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‘Cancel culture’ conundrums

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It’s time to have the conversation about cancel culture. Is it a force of free speech or a cause for concern?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the rate at which our society is evolving. According to Google’s Year in Search 2020, we searched “how to change the world?” twice as much as “how to get back to normal?”. Instead of looking back, we have started to look forwards.

It was made clear in the removal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. During the Black Lives Matter protests it was moved from its plinth to the Bristol harbour. Showing that people are not willing to let the past stop progress. (The statue has since been removed from the harbour and placed in a museum as part of history.)

Cancel culture is very present in this step forwards towards the light, although there is a debate about whether it is helpful or more of a hindrance. 

But what is cancel culture? Being cancelled is when a person or community is exposed for expressing something controversial or offensive, leading to public rejection, usually on social media platforms. People want to be able to hold others accountable for their actions. Although it is important to note that it is not just singular individuals who are subject to cancel culture.

Brands are also guilty of causing offence: Pepsi was criticised when their 2017 advert, featuring model Kendal Jenner, appeared to trivialize protests including Black Lives Matter. More recently, in June of last year, Starbucks came under fire for telling employees not to wear any Black Lives Matter T-shirts or badges.

In Vox’s piece Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture, it’s been speculated that the term ‘cancel’ was first used in the 1991 film New Jack City. The character Nino Brown dumps his girlfriend due to her upset about all the violence he’s perpetrating. He says: ‘Cancel that bitch, I’ll buy another one’.

Lil Wayne referenced the film in his 2010 song I’m Single: ‘Cancel that bitch like Nino’. But the first time the term seems to have been used on social media was in 2014. This was after a cast member of VH1’s Love and Hip Hop tells his ‘love interest’ Diamond Strawberry ‘You’re cancelled’, during a fight. Since then cancel culture has reached the masses through the power of social media.

One of the most prominent examples of cancel culture is following the 2017 #MeToo movement where many women chose to speak out about the sexual assault they witnessed and suffered throughout their respective workplaces and industries.

It seems to be a huge positive that we can ‘cancel’ these people who have caused such irreversible hurt. In March 2020, Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in jail for rape and other sex crimes.

When the sexual assault allegations were filed against Kevin Spacey, he was dropped for his starring role in House of Cards, an HBO series, in addition to many of his other projects. He is yet to be prosecuted and denies all allegations. However since being ‘cancelled’ his career is essentially over.

Cancel culture allows others to feel like they can come forward and that people will be held accountable for their actions.

Due to the power of the cancel culture, some men are worried that their careers may end over false allegations and innocent interactions with women. However, this is not likely to become the norm. Many men who have been accused by multiple victims do not actually end up facing long-term consequences for their actions.

For example, after R. Kelly received many accusations of sexual abuse and Lifetime’s docuseries aired, Billboard stated that there was an increase in the streaming of his music. On one hand, this could be due to simple human curiosity, people trying to find evidence of his guilt through his music.

But on the other hand, there is a worry that people may be sympathising with the accused. Cancel culture may not achieve the end goal that we desire; people being held accountable for their actions and suffering long-term consequences. 

There are other issues to be found with cancel culture. What can start out as drawing attention to privileged and offensive positions can quickly turn into a viscous inhumane online attack. In other words, cancel culture can go too far.

When Kim Kardashian West released video footage which suggested that Taylor Swift gave permission for the derogatory lyric used by Kardashian West’s husband Kanye West, the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty began trending globally. Although seemingly a private feud, thanks to social media, Taylor Swift was cancelled.

In her 2020 documentary Miss Americana, she asked “Do you know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen?” It raises questions around the morality of such approaches. Speaking to Vogue, Taylor Swift said: “When you say someone is cancelled, it’s not a TV show. It’s a human being”.

However, her career is not ruined, she proves that one who is cancelled can rise again. Unfortunately, another case shows that this abuse can take a toll and simply be too much for someone to handle. When Caroline Flack, the presenter of TV show Love Island, was accused of assaulting her boyfriend, she was subject to vast amounts of online abuse. She was accused of striking her boyfriend while he slept due to believing that he was cheating on her. In response the media went wild and she was cancelled.

On 15th February 2020, Caroline took her own life. This tragic news shocked many into quoting: “In a world where you can be anything be kind.” which Caroline wrote on Instagram in December. Her actions were wrong and I think it is important both to acknowledge that it is understandable that people called out her assault on her boyfriend and criticised it.

Yet, the conversation became one sided and toxic enough for someone to commit suicide. Something has gone wrong with the notion of drawing attention to wrongs. 

In the age of social media it has never been easier to express our views and pass judgement on others. Any mistake or misjudgement is immortalised and people can be very unforgiving. When someone is #cancelled online, it can feel very much like they’ve ceased to exist.

It echoes the Black Mirror episode Hated in the Nation. The final episode in the third series of the dystopian programme focuses on social media hate. (Spoilers): When someone tweets #DeathTo, that person is murdered by robotic bees. However, the real twist is that at the end those who have used the hashtag are themselves killed. A poignant comment on the dangers of social media.

