Cancel Culture: the art of rage and responsibility

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"Shane Dawson" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Formerly successful YouTuber Shane Dawson speaks at VidCon 2012 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. Dawson’s career has taken a dive since he old videos resurfaced in which he made highly offensive comments.

As this quarantine era of our history waxes and wanes, it seems like anytime one decides to open Twitter, they’re harassed with the crimes of celebrities’ past. The audience suddenly becomes the judge, jury, and executioner in the new era of cancel culture, deciding whether the defendant should be sentenced to irrelevance. But with real people and real lives on the line, can cancelling truly be justified?

 Although calling out celebrities for their wrongdoings isn’t new, the idea of online cancelling became mainstream in 2017 as the #Me Too movement grew in size.

 It became evident that the only way to hold certain celebrities accountable was not through judicial law-which often protected the accused through statutes of limitations and ‘unreliable’ he-said-she-said scenarios, but rather through the law of public opinion. The best way for survivors to find the justice they deserved was by leading their own protests, to make the whole world aware of the violence and sexual-misconduct of people like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and hundreds more. Me-Too efforts brought harassers to light allowing them to lose their positions of power.

Two years later, a similar phenomenon dominates the online space. Like the Me Too movement, social media users will use their voices to call out behavior they find harmful from their favorite creators. Using dislikes, unfollows, comments, and thousands of messages sent to the offender, voices online attempt to hold the accused accountable. Whether this be by ruining their reputation and kicking them out of the spotlight altogether, or getting them to right their wrongs, relies on the individual and the crime. This creates buzz online, that the consequences of a ‘cancellation’ bleed into real life. So much so, that the person being cancelled cannot escape the storm of hate and end up apologizing to their audience (be it genuine or not).

Take for instance, the recent cancelling of American YouTube personality Shane Dawson. He began posting videos on YouTube as early as 2008, known for his comedy sketches that would make him one of the most popular creators on the platform. He’s since reinvented his content many times, constantly picking up new audiences.

That is until June, when Dawson posted a statement on his Twitter titled “WELCOME TO THE CIRCUS- my final thoughts on the beauty world.” Here he detailed his disdain for being briefly involved in YouTube’s beauty community and rehashes the scandal that rocked the internet in 2019 between beauty YouTuber James Charles and Tati Westbrook.   

Many took great issue with Dawson’s take and quickly called him out for his own problematic behavior. Videos of Dawson making comedy out of harmful black stereotypes have emerged, along with videos and podcast clips of him sexualizing children. He’s since been exposed for his alleged orchestration in James Charles’s cancellation.

Although he’s made an apology, fans are reluctant to let him back on his platform- many thought Dawson’s apology ignored important issues and deflected blame. It’s been months since he appeared online and YouTube confirmed that all three of Dawson’s channels have been indefinitely demonetized- meaning he can no longer make money off the content he’s posted. Target announced that its stores will be removing Dawson’s books, and more companies are being urged to do the same.

In this case, Cancel Culture has done its job; previous supporters of Dawson, once the golden boy of YouTube, now know the racist and perverted ghosts of his past and choose not to give him any more fame or money. 

So if Cancel Culture can bring accountability for someone as ‘untouchable’ as Dawson, what’s the issue?

“It doesn’t allow people to grow. If you do one thing wrong, we’ll never forgive you and your reputation is ruined,” junior Barbara Andino said.  “I don’t think I could ever agree [with cancelling creators]. Everyone should be able to come back from their mistakes.” 

In the last few years, the narrative of cancelling has shifted from the pursuit of social justice to a justification for cyber-bullying.

James Charles, the aforementioned beauty guru, was accused in 2019 of being a sexual predator by friend and mentor Tati Westbrook. Charles promoted a rivaling hair vitamin company of Westbrook’s, prompting her to post a 40 minute expose titled “Bye Sister” where she accuses him of using his fame and power to “manipulate the sexualities of straight men.” She’s since deleted the video.

Charles was already controversial in the YouTube community for involving himself in past drama, but when Westbrook came forward with accusations, seemingly, the entire internet united to bully Charles. False rape accusations began to float around, causing an endless stream of tweets from angry fans calling for imprisonment or for him to be banned from YouTube. Charles set a world record for most subscribers lost in one day (1.2 million).  Viewers would join “watch party” live streams to see his subscriber count fall, encouraging the bandwagon of hate. After losing 3 million subscribers in total, Charles posted a 41 minute long video titled “No More Lies” debunking the accusations that came his way with text messages that proved his innocence. Since then Charles has come back into favor with the online community, now sitting at almost 22 million subscribers. Although it’s more than a year later, the experience continues to haunt Charles.

It’s come forward that Shane Dawson and Beauty YouTuber Jeffree Star- someone with his own past of racial slurs- were allegedly involved in the process of cyberbullying James. Westbrook accuses Dawson of manipulating her into making her “Bye Sister” video. Star speaks on podcasts and twitter, alleging he has anonymous voice recordings where the individual talks about being assaulted by Charles. If these details are true, they speak to the disturbing fact that Dawson and Star were purposely trying to ruin Charles’s reputation for their own gain.

The pressure of an online cancellation can be a lot for one person to take, especially if the reasons for cancelling are unfounded. When someone faces cancel culture online, it can feel like their entire world is coming down. They risk losing their career, their friends and their reputation for past improprieties. To be labeled a hateful person or a heinous criminal and to be bullied by thousands of people all at once takes a toll on the young idols that occupy the online arena.

Charles’s story of bandwagon hate reflects another harrowing trend in online cancelling, where it seems people will call out anyone for anything just to have fun with the results. Zealots dig into the social media accounts of celebrities, going back years to find ‘incriminating’ evidence to make the next headlines.

“Cancel Culture is just for entertainment. I genuinely think people get joy out of cancelling. Depending on how bad it is, it’s obvious people do it to virtue signal,” Andino said. 

This poses the question: do the people who engage in cancelling online truly care about social issues, or are they treating it as the latest drama that they love to hate. How can the people who actually care distinguish themselves from those just having fun when all respond in the same manner?  Those who bully influencers online until they speak up. 

 Junior Amelia DiGennaro believes the current state of cancelling is reduced to a ploy to create drama.

“I feel like we used to be at a place where no one got cancelled unless they deserved it, and sometimes it can be like that, like in Shane’s [Dawson] case, but it’s so rare nowadays. It’s not like we’re ridding the internet of dangerous people- I’ve seen people pretend to be offended over something like people hanging dream catchers in their room, or posting pictures where they’re doing the fox eye trend, people clearly just want something to be mad about,” DiGennaro said.

Andino draws attention to the more heinous consequences of mass-hate. “We can’t keep cancelling people until they want to die,” she said.

Charles spoke on the negative impact cancelling had on his mental health, but he speaks as someone who had a great support system and ultimately got the internet back on his side. Many people who aren’t internet famous still deal with the effects of bullying; every student in the nation has heard their fair share of anti-bullying campaigns to combat this issue, yet it never let’s up. People everywhere face the threat of doxxing; where personal information such as their address, phone number, even school can be released online so they’re subject to real life harassment. 

Wherever there’s argument for cancelling as a tool for reform, it becomes overshadowed by the spectacle it has become. Those concerned with the societal repercussions of a social media influencer’s crimes are among few in a vast sea of drama consumers. As the world of social media further bleeds into our everyday lives, it’s vital that those who engage consider the impact of their actions.