Less than two months ago, the docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” reported the jarring stories of sexual assault, physical abuse and statutory rape by famous R&B singer, R. Kelly. He has since denied these allegations but has been sued by the city of Chicago for ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
Social communities have erupted in rage and disappointment. Black Twitter has created hashtags and campaigns to #MuteRKelly that seem to be working. Spotify has removed him from all their playlists. RCA Records dropped Kelly two weeks after the docuseries broadcasted. Event companies in New Zealand and the U.S. have canceled his upcoming concerts.
Every day, we find out about a different celebrity or prominent person who has done something horrible, whether in the distant past or within the hour. The response of many social media communities is to cancel the person. Canceling someone means to remove social approval from someone by no longer engaging with them. Canceling someone can take form in boycotting the person’s goods or services. In Kelly’s case, people aren’t listening to or buying his music.
R. Kelly’s abuse is a clear example of cancel culture being used to rescind public support from an objectively bad person, however in more ambiguous circumstances, cancel culture can have negative effects on public perception. Specifically, the culture seems inconsistent. I have a few questions about how we judge canceling people. Now, I want to make it clear that I do not support the actions of Kelly or those like him, nor am I attacking society as a whole. I do not endorse or commend the despicable or offensive behavior of people. I am pointing out issues with the system. It is healthy to critique institutions so we can understand them even better. Understanding this, I have three main questions about cancel culture to make us think deeper about one’s actions and our response.
The first question I have is “What are the guidelines?” Where are the boundaries? We have set up a vague set of guidelines to determine what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t. Our collective is very different. We represent our different races, religions, gender identities and sexualities. So, which group gets to determine what behavior is acceptable? Are beliefs subject to chastisement? The problem lies in consensus. We can’t trust a group with so many varying backgrounds to make specific decisions regarding morals.
The next question is “Is there a scale to compare action?” Cancel culture seems to respond to all actions with the same punishment by excluding the person from society. However, some behavior is far worse than others. Should we create different punishments for different offensive actions, or create a scale from unfavorable to reprehensible? Again, we would have to come to a consensus. It’s difficult for a diverse group to make that decision. Now, we ask the question, “Are some actions allowed redemption?” The whole idea of reconciliation is difficult. In some cases, the effects of one’s actions will traumatize a person for the rest of their lives. However, in cases of genuine ignorance and minimal damage, public forgiveness should be an option.
The final question is “What’s the point?” A social icon’s journey from ridicule to reconciliation seems cyclical. The person does the act. Next, social communities chastise and cancel the person. Then, the person goes on an apology tour throughout the media. Finally, he or she rises back in favor, and we all forget. This cycle happens again with a different celebrity nearly every week. But, is there any room for rehabilitation or growth? The person says “I’m learning.” They will say “I’m only human.” They will say “I want to be better,” but do they ever really get better? It is hard to grow and change from your mistakes if no one is willing to teach or help you.
Now, in some aspects, cancel culture can be good. It alerts society to important issues that, otherwise, would take a backseat. It helps us reevaluate who we put up on a pedestal. It is a sign of a changing culture that will not stand for offensive or disrespectful behavior. These are all great things.
However, to make an effect on the world around us, our responses must be unified. No two situations are similar. We need to take a second and think deeper about what we do and do not stand for as a society. Then, we must decide how we respond to those who break our social guidelines.