The “cancel culture” phenomenon refers to the engagement in mass withdrawal of support to an offender set up by the systems of society. While it is believed to be beneficial for moral accountability, its implementation over the years is seen as controversial because of misuse and oversight issues.
For instance, random stories of famous personalities, public figures, celebrities, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens worldwide reveal trauma and abuse from receiving public discipline or cancelations. Common experiences to most of them are feelings of intense anxiety, loss of self-worth, suicidal tendencies, and mental distress from online shaming, defamation, character assassination, cyberbullying, gossip, ridicule, and judgment. While some regard the withdrawal effects as consequences to the action, more problems were observed to emerge when such psychosocial impact were not acknowledged and properly addressed. Hence, others perceive the public discipline or “cancel culture” as a form of unhealthy punishment.
The society that the world hopes to be a community of sincere expressions of peace and love becomes a traumatic place for self-reflection, healing, growth, and recovery. This problem leads to the following questions: How can an institution ensure that its discipline practice is restorative and not punitive? How does the society understand “cancel culture” and its impact on the psychosocial well-being of a person? Where do we draw the line in rallying and canceling “cancel culture”?
By understanding the punitive and restorative approach of public discipline or “cancel culture”, the society, in general, may learn to take action in ensuring a healthy process and be more effective in properly ushering disciplined persons to a safe place of moral accountability and change.
The good: Understanding the practice of cancel Culture
What is “cancel culture” for in general? To better understand the issues concerning public discipline or “cancel culture”, it is important to grasp the background and purpose of its practice. “Cancel Culture”, also known as call-out culture, “is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person,” according to Wikipedia.
A professor of Sociology and Criminology, Dr. Jill McCorkel, shared through The New York Post (August 2021) that the presence of cancel culture originated throughout human history and centuries where “societies have punished people for behaving outside of perceived social norms.” However, it became a trend online around 2017 when an Olympic gymnast was canceled for blaming sexual assault and led Gabby Douglas to talk about women’s responsibility in modest clothing. Writer Shananita Hubbard responded against his statement, tweeting, “Let’s talk cancel culture,” which received more than 6,000 likes. Since then, the phrase “cancel culture” became popular and canceling or boycotting a celebrity, political figure, or brand for offensive actions or statements arose.
In the context of religion, cancel culture is termed as “discipline”. The New International Bible Dictionary defines it as “chastisement: Hebrew musar, from the verb yasar, meaning discipline, chasten, admonish, correct; Greek paideia, child training, the formation of manhood” (Daniel, 2014, p.364). It is called with various terms by different religious sects, namely penance, absolution, public confession, the sacrament of reconciliation, binding and loosing, and loving confrontation (Price, 1992, p.702). It is also described as a type of corrective discipline that points out sin and encourages repentance and pursuit of holiness (Jamieson, 2012, p.17).
However named and practiced by the religious institutions, the significant purpose of public discipline is to fulfill the Divine mandate of the church and follow the Divine command of righteousness by encouraging spiritual restoration from sinfulness (Daniel, 2014, pp.370-371). It is to guard one another, as exhorted by Jamieson (2012) through Hebrews 12:3-11, “The objects of God’s discipline are His children, the motive is love, the goal is holiness, the present experience is painful, and the long-term fruit is a harvest of righteousness in our lives” (p.20).
In the context of social media call-out, Forbes (September 2020) stated that “supporters view cancel culture as an important tool in achieving social justice,” providing voice to the voiceless. ProCon also supports this idea by sharing some of its good benefits which includes allowing marginalized people to seek accountability where the justice system fails, giving a voice to disenfranchised or less powerful people, and bringing about social change.
For example, the #MeToo movement that went viral in 2017 is a form of cancel culture which helped a number of abused women voice out their silent cries in calling out perpretrators and receiving justice from sexual misconduct. The #BlackLivesMatter rally is another powerful form of cancel culture after a police officer killed an innocent black american citizen. It caused millions of people across the globe to march against racism, bringing public awareness on social justice in June 2020. Krishauna Hines-Gaither, the associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Guilford College in North Carolina, stated, “It’s important to recognize that cancelations exist to hold people accountable.”
Regardless of institution or form, the work of public discipline or “cancel culture” highlights strengths in its perspective and pursuit. It appears that it is morally-centered, serves heightened responsibility toward others, and is worthwhile for accountability and restoration, despite the painful process.
The bad: Understanding the dangers and oversight issues of cancel culture
However, not all studies show that “cancel culture” or public discipline is effective or restorative. It is interesting to note that some evidence of misuse, abuse, and punitive issues were observed concerning the practice, especially in this age of technology and social media.
