Seeing the downfall of others as entertainment has been explained by various psychologists and their examples can be seen in history through the crowds of public executions or in the 21st century by the popularity of the cancel culture. Firstly it is to note that I am in no way comparing the act of being killed to being shamed on the internet alone. Cancel culture is nowhere near as extreme as public executions, but it checks all the same psychological phenomena. It’s hysteria, finger-pointing, and then a pyre – a witch hunt (Twitter style).
Public executions were widely popular in the 18th century. The purposes of publicizing this punishment were one, a way to show force and power over the victims by the executors, and two, to deter individuals from defying laws and authorities. However, as they started to occur in mass numbers, the line of morality began to disappear.
For a long time In Britain, public hangings were a source of popular entertainment. Crowds of twenty thousand and more would turn out to see them, including plenty of kids and families who had traveled a great distance to be part of the excitement. The audience would grow to 100,000s when a widely hated person was about to be executed; Individuals being left crushed in the crowds were also reported. People were drawn to the drama, the gossip, and the communal nature of the events. In the book “Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads found” the anthropologist Frances Larson described why people enjoyed such acts. These events let people feel superior because they weren’t the ones being hanged, burned, or decapitated. Although the theatre of public executions died down, Today, the action takes place in a distant time and place, which gives the viewer a sense of detachment from what’s happening, a sense of separation. People often would tell themselves, “It’s nothing to do with me and has already happened.” Watching executions online brings a sense of invisibility and anonymity, which makes people feel less accountable for their actions.
This brings me to the possible successor of public executions: Cancel Culture.
Just as with the popularity of Public executions, there are a wide variety of reasons which Cancel culture has been so popular in the 21st century. One of the major reasons for its popularity is “Enjoying watching other people fall” which fits perfectly with the notion of public executions. This phenomenon is called Schadenfreude and is the feeling of pleasure at another person’s misfortune. I don’t hate cancel culture and feel as though it has helped hold influential people accountable. However, a line needs to be drawn when canceling brings people down without any reason and solely to ruin their lives for the fun of it. This kind of cancel culture encourages shame; it creates an us-versus-them dynamic that amplifies the problem rather than addressing it. The reason I have linked it to public execution is based on one major factor: Entertainment. Some people love to see celebrity’s downfall, and even when they have no reason to hate, they are often seen jumping on the bandwagon of the mission to point fingers and name shame. Cancel culture leads to the subject’s name becoming trending #1 on Twitter and people invading their privacy and finding whatever they can against them while they sit behind their computers unharmed.
There are possibly many other instances or examples that would also have their ancestral links to Public execution carnivals, but with the wide popularity of cancel culture these days it seems fitting to look into its history and evolution.
by: Fatima Sajid