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Culture wars: embracing debate in the age of cancel culture

November 2023
 by Alice Down

Culture wars: embracing debate in the age of cancel culture

November 2023
 By Alice Down

Fuelled by social and traditional media, cancel culture has seen no sign of decline in 2023. Numerous victims have come under fire for speaking or acting in a way that threatens the collective consciousness, resulting in damage to their reputation or career, loss of earnings, and in severe cases, mental health deterioration and trauma. While cancel culture can help ensure damaging and discriminatory behaviour and speech are not tolerated in society, some argue that the trend has gone too far. With the criteria for cancellation seemingly narrowing, and ever more individuals and companies falling prey to the phenomenon, there is arguably a risk of cancel culture creating a polarised society in which critical thinking and open debate become lost.

Cancel culture and collective consciousness

A slew of famous names have been cancelled in the past year or two, including Will Smith after that slap; Kanye West for a series of opinions which many perceived as containing anti-Semitic sentiment; Jeremy Clarkson for his anti-Meghan-Markle hate speech; Philip Schofield after it emerged he had lied about a relationship with a younger member of staff; and recently, Strictly’s Amanda Abbington for being perceived as transphobic due to the emergence of a historical tweet. While some of these famous names have bounced back more easily than others, all have been subjected to a damaging public backlash.

So what makes the public and the media react so strongly when someone in the public eye acts or speaks in a way they don’t approve of? Sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the phrase “collective consciousness” back in 1893, to define the way that people’s shared beliefs and values create an unwritten blueprint for interacting in society, uniting people and leading to social integration. This powerful shared ideology is fiercely protected and reinforced by individuals within the society – and a modern-day example can be seen in today’s phenomenon of cancel culture.

Collective consciousness provides a sense of belonging, security, strength and unity. Anything that threatens it is therefore rejected strongly – as we see in cancel culture cases in which social media furores and newspaper backlashes erupt when a famous individual or company is perceived to have broken the rules of society, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

A similar phenomenon is that of the “collective mental state”, a term used in philosophy and sociology to describe a situation where a mental state is shared across a large group. While some manifestations of a collective mental state can be enjoyable and positive – such as a united crowd of strangers enjoying a large music concert – others can be more damaging.

When the punishment doesn’t fit the crime

An aggressive collective mental state known as mob mentality occurs when anger amplifies and spreads through a group, resulting in acts of aggression by individuals in the group as they become whipped up in a frenzy of rage. It is this type of mob mentality that is often seen in cases of cancel culture, and the effects on those targeted can be severe, as we saw in the case of TV presenter Caroline Flack, who sadly ended her life in 2020 after being the subject of intense and prolonged media scrutiny and social media criticism.

A more recent case of cancel culture affected actor and Strictly Come Dancing contestant Amanda Abbington, after a historical tweet she wrote some years ago resurfaced and was interpreted as being transphobic. After heavy criticism, she left Twitter (now called X), saying the platform was infiltrated by those looking to “pit people off of each other and cause as much harm as possible.”

Abbington did her best to make amends and address the criticism against her, saying, “I made a stupid comment a few years ago. I was ill-informed. I apologised and did my research and I’m much more informed now. I’ve said stupid things, of course I have, and instantly regretted them. Everybody is learning.” But despite this willingness to apologise and learn, criticism continued, and Amanda pulled out of Strictly part-way through the series citing “personal reasons”.

How cancel culture polarises society

As well as the profound impact cancel culture has on the individuals affected, there are also implications for society. In a 2022 survey from the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos UK, 54 per cent of people said the UK population is becoming more polarised due to “culture wars”.

In an environment where alternative views are widely and strongly criticised, and people are punished by an unforgiving and vocal public judge and jury for speaking against the collective voice, it is becoming evident that this culture of vilifying individuals could be a threat to freedom of expression, learning, and open discussion. Cancel culture can drown out a diversity of voices, which is potentially damaging in a globalised, multicultural world.

Cancel culture and the effect on brands and companies

It’s not just individuals who fall victim to cancel culture – companies and brands have also frequently been affected by criticism and boycotts after online and media backlashes. Whether cancellation is aimed at a company, its board members or even its stakeholders, it can be damaging.

Today’s companies need to be aware of society’s expectations from them to avoid a faux pas that leads to their cancellation. Monitoring trends and conversations online, and researching cultural sensitivity, now form a vital part of successful business strategy.

Cancel culture has its positive side: it can protect marginalised communities by calling out old-fashioned or discriminatory views, and influence positive change in areas such as eliminating corporate greenwashing and questionable business practices. But with the darker side of cancel culture becoming increasingly apparent, perhaps it’s time to do more to avoid damage to individuals and a polarised society.

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