Cancel Culture vs Campus Subculture

The on-campus manifestations of cancellation prove dubious and complex

Cancel culture: wildly contentious, and everyone’s got an opinion on it. You either blindly endorse it, joke about it, reject it completely, or all three at once (depending on the particular subject of cancellation, of course). The term is so embedded in current social discourse that a skit revolving around it made its way into this year’s PoC Revue.

Many a thing has been written about cancel culture — its benefits and tribulations, whether it’s progressive or useful to cancel! every problematic boat on the horizon, “well what about Keanu Reeves?” and so on. What is less considered is how, in a practical sense, the culture transplants itself into the social dynamics of student groups on campus — particularly when it comes to sexual violence.

It seems uncontroversial to suggest that prominence within a social network should be removed from those who have engaged in patterns of sexually problematic behaviour. In that way, the application of “cancel culture” to the lives of students appears to be a positive step, particularly given augmented rates of sexual violence on campus. However, campus social groupings have not realistically been able to apply cancel culture in the same way as the broader movements they appear to be taking guidance from.

The more prominent movements that have produced a cancel culture, such as #MeToo, tend to adopt a survivor-focused approach to the sharing of sexual violence-related experiences. Subsequently, the social response to cases of sexual violence from the left prioritises, or at least gives consideration to, the interests and wishes of the survivor in question.

Campus social groups like debating or student politics do not have the same degree of access to information as the aforementioned movements. In practical terms this means that the details of instances of sexual violence are shared by word of mouth through third-parties, rather than directly from survivors. In part, this is due to the absence of a substantial platform through which survivors are able to share their experiences should they wish to do so. Mainstream journalism tends to be uninterested in narratives that don’t involve famous figures. Campus media, which in some cases may be an avenue, is usually silenced by threats of defamation.

Premising cancel culture on accounts of sexual violence that are spread through word of mouth creates numerous problems for the involved parties. Most toxically, it removes a sense of agency for survivors over the way their story is told and the degree of information to which others have access. Additionally, the decision to “cancel” someone by campus social groupings may not always be consistent with the wishes of the aggrieved person. Such practices are made worse when “cancellation” occurs with little to no consultation with the survivor. In many cases, the result is a small group of people within a campus sub-culture making wide-reaching moral adjudications without the requisite information or skills to do so. The manifestation of cancel culture on campus, albeit well-intentioned, has at times ignored the very people it sets out to protect.

The pervasive problem is the existence of perpetrators. Students find themselves between two choices: do they cancel the perpetrator, severing ties with them and ensuring their isolation? Or do they seek out ways in which the perpetrator can be bettered and learn from their mistakes?

The former is undoubtedly easier. Perhaps the perpetrator’s complete lack of social currency will allow them to realise that their behaviour does not come without consequence, and needs to change. Cancelling the perpetrator further provides survivors with some surety that their welfare is being prioritised. Cynically, it may provide the person doing the cancelling with a sense of moral righteousness.

The latter requires resources, and a high dose of emotional energy. This kind of undertaking likely involves one or two people urging the perpetrator to access counselling services, checking in with them during that process, and making sure that they refrain from going down a path that might lead them to repeat their behaviour. Given that the in-house rehabilitation of perpetrators is shunned by those who would prefer just to cancel them, all this becomes an incredibly draining process for those facilitating it. More often than not, the facilitator ends up being a woman, rendering the whole exercise a gendered one.

It is often difficult to have a situation where there are enough resources to facilitate any meaningful rehabilitation of perpetrators in student communities, and the easiest way forward is to extract someone away from a particular group, even if their behaviour does not change.

The inability to balance the individualised needs of the survivor, alongside ensuring perpetrators change their behaviour, is possibly too mammoth a task for student groups. The resort to cancel culture on campus stems ultimately from inadequate external support and resources from the University, with its efforts consistently proving sordidly ineffective at best.

So, cancel culture becomes the default, the easiest way to put a bandaid over a bigger problem, and the problematic behaviour goes on unremedied.