [...] It was causing such a kerfuffle that I was immediately called into a meeting at work and then my job was over.” While Wilkinson’s penance was quite swift and short–but nonetheless horrifying in its own right–Wynn’s came on the heels of pent-up apprehension about her perceived role as a spokesperson for the trans community, and she paid the ultimate price once a series of tweets and an ill-fated collaboration with Buck Angel saw the light of day. “I was effectively exiled from any kind of online trans space,” Wynn says of the immediate aftermath. “There were demands that all of my colleagues publicly disown me, threats were being sent to friends of friends—just because of their association with me—it was really out of control, and it put me into a month of depression where I felt the way that an exiled is supposed to feel.”

Getting kicked out of a job and getting excluded from a space you’ve been typically welcome in are two very different experiences, but they originate from the same sinister desire to see that a right is wronged without qualifying what the wrongs are and what mechanism of justice should even be administered to remedy them. You see advocates of prison abolition laying down the harshest of punishments on their subjects of cancelation, just as conservatives with a hard-on for jailing undocumented immigrants and street weed sellers pine for the day that white men with a bodycount can roam the streets free–there’s a dissonance between the desired outcome for justice and the unspoken implications of cancel culture, but in both cases, they’re heavily decoupled from each other in a way that feels intentionally obtuse were their interaction not this elaborate.

It’s become trite to mention it at this point, but the amplifying role of social media cannot be underestimated here–that immediate access to the would-be canceled makes it so the groups typically stripped of power—or in the case of conservatives, those roleplaying as such—like to flaunt it about in a way they’re not really able to in meatspace. This can make for desirable outcomes in some cases—after all, if regular mechanisms fail to deliver justice and social media thinks it can do it, they’d be remiss not to try—but the way it is often done begs the question whether the energy is allocated to which and whom it is most-deserving, and if accessibility itself isn’t a primary determinant of who even gets canceled in the first place.

In the case that parameters of cancel culture are disputed, it’s a good intellectual exercise to picture an unlikely counterfactual–say for example, right-wingers canceling those who actually pose peril to their agenda, or leftists targeting conservatives instead of their own. The recently-canceled but now absolved-of-shame video essayist Lindsay Ellis laid out the perverse nature of this paradox best, if not too aggressively for the audience that needs to hear it most. “This horseshit about accountability is obviously just entertainment to you,” she says about those hounding her on Twitter before she briefly deactivated her account. “Why are you wasting so much energy on this? Because you can’t impact the people who are actually doing your community harm. You can’t shame the shameless–Trump will never face justice, Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court for life, Ben Shapiro gets off on your outrage, so you shame those of us who can be shamed.”

When a feeling of powerlessness from cancellers is channeled towards an accessible cancelation subject, it can make for an ugly outcome regardless if the perceived transgression is as grave as it is claimed to be. Whatever side of the political spectrum you happen to fall under, we can all agree that bypassing systematized procedures for enacting justice means that cancel culture’s potential for good or bad shoulders its any consequences only on those who inflict it–beyond such an approach being profoundly undemocratic, it is not the way a society should ever reprimand those it sees to be evading of reproach. The sustenance of a democratically-decreed, carefully-deliberated fair and just system has to be the only acceptable premise–anything other should be heavily scrutinized lest we’re to live in a world where people’s most-primitive hunger for public displays of humiliation is seen as the only valid means of delivering justice.