Opinion | Cancel Culture and the politics of Schadenfreude

Another day, another public figure cancelled. At this point, we're so used to people being cancelled on a daily basis that we don’t even bat an eyelid. However, this leads to complicity which in turn exacerbates the problem of cancel-culture into a never-ending vicious cycle.

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Even though multiple people have written and spoken out against cancel culture as well as given warnings about its end results, considering that the President of the United States has been knocked off his social media and anyone who doesn’t lean on the correct side of the Overton window is being cancelled, now isn’t the time to stop talking about it. 

In an age where most of our identity is manufactured for the sake of appearances and complicity, we’ve all appointed ourselves the purveyors of perfection, ready to cast our judgements upon the world.

 However, the judgement by itself is not an issue. We can’t help judging, it’s a visceral impulse born out of evolution. Judgements are necessary for evaluation and improvement. The problem arises when this judgement turns into derision which leads to the character assassination of an individual without redemption. This is exactly what happens in cancel culture. 

The only thing people love more than knowing every detail of a celebrity’s life is hating them. And cancel culture is the perfect excuse to execute this. It’s the only way in which people can get away with ganging up on someone they dislike or disapprove of without being constrained by regulations. While considering any kind of legal due process for cancelling someone is absurd, it’s worth noting that the lack of repercussions does embolden them, to such an extent that they think it’s acceptable to incite violence, threaten and reveal personal information. 

To state that cancel culture is toxic would be a ridiculous understatement. Real dangers are hidden in what’s being concealed, not in what’s being revealed. The politics of schadenfreude lie at the heart of cancel culture. Hence, to understand the real ramifications of its toxicity, we need to take a look at schadenfreude and its implications and influence on modern cancel culture. 

  • Schadenfreude ( of German origin) is defined by the dictionary as “Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune”. 

This type of feeling isn’t new. It’s common to almost everyone and has existed in every aspect of life. However, it wasn’t until the increase in social media use that schadenfreude became so dangerous and rampant. 

When a famous person is cancelled by everyday people, there’s a sense that you’re bringing about social justice. It’s easy to dehumanize and cancel them because celebrities aren’t considered very relatable or have much in common with ordinary people. There’s something extremely satisfying about seeing someone so successful being knocked down by you for doing something “unacceptable”. It gives an instant dopamine rush (a high) and brings about a sense of moral achievement. Every time we get such a high, we want more, so we’ll do more without realizing the impact it could have on celebrities’ and our own mental health. This ends with us becoming a more cruel, shameful and apathetic version of ourselves and society. We’re losing reason, the ability to give someone the benefit of the doubt in exchange for a kind of spiteful satisfaction that’s temporary.

The catch here is that cancelling someone is not the same as critiquing or educating them. Cancelling doesn’t focus on just the behaviour of a person, it attacks the person themselves. We’re all imperfect human beings who make mistakes and deserve a chance to rectify them without losing our sanity or families and friends in the process. But schadenfreude doesn’t allow that to happen. Is it any wonder why there’s an increase in loneliness and mental health problems along with a decrease in empathy and harmony?

Schadenfreude is such an open-shut case that there’s little to no proof or context required to cancel someone. Very often the person in question isn’t even given a chance to defend themselves. And when they do present their version of the story, it turns into a fickle game of bait and switch. There’s hardly any scope for nuance or empathy because once cancelled, you’re a done deal. And the people who interact with and defend you? They’re cancelled too! 

Schadenfreude not only divides, but it also distracts us from what’s truly important. When we’re inundated with people being vilified for petty wrongdoings, especially in our already hyper-stimulated lives, we lose even the little intolerance that we had for actual perpetrators of horrendous crimes. We become so busy mandating who does what that we let real criminals get away and instead needlessly slander the innocent. 

Accountability is necessary for people to take responsibility for their actions and evolve into better human beings. That’s how individuals identify their mistakes, learn from them and become an improved version of themselves. 

Even though cancel culture is touted to enforce accountability and calling out misdeeds, ironically it does the opposite by eliminating any accountability. Change is an inevitable aspect of accountability, which cancel culture doesn’t allow for. When people are cancelled with no scope for redemption, it takes away any semblance of future progress the individual makes and deprives the world of all the potential good they could have done for society. Fear of an unforgiving mob that formulates negative public opinion may induce many people to issue false apologies and make lacklustre efforts that do nothing to solve the original problem. 

Moreover, a vicious mob with an agenda and the power to sway public perception has the potential to ruin our lives just as anyone else’s. If public figures with their multitude of supporters and followers aren’t safe, then where does that leave the rest of us common folks? Quite possibly with severed relationships, job losses, harassment and death threats. 

The problem with cancel culture is that eventually, everyone will find themselves cancelled, one way or another. Considering the current state of polarization and political turmoil, it won’t be long before we’ll be living in our very own dystopia. In fact, it looks like we’re almost there. And it’s going to get nasty. So it’s time we all make a concerted effort to prioritise our unity and start valuing progress over perfection. 

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