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Cancel Culture: A Powerful New Phenomenon in Global Politics

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J.K. Rowling is cancelled. 
TikTok is cancelled. 
President Trump is cancelled. 
The Government of Hong Kong is cancelled.
Iran is cancelled. 

Jeering crowds of critics, colleagues, trolls, students, activists, and strangers roar across the village square of the Internet. Gone are the days when we would have said the public held President Trump ‘to account’. No longer can we call the backlash against a celebrated author ‘tabloid controversy’. Digital applications, governments, and countries are now responsible in the court of global public opinion. Have they been ostracized, shamed, and singled out? Definitely. But cancelled? That is a new label with unclear ramifications and implications. If we had naively thought that the term was limited to targeting celebrities, we are finding out that anyone, online or offline, can now be cancelled. 

Poised to be one of the agents curtailing free speech, critical research, and social injustice, cancel culture has pervaded many a stratum of society. Believed to have followed on the complacency-shattering heels of the ‘Me Too’ movement, cancel culture has firmly established itself in the larger public lexicon. It has given voice and power to the disenfranchised, the wronged, and those social media warriors who might finally have the chance to change the world through the comfort of their own homes. It is a social phenomenon in which popular support for an individual, group, company, or cultural and/or material product is removed due to moral justifications. It has its humble roots in the age-old tradition of public shaming.

But cancel culture is facing a definitional crisis. The meaning might be understood, but the discrimination in its usage, impact, and aftermath is unclear. Unlike its humble predecessor, the traditional run of the mill public shaming by an angry mob, cancel culture is mainly driven by digital movements with the public at the helm. Cancellers (herein referring to those who propagate online social chatter to cancel) who are discontent with the old models of hierarchies and institutions can circumvent them to enforce punitive measures and conformity. While the rich and powerful have famously been subjected to online public shaming and ostracism, cancel culture’s ‘Reign of Terror’ does not discriminate as to who should and should not face beheading by the online guillotine. 

The Twitter storm has called out public officials, religious leaders and celebrities alike, not only in the United States, but even in countries like the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. However, the rich and powerful can weather the storm. Officials are transferred, superficial apologies are tweeted, and celebrities may lose endorsements at best. But regular people are subjected to a supercharged online trial and sentencing that calls for immediate ‘justice’ as part of a larger punitive catharsis. When ideological norms counter to their ‘odious views’ are enforced, regular folks stand to lose more than just Twitter followers.

Cancel culture’s core concern has been accountability; however, it does not operate within a binary framework of left vs. right. It is a feature of modern life and a political tool, but it is inherently an ideologically-neutral process that can be operated by any group. If judging a person one moment at a time, without understanding the whole picture, their background, their context, exposure and growth isn’t the ultimate goal, then what is? Accountability? Awareness? Sensitization? Ending harmful behavior? On that account, it is arguably succeeding. But if cancellers do not provide space for readjustment, reintegration, and improvement, then cancel culture will ultimately fail at making a better society. And people are not the only target of cancel culture’s McCarthy-esque witchhunts. Governments and corporations can also be targeted. This is where the weaponization of the digitally-mediated public sphere becomes a matter of incentivizing outrage. 

Multinational companies are no longer the same corporate behemoths who never buckled under public outlash. Once they come under the threat of cancellation, corporations yield to online activist pressure as a capitalist imperative. The larger online discourse shifts, and so do economic incentives. Fearing repercussions, they submit to low cost, high noise signals as a replacement for authentic reforms. If they cannot think ahead of the curveball, they enact swift solutions, however unprincipled.

From a global viewpoint, cancel culture may seem irrelevant to the larger ball game of international relations, but its specter still looms in the background under the shroud of ostracism, sanctions, and selective exclusion. Despite being a function of a state’s foreign policy framework, sanctions are linked to ostracizing attributes, for symbolic and practical distance-taking implies a blend of exclusion, disapprobation, and punitive action. The ostracizing power of sanctions, whether induced by the demand of its citizens or introduced as a strategic maneuver, establish the target as a pariah in the global system. This ‘othering’ ranges from isolating economic embargoes, suspension of membership, diplomatic demarches and litigation to freezing individual, corporate or government assets and enforcing travel restrictions. This combination of ostracizing, shaming, suggestive disapproval, and actionable qualities outside of traditional institutional frameworks, supported by a large online outcry, is the modern equivalent to ‘cancelling a state’ – much like the United States cancelled Iran (and may as yet try to cancel China). Iran was cancelled diplomatically, economically and socially by the U.S. and its allies along all lines of engagement.

Afghanistan is another case of ostracism where the public and the government of numerous countries maintain the same view: the current Taliban-led government stands cancelled. The Afghan government is again being subjected to global ostracism, with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) halting aid while the U.S. has frozen Afghan assets. Meanwhile Western social media choruses call for the digital exclusion of the Taliban from all platforms where they hold any presence.

Yet another example is Hong Kong, where the specific usage of social media and digital spaces became a political statement of the Umbrella protestors. Swathes of businesses in from global giants like Nike to small local outlets found themselves making the political Sophie’s choice of whom to publicly support – a decision that could either spur popularity or incite a cancellation call.

India is no stranger to public censorship, the most prominent example being the Indian government’s decision to ban TikTok, a popular Chinese video-creating and social networking app, alongside fifty other Chinese apps including Baidu and Wechat. The government’s censors began rounding out cancellations immediately in response to the clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the Himalayan border. Weaponizing the very tool that the larger public used to uphold accountability, the Government of India cancelled TikTok as part of a ‘smarter’ tactic to fight back without shooting. Riding the precedent of cancel culture, unconventional targets such as corporate networks, corporations and citizens became the center of attention for population-centric strategies to offset the real danger of direct confrontation. India held the ball in its corner as an estimated 200 million people in India used TikTok, the largest market outside of China. 

Cancel culture is a new phenomenon of global politics that has supplanted traditional ostracism practices with a media-heavy digital culture, one that is indifferent to social context and is exploitable by individuals, governments, and corporations. Principled decision-making and leadership are perhaps the only literal palisades against the overreaching battalions of Twitter users. The point to take care of is that reasoned wails across digital spaces do not fall by the wayside and become tools for exploitation and political usage.

We are creating a world in where the smartest way to survive is to be bland”- Jay Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.