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[Multimedia] Cancel culture and separation of the art and artist both discourage individualistic thought

Graphic by Julia Landy.

In recent years, the idea of empowerment against systemic oppression and one’s oppressors has driven the public’s growing desire to enforce the accountability of influential figures. This ideal is upheld by cancel culture, which is when people disparage and ostracize a detested figure in protest of their reported actions.

Because of the extremely fast and public diffusion of information through digital media, those in support of cancel culture argue that its lack of barriers and restrictions enable the people to conveniently enforce social justice to their jurisdiction. It exists as an alternative to traditional systems of justice due to the distrust of these systems’ ability to properly, timely and effectively address others’ crimes.

Graphic by Angela Guiso.

Unfortunately, cancel culture’s appealing qualities also induce unwarranted harm to the parties involved. Unregulated for its accuracy or severity, this inflamed social justice purposefully punishes an influential figure, regardless of whether it is fueled by misunderstanding. This can result in unwarranted damage to a figure’s financial and social wealth.

Graphic by Angela Guiso.

According to Social Science Research Network’s study, “Does Apologizing Work? An Empirical Test of the Conventional Wisdom”, “The evidence suggests that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, the public is either unaffected or becomes more likely to desire that the individual be punished.” Because one is unable to verify whether a figure is genuine in their redemptive actions, apologies and other forms of admission and improvement are often futile in quelling public outrage.

The unforgiving nature of cancel culture is based on the assumption that people are unable to grow and improve. While some crimes are heinous enough that this seems rational, since there is no regulation on what circumstances warrant what reaction, the default response of cancel culture is often the most severe ostracization achievable, regardless of the offense.

Since this social justice seeks the eradication of a figure’s base of support, it relies on large numbers of people to broadcast a figure’s abuses and subsequently boycott their work. When individuals do not support the movement, they directly defy the movement’s source of power. As such, the populations supporting and opposing cancel culture are at greater odds due to the significance of the conflict to the strength of the movement.

Furthermore, those who practice cancel culture perpetuate a black and white worldview of how their methodology is the most correct and righteous course of action. As a collective, the consensus creates a sense of solidarity, which ultimately fuels their mentality of combating an influential figure’s villainy.

This mob mentality of cancel culture heightens emotional bias and irrationality when addressing sensitive issues such as an influential figure’s crimes being aired. It perpetuates the hypocritical ideology that the elite are demanded to be accountable for their actions, even though there is no accountability to be found within the mob demanding their persecution.

Ultimately, cancel culture is harmful because it dissuades individuals’ development of rationale by encouraging mob mentality, and justifies the censoring of an artist’s platform to protest their actions, regardless of whether that is the appropriate response to the situation.

Another possible reaction to alarming news about an influential figure’s actions is the separation between art and artist. This practice is when one deliberately avoids acknowledging the history of an artist’s actions in order to interact with their art without addressing the ramifications of this context.

By ignoring the artist’s history when interacting with their art, one is unable to interpret the art in its full context, as they don’t know what concepts and experiences influence it. The interpretation of the work will be less genuine than its actuality, which leads to the audience to lack a full grasp of its message and purpose.

Although the Statue of Liberty has come to represent the opportunity and hope of immigrants pursuing prosperity in America, it originally symbolized France’s and the United States’ aligned views on freedom and liberty, as seen by the victory of the American Revolution due to the assistance of the French.

Source: The Statue of Liberty: The Meaning and Use of a National Symbol

Graphic by Angela Guiso.

Without this understanding of the art’s purpose, one is also less able to recognize how the art persuades them of its message, for better or for worse. Art is a representation of an artist’s bias, emotions and perspective, and its audience should have the capability to recognize and act upon the ideas illustrated, rather than be influenced without their full consent or knowledge.

An example of this indirect influence can be found in six of Dr. Seuss’s best-selling children’s books, as seen by their derogatory caricatures of black and Asian people. These underlying stereotypes are unquestioned due to the youth of the target audience, who are then encouraged to accept these racist and xenophobic ideas.

Furthermore, separating the art and artist withholds valuable insight into topics often reflected by a work’s context and message, such as society and power. By broadening one’s scope to understand not only the art, but the relationship between an artist’s abuses and their art, one gains a window into how power, society and the various political positions in society function.

The criticisms of fans and actors alike due to the lackluster narratives of nonwhite characters in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” exemplify how the discriminatory development of the film influenced the work. This is seen by how actor John Boyega’s role was highly marketed in order to appeal to people of color, despite his character’s substandard treatment.

Like cancel culture, separation of the artist is a personal decision that depends on the circumstances of the art, artist and individual. Regardless of the morality of the circumstances, these are expressions of speech, and only the individual should hold the power to decide whether to follow these practices.

Nevertheless, both of these practices deprive their supporters of the experience of developing moral and social rationale in response to the issues faced in reality. They are coping mechanisms designed to dampen one’s panic by stifling their responsibility as an individual to analyze and respond rationally to a circumstance, which stagnates the growth and change of an individual’s personal values.

For example, recognizing the dated lack of diversity in the widely beloved "Harry Potter" series, and understanding that the author’s views contribute to its stifled potential exploration of themes detracts from its atmosphere of innocent euphoria. However, by casting away the unrealistic naivety of ignoring the series’ faults in favor of escapism, one can then evaluate and develop how these issues correspond with their rationale.

Cancel culture and separation of the art and artist are at the extreme ends of the spectrum of human reaction, so neither are preferable responses to crises. Yet, they both hold promise in indicating the ideal methodology of beneficial action, such as recognition of one’s lack of personal attachment to the issue and subsequent distancing from emotional bias, participation in non-inflammatory discussion and exchange of information.

When one navigates the endless sea of information and misinformation in the media, they should hold a flexible worldview able to adapt the changing circumstances and decide for themselves what actions are ultimately best for them and those around them. That is the beauty of people’s freedom of expression and choice.