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What is Cancel Culture? Seeking Accountability or Outright Shaming?

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On Feb. 9, Toni Gonzaga took to Instagram to deliver a shocking news: She’ll step down as the main host of Pinoy Big Brother after nearly 17 years. For those who are alien to the frenzied world of social media, it seemed like that the news is innocent. But for the tech-savvies, Gonzaga’s departure came as a non-shocker.

The night before, Gonzaga hosted former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s grand rally at the Philippine Arena in Bulacan. No one was surprised by her fervent support to Marcos’s candidacy – she supported his vice-presidential candidacy in 2016.

But the circumstances were now different.

Her home network, ABS-CBN, has been closed for nearly two years. And one of the lead proponents to deny its franchise application is Rep. Rodante Marcoleta, now running under the senatorial slate of Marcos. Gonzaga, with high spirits, introduced Marcoleta as if the congressman had nothing to do with the ordeal of her network, which she was loyal to in the post-shutdown era. That fumed her colleagues who described this stint as a betrayal.

So, to save herself from the chagrin of her colleagues, she departed the show – and the network – that made her a household name.

But a debate ensued shortly after: Did Gonzaga deserve the condemnation, or was she a victim of cancel culture?

What is cancel culture?

For the tech-savvies and the oldies-but-goodies, cancel culture is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling…as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”

The roots of cancel culture can be traced to a 1991 film entitled “New Jack City,” in which the gangster dumped her girlfriend and told her, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.” Another is Lil Wayne’s “I’m Single,” in which he referenced the film in the lyrics, “Yeah, I’m single / n***a had to cancel that bitch like Nino.”

Since then, when social media exploded in popularity, cancel culture evolved from an obscure term to a ravaging phenomenon that is simply tantamount to public shaming.

Such occurrence is noticeable on netizens confronted with different opinions, especially now that the election season is kicking off, where groupthink has emerged over individuality, and hypersensitivity prevailed over acceptance of opinions and civilized discourse.

But, as always, there are two sides to the coin. There is a reason why cancel culture continues to thrive despite the ill-effects most people perceive about it: justice.

Does cancel culture seek accountability?

“Many hide behind screens to say hurtful things with no oversight or consequences. They will think twice before saying hurtful comments if accountability is in place.”

This was the explanation of an American in his 40s to Pew Research Center why cancel culture is a form of accountability. More who lean liberal or moderate have viewed this phenomenon positively because it holds all users’ comments to an account, forcing them to justify their views in an acceptable manner.

“People that make racial slurs or jokes are setting an example that these stereotypes are acceptable, true or funny. This should be pointed out as nothing of the sort,” an American in his 70s told Pew Research Center.

Another man in his 70s said: “Notoriety and embarrassment are useful tools.”

A Gen Z, meanwhile, justifies cancel culture as a matter of speaking out on views deemed dangerous to society: “Views expressed online are just as damaging if not more damaging than views expressed in person. People who promote and validate views that hurt other people should have to deal with the consequences of their actions.”

Academic research has found that cancel culture functions as the online universe’s justice system. A Master’s thesis by Samantha Haskell of Boise State University, entitled “Cancel Culture: A Qualitative Analysis of the Social Media Practice of Canceling,” noted that since cancellees are not tried in the court of law, they are being tried instead in the court of public opinion. And this is the punishment being administered.

“The process of canceling functions as a trial, starting with discussing the crime, then providing evidence, leading to determining a verdict, and imposing consequences. The difference is that instead of the court system being involved, this alternative form of seeking justice is administrated by the masses on Twitter,” she concluded.

“Cancelers believe that just because someone isn’t charged as guilty in the court of law does not mean that they are innocent nor should they not face consequences for their crime,” she added.

Or is it a form of public shaming?

But for all of the supposed noble intentions of cancel culture, the fact remains that this has lasting consequences to the canceled user.

“Cancel culture has lasting consequences for afflicted individuals caused by initial defamatory exposure that include being fired, public shaming, public sharing of personal information that often leads to ostracization,” Hervé Saint-Louis wrote in his study “Understanding cancel culture: Normative and unequal sanctioning.”

Cancel culture lies on the foundation of online shaming, which, according to literature culled by Saint-Louis, is a “social control” that includes punishments like “vigilantism, bullying, bigotry, and gossiping” against “individuals involved in both legal/criminal activities as well as others shamed in response to benign norm breaking.”

The liberal satirist Bill Maher, a fierce advocate of democratic policies, has, for the past half-decade, been scolding his fellows who have been engaged in cancel culture, saying it still exists because no one would stand up against it.

“Is this really who we want to become? A society of phony clenched asshole avatars, walking on eggshells always looking over your shoulder about getting ratted out for something that actually has nothing to do with your character or morals. Think about everything you’ve ever texted, emailed, searched for, tweeted, blogged or said in passing, or now even just witnessed. Someone had a confederate flag in their dorm room in 1990 – and you didn’t do anything,” he said.

“Andy Warhol was wrong…in the future. Everyone will not experience 15 minutes of fame, but 15 minutes of shame,” he added.

While local celebrities like Angelina Cruz, daughter of Sunshine Cruz and Cesar Montano, believe that cancel culture impedes a person’s opportunity to be educated.

“Canceling people feel like there’s no room for educating them and there’s no room for them to grow and to learn from their past mistakes,” she said. “So I feel like it’s very unhealthy and I feel like the healthy way is to maybe educate them, to gently educate them and do respectfully correct them without completely canceling them because that doesn’t give them any room for them to grow.”

In Philippine culture, cancel culture can be thought of as an online version of “kuyog.” It is the swarming of netizens against the object or person being cancelled online.

It is also a form of viva voce against the person perceived to be violating the implicit and explicit rules of certain groups or social classes particularly among the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie in the internet.

From a political perspective, cancel culture is part and parcel of what Slavoj Zizek, a cultural philosopher, called as liberal political correctness. For Zizek, cancel culture is a symptom of the deep-seated intolerance or dark underside of liberal capitalist culture which espouses the virtues of freedom and tolerance on surface level yet is sustained by violence, intolerance and a slew of implicit or coded prohibitions at its ideological core.

In legal terms, cancel culture is a summary way of silencing or deplatforming an individual in the internet without the benefit of due process or restorative feedback communication between the “crowd” that aims to cancel and the individual being cancelled. It is similar to summary extrajudicial killing but performed by internet gatekeepers or anonymous vigilantes.

Indeed, we have seen multiple cases of personalities or celebrities who were summarily “cancelled” without even hearing their side of the story. Perhaps, the famous of which is Juan Miguel Severo who was cancelled for alleged sexual harassment towards another celebrity.

Severo was deplatformed and summarily dismissed by his former peers, connections, fans or supporters. Not even a trace of his former internet persona is left today. In short, his online persona is practically dead. There is no information on whether a formal criminal charge was filed against Severo.

Another danger of cancel culture is on how it enables ”group think” in the internet. Netizens who are afraid to be cancelled will most likely participate in a ”cancelling party” as a way to protect themselves and strengthen their group identification within the cancelling crowd. This behavior severely hinders critical thinking.

Can we embrace different political opinions?

With the 2022 election season heating up, will netizens respect differing political opinions?

If it’s grounded on fake news, that would be a big, big no. But even just telling people whom you will vote for is a gut-wrenching moment especially with the presence of trolls and propagandists. Yesterday, you may be widely respected. But today, you are a ‘cancelled’ netizen waiting for harsher judgment from an unforgiving internet electorate.

Will the divisions and political bickering come to a halt? Not until the election is over. Or not even in the near future.

And because of that, no matter how controversial cancel culture is, it is likely to stay.

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