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Why Do We Always Cancel The Wrong People?

by Alex Mell-Taylor 2 months ago in opinion / corruption / controversies / celebrities / activism
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Ben Shapiro, influencers, and oil executives

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

I have a lot of regrets in my life. I am a former alcoholic who lived with many undiagnosed issues for the first thirty years of my life. I never did anything truly abhorrent, but there were plenty of friends and partners I treated like absolute shit.

There will be some people who will tell me not to be open with this past, even as briefly as I have done so here, out of fear of "cancellation," which is a weird fear to me because I am not that important, and do not stand to be in the grand scheme of things. I currently do not write laws, control employees, or possess billions of dollars. If someone were to "cancel" me, that is, to make me suffer for past transgressions, it would seem like a lot of wasted effort when compared to all the awful people out there who impact their lives. There are better things for people to do with their time.

And this is my main concern with the "cancel culture" debate — it feels like many of us are targeting the wrong people. We spend so much time litigating celebrities, inconsequential public figures, and D-list influencers on the Internet. In the meantime, the people who genuinely deserve scrutiny seem to get to live their lives in peace.

Why are we canceling some chump that says something ignorant online and not the oil executives, billionaires, and lobbyists who are [email protected] over our world? How we think about this topic of "cancellation" needs to change, and soon, if we hope to do something that isn't just griping about nonsense on the Internet.

The Problem With Canceling

What confuses me with the "cancellation" discourse is that I never know what people are referring to when they talk about it. Is it using social media to shame people into compliance? Is it only radical actions like doxxing and harassment, or does criticizing Ted Cruz on Twitter count? Is it the mere application of shame, which has been around for far longer than the Internet?

Yes, the term started on Black Twitter mainly as a joke, but right now, the waters are so muddied on this issue because conservatives use it to mean anything they don't like. A mean tweet sent their way after saying something inflammatory is labeled "cancellation." Valid criticism of words and actions they have done is a "Witch Hunt." The existence of queer people is "McCarthyism." The phrase essentially doesn't mean anything anymore, which is why I often use "the politics of shame" instead (see Unpacking the Deadly Politics of Shame) because I think what we are actually talking about is using shame to police the actions of others.

Yet some people are shamed for their actions. They do face targeted harassment, and these victims aren't always conservatives complaining about accountability. We know from survey data that in the states, millions of people encounter harassment online and in real life. The modern Culture Wars arguably started with Gamergate, where women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, and Brianna Wu faced unprecedented levels of harassment for acts that were ultimately very minor and, in many cases, completely fabricated. To this day, mentioning Anita Sarkeesian's name will cause people to rant about her 2014 Kickstarter campaign.

And it's not just on the right. The modern online Left is filled with very petty feuds, where people pile on to D-list celebrities for minor SNAFUS. The leftist YouTuber Natalie Wynn remains controversial for mostly inconsequential tweets about nonbinary identity. Lindsay Ellis left YouTube for commentary on the Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon. It's not that valuable conversation couldn't be had about these incidents (see Xiran Jay Zhao's series on the Lindsay Ellis Raya scandal), but alienating these essentially harmless leftist figures ultimately did not seem like the most productive thing the Left could do with its time.

So again, my big question is, "why the [email protected] are most of us going after no-nothings and celebrities and not the people that actually matter?" There are oil CEOS who have never earned the public's attention, let alone their ire.

As of writing this article, Jim Burke is the CEO of Vistra Corp, a Texas-based energy company that is hands down one of the biggest carbon polluters in the world. Through subsidiary Luminant, Jim manages assets like the Martin Lake Coal plant, which the Sierra Club has designated the Top Sulfer and Mercury Polluter in the US. Did you even know Jim existed until reading this paragraph?

