On Cancel Culture and the #TaylorSwiftisOverParty
By Arundhati Chandrasekhar
I remember waking up in 2016 and scrolling through social media to find my timelines clogged with the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty. I remember being incredibly confused - I liked Taylor Swift! She made good music! Why would she be "over"? And I remember not getting any actual information from my Tumblr timeline, instead seeing floods of snake emojis, references to Snapchat, and mentions of Kanye West.
It took me several minutes of googling to find out that Taylor Swift had been fighting with Kim Kardashian and her husband Kanye West over some misogynistic lyrics in his new song. In this song, he had referred to her as a b*tch and commented on sleeping with her. Apparently, a phone call had leaked in which Taylor Swift appeared to have approved these lyrics - she later denied full knowledge of the content.
The result of this altercation was that everyone decided, therefore, that she was a “snake”, that she was evil, that none of her music was good, that anytime she opened her mouth she was "playing the victim" - and - here’s the kicker - that she was too “nice”.
Reading about the #TaylorSwiftisOverParty was my first exposure to the internet’s penchant for “cancelling” celebrities that they disagreed with in the slightest - the first of many such incidents. Since 2016, hundreds of celebrities, media figures, actors, and writers have been "cancelled" for statements that were perceived to be problematic. Some of those statements were in the form of blurry videos from 2006 unearthed by someone on Twitter 13 years later, leading to a media storm. Sometimes, it’s over something genuinely awful - see R Kelly’s sexual assault case - and other times, it’s over something like Justin Bieber behaving badly at a restaurant. It’s not that Justin Bieber was perfect and beyond reprehension - it’s that the Twitter storm tends to treat the two men's crimes as though they’re equally heinous.
The problem with cancel culture is that it has the potential to get completely out of hand incredibly quickly. I’m never going to forget an incident where the internet bashed a white teenager in America for wearing a Chinese prom dress, citing cultural appropriation as an excuse to send an 18-year-old girl death threats. Was the dress insensitive, naive and at worst, disrespectful? Yes. Should she have been reprimanded? Probably. Is that an excuse to threaten a teen with rape and murder? Absolutely not. Incidents such as this have the potential to severely traumatize anyone. Very few know what it’s like to have thousands of strangers on the internet slam you for something you did unknowingly, stupidly - for statements that could easily be twisted and misconstrued to mean something they're not. People do not understand the effect that words like this can have on mental health - blogs that proudly tweet hashtags in support of mental health day are so quick to turn vice-like and cruel when someone does something they disagree with.
Online activism has become something of a competition - a competition for people to see how woke they are. "If I bash a teenager in a prom dress", someone thinks, "I am more 'woke' than someone who doesn’t". If I condemn a celebrity as evil for something they said aged 13, I am more “woke” than they are. 'Wokeness' has become synonymous with being a good person, as though one cannot be good unless they make it a point to abuse others online. There's a whole different essay in the question "Does someone listening to R Kelly make them automatically a bad person?" It's a complex and layered question, and the answer is subjective. Is an otherwise kind, sweet person who volunteers at old age homes and rescues puppies automatically evil because they enjoy R Kelly? The answer isn't black and white, and people are more than entitled to their opinions on the matter. I'm not sure where I stand, in fact. Internet activism culture, however, refuses to see the shades of grey in political concepts, reducing it to a yes/no, good/bad, black/white situation.
Cancel culture can, however, have its merits - when it’s used in the right way. Celebrities are now significantly more careful about what they say both online and on camera - the number of cancel-worthy incidents has, I think, reduced since 2015. Cancel culture does serve the purpose of getting people to realize the implications of their words and actions, and at its best it can someone see the error of their cultural insensitivity. In cases where a public figure has been found to do something truly awful - and I’m talking about things like rape or sex trafficking - then yes, cancelling them online is absolutely warranted.
For smaller slights, however, education, is always going to be the better option. We tend to forget that everyone is human, and that we all make mistakes. Those on the internet condemning someone in a blaze of righteous fury have made mistakes, too, in their lifetime - the best one can hope for, as a human, is to try to improve and to learn from our mistakes to be the best we can be. When you say that someone is “cancelled”, you take away their ability to learn from their mistakes. By condemning them as irredeemable, you make it come true - they are no longer able to improve themselves, stuck with the label of “cancelled” for a very long time, if not forever.
It’s also true that cancelling a celebrity often does little to no damage to their career. If anything, it sometimes gives them more media coverage which results in improvements to their career. However, it can cause severe damage; and this damage disproportionately affects women who get “cancelled”. See Taylor Swift’s career - she’s still doing well by most standards, but she’s lost a lot of the shine and universal adoration that she held pre-2016. It's unlikely that any of her new albums will top her Grammy-winning 1989. From what I've seen, many continue to think of her only as a "snake" and refuse to listen to her music, citing her "playing the victim". The effects of cancel culture are not always felt, but they can be devastating - and what people experience on a personal, emotional level is often not discussed.
Additionally, one of my biggest problems with cancel culture is that it doesn’t only affect public figures, it can wreak devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people. While those people often do something wrong, one cannot treat the ordinary layperson as if they are Kim Kardashian, who has a massive following, a practically indestructible career and a personal PR team. Cancelling her may not damage her career, but cancelling a layperson easily destroys lives, careers and families. The consequences of these actions are never seen by the people who tweet - so they continue to do it regardless.
In conclusion, cancel culture has its merits; but it should be reserved for the cases of the extreme. The R Kellys and Jeffrey Epsteins of the world, not the teenagers in prom dresses. Much of activists' energy is wasted on fighting people online, trying to cancel celebrities over something they said in 2008, instead of collectively focusing our attention on the larger problems that together, we have the capacity to fix. So instead of tweeting about Taylor Swift and her "manipulativeness", let's focus on something that will make tangible change, instead.