While it can promote real change and make individuals accountable, it can also do more harm than good if used irresponsibly
Centuries ago, people were tarred and feathered as a form of social boycott.
According to Pegasus magazine, cancel culture can find its roots in the 1880s with the Irish, and later gained momentum as a potent social and political tool, notably during the civil rights movement, exemplified by Rosa Parks’ pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott.
Today, cancel culture has become a hashtag. It has not spared actors, directors, musicians, influencers, and even comedians, who seemed to be allowed to joke about everything, who now stand ‘cancelled’. However, these ‘cancellations,’ have led to people becoming more vocal about unacceptable behaviour, thereby establishing new unspoken rules.
Social networks gave users the platform to speak out and did not allow high-profile scandals to be hushed up, as they used to be in the past. However, cancel culture presents numerous drawbacks. It can serve as a pretext for bullying, lack crucial context, and enable individuals to evade accountability.
So, cancel culture should be seen as a double-edged sword. While it can promote real change and make individuals accountable, it can also do more harm than good if used irresponsibly, making it even more important to consider the implications of cancel culture before participating in it.
Let us see what people in the UAE think of this culture.
Is it always justified?
“Before cancel culture became the term du jour, various forms of ostracism were prevalent,” says Ansoo Gupta who heads the UAE chapter of Headstart. “For instance, during the McCarthy era in the United States, individuals suspected of having communist sympathies were blacklisted from the entertainment industry. And what about the Salem Witch trials in the 17th century? In its social media avatar today, the motivation behind cancel culture often stems from a desire to promote accountability and justice for marginalised individuals.”
“For example, in 2018, comedian Kevin Hart faced backlash and calls for cancellation after old tweets containing homophobic remarks resurfaced ultimately forcing him to step down from hosting the Oscars. But that’s the thing: cancel culture isn’t always the hero it makes itself out to be. Sure, it can be a force for good when it comes to holding people accountable for their actions. But we have to be careful not to let it turn into a witch hunt where anyone who steps out of line gets thrown to the wolves.”
Ansoo gives an example of director James Gunn who faced intense backlash and calls for his firing from Disney after old tweets containing offensive jokes resurfaced. However, Gunn was eventually reinstated as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. “This instance highlights the importance of allowing room for redemption and growth within cancel culture.”
“In my opinion, while cancel culture may have the potential to promote accountability and give voice to marginalised individuals, its execution raises ethical concerns. Especially when it is easy to sway opinions on social media.”
“It’s important to strike a balance between seeking justice and fostering empathy and forgiveness in our interactions both online and offline.”
Potential to stifle growth
Today, the world is a dangerous place, so we need to tread with caution, says Sean Wells, a Dubai-based financial analyst. “Anything we say, even in jest, can be highlighted on social media and blown completely out of proportion to malign our character.”
Himself a victim of cancel culture a few years ago, he moved from UK to Dubai to restart his career in finance. “I was literally hounded out of my practice, and you know the financial sector is not kind to those maligned, with or without cause. I chose to leave and start anew.”
However, Sean adds, this cancel culture is a concept so hotly debated that it remains in limbo, much like many individuals’ attitudes toward it.
He gives another example of how people hound you, sometimes over minor issues. “Take cricketer Ollie Robinson or example. He is being investigated for nine-year-old tweets dating back to when he was a teenager. Within the last few years, people are being ‘cancelled’ for views, comments or actions seen as offensive today. Cancel culture is becoming the new form of intimidation.”
According to him, this culture is fundamentally a negative reaction and hence will not generate a positive outcome. “It has always been around and was called different names such as groupism, office politics, or self-declared elitism. Essentially it is nothing more than a reverse marginalisation and is certainly doomed to backfire, if not today, very soon.”
Toxicity of cancel culture
“Being targeted can make individuals experience anxiety and stress since it may lead to public humiliation, damage to their reputation and loss of livelihood, according to Ammarah Ashraf, Clinical Psychologist, Nabta Health. “The constant fear of judgement and negative consequences can take a toll on mental wellbeing.”
“The cancelled individual/group ends up feeling isolated, which can lead to depression. However, it is important to note that the mental health effects of this phenomenon can certainly differ from individual to individual and the respective situation. It is always encouraged that they reach out to a mental health professional to receive the support they require.”
She explains why it is important to understand the complexity of cancel culture especially because the intent behind implementing this phenomenon draws the line between it being an act for social justice or a form of bullying.
“In some cases, it is seen as a necessary tool to bring social change and accountability. But implemented in an aggressive manner, it does more harm than good. You must understand that this culture also affects children and adolescents, especially as these are the critical years they go through personal and social development. Through either observing the behaviours of adults or peers, participating in or being targeted by ‘the cancel culture phenomenom’, children could model specific behaviours, such as public shaming and humiliation. This may have a significant influence on how they perceive situations and normalise an approach to problem solving that may lack constructive communication and empathy.”
For example, Oksana Serebrennova, a Dutch national working as a Recruitment Manager in Abu Dhabi recalls the horrors of childhood ostracisation in school, which made her an introvert, forcing her to complete her term in school privately. “My classmates ganged up against me because they believed I had snitched about their secret smoking habits and boycotted me. They refused to involve me in anything at all and went out of their way to be nasty. Every moment in school was absolutely unbearable.”
She says cancel culture tends to be more negative than positive. “If implemented for the right reasons, it can be positive but often, the reasons are not right. In my case, it backfired. It nearly ruined my life. Till date, I don’t make friends easily. My inner circle is very small, consisting of immediate family and a handful of other people. Not many are as relieved to be back home as I am.”
“One can be cancelled at any time of their life, including workplace. It is worse especially if you are an introvert who doesn’t have the strength to stand up to people and justify their stance. I personally believe that cancel culture stems from a lack of will or ability to confront people and discuss any given issue. It’s always easier to be a part of a larger group and gang up on someone without being the one to have a difficult conversation or go against popular opinion and discover the truth.”
Dubai-based Holistic Psychologist at The Hundred Wellness Centre, Devika Mankani asserts that children can be significantly impacted by this, which in turns leads to anxiety, depression, and a sense of isolation in those targeted. “It straddles the line between vengeance and social justice, aiming for accountability but sometimes veering into punitive territory without due process. For children, the effects can be especially profound, shaping their understanding of conflict resolution and social interaction in ways that might emphasise punishment over dialogue and rehabilitation.”
She says that this culture can easily develop into a form of bullying, particularly when it lacks context or fairness.
Its morality and effectiveness are contentious. Cancel culture can serve as a tool for social justice when applied judiciously, empowering those who are often sidelined. However, without a balanced approach, it can backfire, leading to further polarisation and undermining the very principles of fairness and rehabilitation it seeks to promote.