History’s Examples of Cancel Culture

Many of you might believe that cancel culture is a recent occurrence, but it simply became more prominent and obvious to us in the recent years thanks to social media. It seems as though humans have always felt the need to shun and look down on those who stood out from the crowd, be it due to a simple disagreement or just a plain dislike of the individual in question. From doctors to computer scientists and astronomers, here are a couple of examples of cancel culture throughout history.

1. Ignaz Semmelweis, Hand-Washing Pioneer Committed to an Asylum

Cancelled for hand-washing? That’s what doctors during the 1840s did to Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis, who theorized that the unusually high number of women dying after childbirth was connected to medical students who went straight from conducting autopsies to deliveries. Instead of praising him for his ground-breaking discovery, his colleagues took offense and mocked him mercilessly. All this stress led to a mental breakdown and he was thrown into a mental asylum where he passed away only two weeks later, ironically, from an infection.

2. Galileo Galilei Who Dared to Disagree with the Church

The Church’s influence over society has dwindled significantly over the past hundreds of years or so, but back then, they oversaw both religion and science and firmly supported the Copernican theory that the Earth stood center in the solar system. As you could imagine, they threw a fit at Galileo’s theory that the Earth orbited the sun and not the other way around. He firmly stood his ground and was later tried by the Inquisition who accused him of heresy then sentenced him to house arrest which he served until his death.

3. Michael Servetus, The Theologian Burned by Protestants for Heresy

Galileo’s punishment for so-called heresy was rather tame compared to what Michael Servetus endured. He is considered by many historians as one of the most controversial religious teachers of the 16th century, for openly criticizing the Church with his own theories about the Holy Trinity and astrology. The theologian managed to anger both Catholics and Protestants alike and, like Galileo, was eventually accused of heresy. After fleeing from Catholic France, he wound up in Calvinist Geneva where he was captured and burnt at the stake by order of the city council.

4. Alan Turing, The Computer Scientists Persecuted for His Sexuality

Alan Turing is known as the father of modern computing. His intelligence played a pivotal role during World War II, where he intercepted and decoded secret Nazi messages saving several lives in the process. But none of that mattered to Britain who viewed his sexuality as a criminal offense at the time. He was brought to trial, and given the choice of imprisonment or probation. He chose the latter along with one year of estrogen injections. He passed away in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, deemed by many to be self-inflicted.

5. Ostracism in Ancient Athens

The Ancient Greek version of cancel culture went something like this: every year, the people of Athens would be asked to select someone they wanted to ostracize. The reason didn’t matter. If the majority agreed, they would hold an election in the public agora under the watchful eyes of the council. Whoever received the most votes were given ten days to prepare for their ten-year banishment from the city. It took a total of around 6000 votes for the process to be deemed valid. Between 416 and 487 BC, there were at least thirteen men who were ostracized including renowned politician Themistocles, who was kicked out to curb his arrogance.

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