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Another term used in conjunction with cancel culture is ‘call out culture’ which is another way of highlighting privilege and wrong actions. The difference is that cancel culture calls for more dramatic action, a wish to silence, a loss of career and income.

Whereas call out culture is a more mild want of acknowledgement and a wish for change. Perhaps call out culture, rather than cancel, is the way forwards. And yet that raises questions regarding the seriousness of the crime.

For example, it is indisputable that Harvey Weinstein’s actions deserved the removal of his freedom and income and a 23 year prison sentence. The conversation continues.

Cancel culture is a politically heavy notion. The left concedes that it is a classic tactic for the social media-obsessed age. According to Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan, for people lacking power to make change, refusing to participate by ignoring them- i.e. ‘cancelling’ them is how people may respond. Whereas on the right, ‘cancel culture’ is seen more as restriction on free speech.

In a similar vein, an open letter was published in Harper’s Magazine calling cancel culture a ‘restriction on debate’. The letter was signed by 150 writers, academics and activists such as: Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood. In response, a counter-letter was written claiming that cancel culture is a way of dealing: “with the problem of power: who has it and who does not”. 

Just last month, following the Capitol riots, Twitter suspended Donald Trump’s account and issued the following statement: “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonalTrump account and the context around them – specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter –  we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence”. When such a huge company sees hate speech for what it is and does not use the excuse of free speech, it is a sure sign that times are changing.

Interestingly, some of the signers of the Harper’s Magazine letter have been cancelled themselves. A particularly important discussion now in LGTBQ+ History Month is the current controversy regarding JK Rowling.

In a tweet she was offensive to the transgender community by commenting on the terminology ‘people who menstruate’ with “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Another of her tweets read: “Many health professionals are concerned that young people struggling with their mental health are being shunted towards hormones and surgery when this may not be in their best interests”, she then compared these processes to “a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people”. These tweets led to an online outrage and for calls of her to be cancelled.

Her denial that trans women are women and trans men are men is inexcusable. She has tried to defend her views by stating that there are those who regret transitioning. The number of these cases compared to those who have happily transitioned is negligible. If people were free to express and explore who they are freely without judgement and hate there would be no confusion stemming from stigma and abuse. 

Members of the cast of the Harry Potter films vehemently opposed her views and were quick to show love and support to the transgender community. Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the film series, expressed his opinion in a blog post for the Trevor Project. A non-profit organisation that provides support and suicide prevention services for young members of the LGBTQ community.

He said: “While Jo is unquestionably responsible for the course my life has taken, as someone who has been honored to work with and continues to contribute to The Trevor Project for the last decade, and just as a human being, I feel compelled to say something at this moment.”

He stated that “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I”.

He concluded with a heartfelt message for all Harry Potter fans, “It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much.”

I am a huge Harry Potter fan and personally found a lot of comfort in the books. I try to distance them from the author who has disappointed her fans with such hateful opinions. With behaviour such as this, people do want to cancel those who cause hurt and harm. Ultimately though, with such a strong fanbase, support from other TERFs and being an author, she can not be truly ‘cancelled’.

Which leaves the question of what cancel culture achieves?

Photo by Cherwell

Jameela Jamil, actress and activist, defends those making mistakes, whilst speaking to Laura Whitmore on BBC Radio 5 Live, she said that people should be able to “re-enter” society if they are trying to learn from their mistakes and change:

“The moral superiority obsession of the last couple of years is stopping people from asking really important questions and that scares me. We have to be more open to criticism, we have to be less afraid of it,” she said. In a Zoom call with Grazia, Jamil stated that “There are people so much more powerful than me who could do so much good but they’re scared of being cancelled. I know this because I speak to them on a daily basis and they all want to help but they’re so afraid of getting something wrong”. 

Jamil reached out to L’Oréal to reinstate Munroe Bergdorf as a model. The first transgender model in a L’Oréal campaign, she was dropped in 2017 due to her comments around racism. After re-joining L’Oréal, Bergdorf said: “Kudos to L’Oréal for asking me to join its board, because it takes strength of character to hold your hands up and say, ‘I got this wrong’. I really hope other brands take this opportunity to get their house in order. I get asked by brands all the time what they can do to be more inclusive and it really is as simple as hiring a diverse team.”

In 2019, former President Obama joined in with the cancel culture discourse. He had a similar view to Jamil, stating that: “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly”.

He stated that: “The world is messy; there are ambiguities”. Obama concluded: “That’s (cancel culture) not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

The conversation regarding cancel culture is far from over. We have the right, and arguably the need to call out offensive actions and hate speech. ‘Cancelling’ people does not always hold people truly accountable and calling them out may lead to a more encouraging atmosphere for real change to take place and people to learn from their mistakes.

Minorities who harness the power of social media to make their voices heard should be heeded and victims of abuse treated with respect. But we must not lose ourselves on the way, we must remain kind in our treatment of others. Principally, leading a hate campaign can overrule the point someone is trying to make and only result in silencing the voice that people are claiming to hear.

Featured image credit: Jeffrey Czum on Pexels.com

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