In a time where mental health has become such a widely discussed topic, why does cancel culture still exist? It seems ridiculous that we live in an age where so many people struggle with mental health issues, yet it is a trend to tear people down online.
To add to the irony, more than ever people are using social media to advocate for mental health awareness. Yet influencers and creators are forced to take time away from platforms to take care of their own mental health. It is slowly becoming accepted that social media is a toxic space and criticism is normal. This criticism, as most of us have probably experienced first hand, typically involves judging appearances. And it might seem strange but what we wear is a part of the way we choose to present ourselves online, and so fashion and mental health come hand in hand. But whether it’s our clothes or something else, there is never a good enough reason to jeopardise another person’s wellbeing.
What is cancel culture?
Cancel culture is the term used when thousands of people online tear apart the image of a celebrity or brand. You might recognise this from your Twitter trending page with the hashtag that someone is ‘over’. J.K. Rowling and Ellen DeGeneres are the most recent public figures to experience ‘being cancelled’. This came after Rowling’s anti-trans commentary and Degeneres’s insensitivity towards Covid-19. Although celebrities should sometimes be held accountable for their actions, the nature of this trend is still aggressive and harmful.
Addressing the audience at an Obama Foundation event in 2019, Barack Obama summarised his thoughts on cancel culture as: ‘That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.’
What is the difference between accountability and cancel culture?
There are lasting repercussions when cancel culture or cyber-bullying are taken too far. The determination to remove support from public figures is not the same as trying to enforce accountability. In fact, accountability is more concerned with real issues. Whereas cancel culture can emerge from something as simple as the clothes a celebrity wears. Online bullying brings us back to the age-old question of whether we are qualified to judge anyone based on appearances. And beyond that, whether we can call online shaming a form of judgement when it really involves victimisation.
Is anybody safe from criticism online?
Someone who is no stranger to online criticism is Meghan Markle. But is there any justification for the endless slander? Well, often it is as simple as the clothes she wears, so arguably no. For a Royal Family member, there are, of course, certain standards to be upheld. In fact, there are specific ‘rules’ for the royal dress code. These include avoiding black clothing, wearing bright colours in crowds and not wearing trousers to official engagements. Despite these rules, many have reported that Meghan’s style is ‘inappropriate’ or too ‘informal’. But the stories usually concern off the shoulder tops and the colour of her clothes… hardly a reason to pressure someone into moving to a new country.
Where do we go from here?
We can never be certain of anyone’s wellbeing unless they choose to express it, but Meghan’s experiences clearly suggest a need for change. Close to 800,000 people pass away due to suicide every year. This makes it terrifying to consider the future impact of online shaming. And the relationship between suicide and online cancel culture is becoming more and more apparent too. Considering the devastating circumstances of Mike Thalassitis’s, Sophie Gradon’s, and Caroline Flack’s suicides after their experiences on Love Island, how can we continue to ignore what cancel culture and online bullying can do?
However, if we’ve taken anything from 2020 shouldn’t it be that exercising our right to speak out can have a positive impact? This is largely dependent on the way in which we choose to use social media, as it is undeniable that cancel culture needs to be cancelled. But it should remain that we hold accountability against those that discriminate others. Above all, we should always prioritise mental health. So, if the distinction between cancelling and accountability can’t be made then we should try to remember that there is always someone on the other side of the screen.
By Kate Cunnington