The words "Off with his head!" has been decried from many a theatre stage dating back to The Globe in 16th century London and is perhaps the first (and harshest) version of "Cancel Culture" in history.
However, recent years have seen a remarkable return to this approach to social discourse, this time under the guise of demanding accountability. Despite the lack of decided gruesomeness in today's version, there is still a significant problem with it.
The #Me Too movement created a sense of empowerment in facing our oppressors, our abusers, the spokes in the wheels of our social and cultural progress, and in its wake, we seem to have realised that the secret to undermining the power of those who wield it cruelly over us is to deny them the platform they need to extend their influence.
While this approach has been somewhat problematic in its application due to the "bandwagon effect" resulting in since-proven-to-be false claims that have damaged reputations and killed careers without cause, the fear of being silenced and dismissed, with an audience collectively turning its back on people who crave its attention, has been an effective way to dismantle the power base of those who have used their power cruelly and with prejudice.
In this sense, "Cancel Culture" has truly played a significant role in dismantling damaging cultural systems and moved the spotlight from reverence for the person because of their influence, to the damage that the power base feeding their influence has caused to others, and quite rightly so. However, the relative success of this movement has extended into almost every facet of our public world and as is inevitable with almost every social construct, it has evolved into a beast with its own head.
Cancel Culture is not accountability when it doesn't hold anyone to account.
"We" don't like something someone says? Cancelled. "We" don't like a decision someone made? Cancelled. "We" don't like what someone is wearing? Cancelled.
However, what we are apparently overlooking is that in order for the "cancellation" to take effect, it needs to be considered warranted by someone with enough clout (usually meaning enough social media followers) to call them out.
It seems to me that what started out as a courageous attempt to hold people in power to account and tumble a system that was systematically destroying lives and abusing individuals' personal agency and even identity, has been viciously turned into a social play, performed on a high school stage that defines who is "cool" and who is "not", leaving in their wake a stream of broken careers and even more broken people.
In recent months, it has started to be recognised that the evolution of this "Cancel Culture" has progressed to the point where people are now afraid to share ideas, to publish opinions that go against the grain, that inspire debate, that get people talking and people are even more unwilling to write them. That's not success. That's not improving accountability. That's internalising prejudice.
You might wonder what has gotten me so riled up about this. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's politics.
As a result of the leadership spills our country has seen since 2000 on both sides of politics, Australia has become known as "the coup capital of the democratic world." And yet, after each leadership spill resulting in a new PM, the differences to the average Australian has been relatively negligible. And, when Scott Morrison went to Hawaii instead of staying here and leading us through the crisis, we called for him to resign, as if Peter Dutton standing in the wings was going to offer the nation more empathy than a forced handshake. The problem wasn't Mr Morrison. The problem was the system that placed him on the throne.
When we focus on the system's representative and not the systemic issues that create the problems in the first place, we find ourselves playing whack-a-mole in a Cancel Culture game that fails to cut to the quick of the problem, while heralding celebrities who happen to land on the popular side of the issue as the bringers of sense.
"Cancel Culture" is not accountability when it doesn't hold anyone to account. The disappearance of public figures due to public disdain and a collective cold shoulder doesn't dismantle squat for there's another in the wings ready to step in and carry on. People need the chance to learn from mistakes, to fix them, make amends - to change the system they represent from within.
Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au