The New York Times (December 2020) simply describes this practice as “public shaming” while columnist Bari Weiss (July 2020) sees it as a “social murder.” Forbes (October 2021) reflects canceling, boycotting, and denouncing as a toxic trend and an ongoing threat with devastating effects due to the power of internet, stating, “Minor issues can morph into major issues, and major issues can become huge problems once someone hits ‘send’ as stories, photos and commentary spiral out of control.”
It can destroy a person’s life in a flash. For example, an ordinary employee, Adam Smith, whose video in 2012 received intense online backlash for speaking against gay marriage, was fired by his company and denied of job offers. He shared through the CBSN Originals documentary, “Speaking Frankly: Cancel Culture”, that the incident drove him to suicidal attempts.
“Cancel culture” is also strictly practiced in China. Interestingly, a Chinese actor, Zhang Zhehan, was canceled by commercials, brands, and expelled from the entertainment industry due to his old photos visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial and prohibited place for Chinese people. He was denounced by the China Association of Performing Arts for “severely harming the national feeling and bringing baneful influence to his young age-group audience.”
Johnny Depp is another example of a famous celebrity who was ousted from his projects with Warner Brothers amid the scandal of alleged domestic abuse. In the September 2021 interview with Deadline, he shared, “This cancel culture, this instant rush to judgement is so far out of hand. No one is safe. It’s not just me that this has happened to, it’s happened to a lot of people. Sadly at a certain point they begin to think that it’s normal. When it’s not.”
On the other hand, The Strait Times (October 2021) specifically described the cancel culture in South Korea as toxic and unforgiving when the rising star, Kim Seonho, faced a sudden major cancelation in projects, advertisements, extreme online shaming, and ridicule after a distorted story against him from an anonymous account dispersed like a wildfire across social media. It was reported that due to shock, the actor could not be reached for a few days, rumored to be hospitalized, and almost decided to drop his career. He also expressed in his public apology letter that he experienced a different kind of fear for the first time. The #CancelTheCancelCulture online rally emerged and many people across the globe stood out for him. Normally, canceled Korean or Chinese celebrities lose a huge number of fans but amid the online brawl, Kim Seonho’s Instagram followers increased from 7.3 million to more than 8 million.
As the truth prevailed, most of the ads reinstated him as a model and one movie project confirmed to continue working with him after two weeks of unneccessary heated online debates about his private life. Miima Mask and Everwhite items were sold out in a few days, while 11Street attained an increase in sales, reported to be the online store’s highest performance ever, after these companies revived Kim Seonho’s ads. The South China Morning Post (November 2021) pondered upon this incident and reasoned that among the long list of Korean artists and celebrities who have been canceled, “the case of Kim Seon-ho stands out in the cancel culture wars.”
In a 2021 study done by Pew Research Center on calling people out in social media, 38% of the American respondents believe that the action of canceling “is more likely to punish people who didn’t deserve it”, an overreactive kind of behavior that “lashes out at others without considering the context” or full narrative.
Another study on the effects of negative interaction on psychological distress was examined by Elisson, Zhang, Krause, and Marcum (2009) and it reveals that negative feedback or responses from the community, such as criticizing, shaming, isolating, and gossiping, contribute significantly to the well-being of an individual (p.428) and that its effect is greater in magnitude than positive social support (p.412). In religious cases, the vitality of church experience is diminished and some leave the faith because of psychological distress (p.427). Daniel (2014) also stresses that ongoing negative church interaction has little or no tangible fruit in restoring a person (p.367).
Doctor Tiago Reis Marques, a leading psychiatrist, shared that “cancel culture” is damaging to a person’s reputation, stating, “It can essentially feel like they are being attacked by the whole world. This is particularly harmful to a person’s psychological state as we have seen in previous cases and often leads to chronic depression and anxiety.” He added that the act of canceling is a virulent form of mob justice, public shaming, and rejection, which negatively and hugely impacts the mental health of a particular person.
When #TaylorSwiftIsCanceled went viral into a months-long campaign in 2016, the artist shared her thoughts in Vogue (August 2019), “I don’t think there are that many people who can actually understand what it’s like to have millions of people hate you very loudly. When you say someone is canceled, it’s not a TV show. It’s a human being. You’re sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or it could also be perceived as, Kill yourself.” Despite the massive online backlash, Taylor Swift remains one of the highest-paid celebrities in the world.
