Since the world erupted in response to the video-captured murder of George Floyd, the once radical ideas of defunding and dismantling the police have moved to the centre of political discussion. In Canada, a recent poll conducted by Ipsos shows majority support for defunding the police at 51 per cent.

Citizen organizing through protests, petitions and contacting political representatives has resulted in governments debating the reduction of police budgets and, in the case of our neighbours in Minneapolis, the dismantling of their police force.

While many eyes remain on the Minneapolis police as a potential test-case for reinvented community-focused justice models, the question of how governance will adapt to the needs of a changing society is being asked on a global scale.

What is now referred to as “cancel culture” is an age-old tool to hold people accountable when the justice system fails. Historically, it has primarily been a tool of the privileged, but its long existence alludes to the desire of citizens to act as checks and balances beyond a justice system that does not always deliver just outcomes. By “cancelling” a person, we effectively put them on an indefinite timeout for breaking the social contract. Like the prison system, we seek to have perpetrators removed from society without having to examine and address the cause of their actions as a community.

As cancel culture continues to radicalize itself as a way to combat oppressive structures, a conundrum arises: Can cancel culture continue to be utilized by people calling for the abolition of the police? Is it not a way to police the actions of individuals through the removal of rights and a voice, akin to policing and the prison industrial complex?

Dr. Angela Davis, whose academic work is critical to many police and prison abolition movements, argues that alternatives for individual accountability need to be explored to build a healthier society. Davis highlighted “how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and their families,” during a 2003 talk at the Kennedy School of Government. “The prison is considered so natural and so normal that it is extremely hard to imagine life without them.”

If we do not analyze cancel culture through a public health lens, are we not then risking the continuation of the oppressive structures that we are organizing to fight?

This normalization is continued in our grassroots approach to citizen-organized justice via cancel culture. Through cancelling we are seeking to sequester people in a way that holds them accountable for their actions, separating them from their communities through shaming and shunning. These actions are felt differently based on a variety of factors such as social capital, race and gender. This is not to say that some people who have been “cancelled” do not deserve to be held accountable, but to draw a correlation between the impacts of cancel culture and the impacts of policing and prisons.

Public health is often defined through the narrow lens of government actions, but as societal and grassroots organizing more easily lead to mass mobilization (through the use of social media and other technological advancements) we need to understand that public health exists beyond legislation and political offices.

As such, if there are cries to address police brutality as a public health crisis, do we not need to examine the tools of citizen mobilization through a public health lens as well?

While cancel culture does not have the sweeping impacts of mass incarceration (especially during a global pandemic that requires social distancing for safety and health), the question remains of whether it is a tool designed to achieve the long-term objectives we are seeking to attain.

To cancel someone is to remove them from a portion of society without looking at the reason they caused harm. It does not offer healing, it does not offer a community-based solution and it continues the narrative that we should only offer sticks to those who deviate from the norm. This is the opposite of transformative justice, which is the basis of anti-prison and anti-policing movements. If we do not analyze cancel culture through a public health lens, are we not then risking the continuation of the oppressive structures that we are organizing to fight?

The police and prison abolition movements are not simply calling for the eradication of policing and prisons, but for the redirection of funding and employment into areas that heal and address the root causes of crime and deviation from social norms. This includes calling into question social norms themselves, as they are often deeply entrenched in white supremacy and patriarchy. While cancel culture may encourage individuals to question their actions out of fear of being cancelled, it does not call for the radical changes necessary to undo oppressive structures.

These are difficult questions to navigate, especially when cancelling is often one of the few tools in our belt

Cancel culture is accessible to everyone. The ability to boycott and remove public support is a tool that can be leveraged by any person at any spot on the political spectrum. As Sarah Hagi, a Toronto-based writer focused on racism and Islamophobia, outlined in a Time magazine article, she constantly faces the threat of being cancelled by those who oppose her work, which documents her own experiences of oppression. Hagi summarizes her experience online by stating, “When they throw around terms like ‘cancel culture’ to silence me instead of reckoning with the reasons I might find certain actions or jokes dehumanizing, I’m led to one conclusion: they’d prefer I was powerless against my own oppression.”

So is it time to examine alternative tools when the ones we are using to mobilize are being turned against us to undercut our focus on dismantling oppressive structures? Is this proof that we are using the tools of the oppressor to gain traction?

These are difficult questions to navigate, especially when cancelling is often one of the few tools in our belt, allowing our voices to be amplified and our impact felt. But as we continue to push for a more just society by actively dismantling the oppressive structures that support and result in police brutality (among many, many other things), we must continue to reflect on whether our tools are serving us, or if they are just resolidifying the society we are trying to reimagine.

Denna Berg holds a master’s degree in public policy and works as a policy advisor in the health equity realm.