The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture Concept

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What Is Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is a form of boycott. It is the removal or "canceling" of a person, organization, product, brand, or anything else due to an issue that a community or group disapproves of or finds offensive.

One definition of cancel culture is "the popular practice of withdrawing support for...public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive." This canceling is often "performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

In short, to be canceled means that a person or group decides to stop supporting someone or something based on a transgression that is either actual or perceived. 

Call-Out Culture vs. Cancel Culture

These terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Call-out culture is about calling attention to someone's wrongdoing and giving them a chance to learn from and correct the issue. Cancel culture does not give this opportunity and, instead, immediately labels them as bad.

Origin of Cancel Culture

Although canceling is often used in response to sexist behavior, the term itself appears to originate from sexist humor. One of the earliest references came from the 1991 film New Jack City. Nino Brown (played by Wesley Snipes), referring to a girlfriend, mercilessly states, “Cancel that [expletive]. I’ll buy another one.”

The term gained traction in 2014 thanks to an episode of VH1's reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York. In this episode, music executive and record producer Cisco Rosado ended an argument with his girlfriend by saying, "You're canceled.”

In earlier days, the word "cancel" was often used on social media as a way for a person who was part of the Black LGBTQ+ community to show disapproval of another person's actions. It wasn’t until later that canceling someone involved boycotting them professionally.

A 2020 survey conducted by Pew Research Center highlights the controversy surrounding cancel culture. While 38% of people say that calling someone out on social media punishes those who don't deserve it, 58% feel that it helps hold people accountable for their actions.

Reasons for Canceling

Some of the top reasons cited for canceling include:

  • To serve as a teaching moment
  • To get the person to consider the consequences of their statements
  • To expose racism or sexism
  • To get people to think before they speak
  • To hold someone accountable for their statements or behaviors

Cancel Culture Examples

Some examples of cancel culture include:

  • J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, was canceled after making a comment on Twitter in June of 2020 that offended some members of the transgender community. The tweet in question was retweeted over 95,000 times and drew more than 46,000 comments.
  • Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, was canceled in 2021 after supporting the claims of voter fraud against former President Donald Trump. At least two banks joined in on the canceling in 2022 after phone call recordings were subpoenaed by the January 6 House select committee, ultimately telling Lindell to "leave their bank" as he was a "reputation risk."
  • Chrissy Teigen, a model and bestselling cookbook author, was also canceled in 2021 after several people exposed her for sending "mean tweets," ultimately causing Teigen to step away from her cleaning supplies company and be replaced by Netflix in the second season of "Never Have I Ever."

Positive Impact of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture can help combat wrongdoings and address inequalities. In 2016, for example, many members of the film community boycotted the Oscars because of the lack of diversity among nominees. This helped promote social change and, in 2019, the Oscars set a record for the most nominations for Black directors ever.

A community that unites for a common cause can be empowering. It can also make people think twice before behaving inappropriately or posting potentially offensive thoughts and opinions.

Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture

There are also negative effects of cancel culture, some of which are related to mental health. The impact of cancel culture on mental health depends on whether you are the one being canceled, the canceler, or a bystander.

Effects on the Canceled

Unfortunately, canceling often turns into bullying. Like bullying, if you've been canceled, you may feel ostracized, socially isolated, and lonely. And research shows that loneliness is associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. 

If you are canceled, it can also feel as if everyone is giving up on you before you've even had the chance to apologize (let alone change your behavior). Instead of creating a dialogue to help you understand how your actions hurt others, the cancelers shut off all communication, essentially robbing you of the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes

To grow and become a better person, it's important to realize you've made a mistake, attempt to fix that mistake, and then take the proper steps to ensure that you don't make the same mistake again.

Effects on the Canceler

You have the right to set your own boundaries and to decide what uplifts and what offends you. You also have the right to decide to whom and what you give your attention, money, and support.

But canceling the offending person (or brand) doesn't always cause them to change their beliefs or lead to lasting change. It can even make them dig in their heels in an effort to defend their ego and reputation.

