It’s been a good year for cancelling. There’s the pandemic, of course, which crushed all of our plans and some hopes and dreams along the way. But there were also more specific cancellations. From celebrities—Jimmy Fallon, J K Rowling and Ellen DeGeneres—to brands like SoulCycle and Oatly (as well as a fair few “normal” people), if you spoke, tweeted, or acted in an unfavourable way in 2020, chances were you’d be swiftly shunned for it.
Cancel culture—which sees individuals and brands spurned due to comments, actions or stances that some perceive to be wrong—is nothing new. “Fundamentally, cancel culture is about shame,” explains chartered psychologist and author of How To Build A Healthy Brain, Kimberley Wilson. “Shame emerges in response to the feeling that we have transgressed against some agreed social rule and lost status within the group.” Wilson says that evolutionary psychologists believe shame played a role in our survival—one upon a time, doing something that got us expelled from our tribe would have been life threatening.
But while being ostracised from society for wrongdoings has been a risk throughout human history, and while we’ve always—rightly—called attention to injustices, social media has given rise to a particularly virulent form of mob justice that is degrading our (already taxed) mental health.