What is cancel culture? Is it a side effect of the era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle? Is it the gap-filling mechanism for the space where the American justice system has failed and yet society demands a reckoning? Is it a manifestation of the United States punitive justice methodology? Is it merely the newest iteration of an otherwise ancient human custom?
These questions and more were posed and pondered in a recent conversation held by the Criminal Law Society and BC Law Professor Steven Koh. Students shared their views on how to define cancel culture, who is subject or not subject to it, its efficacy, and its justness. The discussion stirred many of my own thoughts on this phenomenon.
When I first heard of cancel culture, I thought that’s ridiculous. You can’t literally cancel people like they’ve received poor ratings in a daytime soap slot. I probably learned about it on Twitter, where a good amount of cancelling occurs. The idea struck me as running counter to my (probably somewhat naïve) desire to find good in everyone. If you cancel someone, as I initially understood it, you’ve agreed to excise them from your life like a malignancy, permanently mute them, deny them their platform, and especially stop doing things that make them money. It seemed like a harsh punishment.
Now, before you heat up and send me a bunch of angry emails, I want to clarify something at the outset. People in our society do some truly heinous evil things: child sexual assault, horrible verbal and physical abuse, and not the least among these is police/state-sponsored brutality against minorities. I won’t be addressing police violence in this blog because that deserves its own piece. As has been said by many others, we’ve had horrific injustice in our country before the pandemic. COVID merely shone a light on all the cracks we urgently need to mend.
But I am not sure cancel culture, as it’s manifested in 2021, is the way to go. Bryan Stevenson famously penned “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If that’s true, and I believe that it is, where does cancel culture fit in our aim towards a society that manifests restorative justice? Where does the work of apology and self-education go if we’ve exiled the perpetrator? Canceling, which amounts to an internet age boycott and sanction of a person, creates a litany of collateral consequences that run counter to restorative justice.
Professor Koh shared the story of Dr. Anjali Ramkissoon, a Miami medical resident who in 2016 drunkenly assaulted an Uber driver and trashed his car. Following the video of the assault going viral, she lost her job and remarked in an interview with ABC that she received death threats, was urged to commit suicide, and others said they wished that she had been raped. She said her home address was shared online and strange packages arrived on her family’s doorstep. Five years later, she is not employed in the medical field and little to no information can be found about her.
This is a clear manifestation of cancel culture: permanent or mostly permanent punishment and exile. Was this drunken violence against a totally innocent person horrible? Unquestionably. Is she “sorry” enough? Who knows. Should she have been arrested? I wasn’t there, so I can only go off the video, but I say yes. And yet she wasn’t. That’s where the gap-filling notion of cancel culture comes into play. The internet mobs took it upon themselves to permanently alter the course of her life as punishment for a horrible act.
But as we have necessary conversations about redemption and restorative justice in our legal system, we seem to be talking out of both sides of our collective mouth. On the one hand, we are actively working to re-enfranchise formerly incarcerated individuals and preaching the ideals of healing. We are doing good bipartisan things in our Congress like passing legislation that focuses on community and faith based organizational partnerships to help the formerly incarcerated become re-integrated into the rest of society. People are much more readily recognizing that we cannot simply put people in prison and then continue to punish them for the rest of their lives when their time is up.
On the other hand, we are convicting a good number of people in the court of internet public opinion for crimes they’ve never had the opportunity to defend. And what’s more (as Professor Koh brought up in the discussion), where the justice system is governed by rules of evidence that at least in theory are meant to dictate the contours of “permissible” evidence in line with the Constitution, the internet has no rules. No one is refereeing to ensure we understand the whole picture. As people engaged in the legal profession, it is on us to understand both sides. Even if the other side is wrong and malicious, the only way we can best an opponent is to truly understand what they’re saying.
I believe that people with a platform–be they politicians, academics, pop stars, actresses, or TikTok celebrities–should be held to account on their views. People with a platform have power. They need to use it to do their part in administering a just society. But they’re also human beings. The internet has created an environment that allows us to judge an entire person’s story based on a singular snapshot of their lives. As I write this, I think of extreme examples like Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby. It makes me question whether I really believe what I am writing: that everyone is redeemable. But even as I test my own beliefs in the idea of redemption, I am not willing to buy into the most extreme version of cancel culture.
I don’t have an answer for what should take its place. Our justice system is broken. The rich go free and the poor serve time and often lose what little they had before becoming incarcerated. Minorities have a different justice system than white and white-passing people. There is an intersection in all of these plights. And they must be reckoned with and corrected to move forward as a country. One student said cancel culture looks a lot like blood feuding. Another student noted that it can take incredibly frivolous forms which diminishes its efficacy. We can’t literally force people to recognize the humanity in each other, but isn’t there some method that lends itself to building up rather than tearing down our fellow human? Naïve or otherwise, I want to believe that there is.
Tatiana Becker is a third-year student at BC Law. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.