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Cancel Culture: The Salem Witch Trials of the Digital Era

Before iPhones, there was the secret police. Before hashtags, there was pointing fingers. Instead of knocking on doors now, we use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook like our own personal battering ram. Much like the Salem Witch trials that Arthur Miller once depicted in his renowned play The Crucible, people are afraid of others just as they were during the Red Scare.

Despite the recent popularity in the coined phrase “Cancel Culture,” the concept of publicly shaming and denouncing friends, coworkers, companies, and celebrities has been engraved throughout world history. Cancel Culture is not new to the world—it is simply being framed under a different light.

The New York Times defines Cancel Culture—or cancellation—as “an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.” However eloquently defined, most people associate this culture to a mob ruling that decides the fate of others. With social media at the tip of our fingers, it has become incredibly obtainable to spread notions throughout the world.

Of course, if not for cancelling, the #MeToo movement may not have spurred. Cancel Culture can also be a tool for motivation that rallies people behind a common cause. In fact, there are psychological arguments that explain the overall appeal behind cancelling, such as: increasing social status, reducing the social status of enemies, strengthening social bonds, forcing enemies to reveal their true selves, and producing fast rewards.

This movement allows those who feel marginalized to seek justice and hold wrongdoings of others accountable. Many see this as a form of social justice and change by providing more power back to the people and acknowledging the misconducts that occur within society. But is there a fine line between vigilantism and villainization?

One of the problems associated with Cancel Culture is its inability to be consistent. This culture runs on mob ruling and getting enough people to rally behind ideas. It is not unheard of to believe in something intangible—for example, patriotism is a common belief that many Americans rally behind. However, the interconnectivity within the cancelling community is too difficult to comprehend because every single person typing on Twitter has their own perspectives of what is considered right, wrong, justice, injustice, etc. Essentially, there is no guidebook for Cancel Culture which leads to inconsistencies within society.

For example, celebrities are known to be the most “attacked” on social media. However, they also are less likely to be cancelled due to their elevated status. Whereas Cancel Culture also targets middle-class and lower-class individuals whose lives could be derailed from the loss of their income and reputation. This culture is especially effective in destroying the livelihood of people who are just entering the workplace and beginning to build their reputations for a better future.

More specifically, in 2020 the #blackface was trending on Twitter. This hashtag exposed celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel and Howard Stern, politicians—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor Ralph Northam, and mundane individuals like Sue Schafer. Although all provided “apology videos” or “apologies” the only person who ended up losing their job was Sue Schafer. Granted, most of the men who did participate in Blackface took part before the 2000s whereas Schafer wore Blackface to an “irony” party in 2018.

What is even more frustrating than the inconsistency is the “apology videos.” Cancel Culture commonly demands that whoever is in the wrong admit their wrongdoing by apologizing to the marginalized. It is difficult to believe that apology videos portray any form of genuine remorse. One of the most viral apology videos to date was developed by Logan Paul in 2018 with over 58 million views and runs just under two minutes. Jimmy Kimmel on the other hand has several apology videos—sending a clear message that he will not ever be cancelled because all he needs to do to refute it is post a two minute YouTube clip saying, “I’m sorry.”

Many companies have also had to adjust their “woke-ness” to avoid being cancelled. Over the recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in corporations constantly releasing their social justice agendas. Especially during the Black Lives Matter protests that spiked in May 2020 after George Floyd’s horrific death. This is not to say that corporations do not support most social movements. However, whenever a corporation (or individual for that matter), does not actively support a movement, the media gathers their pitchforks and storms to the headquarters. This inevitably leads to question whether the company’s notions are sincere or simply a PR stunt to raise approval ratings.

The Atlantic reports how companies randomly fire lower tier individuals in order to compensate for mistakes they are being cancelled for. These individuals can either have small breaches or be entirely innocent. In some cases, investigations are conducted internally to determine the employee’s status, but inevitably due to media attention, the employee is likely to be let go. There is emphasis on how toxic a work environment can become when individuals are constantly monitoring their words and feeling unsafe around their co-workers who could potentially expose them for something miniature.

A similar situation is happening on college campuses. Universities are meant to be a place for students and professors to not only learn more about themselves but to interact with differing opinions, cultures, and backgrounds. University is an intellectual ground for debating, investigating, and solidifying viewpoints by expanding one’s knowledge. But even renowned Universities such as Princeton—where speech and debate is strongly cherished (or, so they say)—faces the scrutiny of differing opinions when a classics professor wrote an article that many students did not agree with. Had it not been for his tenure, he would have most certainly lost his position at Princeton University. In his own article, Professor Katz rebuts the claims and mentions that many of his colleagues and friends agree with his perspective and his enthusiasm to defend his freedom of speech, but they themselves are too afraid to step forward and defend him.

This fear that Professor Katz mentions is a common trend within Cancel Culture. Many compare the rise of Cancel Culture to that of McCarthyism. As the Wall Street Journal states, the main similarity between the two is its ability to invoke fear. Both concepts affect people’s livelihoods by making them afraid of losing their job, professorship, reputation, friends, and more, just by voicing their personal opinions or stating something that may be considered politically incorrect. McCarthyism fizzled out eventually, but its effects are still portrayed today, and Cancel Culture does not seem to be disappearing anytime soon.

Freedom of speech is a strong counter argument as to why “cancelling” is dangerous. In the United States, citizens are technically allowed to say whatever they want which is why freedom of speech is not the primal issue with Cancel Culture, it is the trepidation of losing everything and being paraded amongst the masses through a worldwide walk of shame. There is a difference between opinionated persons and aggressivity. Yet, it seems to frequently get blurred. Without differing opinions, the world is simply oppressed into believing what is socially acceptable. Falling under what society thinks is deemed as “tolerable” can lead down a dangerous path of suppression.

In order to combat the wave of Cancel Culture, The Wall Street Journal recommends to show resistance and perseverance against a mass mob. Much like Dave Chappelle and his form of “unorthodox” comedy that many say should be cancelled—Chappelle disregards “cancelling” which in return elevates his success. Or how the University of Chicago has emphasized their support for freedom of speech and expression on campus. Universities, newspapers, publishers, and corporate leaders should be encouraged to stand up against the mob instead of falling over like a deck of cards.

The lack of freedom of speech and the surge of publicly silencing is a trend throughout history that has proven to be incredibly dangerous. Companies need to deal with their spiteful employees internally and should be worried more about their responsibilities as an organization instead of being fearful of losing their business. If anything, Cancel Culture’s toxicity might not bring down the wealthiest and elitist in the world, but it will tear through anyone surrounding them. There are times when Cancel Culture influences significant cultural change, but at what cost of those surrounding? Much like Proctor from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, it is possible to get caught in the crossfire, to have fingers pointed at you despite your innocence, and be forced to profess an insincere confession. Whereas…an alternative is to agree to disagree.


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