The Ethics of the ‘cancel culture’ Concept

Posted on: December 6th, 2019 in mindset by Pat Mesiti | No Comments

Australia’s most beloved dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, has just announced its word of the year – cancel culture. Cancel culture is the online phenomenon of boycotting public figures who say or do the wrong thing. In this blog I’ll look at the concept and the ethics of ‘cancelling’ people, who are tried by media or social media. 

The word of the year is chosen from a shortlist of new words. Let’s look at some of the other new words that have found their way into the Australian vocabulary in 2019.

  • Anecdata – information presented as if it were based on systematic research, but that is actually based on personal observation or experience.
  • Cleanskin – a person without any tattoos.
  • Healthwashing – the promotion of a food or product as being more
    nutritious or wholesome than it actually is. 
  • Robodebt – a debt owed to Centrelink by a welfare recipient, arising from an
    overpayment of benefits calculated by an automated process, a debt recovery notice being automatically generated and sent to the welfare recipient.
  • Big minutes – the time spent by a player on the field, court, when they maximise their impact and even decide the game.
  • Drought lot – a paddock where livestock are penned with water and feed, allowing other pasture paddocks to recover. This minimises soil erosion during drought.
  • Hedonometer – an algorithm using language data to analyse levels of happiness, especially data from the social media platform Twitter.
  • Silkpunk – a subgenre of science-fiction inspired by Asian history and culture for
    setting and aesthetic
  • Eco-anxiety – distress and fear brought on by the effects of climate change.
  • Mukbang – a broadcast streamed online featuring someone eating  a
    large amount and speaking to their online audience.
  • Thicc – curvaceous; voluptuous, specifically a curvy waist
  • Cheese slaw – coleslaw with grated cheese 
  • Flight shaming – criticism or ridicule directed at someone travelling by air because of the carbon emissions produced by flying.
  • Ngangkari – an Indigenous practitioner of bush medicine; an aboriginal healer.
  • Whataboutism – a technique used to respond to an accusation, criticism or difficult question, in which an opposing accusation or criticism raised.

Okay, let’s return to the phrase voted ‘word of the year’ by Macquarie Dictionary users – ‘cancel culture’. Cancel culture is the withdrawing of support for a public figure. The dictionary’s entry for cancel culture describes it as ‘the attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure’.

“In a way it’s an attempt to wipe them out, as a punishment,” Victoria Morgan, senior editor of Macquarie Dictionary, told Fairfax Media.

“If you’re a musician, it could be taking your music off a streaming service or radio station.”

The dictionary's word of the year committee said: “An attitude which is so pervasive that it now has a name, society’s cancel culture has become, for better or worse, a powerful force.”

Other terms for cancel culture are callout culture or outrage culture. Sometimes, it involves intense criticism for things celebrities have said or done in the past, such as an offensive tweet.

Those who are cancelled are often forced to apologise to avoid having their careers harmed further.

“Usually it’s a comment or something that is perceived as unacceptable or wrong,” Ms Morgan said. “What they’re trying to do is remove their position of power, wipe out the influence that someone may have had up and to that stage.”

The term is common on social media, which I think of as the ‘wild west’ of communication, anything goes. On social media anger can build quickly to have someone cancelled for real or perceived wrongdoing, such as a comedian telling offensive jokes.

Fairfax Radio reports that in Australia, a comedian withdrew from the Melbourne Fringe Festival in August after an online backlash against her one-woman show for perpetuating racist stereotypes. Kate Hanley Corley was due to perform eight renditions of her show Aisha the Aussie Geisha: The Accidental Oriental, but she pulled out after she was criticised for doing material that ‘borders on yellowface’.

Those who have criticised cancel culture included former US president Barack Obama. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you're politically woke, and all that stuff – you should get over that quickly,” he said, adding: “One danger I see among young people particularly on college campuses is that I do get a sense among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.”

I read recently that the musician Tones and I, who has been top of the Aria charts for 17 weeks, is having the best and worst time of her life. The best time because her hit, ‘Dance Monkey’ has topped the charts in 19 countries, the worst time because she is constantly judged and bullied online.

What sort of society are we that we think we are allowed to pile on anyone perceived of doing something ‘wrong’? In Tones case, she is constantly trolled because she is a young woman carrying a little excess weight. That is no one’s business but hers, but because she is in the public eye she is mercilessly attacked. I think that is outrageous and also sexist. Leave this successful young woman alone.

Remember there are two sides to every story on social media. Do you know all the facts? Be slow to judge. Is it actually your business? I do not believe in ‘cancelling’ people. I don’t ghost people or block them out. Even if hurt or offended I will always give someone the chance to explain themselves and tell their side of the story. Only cowards block people out or ‘cancel’ them. 

Again I remind you that much of what you read on social media is anecdata. Remember that new word – it’s information presented as if it were based on systematic research, but it is actually based on just personal observation or experience, ie it’s just someone’s uninformed point of view. Take care on social media – it is the wild west of communication, there is no rule of law, anything goes.


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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