• Maggie Dunsford

Cancel Culture, Schadenfreude and Empathy!

This post is gonna be a little bit different. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the media, social media, the internet and how it affects us all. I can thank this to a great podcast called Indirect Message hosted by one of my favorite YouTubers, Laci Green. And I want to explore topics relating to the internet and social media in future posts and talk about how all this affects mental health.

This post, however, was inspired by a video recently posted by another of my favorite YouTubers, Contrapoints, also known as Natalie Wynn. Natalie studied philosophy at the doctoral level before quitting and instead found a home on YouTube making elaborate video essays explaining left-wing ideas and responding to criticism from the right. Natalie is a transgender woman and her video topics often relate to gender, politics, and feminism.

Centrepoint’s most recent video titled “Canceling” is an hour and forty-minute rebuke of cancel culture inspired by her experiences being “canceled” by Twitter. In the video, Contra goes into her own drama (which I will not explain here because it’s not really relevant, but feel free to find out the tea and come to your own conclusions) and explains herself and also breaks down cancel culture. Contra, in essence, attempts to cancel cancel culture since she can’t un-cancel herself. The video is the length of a feature film and is a time commitment, but it’s brilliant and I highly recommend it.


But what is cancel culture anyway? Why does it matter? How does it relate to mental health?

Just a note that this post is going to include some of my own thoughts on cancel culture. Some people may not agree with me and that’s okay! Please comment and let me know your thoughts.


Cancel culture (or call out culture) is a form of public shaming that usually takes place on social media platforms in which someone, usually someone famous, is boycotted and shunned for being ‘problematic’ in some way, or is accused of being problematic. Canceling is supposed to correct an injustice, give someone what they deserve in essence. In the past few years, many powerful people have been canceled or threatened with cancelation. And although canceling has its issues that I will mention, canceling has done some good. For example, the #MeToo movement has consisted of public shaming of sexually abusive men who faced consequences for their actions, sometimes for the first time. So calling people out can be beneficial. But when does it cross the line and become abusive? When does it become an excuse for bullying? What effects does this have on a person? And why do we participate in this culture to begin with?


Schadenfreude is a feeling of pleasure experienced at someone else’s misfortune, and it seems to have a lot to do with cancel culture. When a famous person is canceled by everyday people on Twitter, there’s a sense that you’re punching up. There’s something satisfying about seeing someone so successful being knocked down a peg for doing something deemed unacceptable.


Now it’s not inherently bad to experience schadenfreude, it’s a human emotion we all feel from time to time. It’s why we get a little thrill when we get a better grade than the A student at the top of the class, or laugh at viral videos of people getting hurt, or find humor in bad performances (I grew up watching American Idol and seeing the terrible performances was almost better than the good ones). That stuff is normal and it doesn’t make you a bad person. But I think schadenfreude can turn dangerous, especially when it’s taken to social media and turned against famous people. Who, may I add, are easy to dehumanize because they aren’t “relatable” and don’t have much in common with everyday people.


My problem with cancel culture is that “canceling” is not the same as criticizing or educating someone. Canceling doesn’t focus on the bad behavior of a person and comment on that, it abstracts from that and attacks the person themselves. Canceling doesn’t allow for growth or for people to fuck up and make mistakes.


I was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian family and was indoctrinated into believing some pretty shitty stuff from the time I was little. I couldn’t even tell you what the word “gay” meant. I did, however, believe that it was bad and sinful because the people I loved and trusted most ie. my parents and the church said that being gay was wrong. I had to grow out of those beliefs and become friends with LGBTQ people to understand that I was wrong my entire life. I was able to grow as a person, learn, and educate myself and become a better person as a result.


Megan Phelps-Roper used to be apart of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is described as many as a hate group and is monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. They hold reprehensible views on the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and basically any group outside of their own.


Phelps-Roper ran the groups Twitter and began to engage with people who argued with her, critiquing her hateful views and not her as a person. She learned and educated herself and interacted with people she grew up believing were evil and found that they were willing to listen to her despite all her beliefs. Eventually, she left the church, wrote a book about her story, and now works to combat extremism and overcome hatred between political and religious groups. As Contrapoints says in “Canceling,” “...sometimes people who seem ignorant or hateful just need to be given a non-judgemental space to learn, and grow, and think and to just condemn them as hopeless bigots actually prevents that growth from taking place…”


Now I don’t want to get super political here. This ties into conversations about free speech and whether hateful ideas should be allowed on platforms and I don’t want to get into that. I’m not of the mind that everyone should just try to get along and sing kumbaya and agree to disagree. Hateful ideas need to be criticized: fascists, homophobes, racists, and incels need to be challenged and critiqued whenever possible. There are truly reprehensible, terrible people out there who do not deserve a platform to share their beliefs and these people need to be held accountable for their actions. Bad behavior needs to be addressed.


But I’m of the mind that internet canceling sometimes goes too far and has a real effect on people’s mental health. One example is August Ames, a pornographic actress who killed herself after being canceled on Twitter. She tweeted something that sure seemed homophobic but never got the chance to defend herself before Twitter mobbed her, bullying her and tearing her apart. Shortly after this happened, she killed herself.


Contrapoints, in her video, talks about what it felt like to be canceled and have her colleagues and friends doxxed and pressured to apologize just for being associated with her. I’m not a popular YouTuber with a platform and I’ve never been canceled by hundreds of people on Twitter, so I can only imagine what it was like to deal with this vitriol for weeks. Needless to say, it didn’t feel good to Natalie. This kind of thing does cause damage and does affect people’s mental health.


I don’t really know what the answer to this is, but I know it involves a lot more empathy. It’s hard to empathize with a complete stranger who seems to be on top of the world. It’s in fact really easy to dehumanize someone in that position and feel justified bullying them because you think they deserve it. When someone is just an avatar behind a screen and a collection of tweets and you yourself have the benefit of anonymity, it’s really easy to say some nasty things you would never say to the person’s face. I think social media and the internet has huge implications for mental health and I want to explore this further. Cancel culture seems to be just one instance of this, and it’s so pervasive that it needs to be thought about more.


I love drama as much as the next person, and it can be fun to observe successful people falling on their faces, but I implore people to think before they tweet or respond to others and think about the effect it could have. Spill the tea, but be careful not to burn anyone in the process.


Image Credit: Getty Images

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