In the article, Shaping Holy Disciples, Senior Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., Mark Dever (2005) was interviewed about church discipline and he stressed out that some respond negatively against it because the word itself sounds like excommunication and judgmental (p.32). To further understand these issues, a case of church abuse happened specifically in the Anabaptist sect with almost daily reports of excommunication and that penance was a rigid requirement to restore full membership (Bargerhuff, 2010, pp.31-32). Another case study from the Baptist churches in Georgia was illustrated by West (2010) wherein more than 40,000 members were excommunicated due to failure of fulfilling the strict list of procedure for church discipline, which includes public confession, repentance (p.84), and failure to attend worship (p.88). This explains why such harsh and legalistic investigation and approach for inappropriate behavior discourages some to further engage with church life (Bargerhuff, 2010, pp.31-32; West, 2010, p.85).
Mcnish (2002) draws attention to this idea that negligence to provide a sense of depth in the person’s well-being is “one of the most serious failings a ministry can be guilty of” and insists that knowledge of depth psychology must be one of the attributes of pastoral care, spiritual direction, discipleship, and teaching (p.129). In addition to this argument, while the church is good at exhorting people to put off the old self, it fails to provide practical help in identifying and addressing the unresolved past to solve current negative behaviors (Burns, 2017, pp.326-327).
As has been shown, the society in general lacks psychosocial awareness and understanding in its dealings with human behavior. Misuse of discipline, negative interactions, and lack of psychological insight are valid issues that need the utmost attention. If neglected, this leads the practice of “cancel culture” or public discipline to be inefficient and worse, damaging and punitive.
To rally or cancel “cancel culture”
Building on from the idea of psychosocial issues in implementing public discipline or cancel culture, this takes the stance that a strong presence of psychology and awareness of mental health is significant (Browning, 1992, pp.131-132; McMinn et al, 2010, p.270; McNish, 2002, p.127), and as previously discussed, there could be serious contamination and repercussions in the life of a person, institution, or society if depth psychology is neglected and not practiced (McNish, 2002, p.133).
In the context of religion, a collaboration between the spiritual leaders and mental health practitioners is highly recommended to provide balance in meeting the needs of church discipline (Browning, 1992, pp.131-132; McMinn et al, 2010, p.270; McNish, 2002, p.127). Notably, a gathering of sixty scholars, pastors and church leaders from different religious denominations such as the Evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodist took place to discuss and re-examine church discipline, wherein participants agreed that church discipline must be properly assessed and clearly defined before crisis calls to it (Price, 1992, pp. 702-703).
Another thing to consider when it comes to implementing a “call-out culture” or discipline regardless of institution is ensuring a meaningful belongingness, wherein the community is a safe place for people to be naturally open, honest, receive loving confrontation, and talk about the realities of life without negative interactions (Dever, 2005, p.33).
Following this and given the understanding that the world we live in is composed of imperfect people with different backgrounds and challenges, it is recommended for those in high position such as leaders to pursue emotional health first and study human behavior problems so that its people can be guided well to a safe place of greater depth in their pursuit of moral integrity (Burns, 2017, p.330; McNish, 2002, p.133).
Whether we rally or cancel “cancel culture”, our aim must be to assist all persons involved to a safe place of self-reflection, healing, growth, and transformation. It is also significant that we learn to listen well and investigate thoroughly before we make online accusations and oust people.
As Amanda Koontz, UCF associate professor of sociology, states, “So often we are told, ‘We must act and speak out, or we are part of the problem,’ and therefore we are not necessarily taught or trained that inaction or not speaking out can be a form of social-justice action. At some point, we need to think about ways we can create positive change instead of fueling negative causes.”
This study has shown that the implementation of “cancel culture” or public discipline is beneficial in its purpose and perspective but quite challenging in its actual practice due to the complexities of human behavior that only psychology can comprehend. In line with this, it can be perceived as punitive in its approach when there is an ongoing negative interaction in the community, especially online, and the psychosocial well-being of an individual is neglected. Whereas, when discipline is implemented while offering positive interactions from its community, assisting the offender to arise from its sinful state to freedom with psychological depth and aid, a healthy, restorative discipline is ensured.
For this reason, a good collaboration between the institution and psychology is suggested to develop a restorative discipline approach or material. While cases vary and further clinical studies should be carried out, this article calls for the society in general to reassess its existing discipline process or “cancel culture” practice, modify its requirements, and clearly define its safe place for justice, healing, and transformation.
Whether online or in person, may we represent a culture that move towards a better society that rejects injustice but welcomes its people. And this social change primarily starts with us.
Copyright 2021. Myra Bansale for KORB Blog.
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