In some cases, canceling has the opposite effect of what was desired. One example is the docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly." While this TV series prompted many to push for a sex crimes conviction against the musician, it also created a 126% increase in on-demand streams of Kelly's music the day after the premiere.

Effects on the Bystander

Cancel culture doesn’t just affect the canceled and the cancelers. It can also wreak havoc on onlookers’ mental health.

After seeing so many people being canceled, some bystanders are plagued with fear. They become overwhelmed with anxiety that people will turn on them if they fully express themselves. This can cause them to keep their thoughts bottled up instead of talking about and working through their opinions and emotions.

Bystanders might also worry that others will find something in their pasts to use against them. Or they may fear that every word they say or write is going to be examined under a microscope and construed as offensive, even if it wasn't meant to be.

So, instead of saying how they feel about an event or situation, bystanders may choose to remain silent. This can lead them to be weighed down with guilt long after the event or situation has passed—guilt for not standing up for someone else when they had the chance.

The idea that cancel culture has caused some people to fall silent or not feel comfortable sharing what is on their minds has caused some to debate whether it presents an issue with the right to free speech.

How to Protect Your Mental Health

Though you can't control how others behave, you can control your own behavior (as well as how you respond to negativity). Here are some actions you can take to help protect your mental health with regard to cancel culture:

  • Avoid posting when your emotions are heightened. Try not to post when you're feeling overly emotional. If someone says or does something that pushes your buttons, don't rush to your keyboard. Instead, take a few deep breaths and give yourself time to calm down. While you may forget what you said or wrote a day, week, or month from now, the internet never forgets.
  • Have others review your post first. Sometimes it's hard to recognize when our own words may come across as offensive or aggressive. Having someone else review your posts first can help bring any potential issues to your attention. This gives you the opportunity to avoid sharing thoughts or opinions that could inadvertently hurt someone else.
  • If you were wrong, apologize. If you were canceled for saying or doing something and now feel bad about it, apologize. But before you do, give yourself time to craft a genuine, well-thought-out response (this also gives time for the attention to die down). Then, when you're ready, share your apology. It might not be accepted by everyone. But if it's from the heart, some people will recognize this and allow it to soften their views of you—or at least reduce their desire to make you their top public enemy.
  • Try to see the other side. If someone speaks out against you, your first reaction may be to dig in and stand your ground. However, you may get further by trying to truly understand how your words or actions may have hurt or offended someone else. Gaining this understanding can bridge the communication gap. It can also help keep you from making the same mistake again.
  • Spend less time online. It's okay to take a break from social media. Unplugging every now and then may help improve your mental health. One study found that cutting back on social media use decreases loneliness and depression.
  • Talk to someone. If you're experiencing cancel culture firsthand and are not sure how to recover, consider reaching out to someone you trust, such as a family member or close friend. If you're not comfortable talking to someone you know, you can also seek professional help. Having someone to confide in can make a huge difference in the way you feel.

Can You Avoid Being Canceled?

Consider that everyone has different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. Although yours have caused you to view the world one way, not everyone has that same view. Being aware of this (and open-minded) can help keep you from saying or doing something that makes you a target.

It's also helpful to remember that you don't have to intend to be offensive in order to offend. Perception becomes reality, so if someone perceives your words or actions as offensive, it doesn't matter what you intended. The damage is done.

So, instead of trying to convince others that you didn't mean to offend them, recognize that they are offended and work to find ways to move forward. Learn from the experience and use it to help you become a stronger, more caring, and empathetic person.

A Word From Verywell

Some aspects of cancel culture can be useful in holding people and organizations accountable for bad behavior. On the flip side, it can take bullying to a new level, damaging the mental well-being of everyone involved.

The key to overcoming any sort of ostracism or rejection is to not allow the things that are said or done to define who you are as a person. And don't be afraid to reach out for help. Having someone in your corner can help you feel more connected and less alone.

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