Opinion

What Is Cancel Culture? 

Sometimes, cancel culture is difficult to tell apart from mob mentality.
ILLUSTRATOR Bacs Arcebal
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The Twitterverse was set ablaze on September 8 when the hashtags #CancelKorea and #ApologizeToFilipinos became a trending topic on the social media site. It all started when Koreans called out Fil-Am influencer Bella Poarch for sporting a controversial tattoo.

#CancelKorea is a fine example of cancel culture, a term that has taken hold in recent years. But what exactly is cancel culture? 

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What is the meaning of Cancel Culture? 

Today, almost anyone who occupies space in the public consciousness can be canceled, or for more emphasis, canceldt.

The word “cancel” now means more than just not to conduct or perform something, like canceling your order. “Cancel” has taken a more pernicious meaning: to bring to nothingness, to destroy. In many cases, canceling involves boycotting and online shaming someone or something in order to punish them. 

Canceling celebrities, politicians, or in the case of #CancelKorea—an entire culture—means withdrawing support for the canceled person or country, in the hope they would suffer. 

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The Roots of Cancel Culture

In 2016, the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsCanceled trended on Twitter after Kim Kardashian shared clips revealing that despite Swift’s claim that Kanye West did not warn her about his provocative lyrics, he actually did ask her permission and Swift thanked him. 

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It was the first popular use of “cancel” on Twitter, which Swift labeled as unfair because she was “falsely painted as a liar.”

But cancel culture’s biggest spark—the catalyst that would propel the whole movement—would occur a year later in 2017 when  #MeToo became a global phenomenon. People called out public figures and demanded accountability for their alleged misdeeds and crimes, which mostly involved rape and sexual harassment in the workplace.

It was mainly African-Americans who pushed #Cancel to the top of Twitter’s trending topics, along with the hashtag #MeToo: #CancelBillCosby, #CancelHarveyWeinstein, #CancelKevinSpacey, #CancelMarioBatali, and a slew of other canceldt celebrities and public figures. 

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From 2017 to 2018, cancel culture was so powerful it toppled over 200 influential men from showbiz, politics, media, and the press. They lost their jobs or significant roles, professional ties or projects, according to the New York Times. Fifty percent of them were replaced by women. 

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Cancel Culture Today

Cancel culture was born out of the public’s outcry for social justice. It decried the rape of women and sexual harassment in the workplace. Together with #MeToo, cancel culture became the backlash that had been brewing for decades.

But these days, cancel culture has taken a character far different from the one it had in 2017. Now, it is more associated with an attack on someone or something rather than a reaction to something. 

You don’t even need a hashtag to cancel anything these days. Apart from #CancelKorea, Filipinos canceled Barkada Wine Bar and Restaurant in Washington D.C., accusing it of cultural appropriation just because it used the word barkada. After being flooded with criticisms, Barkada’s owners decided to change the wine bar’s name. 

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Cancel culture has become a toxic mess sometimes confused with being “woke.” Businesses, afraid to lose their reputation just because of a slight mishap, would cave in to the demands of an online army it cannot fight. Individuals risk losing employment when a post shaming them for something becomes viral. 

Cancel culture is less about free speech and more about trial by publicity. In many cases, it is difficult to tell it apart from mob mentality. 

Canceling anyone these days is as easy as riling people up by making an impassioned post on Facebook about how you were oppressed: “This Toyota Fortuner and its plate number deserves to go viral because the person who parked it is an asshole.” People tend to believe it and follow suit. 

At first look, the Fortuner takes up more space, but have people ever considered it was forced to park like that because another car (that already left) was also parked wrongly? 

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Cancel culture has always existed, but the Internet has lubricated the manner of how it happens, extended the reach of our cancelation, and magnified the effects of that cancelation. As #MeToo has proven, this is a double-edged sword we must learn to live with.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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