When I was at secondary school, social media was just taking off. Everyone had a MySpace, a Bebo and Piczo account. We weren’t really taught much about them because the technology was so new that even our teachers were a bit clueless about it all. We didn’t know what online grooming was, that chat rooms could potentially be dangerous or that anything you share online leaves a digital footprint forever. We had pages on our Piczo accounts called ‘Rate My Mates’ where we posted pictures of ourselves and our friends to be rated out of ten. Those pages were the norm back then, but looking back I cannot understand why we had them or imagine them even existing now. We thought that the content we produced was gone forever when it was deleted or that a status from five years ago stayed in the past. We thought social media was just like chatting with your friends – you’re there for the moment it is posted or shared, you talk about it for a bit and then you drop it, thinking no more of it because it’s not there.
In recent years, we have learnt more about the internet and the way it actually works. Whatever you do or write stays there forever. Because of this, some people have profited from the past mistakes of others. People make it their job to riffle through the social media accounts of people in the limelight, trying to find a photo or tweet that could be deemed offensive, with the sole intent of ruining their lives. And they succeed. People have been fired from shows like Coronation Street for Tweets they posted when they were eighteen, trolled mercilessly for a comment from 2011, hacked and had their intimate photos leaked online.
It doesn’t just end at people’s online behaviour being hacked, stalked, pounced on, re-shared and over analysed. I saw Jameela Jamil, who works tirelessly for education, equality and social acceptance, receive online hatred for talking to Russel Brand on his podcast. Russel Brand has made mistakes in the past, and many at that, but he is also someone who has worked hard to make amends for what he did and change his ways. No one even wanted to recognise his character growth, just his past mistakes and they slammed Jameela for working with him as if she was suddenly a terrible person by association. It’s ludicrous – if we were all judged and defined by our mistakes, I don’t think any of us would be very successful in life.
Jo Brand was recently trashed for making a joke about Nigel Farage, milkshake and battery acid. I’m not saying the joke was right, but it clearly wasn’t serious a call to arms to throw acid at Nigel Farage. Coincidentally, I head a very similar acid attack joke this morning on the Netflix show ‘Great News’, but I don’t recall reading any uproar about that, yet there have been calls for Jo Brand to never be allowed on TV again. I read a tweet that said something along the lines of ‘we live in a world where we hold the words of our comedians to a higher level of persecution than we do our politicians’ and it’s true – just look at Boris Johnson’s track record of terrible things to say, yet he’s in line to be the next Prime Minister. Whilst Jo Brand’s joke might be insensitive and ill timed, is it really enough to pick her apart, to demand she never be on television again, to destroy a long standing career?
Of course not! If home intruders or rapists are allowed a second chance when they leave prison, why the hell can’t everyone else have one when a comment they make is taken a different way than they intended? Why does a teenage Tweet or an offhand comment have to ruin your life?
In a court of law, it is innocent until proven guilty. People are given the chance to speak and to share their side. In cancel culture, the verdict has been decided before anyone has time to respond. In a court of law, people are given a punishment and a chance to redeem themselves. In cancel culture, there is no chance of redemption – one move society doesn’t like and that’s it. You’re struck off, ostracised, shelved. Your career is over, your reputation in tatters, your life turned upside down. Let’s not forget that in a court of law, the things being decided over are actual, real crimes, whereas in cancel culture it’s often a joke taken a different way than intended, a comment from a person who might not be fully aware of a whole situation and need educating on it or a tweet from when you were twelve and trying to find your place in the world. If the law allows us to forgive, then why can’t we as people? Why do we want to cancel everyone so badly?
Of course when you write, speak or Tweet, you should be held accountable because they are your words and your interactions. The problem is, people do not look at the context or the arena of a comment, they don’t look at the conversation it was had in, they don’t look at character growth or change of the person. They don’t even look at the time period it was said in. They do not listen to the explanation, the reasoning or even the apology. They don’t show people how they were wrong or what was troublesome about what they said or did – they just demand that they be stripped of their rights and vanish from the face of the earth. Nothing you can ever do will be enough for some people. You can learn about the error you made, educate yourself on your prejudices, grovel at the feet of the outraged but they will still tell you you’re a bad person. It’s almost like people want to see other’s fail.
The reality is that if we had someone following us around for a day with a microphone recording everything, there would be something we said that someone out there didn’t like. You cannot make everyone happy all of the time. People are not made to agree on everything and that’s one of the many wonderful things about the world – difference. You don’t have to look at something in the same way as someone else. You also don’t have to change your opinion just because someone else doesn’t agree with it. Despite what cancel culture says, you are allowed to have an original thought.
I can guarantee that everyone, especially people my age, has something on their social media that makes them cringe now and potentially even something that the cancel culture police would deem inappropriate. When Time Hop shows me my memories, I cringe at my wording, at my need to post five statuses in a day and at the fact that I signed off every comment with ‘ily’ like I was a nicer Liam Gallagher. The standard of what was acceptable to talk about, what jokes we were allowed to say and the understanding of many social issues was different. Even though it was ten years ago, the world was a very different place than it is today. For starters, we didn’t live in The Age of Outrage.
We are judging people by today’s standards when they were younger, less educated and when we are looking at content produced in a different time. A comedian is known to joke, to push boundaries, to make us confront the uncomfortable at times – that is their role. A role that a few years ago wasn’t policed by social media and didn’t have people shouting ‘I AM OFFENDED’ and calling for everyone else to shout the same. I remember growing up and seeing worse jokes than Jo Brand’s on television. Even the brilliant Friends has jokes that you wouldn’t be allowed to make now without outcry. Times are different, standards are different.
It sometimes seems that standards are impossibly high. It seems you will always, always offend someone. Ricky Gervais talks about this best – that people look to be angry, they look to be outraged. Half of the time, when newspapers like The Daily Mail write headlines like ‘Taylor Swift Receives Backlash Over New Video’, there are five tweets criticising her, but because they draw attention to the negativity and blow it out of proportion, it then becomes a thing. Jo Brand’s comment was made on Radio 4 – I would love to see how many of the outraged actually listened to her comment and felt upset compared to how many read a sensationalist headline that was written to try provoke a reaction.
We live in a world that has just experienced a massacre Sudan, where women’s reproductive rights are being stripped from them in America. If we threw our outrage at things like that instead of the fact that a reality star called another reality star a name, think of the change we could make. If only we cared about the things that really mattered, not outrage for outrage’s sake just so we could watch someone crumble and lose it all. We could make a real difference in this world if we bothered to fight the battles that needed fighting.