On this episode of Youth for Youth, host Thivya Jeyapalan explores her Teen Walrus article, “Cancel Culture and the Pressures of Being a Teen Online” and speaks to expert Dr. Meredith Clark, an associate professor at Northeastern University who studies the intersectionality of race, media, and power.
Four months ago, if you googled Alec Mazurek’s name, the results would have shown a different picture of the twenty-three-year-old’s life. At the time, he was completing an honours specialization in political science at Western University and was representing the Ontario Liberal Party as candidate for the Chatham-Kent– Leamington riding.
But, after homophobic comments he wrote on Facebook when he was fifteen resurfaced in May, more recent results show a series of articles about how he was subsequently dropped by the Liberals over his posts.
“To put it into context, I was just starting high school,” Mazurek later wrote in a statement. “This is not an excuse to minimize the reason that this is an issue, but I would also like to make clear that we’re holding a child to the same standards as the adult writing this statement today.”
If you look back through your own social media archive, the odds that you will find cringeworthy content written by your younger self seem high. So how is it that eight-year-old Facebook comments made by someone who was a teenager at the time had the power to unravel his career and reputation overnight—all without granting him an opportunity to right his wrong?
Welcome to “cancel culture,” where anything you say or do has the potential to attract a mob of critics quick to scrutinize your every action—often without context or allowing you a chance to offer an explanation. Over the past decade, the discourse around being “cancelled” has focused on celebrities. Big names like J.K. Rowling, James Charles, Ellen DeGeneres, and, more recently, Will Smith, have all been decried by the public for their controversial posts, actions, or words, but the effects of the criticism they faced were rarely long lasting. When it comes to ordinary people, however, the impact can be devastating.
For my generation, which has grown up with social media, it’s hardly unusual to have a large digital footprint. With just a few clicks, almost anyone can access a person’s entire history of thoughts and photos. It has become the new normal to see harsh comments on Instagram and other social media platforms that call people out for saying the wrong thing and threaten them with being “cancelled.” Knowing that anything I post online can be called out, or resurface at any time, has made me re-evaluate not only how I use the internet but also what true advocacy should look like.
To flag wrongdoing and demand accountability from those who spread hatred is always the right way to move forward in society, but ostracizing someone through such a cancel culture takes things a step too far. This toxic approach, which has only been accentuated by the prevalence of social media, often mistakes problem solving for online brutalizing, instead resulting in missed opportunities for learning and a productive discourse. So, is it time to finally cancel “cancel culture”?
While cancel culture started to appear in headlines only over the past few years, its premise dates back much further.
In Athens, around the fifth century BCE, the practice of “cancelling” took the form of exile, according to an article on History channel’s website. Instead of likes and hashtags, the basis of a decision to ostracize somebody was political differences, their dishonesty, or even a general dislike toward them. If an assembly of male citizens decided to ostracize someone, fellow citizens could vote for the person to be banished by etching their name on shards of pottery. The person who had the most votes (though, a minimum of 6,000 were required) was forced to pack their belongings and leave the city for ten years or face execution.
Today’s iteration of cancel culture is less extreme, but it still has the potential to upend someone’s life. A by-product of social media, the trend has also become a lot more prominent due, in part, to the ease of posting online. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey that asked Americans about cancel culture, the verdict on whether it’s a good or a bad thing seems to be split. Of the people surveyed, 58 percent said they thought calling people out on social media was a form of accountability, while 38 percent said it was more likely to punish those who don’t deserve it.
Meredith Clark, an associate professor at Northeastern University who studies the intersections of race, media, and power, sees the term “cancel culture” as a media fabrication that’s more about spectacle than accountability. The result, she says, is a threat to our ability to think critically.
Take the case of Adam Smith, an Arizonian father of four and former chief financial officer of Vante, a medical-device manufacturing company. Ten years ago, in the summer of 2012, he uploaded a video of himself ordering free water at a Chick-fil-A drive-through to YouTube. In it, he can be seen voicing his disapproval of the company’s stance against same-sex marriage. The video went viral almost overnight, racking up thousands of views and hundreds of comments that were critical of how he had spoken to the drive-through employee. Smith went from having a successful life, with a $200,000 (US) annual salary, to living on food stamps, according to ABC News.
When Smith was interviewed by CBS News about the video years later, in August 2020, he said that he struggled to find work for two years and was, on more than one occasion, fired after it surfaced in the workplace. “I looked at my life insurance policy. . . . It had no exclusions for suicide, and I started contemplating that for a few weeks. Then, even started to have exactly where and how I was going to do it, to try to make it look like an accident. Try to make it look like an accident so my children wouldn’t have that shame, but at least they’d have the money back and take me—the failure, the mistake—out of the equation,” he said.
Taking his anger out on a Chick-fil-A employee may not have been the most sensible thing for him to do, but was the destruction of his life really the best punishment?
Various studies have found that public shaming can have a detrimental impact on a person’s mental health, leading to anxiety, extreme guilt, and loneliness. There are consequences for the mental health of bystanders too, who, afraid of being “cancelled” themselves, might choose to avoid conflict and remain silent in uncomfortable situations—even when they believe what the victim is facing is harsh or unreasonable. This is especially true among youths. In a 2018 study, published in the journal Nature Communications, about how media affects the adolescent brain, researchers found teens may be especially sensitive when it comes to acceptance and rejection on social media, since the regions of the brain responsible for socialization are still developing.
“I constantly encounter students who are so fearful of being subjected to the Twitter mob that they are engaging in self-censorship,” Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an online panel discussion in 2021.
The result is missed opportunities for conversations on issues surrounding things like class, race, and sexuality. I myself have been hesitant to ask questions about “grey area” topics online, not knowing whether my lack of knowledge might offend someone. It feels like cancel culture manifests itself in the form of pressure not to make mistakes at all because you may not be given a second chance. Instead, people choose to like or share the post that calls someone out or even add on to the accumulation of hurtful comments to gain some validation.
At its core, cancel culture was supposed to be about demanding accountability, which is why Clark prefers the term “digital accountability practice” and encourages other ways of getting it. Instead of lashing out in cruel mobs, opening up a dialogue between those who have made mistakes and those seeking accountability creates learning opportunities where productive solutions can arise.
Many young people agree. In a 2020 New York Times article that asked students what they think of cancel culture, one teen from Norfolk, Virginia, said, “Society is focused on acknowledging people’s faults and making them feel the torture for a mistake that was made instead of trying to work with the individual to prevent the mistake from happening again. Being ‘called in’ instead of ‘called out’ is a much more effective way to help members of our society grow and become better people in the future.”
In the years since Adam Smith was “cancelled,” he has managed to rebuild his life—and even told CBS News that he’s doing better than ever. He has since joined a company as CFO and head of human resources and is now a published author, motivational speaker, corporate-workshop facilitator, and mindfulness coach.
In 2015, he published a book called Million Dollar Cup of Water, which “shares his personal journey from rags to riches, back to rags, and eventually to true wealth.” But, for every story with a happy ending, there are many more where the protagonists, finding their lives changed for the worse, never manage to recover.
“There are much kinder, calmer, more humane ways to get people to see what their actions are and how they’re impacting others. It takes more time. It’s more deliberate. It’s much easier to just click and shame and cancel someone,” Smith told CBS during an interview in 2020. “But I think there are much, much more effective human ways to create change.”