The term ‘cancel culture’ and the act of ‘cancelling’ public figures for their ignorance toward social issues roots from the Civil Rights Movement in America and has long circulated the sphere of Black Twitter. Over the years, ‘cancel culture’ has regained traction, and usage of the term began to peak in mainstream online spaces when a scene from the reality TV show, Love and Hip-Hop: New York, popularized the phrase ‘you’re cancelled’. But more recently, the term has earned a negative connotation of rampantly disregarding context to villainize celebrities.
Now, the exact same public figures being called out attach the term to criticisms directed at them to dismiss them as baseless.
The Spectrum of ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversies
Multiple internet personalities, especially online creators, have been faulted many times for their ignorant remarks. The most recent case is of Disguised Toast’s within the gaming sphere, where someone sent him a long email that had attached a few clips of him making satirical jokes about racism and women. The clips were paired with numerous allegations by both the sender and a few of Disguised Toast’s viewers which began to circulate on Twitter. In response, Disguised Toast directly refuted all of them through a public statement, stating that the clips deemed as ‘evidence’ were taken completely out of context. One of these clips contained him reading a racist comment out loud in order to make his competitor laugh for a ‘Don’t Laugh’ challenge; an incident of which resulted in accusations and claims of the gamer being racist. Another clip showed that, during a game of ‘Pictionary’, he drew a little girl to make other players correctly guess the word ‘illegal’, pertaining to pedophilia. Through the clip, a few fans had commented that the joke was tasteless, while others began to claim that he ‘promotes pedophilia’.
Image: camknows / Creative Commons
Disguised Toast’s case, however, is only within the milder end of the spectrum. Another internet personality that was in a similar position is well-known Youtube personality PewDiePie, whose case can be categorized in the middle. In 2016, PewDiePie was put in center-stage of the news and media because of a Wall Street Journal investigation that found nine videos on his channel containing anti-Semitic humor. Most notable was a video in which he paid two Israeli-based freelancers through a Fiverr gig to hold up a sign saying, ‘Death to All Jews.’ This news became viral and was met with widespread scrutiny and criticisms, both from traditional media and online spaces. Similar to Disguised Toast, PewDiePie defended himself by saying that the clip was taken out of context, which was to illustrate the ‘absurdity’ of the Fiverr platform. He adds that he acknowledges that his joke went too far, and there are better ways jokes can be delivered, but he also calls out the media for attacking him and portraying him as a ‘Nazi.’
Lastly, we have the case of Shane Dawson on the extreme end. Unlike the previous cases mentioned, the allegations made toward Shane Dawson are heavier and carry more legal implications. The claims range from his connection to the ‘James Charles v.s. Tati Westbrook’ controversy, to his past treatment of under-aged fans, and his videos that featured blackface and racial stereotypes. Not to mention, these are only the ones highlighted the most in online discourse, and many more are left unmentioned. Shane Dawson has mostly addressed each of them in his video ‘Taking Accountability’ back in June of 2020. Contrary to his claim of ‘wanting to be held accountable’, he often brings up the explanation that these remarks were made for their shock-value and to draw out reactions from his audience and peers. Such an explanation implies that we, the audience, should understand his wrongdoings in this light – that they were done for entertainment and not because these were his personal beliefs.
Cancel Culture as a Red Herring
While Disguised Toast, PewDiePie, and Shane Dawson have all apologized and declared their intentions to self-educate, a common argument among them remains: cancel culture takes behavior out of context and exaggerates them to encourage mob-mentality. Although, when we inspect the surrounding context of each of their cases, we see that they were mostly for satirical and comedic effect; that they were ‘just joking’. However, this does not excuse the offense they’ve inflicted onto others. Tropp (2017) explains that “the just joking defense cuts off conversation and dialogue, something we need more of in our culture. For example, instead of being able to engage in a conversation about why joking about police brutality is offensive, the conversation is immediately cut off”. Mentioning the overall context of a satirical joke only aims to shift focus away from the fact that the joke itself makes light of an issue. No longer can we debate about why it was offensive, because we are forced to second guess the general standard we follow and the bare minimum we expect: that jokes must not make light of racism, pedophilia, or anti-Semitism (among others) because it would be tasteless, crass, and insensitive.
Some may counter this by mentioning that humor is subjective. In Disguised Toast’s case, many of his fans and colleagues had sided in his favor, arguing that entertainers cannot please everyone with their content and type of humor. This is true; humor is subjective, and different people have different tastes. However, this is exactly why the responsibility falls on the entertainer and the delivery of their punchlines, not on the audience and how they perceive them. As a public figure, they cannot expect that the content they publish for the world won’t be met with criticisms coming from different perspectives. They have to consider what their words may mean, how they will be interpreted, and carefully weigh the odds. Weaver and Morgan (2017) arrived at the same conclusion after exploring cases of ‘offensive humor’: “There may be a place and time for certain offensive humour. But if you’re unsure about just how damaging a joke could be, it may be wise to think it over one more time before delivering it”.
In addition, the aforementioned internet personalities also take the time to remind the audience that their jokes are not indicative of their personal beliefs in actuality. For example, Disguised Toast reading a racist comment as a joke does not automatically make him a racist; PewDiePie hiring people to raise a sign that says ‘Death to All Jews’ does not automatically make him an anti-Semite, and Shane Dawson’s past jokes about children does not automatically make him a pedophile. This is another tactic to sway focus from the main point of their opposing criticisms. While these declarations may be true, as one’s humor does not necessarily reflect their personal beliefs, putting focus on their ‘actual’ ideologies completely disregards the heart of the matter: that the actions they’ve done, in and of themselves, are reflective of the very same ideals that they do not support.
MacDoesIt summarizes a similar point in his video tackling Youtubers’ apology videos for their past racist remarks: “Sure, you’re not racist; I believe you’re not racist. But that does not mean that the actions that you did were not racist actions. […] People seem to be very focused on the idea of being racist that the idea of doing something racist is completely blown out of the water; to the point that when you call someone out for doing something that was racist, they go straight into defending themselves of not being a racist”.
Final Thoughts: Responsibility in Accountability
Having multiple people call out one person’s behavior at the same time should be a sign for further investigation, not for people to chalk it all up to cancel culture and mob-mentality. However, the public’s claims must also not go unchecked. While they do call attention to public figures’ off-handed actions or alarm others of the disturbing behaviors they exhibit, they must also bear the burden of giving sufficient evidence. The rule of thumb must be that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This is why such claims should be free to be questioned and probed by the other party as well. Although, if a counter-argument relies solely on the notion that they had different intentions at the time, then they are not actually addressing the entirety of the critique. They are, instead, digressing the conversation from what they did to what they intended to do. Once the framework of the discussion has changed, they can then easily blame ‘cancel culture’ for disregarding this factor, failing to realize that the intent behind an action surely matters, but the consequences resulting from an action do not depend on the intent alone.
In the same way that you do not punish someone based on their intent, having good intentions does not make one exempt from punishment if their actions are ultimately harmful and have only contributed further to prejudices.