‘Cancel culture’ pairs toxicity with confronting the past

Connor Wielgos, Opinion Editor

The past has always been viewed as a realm of imperfection. It has been up to interpretation, but unable to be changed. As of recently, however, the tone surrounding actions of the past has changed. The 2010’s have been marked with the regurgitation of mistakes from previous decades and the desire to remove them from our collective consciousness.

This mostly comes in the form of targeting specific celebrities, politicians and moguls who are accused of past wrong-doing in a process dubbed “cancel culture.” Actions are usually not illegal, but morally shameful, like wearing racially offensive make-up. While not being able to be charged in a legal court, figures usually lose in the court of public opinion immediately after an accusation, and are publically shamed and banished from jobs on account of peer pressure.

“[There are] different ways that people have responded to those scandals,” social science teacher Zach Crandall said. “Some have chosen to take responsibility, acknowledge their actions were wrong and promise to make amends in the future.”

On the surface, banishing people from public life due to their missteps seems like a noble task. In some cases it is, especially with illegal behavior like sexual assault and continued patterns of vile action. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, for example, have brought much needed attention to illegal acts. Some actions are unforgivable, and it’s important for dialogue to stem from the mistakes of our past.

Situations that are merely a poor judgment of character and not a legal violation can be held to different standards. When isolated, legal, yet immoral actions from decades ago are unearthed, the perpetrator may have visibly changed for the better. Yet, some have exploited the cultural gains that have been made by the #MeToo movement for their own personal benefit.

For example, pundits who disagreed with liberal director James Gunn and Democratic Senator Al Franken used old tweets and photos to attempt to get them removed from their jobs. They succeeded, and each were removed relatively quickly after publicization from conservative pundits like Mike Cernovich and Bill O’Reilly. Gunn was later rehired by Walt Disney Pictures and Franken now has a contract signed with SiriusXM.

“[It] seems that we approach judgment or idolization of celebrities in varying ways depending on the lens we’re looking through,” English teacher Cori White said. “[They] highlight our inconsistencies in our judgment of ‘bad behavior’ depending on our values, norms, beliefs.”

A similar occurrence happened when a 2001 photo of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface leaked shortly before the country’s 2019 election. Some called for his resignation. Many did the same when a similar incident happened to a Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. However, both had advocated for minority rights in the decades since and voiced regret for the actions. 

“It seems like, generally, the people that supported them before are likely to support them after,” Crandall said. “It doesn’t seem to have changed things too much.”

Neither figure resigned and no real change was instituted in either instance, other than differentiations in polling. Ultimately, when both sides are unflinching, the incident looks less like an attempt at righting wrongs and more like a socially or politically motivated character assassination.

“It’s a scandal for a week or two, but eventually the media has a pretty short attention span, and consequently so do the people.” Crandall said. “If it’s not being covered then it’s not something of interest to most people.”

The revelations that are aimed to discredit people are, on the surface, a morally just endeavor. However, bringing up the past mistakes of the few doesn’t help the real issue at all. Rather than acknowledging the past mistakes made by society as a whole, like institutionalized methods of discrimination and the widespread acceptance of hateful rhetoric, we attempt to tie it to a singular person in attempts that it will automatically right a wrong. If we worked towards exposing and disqualifying everyone based on actions they regret, very few people could stand flawlessly, and the neglect for broader issues continues.

“So, as always, the ways in which we indict or idolize celebrity behavior really says more about us as a culture than an individual celebrity,” White said.

It’s worthwhile for the public to visualize and see mistakes of our past. We can learn from our country’s mistakes as it comes to slavery, discrimination or internment camps, and the same idea should apply to learning from the mistakes of celebrities and politicians. However, that doesn’t mean we should necessarily isolate the people guilty of mistakes each time. Rather, it’s more valuable to learn from them.

“I think these mistakes should be brought to light, because you shouldn’t have to hide your mistakes,” sophomore Bruno Ibriham-Betts said. “Especially if that person is a public figure, who is a model to other people. We all make mistakes, the important thing is to learn from them.”

Intolerance has been the sum of far more than the people pressured to step down for their past actions. We should collectively look at what mistakes we have all contributed to in the past, and work to amend rather than deplatform a single person.

People, like society, changes over the course of years. There are times when we shouldn’t be summarized by the sum of our mistakes, but rather how we respond to them. Apologies can be genuine, regret can be real and statements of condemnation acknowledging past mistakes can be valid.

The past is filled with mistakes, and the present currently places judgment at a higher priority than sympathy. There are better ways to educate people about the norms in a constantly changing world, and it can’t come from a culture that is devoid of forgiveness. To become able to handle conflicts, a level of understanding should be exercised on the past events of those who find themselves in the present.

“I think cancel culture might have had a purpose at one point to stop legitimately bad people, but I think now it has gone way too far,” Ibrahim-Betts said. “It seems like too many people think it’s just a tool you can use against a person for any minor infraction against social norms. With everything being on the internet, who knows, what today seems inoffensive could be seen as extremely offensive in the future.”