The term “cancel culture” has become increasingly popular in the last decade, but the concept has been around for millennia.
When a person says or does something that a group of people disagree with, they may be “cancelled” or ostracised from that group. While cancelling someone can be necessary for self-protection, or important for individual, political and/or societal growth, it can also be used to unfairly target and humiliate individuals, which can have a huge impact on mental health.
In the public realm, cancelling a well-known person (e.g., actor, author, politician, musician), removes them from the public eye. Whether this is deleting their social media presence (e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok), publicly shaming or “calling out” their behaviour, or removing previous posts and footage, their influence is destroyed. In the private realm, a friend or family member may be “cancelled” due to a difference of opinion, traumatic event(s), or argument. Whether this is blocking someone (or group of people), deliberately avoiding them, or making your disapproval publicly known, cancelling aims to remove their influence or involvement in your life.
In some circumstances, cancelling someone is a necessary and important way of protecting and preserving mental health. Traumatic events or experiences can have a huge impact on the way we think, feel, and behave and being able to recognise when someone doesn’t have our best interests at heart is a vital skill.
It’s unrealistic to expect to go through life without someone saying or doing something that you disagree with. Callout culture is a close sibling of cancel culture and, when used well, can be an effective way of encouraging growth. Cancelling someone without giving them a chance to change is easy - and sometimes necessary - but not always the most productive. So, it’s important to recognise when and how to callout someone’s behaviour:
It’s not easy to be told we’re wrong or have done something to upset someone. It is easy to jump to the defence, thinking only of ourselves and the impact it’s having on our self-esteem and how we’re viewed by others. Be mindful of your emotions and take time to consider the perspective of the other person. If, after considering how your actions affected others, you’d like to apologise, then do so and give yourself permission to learn from the mistake. However, it’s important to decide what’s right for you, if you don’t think you’ve done something wrong, don’t apologise, but be sure to explain why. False apologies could make you an “easy target” for further abuse and weaken your own values. Disagreements are a natural part of growing up and figuring out who you are and who you want to spend time with.
Although being called out or cancelled can be important for growth and updating what we value/believe, if done consistently, and for the wrong reasons, it can have a significant impact on mental health.
As social creatures, humans crave acceptance and belonging in groups of like-minded individuals. In fact, studies have shown that individuals who have strong relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and even live longer. Meanwhile, ostracism and loneliness has been shown to activate regions of the brain that signal pain, leading to both psychological and physical illness.
The benefits of cancel culture are called into question here. Is ostracism really the most effective way of righting a wrong? Or instead, should we approach mistakes with more compassion, allowing people the space to learn and accept accountability for their action(s), while being mindful that they too have mental health? It’s something to think about and it’s the subject of intense debate.
Part and parcel of acceptance and belonging is an “us versus them” mentality, or some psychologists might use the term in-group vs out-group. This rivalry is observed in all walks of life whether that’s due to differing views, socio-economic, or cultural influences (as well as many others). While for the most part, shared values/ideas can create a sense of community, it can also harbour a closed-mindedness that makes it easy to judge others in different groups. Of course, actions or behaviours that are intended to harm others should be criticised. However, when an “out-group” member is targeted because of something different about them as a person e.g., their religious or political beliefs, skin colour, or sexuality; this is unacceptable.
Mob mentality is a term used to describe the human desire to be part of large groups, often at the expense of an individual’s own views and feelings. As a result, this can often lead to people “jumping on the bandwagon” of judging “out-group” members even if they themselves don’t find any issue. The abuse that follows can be incredibly damaging. This is the ugly side of cancel culture. When individuals become so focussed on pleasing their peers, it can lead to unnecessary criticism and humiliation of other people simply because they’re different.
There is a good, bad, and ugly side to cancel culture. There is no excuse for actions that deliberately target or intend to harm others. But, before you jump to cancel someone, remember we all mistakes, have different views and experiences, and are all in need of guidance as we grow into caring, compassionate, and supportive individuals.
Article date 5th August 2022
Article written by Imogen Clifford, Assistant Psychologist, Bristol CBT Clinic