Cancel culture has been a hot topic on social media in the past few years and undoubtedly attracted extreme opposing views. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines cancel culture as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” This usually involves a public figure committing a crime or expressing a problematic viewpoint, which is then discovered, subsequently followed by public backlash, and calls to cancel the celebrity and cease consuming their work, calls for them to step down or be fired from their positions, something has to happen as a form of justice.

At its core, cancel culture has good intentions as it is rooted in seeking justice and consequence in times of lack of action from the justice system or calling for accountability for holding bigoted, discriminatory, or harmful views. Celebrities are public figures who are revered by their fans for a particular talent they have, which includes a wide range such as entertainers, athletes, and influencers to name a few, their work relies on how they are perceived in public, how their posts and comments are received by their fans and brands they work with. The way they conduct themselves in public and private ultimately affects their work. As such, someone in that position is at the mercy of their fan base to a degree. If the fans are calling them out for having done a crime and the person remains unbothered and justice is not seen, the only power that this audience holds would be the social capital, the only power they hold is to stop consuming their art, get them fired, show public disapproval through online protest, anything from the tap of a finger. This is what we call social restorative justice, this is the least that a single person can do with a simple retweet, share, or repost. That is cancel culture, that is the driving force behind cancel culture, the machine that feeds the mulch.

Now, as fans, do we have the right to hold these celebrities accountable for their harmful views and criminal activities?

Recently, cancel culture has been under fire as it does not seem to translate into real justice especially in cases of rich and powerful members of society such as celebrities. The outrage over an abuse case or video only lasts a short while before the celebrity returns to their daily missions, performing and receiving the same or even more support sometimes from their fanbase. Many public figures in South Africa have been cancelled on Twitter but still managed to worm their way back into the spotlight without a glimmer of justice in sight. Cancel culture has become the main form of justice especially in a country with corruption and GBV rates as high as ours, the very people we expect to protect are perpetrators so in this case, what other restorative justice are we afforded besides public humiliation and ousting? But having seen that the effects of cancelling never stick, the perpetrators always come out unscathed, is it even worth it?

One could argue that the public outrage might help stop public figures from committing such heinous acts and encourage them to become more educated about social issues to avoid spewing hateful or misinformed views that might incite violence or ostracization of a particular social group. It is easier to digest this as the ideal that drives cancel culture but considering the old tweets, videos and confessions being exposed and blatant denial even in the face of evidence, is it even justice if it ends up as exhausting back and forth with harmful social commentary to gain retweets and social sympathy? Continued discourse over celebrities that have been cancelled always put the spotlight on the celebrity’s work thus boosting their ratings and defeating the main purpose of cancel culture.

According to the vox.com, the backlash that the public figure faces ironically causes public sympathy as some view cancel culture as “reckless vigilante justice” so it comes as no surprise that these public figures always manage to find their way back to the public eye or at the very least, continue with their lives as normal without consequence.

Cancel culture as a form of social justice usually creates an instant and intense response which dies down just as quickly and rarely ever transitions into real justice or even accountability. It always begins and ends online, rarely having a measurable impact on the celebrity’s ratings or their personal lives. Now, we have seen some exceptions to the statement above in the form of Amber Heard, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein to name a few but closer to home, we rarely ever see justice. The best we can get as South Africans would be a social media hiatus and momentary suspension, maybe get them fired but they always retain their social status, they receive not a dent on their reputation apart from the random days it’s mentioned and quickly forgotten, are we that desensitized to violence that we fail to hold our public figures to account? Or are we a country so overwhelmed with abuse apologists and enablers that they always overshadow the victims and stifle their voices?

As public figures, I believe at the very least, your social impact should promote positive sentiments and reflect those as well. Your fans are a multi-faceted bunch of different experiences and views, if anything, your message should encourage unity and not hate. So, yes, the public does deserve a voice and it might not be the strongest or the most effective but it serves a purpose. The public deserves a voice because they are the power behind the celebrity, they consume their art and have been the main driving force behind the stardom that they reached and as a result, the social responsibility of the celebrity would be to respect the integrity of their fan base and admit fault when wrong. This then informs people of the kind of person they come to contact with, it alerts other public figures to do better as spouses and members of the public, it sets precedent for any form of justice that awaits the perpetrator and gives the public a platform to hold the perpetrators accountable.

As individuals, we reserve the right to decide what media we consume and are free to not support certain celebrities. This then leads to my take: deciding to cancel a public figure based on victims’ statements or videos or pictures lies strictly at our discretion as individuals, however, media outlets should be held accountable for the personalities that represent them, the personalities they hire on their platforms and the kind of audience they attract, advertisers need to be aware of the people who represent their brands and this is how cancel culture extends into pockets, wallets, and purses.

The idea behind stripping a celebrity of their endorsement deal for expressing racist views fares just as well because the brand cannot cater for different ethnicities while being endorsed by a public figure that does not align with this. Similarly, a singer with a history of violence cannot maintain a platform without having met the arm of the law for their criminal activities, just as a shoplifter or robber would. Public figures hold a lot of social influence and garner a loyal fanbase after years of being in the spotlight, not to mention the amount of money they amass so they tend to slide right under the radar through blatant corruption and bribery. We cannot deny the high rate of corruption and can instinctively point to it as a big part of why cancel culture has grown so much in our country.

The reality is that social media does not reflect the true extent of scrutiny for any public figure and in SA, they are more likely to get off scot-free and host a TV show right after jail. It is unfair and frustrating so those with a platform have resorted to using it to spread awareness about not only the failures of the justice system but also seek justice, or a semblance of it, for the victims that have been silenced by these powerful, rich celebrities.