Celebrities have always been subject to the pendulum of relevance and obsession that’s always followed by equal amounts of disdain. Thanks to the internet, this process is not only accelerated, but it’s incredibly more obvious and we’re able to see a more dramatized rise and fall of celebrities. We’ve called this steep fall, canceling, or cancel culture. It can happen to business or products too; one minute this new brand is a hit on social media, the next it’s deemed problematic and outcasted. However, whether it’s a person, a product or business, “canceling” something or someone is often confused with consumers holding individuals and corporations accountable. When we remember that we don’t owe millionaire celebrities or multi-billion dollar corporations anything whatsoever, cancel culture doesn’t hold up; it isn’t real.
Why Canceling People and Cancel Culture Don’t Work
Whether you’re an A-list celebrity or an average citizen, if you do something illegal or immoral, you should be held accountable for your actions. Our most prominent system of accountability is our legal system, and when it works correctly, it’s an excellent way to deliver consequence to those that commit wrongdoings. However, for celebrities, it’s much harder for them to face proportionate consequences for their crime; a DUI for Justin Bieber is much different than a DUI for a single mother with two kids.
Celebrities are able to weave around consequences. Celebs are incredibly powerful, and this is because of two things: one, celebs have the attention of the masses on their side, and two, more importantly, celebrities are incredibly rich. In October 2019 when Gina Rodriguez was scrutinized for saying the n-word on Instagram, twitter had deemed her canceled… and a few months later the NYU alum was seen promoting her new Scooby-Doo animated picture Scoob! Alongside A-listers Zac Efron, Mark Wahlberg, and many more. If someone gets deemed canceled on Twitter, but has projects lined up or even already completed, waiting for their release, then are they really “canceled”? Is their career really over?
There is not a case of a celebrity’s life being completely ruined because of “cancel culture”. Even actor Jussie Smollet, who was hit incredibly hard by “cancel culture”, was making 65-125 thousand dollars per episode while he was on Empire. Since he acted in 84 episodes, that means in the last five years he’s made five million dollars off of Empire alone, not to mention his previous projects. He’s seen more money than many Americans see in their entire lives, there’s nothing cancel culture can do to take money he’s already made, or legally entitled to. There’s also not a circumstance of celebrities being seriously “canceled” for something they didn’t do. Every time a celebrity faces consequences by fans it’s due to something they themselves caused.
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Cancel Ellen? No, Hold Her Accountable
Ellen Degeneres is currently under fire for The Ellen Show’s mistreatment of workers. While she’s being held accountable on social media, plenty of celebrities are victimizing her, some like Kevin Hart, who’s also seen brutality from the consequences of resurfacing action, feeling empathy from experience. In an Instagram post defending Ellen, Hart states “It’s honestly sad… When did we get here? I stand by the ones I know and that I love. Looking forward to a future where we are back to loving one another… this hates— has to stop. Hopefully, it goes out of style soon….”
While Hart’s sentiment is truly kind, it’s missing the point. Celebrities like Kevin Hart have the privilege of not relying on a “safe work environment”, they are the work environment. Of course, Ellen is nice to you Kevin, you don’t work for her, it’s not about you. The entertainment industry has an immensely deep and historical culture of being unsafe for those lower down the food chain, and for far too long this has continued without any semblance of accountability. With the power of social media, we can disseminate information and take charge of what we want to see and support. Ellen is not getting canceled, she’s finally being held accountable. And what’s so ironic is that every important person obviously has Ellen’s back anyway, she can’t be canceled. She’s too rich and has far too many rich friends to be seeing any real struggle any time soon.
I know what you’re thinking: the way in which we keep people accountable is never consistent and often discourages forgiveness, empathy, and understanding of people changing over time. This point is absolutely right. Unfortunately, this is also true about our own legal system. No kind of consequence or accountability will be consistent to everyone because we all operate under far different socio-economic circumstances. There is no such thing as “fair punishment”, it’s all subjective. So if we’ve all established on Twitter and Instagram that this is the way we are going to keep our celebrities accountable for now, then this is the way it’s going to get done.
Why Canceling Businesses REALLY Doesn’t Work
It’s quite comical how we’ve flipped in the last few years from praising wealthy people, to discouraging hoarding wealth and shaming billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Although we try to keep big businesses like Amazon accountable for the way they treat their workers and disparage communities, it’s absolutely impossible for a handful of consumers to take on multi-billion dollar corporations. This is because corporations like Amazon and many more giant businesses are so rooted in the way we live our lives, that they become essential to us living them.
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Being from Atlanta, I have a very complicated relationship with Chick-Fila. I’ve eaten it since I was born, and already had so many fond memories attached to it, by the time I became conscious of the horrendous establishments they were donating money to annually, I not only had a sense of nostalgia intertwined with the corporation but my family and I had already given the corporation thousands and thousands of dollars over the decades. They’ve since stopped donating to anti-LGBT organizations, but does that now imply that they’re safe to eat at, or do I now need to compensate for my previous contributions? The whole point of keeping business accountable is so that the values of the consumer and the values of the organization can align, but there is no rule book, and the consumer will always lose, rendering it harder and harder to try and cancel a large corporation.
Take a look at the meat and dairy industry that’s been linked to our climate crisis, not to mention animal cruelty and sanitation. In the economic classes I’ve taken, I’ve been taught that I have the power to buy ethically, and buy from businesses I want to support. If a large number of people buy from culturally agreed-upon ethical businesses, then consequently, every business that people do not support will inevitably shut down. However, what I was not taught was how little control consumers actually have over what gets produced. “American governments spend $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy, but only 0.04% of that ($17 million) to subsidize fruits and vegetables,” says Meatonomics. Although I do not agree with the way the meat and dairy industry operates, there’s truly not that much I can do about it. I can’t cancel an entire industry. Twitter can’t cancel big businesses.
Even if I were to stop eating at restaurants that donate to institutions and political campaigns I personally disagree with, went vegan, and thrift all my clothes so as to not support fast fashion, I would still be contributing to plenty of institutions I disagree with. As long as we pay taxes to support the prison industrial complex and the military-industrial complex, we will forever be roped in a global network of inescapable corruption that not even the biggest of Twitter wars could cancel. Cancel culture doesn’t work on people, or on business, because the controllers of our money don’t care about a few thousand retweets.
The Burden of the Consumer
The reason “cancel culture” is able to spread so quickly and so effectively, is because like all trends, there’s a sense of shame for those who aren’t on board. If I were to play a song by 6ix9ine, a man who’s been canceled time and time again by Black Twitter for a laundry list of offenses, I’d get shamed by everyone who’s resisted the catchy tune of GOOBA for the sake of social justice. And although the personal guilt I get from listening to his music isn’t worth it for me to actually tune in, I refuse to believe that if I didn’t have a firm conscience, that it would be wrong of me to listen to his music. The same goes for rappers like Xxxtenacion, or more recently, Torey Lanez, because the thing is, we as listeners didn’t do anything wrong.
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I haven’t committed those negative actions these rappers did that deemed them “canceled”, so why should I deprive myself of the music I like? We’ve had to take on the burden of accountability in areas where the law has failed and that is far too much for us to bear. Most of us aren’t millionaires, most of us can’t even afford therapy. Why should we as consumers hold ourselves to a higher standard than business or celebrities? Trying to take on millionaires and billionaires is exhausting and futile and we don’t have to take on that burden if we chose not to. It doesn’t matter what we do, cancel culture isn’t real. But accountability is real and that is the important point to hold on to.
By Tyler Bey
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