"Why did you lie about having cancer?": what's really behind the strange psychology of internet cancel culture

It's normal to find ourselves irritated by celebrities. But the slow-burn punishment of "cancelling" rarely seems to fit any particular crime

March 09, 2020
"Cancelling" is certainly a punishsment—but for what crime? PHoto: Prospect composite
"Cancelling" is certainly a punishsment—but for what crime? PHoto: Prospect composite

Jameela Jamil is always trending on Twitter these days. Most recently, it was over a dispute about discrepancies in the way the actress’s medical history has been reported over time, with claims that illnesses had been exaggerated in hindsight or occurred in unusually quick succession. Some suggested she has Munchausen syndrome, and an intense wave of abuse was directed at her for days. It was a few weeks ago now, but many of the replies to her tweets are still from people demanding to know why she “lied about having cancer.”

If she did lie to the extent some of her critics are suggesting it would suggest she has, at the very least, quite a serious personal problem, possibly a mental health one. But the whole story could also just be the natural result of sensationalized headlines and reporting, with her medical experiences being dramatized on the retelling to serve as juicer clickbait.

I honestly don’t know which it is; I have to admit I didn’t really keep up with it. There will be fresh Jameela Jamil news soon and it’s impossible to stay on top of it all: at some point you have to tune out. She is the latest target of a trend for a kind of prolonged cancelling. A celebrity is deemed to be, for want of a better word, “bad,” and different components of their life (or, at least, the life that exists as a matter of public record) are dissected and criticised by anyone with spare time and a social media account. A kind of mob acting as a committee of vultures, resting to recuperate between sessions spent picking chunks out of an enormous body of meat they never quite finish off.

Arguments against cancelling tend to be led by the right and, increasingly, centrists who treat any kind of public outcry about any behaviour or speech, no matter how extreme, as evidence of a kind of creeping left-wing authoritarianism: the ‘thought police’ who ‘won’t let you say anything anymore’. This lacks nuance and seems to be rooted in the fear that social media has democratised the public sphere and given more power to those traditionally denied a platform to complain, more than anything else.

I’m not defending anyone’s right to say or do anything genuinely reprehensible. I think it’s fine if somebody loses their job for, say, promoting eugenics, or for making derogatory remarks to colleagues; and for people on social media to call this person out. I would also argue it’s fine for people with a few hundred followers to post things like ‘JJ does my head in’. What I’m talking about instead is the very specific online behaviour in which a person who is fairly benign is hounded and endlessly tagged into comments they don’t have the option of ignoring for a small perceived infraction of the social code.

In Jamil’s case, often she is being taken to task for a reasonable thing to criticise, even if the method is unnecessarily severe. She has centered herself as a face of the body positivity movement despite being the sort of slim, attractive woman who benefits from the very privilege the movement seeks to challenge; she often takes work opportunities on projects that aim to promote marginalised communities, which would likely have presented a good career development opportunity for someone less well known, and with a more authentic connection to the project. Her medical problems do not fall into this category, but this is how cancelling works: once someone has been deemed bad, everything they do becomes fodder for the mob.

I want to clarify here that I am not a Jamil stan. I find her brand of self-congratulatory feminism cynical and annoying. On the balance of probabilities, I think it’s possible that her foray into body positivity activism is a PR stunt designed to elongate and globalise her previous career as a UK TV presenter. But then, this is just my uninformed opinion: like everyone else casting judgements, I don’t really know anything about Jamil at all. At the end of the day, my suspicion that she might be up to something I dislike doesn’t really make her a bad person.

And besides, most celebrities—especially those who have achieved this level of fame—seem to get up to stuff like this, don’t they? While I don’t have much time for her, I don’t think persistent, recurring campaigns of abuse are the appropriate solution to the fact I consider her to be an irritating careerist. She is, after all, quite easy to ignore.

In fact, the intensity and volume of the anger directed at whoever happens to be the current target of cancelling make it hard to see exactly what it is the solution for. Being forced to face the angry questions and demands of waves of furious strangers is certainly a very effective punishment, but I’m not sure what crime it’s supposed to match. Most people are a mixture of bad and good, and quite often both of these things at the same time. It’s hard to see who, if anyone, truly deserves to be the person deemed “bad” this week or month.

Of course, in a way, it would be nice if this were not the case. Life would be simpler if we never had to feel confused or ambivalent about the things people in our lives get up to. The funny, kind friend who’s always cheating on his girlfriend wouldn’t be a moral question mark; the wonderful parent who embezzled money from his employer wouldn’t be a grey area.

I sense that this is where the urge to condemn and villainise celebrities comes from: a childish impulse to define a sense of moral clarity that doesn’t really exist, to make the world feel, in some small way, a bit simpler.

For some it also probably feels more dignified and smarter to say someone is guilty of x or y structural offense, or is ‘toxic’ in their entirety, than to say: “I, personally, don’t like them. They annoy me.” Reframing our personal dislikes to ourselves like this, as logical, considered political stances is a way of telling ourselves that we are not bad. We are not capable of being the sort of unfair person who just dislikes someone for no real reason. We are the ‘good’ people who don’t have bad impulses.

I’m not sure how it will end with Jamil but, regardless, the cancelling trend will live on in a fresh host. I can’t see it ending anytime soon. The need for justice is never satiated. How could it be? The anointed perpetrator is never the totality of the structural ill they have been made to represent. And besides, perhaps this whole thing is partly driven by a collective sense that dramatic, exciting things should be happening on social media platforms to justify all the time and energy we spend there. Maybe the only way to put a stop to it would be to collectively log off.