Lately, there is a lot of hooplah about “cancel culture”. People are angry about how its being handled. It is unclear what the repurcussions of it should be for celebrities or politicians, and just a general confusion of what is right and wrong. For ethically unambiguous actions and a lack of remorse in the people, such as Epstein, no one has an issue with that. For things such as Stallman’s behavior over the years, that is more of a gray area. Even more ambiguous is Louis CK and Kevin Hart. One argument against cancel culture is that “we are not better than them” or “the standards are too high”. Another is that these people being cancelled have some sort of “social punishment” that is not equal to the action that they are being cancelled for. Even more so, is that there is a sense that it is inherently arbitrary who gets cancelled, and the targets seem random. I would like to try and figure out what is rational about this phenomenon that people have become self-aware about, and if we can figure out some sort of solution to thinking about this seemingly “irrational outrage culture” and the skeptics that are against it.
Let us say that we have some person that did or said something that is unethical. To avoid making this a post about what is or is not ethical, let us say that as a society, we agree that it was unethical. Obviously it is hard to figure out what is ethical or unethical, but to make the argument stronger and a shorter post, let us not worry about this.
Now that we have determined that someone did something unethical, what do we do? Is it a politician, a musician, an actress, a CEO, a friend, a professor? The case of celebrities seems to be the one that we ought to look into first, since it is the most prevalent and controversial. Our celebrity here will be Tom that did some action that was deemed unethical. He is very famous, definitely B list or higher celebrity. He has a large social media presence, is in movies, and has some Netflix specials too. What is the appropriate way to handle this situation as a society?
Some would deem it unfair that Tom did something unethical, not illegal, but his career gets ruined. But isn’t part of the fame that people make, the money they earn, and the fans they have are because we like them? Surely the ordering of most famous and wealthiest celebrities is not only because of their talent (if I did not like Tyler, the Creator as a person, I most likely would have never bought one of his hats). Sure some celebrities are neutral (unsure of their personality), and we project things onto them. But part of their popularity is because we like them as people not just because they are objectively the funniest or most talented actress. Twitch streamers have been experiencing this, in that they realize that they are under constant scrutiny and that a lot of their popularity is based on them as a people and not that they are the funniest person or best gamer. So I would say that it is perfectly okay for one of the punishments to be a hit to your fan base and money that was gained due to people liking them as a person, since after doing something unethical it is reasonable for people to change their perception of you.
But is that still too much of a punishment? Are our standards too high? By punishment, it is just the informal consequences that happen from some cancelling. Are people allowed to fuck up? Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus went through rough patches, stuff has happened to other celebrities, but they have just fine careers and people were understanding of it, maybe because they were young. But adults still fuck up too. Especially if it is one action, and not a repeated history, it seems that we should still be able to enjoy someone’s talent. What is the proper reaction and the proper way to handle redemption of someone who was cancelled?
The Eel (1997) is a film by Shohei Imamura, which won the 1997 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie starts out with some scenes of a normal couple. The man (Takuro Yamashita) gets a letter from someone (possibly never had a letter, but was something he made up), that his wife was cheating on him when he was fishing at nights. After he becomes aware, he decides to go home early from fishing to check it out. He comes home to see his wife and a random man having sex, and in a fit of rage he grabs a knife and stabs the man, then proceeds to stab his wife to death. After this, he calmly goes to the police station, and turns himself in.
He serves a sentence in prison, that was reduced on good behavior. It was a short sentence for murder, since he presumably pleaded guilty and it was not premeditated at all, purely a crime of passion. He goes to move in with a priest in a small village on the river. He wants to forget about his past crime, cut hair, and live his life. Due to certain events, people start liking him and hanging out at his barbershop, and even gets a worker. The twist is that the people knew about his crime already, but knew that he was not a threat and he was not defined by that crime alone. This is a story about redemption, and how someone can go from murderer to a friend or even a lover.
How do we go about cancelling people, but in the right way? The main issue is that once cancelled, there is seemingly no way for someone to enter back into their past life in a similar way, not to the same fame even. Does Tom deserve a Netflix special again? Maybe not. Then, what is fair treatment of Tom? What does the path of redemption look like for Tom? How does he get to where the main character of The Eel got?
The main difference here is that these people are celebrities, and they are so distanced from us and seemingly a different species ( Leonardo di Caprio eating a hot dog is news ). Also, we never interact with them personally, so seeing them as people that have a moral worth, that we are in a reciprocal ethical relationship with, is too distant. Takuro Yamashita had an easier path of redemption because the connection between him and the villagers was very direct. The connection between Tom and the masses is indirect, weak, and mostly one sided.
I propose that the way we deal with the path to redemption is to imagine the case of Tom being someone we have a direct and reciprocal relation with. The relationship we have with people that are cancel worthy is not that of a stranger, but not that of a friend. Musicians, actors, influencers, have a role in our lives just as much as friends and family do, if not more sometimes. They depend on us for their fame, their wealth (at least to become wealthy, sometimes), and supporting them. They may not know us personally and vice versa, but we still enter into some sort of reciprocal relationship. If they do something unethical, we should act is if they were friends and family. They are worthy of blame, but also worthy of redemption. Friends and family do not give up on each other after a few rough patches. If they do not show growth, then it is fair to stop helping them with their lives. We don’t stop inviting them to parties and gatherings, we do not block them on facebook easily. With a celebrity, maybe they do not deserve all the fame before, but may still get some fame for their talent since that has not disappeared.
Also note, I am not saying this is easy for things like, sexual assault. You do not put a professor who sexually assaults someone back in the same environment with the same victims. Just like you would not put a domestic abuser back with the same people. Things such as Kevin Hart may be a better example. Sure, he said something offensive (even if it was a joke). This is something that he can learn from, and grow, and should not have his life ruined for something. It is a time for learning and teaching someone that they are wrong. Just because a person turns 18 does not mean they are stuck and cannot learn new things or be shown that they are wrong about something. We give children a pass, but adults should get less of a pass since a lot of the responsibilty should fall on them to be ethical. We are not perfect beings, but if we were, ethics would not be an issue, we would not struggle to figure out how to do the right thing.
I am okay with calling out bad behavior and assigning blame for wrongdoing to people. What I am not okay with is that there is seemingly no path to redemption for people after making a mistake. Children are not fully responsible for the decisions, but it is not binary. Adults learn slowly too that some things are wrong and some are right. If we try and work things out together, call out bad behavior before it starts to be a pattern, and discuss if things are actually wrong or right, it would be a healthier culture and easier for adults and especially children to understand what is right or wrong behavior. Cancel culture is a bit confusing and seemingly arbitrary on certain fronts, which might have negative consequences down the line. The good though is that we are at least becoming aware about ethics.
Note - The phenomenon of “cancel culture” is loose, and am open to discussion about definitions of this.