There is a disconnect between the people who do the most damage in this world and those who receive the most criticism, and part of this problem concerns how social media is set up. These systems were designed to be psychologically addicting. Nir Eyal is the Godfather of many of Web 2.0's greatest applications, and in his book Hooked, he lays out how companies can take advantage of human psychology for profit, writing:

"Once we're hooked, using these products does not always require an explicit call to action. Instead, they rely upon our automatic responses to feelings that precipitate the desired behavior. Products that attach to these internal triggers provide users with quick relief."

He's essentially walking through how companies can hijack our modern notions of psychology to be more addicting. All modern social media is designed to give us this fix. Facebook prioritizes engagement over all other values, meaning that most of its content is fueled by anger. Twitter is arguably the same way, amplifying our moral outrage. Tik Tok is almost the epitome of Web 2.0, designed to keep users returning for more, regardless of the consequences. These sites did not set out to create meaningless drama (at least not initially), but their perverse incentive structures led to this outcome regardless.

Another structural problem that prevents us from going after the people who matter is that rich people can curate their online personas to minimize attention. You can shell out hundreds of dollars for services that delete your personal information from the Internet (e.g., DeleteMe) and secure it. If rich enough, you might even bring this work in-house, paying for a social media team to constantly look out for information to flag and suppress. It's hard to dunk on someone online when they don't have socials, and all the information about them is dry press releases most Twitter users aren't going to bother learning the existence of, let alone read.

However, to assign this problem simply to "human nature" or "systems" would be washing our hands of accountability. We can put in the work as individuals to not pile onto every nobody who says something stupid online. We can also start researching and targeting power holders that genuinely affect our lives and go after them instead.

I am not criticizing someone's decision to shame awful people. Shame works. It's a tactic I have recently had to admit is quite effective (see Cancel Culture Isn't About Winning An Argument). There is a long history of people using shame, call-out culture, canceling, or whatever you want to call it to push for political gains. You might want to look at the "me too" movement, ACT UP, the suffragettes, or really any successful political movement in the last two centuries (see Historically, Shame Has (Sometimes) Been A Good Thing).

Yet these groups were using shame in a targeted way. Activists had specific goals and objectives, placing their ire on people or institutions at the top of the hierarchy. They were not simply ranting for the hell of it because they were bored. These dogpiles we often see online are not activism but entertainment, and we have to reckon with how it's been detrimental to organizing.

The Solution to Cancelling

Right now, the use of shame is mainly decoupled from a political framework. Many people are not shaming others to achieve a policy objective but to revel in the feeling of judging and punishing another person.

Our information ecosystems are primarily to blame. Social media is not the best at creating meaningful dialogue and resolving disputes, but at a certain level, we have to take responsibility as individuals, or we won't ever be able to course-correct. And this means dunking less on random nobodies who say dumb shit and more on the people who are [email protected] things up. People who are smart enough not to have a Twitter account and instead have curated their online personas, so they are not as easily accessible as your average person.

This also means not prioritizing people who build their careers, courting controversy (see Ben Shapiro, Matt Walsh, etc.). These men may harm others by perpetuating terrible narratives, and we should push back against them, but entertainers should not be our primary focus. These entertainers, and yes, that's what they are, are grifters using attention to rally their base for money and attention. They may be terrible, but they serve more as court jesters who distract the public from getting an audience from their kings.

Why don't we shame our kings?

We focus so frequently on celebrities. Rarely do we channel our frustrations at men like Jim Burke of Vistra Energy, Lynn Good of Duke Energy, or Thomas A. Fanning of Southern Company (all CEOs of some of the largest greenhouse gas polluters on the planet). These people should bear some of the most scrutiny, and yet I have heard little about them in recent years, and they are certainly not trending on Twitter for being "canceled." You would think that these people would be our focus?

And yet they are not.

Please, go after the kings of this world. The power brokers who are making decisions that harm us all. Not just the court jesters, and certainly not the peasants who say ignorant shit while plowing their lords' fields.

opinioncorruptioncontroversiescelebritiesactivism

About the author

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insight

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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  • Tracy Willisabout a month ago

    Love this perspective - thank you for opening up this conversation.

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