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Why I Believe the Mental Health Community Should Be Concerned About 'Cancel Culture'

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Recently, there’s been an accelerated cultural conversation around the phenomenon of “cancel culture,” whereby people will call out everyone from private individuals to those in the public eye for both perceived transgressions and real wrongdoings, in both public and private.

To be clear, I do not argue that powerful individuals, companies and institutions shouldn’t be held culpable for the serious harm they visit upon the public resulting in damage, death and destruction, such as poisoning our water and enabling police murders against Black people. I also don’t argue that everyday people don’t cause real suffering through mircoaggressions or hurtful acts. My concern is over a culture obsessed with mobbing, bullying and canceling people for relatively minor foibles, without the possibility of penance. Sometimes, these reactions outweigh the harm caused by the actual event, which leads to deleterious consequences for people’s mental well-being.

The grievances are often aired over social media, particularly on the microblogging platform, Twitter, as well as Facebook and Instagram. At times, the targets suffer consequences as wide-ranging as a hit to their reputations to being fired to having their lives torn apart by tweet, hashtag or Facebook post.

While there has been considerable debate over if call-outs are warranted in the first place and to what extent people should be held publicly accountable for their sins, there hasn’t been much treatment of the horrific impact some forms of cancel culture can have on people’s mental health.

I believe cancel culture’s toxicity to the mental health community lies in a flawed notion of accountability. Perpetrators assume that anyone anywhere needs to be held publicly responsible for comparatively minor transgressions that could be more effectively resolved in a private conversation than in a Twitterstorm. Instead, “accountability” is sometimes weaponized against neurodivergent people regardless of if they are in the throes of a crisis or are even capable of comprehending the impact of their actions. While I am not excusing physical, verbal or emotional abuse, the fact that even for smaller acts or comments targets may be ostracized for life without any chance for atonement underscores a pernicious sanism perpetuated by our society.

One cannot cover how harmful social media call-outs are for targets’ mental health without recounting the case of Jordanian-American mother, Natasha Tynes, who posted an ill-advised picture on Twitter of a Black employee of Washington, D.C. Metro eating in violation of the transit rules. Tynes faced all kinds of social media and real-world consequences, as people pointed out she was specifically criticizing a Black woman. “I’m an immigrant of color. And this was the last thing on my mind when I sent out the tweet,” she said. “At that moment, I needed to complain about the metro service.”

Even though Tynes deleted her tweet, that did not stop the social media pile-on. “I was called every racial slur you can think of … a terrorist, an airplane bomber and Hamas and Hezbollah and ‘go back to your country,'” she explained. After the backlash culminated in the cancelation of a book that she had spent four years writing, she checked herself into the emergency room. In short, the bullying visited upon her had led to a “nervous breakdown.” Whether or not you agree with her choice to send out that tweet, the ultimate result of Tynes’ cancelation was the deterioration of her mental health, and, ironically, the silencing of her voice as a woman of color. That her punishment was far too severe for relatively minor misdeeds and that no penance was possible underscores a troublesome trend whereby people become human sacrifices to the cause of social justice.

Furthermore, not every hasty social media call-out is based upon true information. Take the false allegations of plagiarism that swirled around artist Mary Purdie, and culminated in unbearable bullying on Instagram. While she attempted to apologize for a sin she didn’t commit to stop the online harassment, her mental health suffered unquantifiable damage because of the vitriol. “I just finished cancer treatment and 100 people are in my DMs every day this week telling me to kill myself,” she recalled. “Even if the plagiarism claim was true, is that, you know, like, is that fair? That I should die?” As a result of the social media mobbing associated with her cancelation, Purdie still deals with “the residual trauma.” That too often people suffer mental health consequences based upon false narratives is just one of the perils of callout culture.

The reality of cancel culture is that it has imperiled countless people in the mental health community. Calling people out and then permanently canceling them neglects to appreciate our imperfect nature and potential for growth, and the knee-jerk reactions on social media culminate in handing out punishments based upon biases and needing to scapegoat people, without a fair accounting of their character or the presumption of innocence. Too often, people jump to conclusions based upon flawed notions of accountability, not realizing that few of these call-outs give the proper context to make a decision about anyone’s rectitude. As in Mary Purdie’s case, they far more often culminate in trauma rather than in any modicum of justice.

Before people engage in the next call-out, they should consider how unjust it is to cancel people for life sans any possibility for redemption because of relatively minor transgressions. They should also ponder the harmful impact on our public discourse in general if one instance of poor judgment is considered to be more important than a lifetime of positive contributions to people’s happiness. If we can learn anything from the excesses of cancel culture, it is that we should embrace our common humanity as flawed human beings, and that cyberbullying and expecting perfection from others in the name of justice is hypocritical and deleterious to people’s mental well-being.

Getty image via nadia_bormotova

Originally published: September 2, 2020
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