The joke is on us: cancel culture does society more harm than good

Not a month went by in 2018 in which the words “cancel culture” weren’t brought up in some capacity. The term refers to a widespread internet phenomenon involving the exposure and boycott of a person (or piece of media) that has perpetrated some sort of unsavory act, often by sharing a questionable opinion or behaving problematically. 

The most recent example of this phenomenon is “Joker,” a gritty interpretation of the classic Batman villain’s origin story. Critics who have seen the movie during advance screenings, and even many who have not, have taken to the internet to deliver scathing reviews. The common refrain being repeated is that the film glorifies violence, specifically domestic terrorism. While topics like domestic terrorism can be daunting, especially when put to film, censoring the material risks doing more harm than good. It would be to the benefit of all of society if movies like “Joker” were seen as an opportunity to discuss the real-world issues they depict. 

For context, “Joker” isn’t the first example of a film supposedly inspiring violence amongst movie-goers. 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” a film in which a disturbed recluse of a man named Travis Bickle decides he must “wash all the scum off the streets,” was cited by Ronald Reagan’s would-be killer as the inspiration for a presidential assassination attempt. It doesn’t take a film historian to draw parallels between “Taxi Driver’s” Bickel and “Joker’s” lead and eventual titular character, Arthur Fleck, who likewise lashes out at society through violent means. 

At a distance, the recent media outrage doesn’t seem irrational at all. A common critique of the film is that the Joker character is made out to be a sort of “patron saint of incels.” For those unaware, the term “incel,” a portmanteau of the words “involuntary” and “celibate,” is often used to describe individuals incapable of finding a romantic partner. 

The most well-known member of this group might just be Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of the tragic Isla Vista killings back in 2014. In a video posted shortly before the harrowing murders, Rodger explains the impetus for his killings, with his failed love life being amongst the many reasons given. In a similar fashion to Rodger, and to a lesser extent the group of incels as a whole, Fleck is described by those who managed to see the film early as having been slighted by a female love interest, which may in part be the inciting factor for his actions. “Joker” seems poised to explore the incel subculture. 

The primary argument amongst those who’d like to see the movie “canceled,” however, is that an exploration of incel culture is liable to set off some individuals who may be on the precipice of committing similar violent acts. Academic studies have explored whether or not violent movies cause violence but have concluded that movies like “Joker” cannot be linked to violence in any meaningful way. As unfortunate as it is, those who are likely to be “tipped” over the aforementioned precipice were likely going to tip regardless. Blaming their actions on the media they consume is not only giving the perpetrators a sort of excuse, but it is also disrespectful toward their victims. 

To be sure, the cancel culture phenomenon is well-intentioned. It seeks to protect society by making certain subjects and artists taboo, but labeling something taboo hardly ever works. Society needs just the opposite: subjects like domestic terrorism, while frightening, must be discussed if any progress is to be made. Mental health issues and gun violence are both issues that need discussion. Avoiding either topic in favor of more impulsive decisions will only make matters worse. 

Another common comparison being drawn is that Fleck’s character is reminiscent of the real-world Aurora, Colorado shooter, who’s actions were erroneously described as having been inspired by the comic book villain. Despite the fact that this rumor has since been dispelled, the U.S. military deemed it necessary to issue a warning to its troops regarding the upcoming screenings of the movie, presumably in order to preempt a possible copycat murderer. 

Family members of the victims of the aforementioned Aurora, Colorado shooting approached the situation with more nuance. Instead of calling for an outright boycott of the film, five family members and friends of the victims wrote a letter to the Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff asking that the company come out in support of gun restrictionchoosing to use the film’s controversy as an opportunity to address the issue of domestic terrorism instead of attempting to boycott and silence discussion. If one finds themselves viewing a piece of art that disagrees with their core values, the answer will always be to continue discussing and searching for solutions to the issue. 

Perhaps the movie will ultimately fail to effectively comment on domestic terrorism, and while that would be incredibly disappointing to see, it still doesn’t mean the movie should be canceled. “Joker” actor Joaquin Phoenix explained in a recent interview that “(he doesn’t) think it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to teach morality,” and he’s right: it isn’t. A tangible solution to the issue of domestic terrorism would be the introduction of gun laws. It is foolish to place the blame on a film. 

Regardless of whether or not “Joker” glorifies violence upon its release on Oct. 4, the artists involved in its creation should not be held accountable for what an individual may do after seeing the movie. The viewer may disagree with the messages being put to screen, but an artist’s vision is an artist’s alone. If said viewer finds the content of a movie objectionable, they can and should feel free to express their disdain by not buying a ticket and refusing to interact with the film. 

If you happen to be amongst those who are critical of “Joker’s” portrayal of incel culture, take heart; with time the movie will soon fade out of the public consciousness. If anything, perhaps it is for the best that “Joker” sparked this conversation. The movie may very well turn out to be a disappointment, but at the very least it prompted society to discuss issues that have been hiding beneath its twisted underbelly for years. 

 

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