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Activism doesn’t end with canceling someone

Schadenfreude might be my favorite German word.

In essence, it means finding joy in someone else’s misfortune. I’m not a saint. My humor is cynical and dark at times. So, of course, a part of me still giggles at a “Karen gets owned” TikTok compilation or a classic “skateboarding nut cracker” supercut. 

But during this New Year’s resolution phase, I’ve realized most of us online love a good schadenfreude. We don’t call it this German word though. Instead we refer to it as “cancel culture.” 

Calling ‘em out, drag ‘em/slay ‘em, post the receipts—y’all know the fucking vibes. An Insider’s article summarizes the phenomenon as a “cultural boycott of a certain celebrity, brand, company, or concept.” We saw its roots originate from early 2010 Tumblr, especially with text posts and the infamous blog yourfaveisproblematic, which contains receipts of your fave’s wrongdoings (casual misogyny, anti-semitism statements, et al.)

I’m a Tumblr native. So I guess, it’s safe to say that I saw cancel culture blow up from mere text posts on my dashboard to a Forever 21 crop top. There’s no hiding the fact I participated in it. I reblogged, I tweeted a rant and took part in a worldwide hashtag meltdown.

During my teen years, I saw it as the first steps to activism. I learned a lot about feminism, antisemitism, transphobia and many more foreign concepts from 280 characters and a thread. It made overwhelming social ideas easier to understand. 

But as I grew older, it evolved into a culture quite similar to high school bullying; self-righteous and a form of  humiliation of others, instead of bringing change people claim to advocate for.

Merriam-Webster even associated cancel culture with the rise of the #MeToo movement. Through the power of a mass online boycott, it rippled into something larger than a tweet or a status. As Insider pointed out, “new allegations seemed to come out daily, and attitudes quickly shifted against the accused.”

Cancel culture paved the way for teens like me to delve deeper into activism. Just like what Insider wrote, the #MeToo movement benefited from it by bringing out powerful predators in entertainment and allied industries to light. It encouraged me to read more about feminism, to learn about the herstory of my queerness and how existing systems fail the unprivileged. And that’s great.

But as I grew older, it evolved into a culture quite similar to high school bullying; self-righteous and a form of  humiliation of others, instead of bringing change people claim to advocate for.

The act of calling out people  for their errors can educate the reader. Yet it can just publicly shame someone. No room for  healthy discussion or an opportunity to enlighten. Cancel culture, these days, is just a virtual medieval tribunal where users throw rotten tomatoes at the person they’re canceling. 

A simple tweet like “pack it up [insert name here]” or “[insert name here] is over party” is enough activism for the day. As long as they’re humiliated and “called out,” we’ve done our civic duty.

“Sometimes the goal [of cancel culture] is simply emotional satisfaction at taking someone down,” says Stanford University law professor Richard Ford to the Jakarta Post. Cancel culture has stopped moving the conversation forward. Instead, it is seen as swift justice—one tweet, then the act of social awareness is done.

Why most of us stan cancel culture is no different from Filipinos who run to “Raffy Tulfo in Action.” It’s dialed-in justice. As for the reason why these two exist, it’s because justice is often for the privileged and the privileged only. They give people a platform to finally have a voice. 

If the point of it is for people to learn from their mistakes, how can they do so if they’re canceled?

But just like how Tulfo’s form of instant justice is flawed, so is the act of canceling someone online. 

Calling out someone is a band-aid solution. We publicly shame them, then what happens next? We often just log off and then get on the bandwagon for our TLs next cancel witch hunt. If the point of it is for people to learn from their mistakes, how can they do so if they’re canceled? And the internet has made it clear that someone cannot be uncanceled. Swift justice, right?

Using our voice online can fuel a movement. University of Michigan professor Lisa Nakamura claims cancel culture “targets people inaccurately” but says, ultimately, it’s “an important force for change.” Michigan State professor Keith Hampton however explains an important point: “Guilt and social shaming don’t really change opinions very successfully.”

“People grow up. Nobody deserves to be defined by the worst mistakes they ever made,” says “Pose” star Indya Moore on cancel culture. “Especially when they aren’t consistently stubborn in complicity. We really need to cut down on this culture, it’s drowning everyone and it is unnecessary.”

It has inspired movements, yes, but cancel culture also became The Try Guys’ Eugene Lee Yang’s “Rank King” catchphrase “I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up.” 

By all means, this isn’t a way to stop online discourse. Please keep talking ’cause it moves important conversations forward. But if the goal isn’t to educate or inspire change, then just admit you love a good schadenfreude. Just admit you love the false sense of moral superiority. You’re not here for the movement—you’re here for you.

Sorry sweetie, but justice doesn’t stop in 280 words or less. It needs more commitment than cancel culture can ever give.

Read more:
Pain Behind the Screen: The toxicity of internet call out culture
The problematic thoughts that fuel toxic stan culture
The toxicity and insensitivity of internet call-out culture

Still from “Mean Girls”

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Rogin Losa
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