How does cancel culture work and who gets to come back from the dead?

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Online, you either die a hero or live long enough see yourself become the villain. The latter especially, is the legacy of many young, glamorous Instagram love-children. Wild and free, living your best life doesn’t run well when the Internet doesn’t approve. Being ‘cancelled’ is the equivalent of everybody who’s a somebody taking a collective look at you and saying "nah". Still alive but barely breathing through sponsored posts, the internet’s rage is merciless; and when old tweets are dug up - things get messy very quickly, irrespective of how many followers a person has. As consumers of culture, in an over-branded urban scene, we pride ourselves on careful selection, choosing who and what we listen to. The presence of Twitter and Instagram, as well as an array of music streaming sites, have made us all mini-tastemakers, illustrated by the rise of playlist sharing, bedroom production and DIY collectives. Cancellation is essentially the epitome of such consumer choice, as we consciously decide to no longer support an artist or platform we deem morally questionable.

The cycle of exposure, spectacle and theatre that follows from old comments being dug up often spins out of control; employers are contacted, often followed by job suspensions. Maya Jama’s exposure for colourist and ableist comments in her youth resulted in her being reported to the BBC, whilst Stormzy, came under similar fire for homophobic comments made years ago. Popular host Poet has also been pulled up for past hurtful comments directed towards black women. The list goes on. It goes without saying that sincere apologies followed each episode, along with public statements (Jama’s initial apology, haphazardly typed on the Apple Notes app, even brought her under twice as much fire). As individuals who have undoubtedly matured from childhood, all those mentioned above have most likely changed. 


However, we must also acknowledge that the subsequent regret and sorrow expressed by perpetrators does not always undo the harm caused by their words or actions. No one can dictate what another’s genuine change resembles, so when someone claims to have done the necessary maturing to make them a better person, the benefit of the doubt is always given as a standard, albeit a cautious one. However, there is a humility that should come with the acceptance that although one’s past actions may no longer represent their present self, the past hurt caused is still legitimate and requires restitution that will be uncomfortable. Sorry doesn’t always fix things, as sincere as it often is.


Rather than reacting to being called out, or blanket apologies, sincere introspection is required. The most recent example of this was displayed by Dan Harmon, the Rick and Morty showrunner who admitted sexual misconduct towards another colleague, before going public with an apology. This apology did not seek to absolve himself of guilt, but rather vindicate his victim by acknowledging the full severity of his own actions. Her later forgiveness of him, followed by the admission that it lifted a weight off her shoulders, shows exactly what an apology can and cannot do. It cannot always promise forgiveness, but vindication can be attempted for the victim’s sake.

The dismantling of the pedestal that cultural icons sit on is key to removing the disappointment we feel when one falls. By expecting better behaviour from figures we view as greater than us, we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment. Yet, having standards isn’t exactly wrong either. Most of us aspire to be some version of morally decent for that very reason. There are enough ‘-isms’ at play in the wider world around us that are amplified in the music industry – colourism, sexism and homophobia being some of the rifest. With each buried tweet that resurfaces, someone is forced to relive those uncomfortable and traumatising childhood experiences that previously othered them from perceived as social normality. Cancellation will always be a tricky topic because it brings out the human inconsistencies we all possess and amplifies them through the lens of popular culture and hype. While the principle of it is intact, the actual follow through is often lacking. That applies to me, you and all of us - we need to acknowledge that we are all the good AND bad people that we critique and demand better from.