In 2018, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed, published on the Washington Post, about her experience with domestic abuse, saying, “I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” This was alluding to the abuse claims she filed against her ex-husband Johnny Depp. From 2016 all the way to June of this year, Depp was effectively “canceled” in many people’s eyes. Depp was vilified, with many criticizing his casting in franchises such as Fantastic Beasts and The Pirates of the Carribean, eventually getting dropped from the latter.
As more information surfaced over time, however, it began to appear that perhaps Depp himself was the victim of abuse in the relationship. He released audio recordings of conversations between himself and Heard to corroborate his claims that she had abused him; and though the opinion on Depp has changed drastically since then, the damage had been done.
The situation Depp went through is indicative of just how much of an impact cancel culture has today. For those unaware, cancel culture refers to the practice of withdrawing or denouncing support for public figures, calling them out publicly for their actions, often through social media. It is because of this that the masses are given a voice to out anyone in the public eye, the impact this can have evident in what happened to Depp.
#JusticeForJohnnyDepp trended shortly after Depp released the recordings of conversations between him and Heard, with people expressing support for the actor and backing him. However, this will not bring back the years he spent as a canceled man. It won’t bring back the roles he had; it won’t alleviate the pain he went through. This is what can happen in a world where anyone can get canceled at the snap of a finger, without thought or care. People can get hurt, and once they do, the damage has been done—and so little can be undone.
Sometimes, the action that is taken because of cancel culture can be good, in the sense that it’s loud, fast, and unrelenting when it comes down on individuals or companies, making it difficult for anyone to wiggle their way out of the situation or to dodge the accusations. This means that for those in positions of power, such as celebrities or politicians, their power does not grant them an easy way out.
Public criticism holds people accountable regardless of their status in life, meaning that in some circumstances, a form of justice can be just a couple of tweets away. In fact, it is through cancel culture that the #MeToo movement was able to find its footing, with women who have suffered from abuse finding ways to hold their abusers accountable for their actions. In this sense, people who have been silenced and oppressed for far too long are offered a platform and a voice to fight back with.
However, a lot of the qualities that cancel culture has may also serve as reasons for why it can be harmful and toxic as well. Because of its loud, fast, and unrelenting nature, it makes it incredibly difficult for proper discourse to be had between people; any side in opposition to a perceived majority or collective voice tends to be very easily dismissed, or worse, actively retaliated against.
Even the name that the action goes by—canceling, or to be canceled—expresses a desire for those subject to cancellation to disappear and to be gone. This desire to wipe out anyone deemed worth canceling can be incredibly harmful, as it promotes the idea that those who actually do wrong should just disappear without any chance of redeeming themselves or righting their wrongs. It dictates that people are defined by a single wrong thing that they do, and that once it is done, they cannot do anything about it any longer. It is even worse for those who have not done anything wrong and find themselves the subject of cancellation, as they can be immediately condemned on a whim with little basis.
I am all for calling people out when they have done something wrong, and I do want to see justice duly served in those instances. But I do not believe cancel culture is the way to move forward with this. In fact, I believe that the way cancel culture works today ultimately does more harm than good. Taking action tends to stem from a place of impulsiveness rather than introspection, where people tend to want to publicize their say while the topic is still hot. The act of canceling also tends to come from a place of anger and outrage, rather than out of a sense of justice. Sometimes, there’s a gleeful excitement surrounding a person getting canceled, with GIFs of celebration and colorful emojis being used when discussing the topic. It seems sickening to laugh at those who are being subjected to inescapable, dogged, online attacks. There’s something rather distasteful about taking joy in the suffering of others, regardless of whether or not these people deserve it.
And with more and more people getting canceled, I feel as though the impact canceling someone has is quickly fading as well, especially when people are getting canceled for smaller and smaller transgressions. After all, it’s one thing to lead a charge against an alleged rapist or abuser, but it’s another thing to rally against someone’s old tweets and photos that may not necessarily define their current beliefs or behaviors.
I’m sure that many of the people behind the online revolution that cancel culture poses have good intentions. However, good intentions do not always make for good actions, and I think that it is important for people to be more critical and introspective regarding the actions they take and the rallies they back.
A part of making significant change and standing up for what is right is recognizing the best ways of doing so. Too often, people want to act without this recognition, which can lead to very damning consequences. As much as action needs to be taken against the evils of the world, there is always a necessity to pause, take time to listen and understand, and know when it might be best to put down the pitchforks and join the conversation. Most problems cannot be solved in an instant, no matter how convenient the idea may be.