Commentary

“Influencers” and Cancel Culture: What Does Cancel Culture Actually Mean?

The term originated in 2017, and has slowly but surely picked up negative connotations. While some have been quick to call for the cancelling of cancel culture, whose definition of cancel culture are they exactly referring to?

By Janelle Wong

On the 15th of August, the Internet was awash with allegations that well-known host and YouTuber, Dee Kosh, had sexually harassed minors. Although investigations are still underway, when allegations arise that someone like Dee Kosh, in a clear position of power and influence, has been abusing their status to wrongfully approach minors, it becomes an issue that generates much concern in the general public.

This article, however, is not about the problematic nature of approaching minors. Much has already been written about that. This article is focusing on another issue that has been growing over the last few months – cancel culture. The Dee Kosh situation is one of many incidents playing out online these past few months, sparking a growing debate in Singapore about cancel culture.

The 32-year-old DJ and YouTuber. 

What are we cancelling today?

So, what is cancel culture?

The phrase ‘cancel culture’ came to light in 2017, after the idea of cancelling celebrities or popular figures for problematic actions or statements took flight, despite the notion of calling someone out for their actions being around for a long time. It is a term that has gained a negative connotation, and a quick Google search would tell you the same, with a myriad of opinion pieces saying that it’s toxic behaviour that suppresses people’s right to freedom of expression. 

But, this isn’t what this term actually means. 

In recent years, ‘cancel culture’ has been turned into a catch-all for when people in power receive criticism or face consequences for something they did. This often victimises the perpetrator and shifts the focus of the problem away from helping serve justice for the victims. 

Take a look – the screenshot below is just one of many. 

Screenshot of how ‘cancel culture’ turns attention away from the perpetrator.

By pushing focus to the victim to justify themselves while calling people to listen to both sides, it unfairly pushes the burden to the victim, who in most cases, already suffers from speaking out against the injustice in the first place. 

More importantly, the goal using the term ‘cancel culture’ is to position those in favour of the status quo as the dissenters, making it seem like they are innocent victims defending themselves against a mob of people jumping on the bandwagon to mindlessly throw insults at them. 

Culture VS Consequences

Let’s break it down with another example closer to home. 

By now, we all are familiar with what happened to Singapore’s favourite pink-haired influencer. For the uninformed, racist social media posts from this influencer’s past emerged, leading to, in her own words, “an online woke mob trying to silence [her].”

So, what did her response to the backlash against her own past actions show?

Firstly, actions involved with ‘cancel culture’ are not new. Public callouts, boycotts, protests among other forms of mobilisation are actions that have been taken before, and people are entitled to them. In her case, people were pointing out her own racism in response to a post she wrote, and then proceeded to write in to companies to dissolve partnerships with someone who has been unapologetically racist.

These are the very same actions that people take when demanding for better. It is the same organising that people do when calling for an end to human rights abuses or when demanding for justice in cases of sexual assault. 

Next, if cancel culture is as monstrous as these she has made it out to be, it is telling that other prominent figures who have been ‘cancelled’ in the past have suffered little to no consequences. Ex-United States senator Al Franken was ‘cancelled’ for sexual harassment. However, after his resignation, he was offered a radio show which he still currently hosts. And J.K Rowling, who came under fire for many of her transphobic posts, is still a millionaire with access to continue writing and be published.

And this influencer is still going about life and uploading content on her social media platforms as per normal. 

Okay, now what?

Of course, there will be situations where there is no clear answer or judgement to be made of what is right and what is wrong. And each of us have to learn to engage in these difficult discussions and make our own informed decisions on what we want to participate in and what we don’t.

But what we have to do is to start asking the hard questions. Is ‘cancel culture’ truly just an online phenomenon driven by mobs of people blindly hating on those they dislike? Or is it because people are more vocal about their beliefs and want to hold people accountable for their actions? 

I, for one, believe the latter. ‘Cancel culture’ not only holds those in power accountable for their actions, it also brings the voices of minorities to the forefront – people and communities who’ve been left out of the conversation for far too long. 

The bottom line is this:

Cancel culture’ as a term has moved away from what it is supposed to mean: holding perpetrators accountable by deplatforming or boycotting them. It has become a defence for the powerful when they get criticised and ignores discussion of the harm done and how those who did it should be held accountable. 

In the future, instead of focusing on cancelling ‘cancel culture’, the conversation should always be focused on the intention behind the ‘cancelling’ and how justice should be enacted. 

As journalist Kirsten Han said, “People can mobilise and organise for all sorts of reasons; not all protests are just, and not all boycotts are bullying.”


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