OPINION | Cancel culture must focus on empathy, accountability

Sala Thanassi, Staff Writer

Gabe Darley | Senior Staff Artist

Acts of public shaming have always been deeply integrated into society: from the Salem Witch Trials to the Red Scare, a collective affinity for compartmentalization and demonization is as deeply entrenched as any other behavior. In the 21st century, pitchforks and torches have been set down in favor of keyboards and picket signs, with their effects wider-reaching and more effective than ever before. Cancel culture is defined as a “modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – whether it be online, on social media, or in person”.

As the usage of social media becomes more ingrained in the fabric of society on a day-to-day basis, an unfiltered collective voice can be found in any corner of the internet, itching to call out transgressions deemed unfit for a public space. Recent national instances involving cancel culture include My PIllow CEO Mike Lindell, whose company was discarded by 20 retailers following his public questioning of the 2020 election results and outspoken support of Republican candidate Donald Trump, as well as Dr. Seuss Enterprises announcing it would stop publishing six titles by the famous author after critics cited racist imagery.

Within Tulane University’s community, cancel culture is exhibited at its most ineffective iteration in the 2016 Kappa Alpha Order’s “Trump Wall,” in which the fraternity’s traditional practice of building a sandbag wall around its house fueled pre-existing allegations of the fraternity’s roots in racism. When the words “Trump” and “Make America Great Again” were graffitied on the wall, the organization received backlash from the student body. 

In the case of the 2016 KA wall, the dialogue that emerged around the situation was intensive and thorough. An article published in Total Frat Move about the instance wrote, “It all comes down to a classic and silly misunderstanding that was catalyzed by the pussification of America,” citing the brothers’ statements that the graffiti was intended to be satirical and they were sorry it was misconstrued. 

Another then-Tulane student when interviewed about the situation pointed out that the graffiti would not have occured in the first place had the members of KA truly empathized with the fears of the Latinx community in the political climate of the time. “I feel like it’s typical white privilege to say ‘oh it’s a joke, it’s funny,” Katalina Euraque said. 

However, despite intense initial examination of the incident, the more consequential effects of cancel culture were not fully enacted in this situation. KA is still affiliated with the school and has faced no long-lasting consequence. The scrutiny surrounding the controversial roots and practices of the fraternity are certainly acknowledged, and Tulane KA publicized a statement of their unanimous vote to request nationals to disassociate from founder Robert E. Lee. However, the conversation surrounding the actions taken by KA students has fallen flat in its ability to produce meaningful and long-lasting change.

There appears to be a struggle between two schools of thought. Some believe organizations such as KA can evolve and prove their separation from their past members and founders. Others believe that those who willingly associate themselves with contributors to oppression are making the implicit statement that their moral priorities do not stand in solidarity with the victims. 

Cancel culture is the epitome of a double-edged sword. In some instances it remains true to its intended purposes, providing justice for a victimized community or individual as well as platforming intolerance for hurtful actions and statements. In other instances, it can be extremely detrimental to the cancelled party without just cause — cancel culture is not synonymous with empathy, and oftentimes context would be shunned rather than necessitated in the conversation. 

Cancel culture is often associated with the political left, but in reality is practiced on all sides. Colin Kaepernick was erased from the NFL after engaging in a peaceful protest by taking a knee during the National Anthem. This was due to the intense backlash from majority white, male, self-proclaimed patriots that make up the primary demographic of National Football League viewers. 

The most distinguishable and concerning part of cancel culture is its preference for a black-and-white moral society instead of one which looks to promote dialogue and discussion. Political figures and celebrities usually aren’t fully “canceled” resulting from instances of public outrage, but the danger lies in being quick to categorize peers or classmates based on snippets of information. 

An internet crowd calling for the ostracism of someone on the basis of their objective wrongdoing is incredibly alluring and tempting to join. The trickiest aspect of cancel culture, however, is its subjective application. Every circumstance in which it is enacted is unique, and the notion that a one-size-fits-all punishment is reasonably expected is a dangerous belief. Regardless, accountability remains as something worth striving for — as long as its roots stem from empathy, not mob mentality.