• Wed, 5, Aug, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Should we be supporting cancel culture?

Phone in hand / Pixabay

The rise of cancel culture: quarantine orders around the world definitely had something to do with it.

With people isolated and restless in their homes, glued to their screen slightly more than average, it’s not hard to see why. Old videos and digital documents resurface more easily when we are rewatching everything we can get our hands on, and Twitter tags climb the ranks better when more of us are active online.

Even if we have a general feel for what cancel culture is, I find it hard to define precisely. It’s described as revoking support for individuals or companies that do something offensive — but revoking support and offensive actions are themselves quite vague.

Getting the Central Park Karens and Costco Kevins of the world reprimanded and fired is cancelling, and so is refusing to support the work — past, present and future — of celebrities with controversial ideologies (see J.K. Rowling). So is simply adopting the #IsOverParty hashtag (e.g. #EllenIsOverParty, #DojaCatIsOverParty), tweeting and retweeting furiously. 

Cancel culture could ruin a person’s career and livelihood, or it might do little more than stir up a week-long social media tiff — and the distinction often lies along class lines. Cancel culture comes for both people that date Republicans and people that have sexual assault allegations against them. And, sadly enough, occasionally for the wrong people entirely, like when internet sleuths mistakenly identified the actions of a peaceful protestor and left him to shoulder the fallout.

Don’t get me wrong, cancel culture definitely can be used for social good. We are now refusing to accept the unacceptable. For the marginalised, social media represents a forum, a community, and a platform. When fronting corporations and celebrities, the collective voice is both a salve and a weapon. It’s comforting, and it’s powerful. In exposing and boycotting individuals and companies with problematic stances, cancel culture highlights the battles various activist groups are fighting and the difficult conversations we should be having.

But — as can happen when we need to squeeze our hot takes into 280 characters or less — cancel culture also erases a lot of the nuance that such conversations should have. For example, some people called for the cancellation of Jimmy Fallon after an old blackface skit emerged. This begged questions that couldn’t be answered with a simple #JimmyFallonIsOverParty.

Recent transgressions notwithstanding, should people be sanctioned for past problematic behaviour or questionable relationships? Is cancel culture (which often comes with boycotting, unfollowing and diminishing someone’s platform) detrimental to growth and change if we just silence those who make mistakes? Is it censorious? Is it a form of activism?

According to various writers and academics including Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem, cancel culture is the latter — it’s censorious, polarising and stunts healthy debate. They are two of many signatories of an open letter calling for the cancellation of cancel culture (ironic, but nonetheless an interesting read). They argue that “restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” It’s clear from the signatories and context of the letter that the writers are asking to retire a specific strand of cancel culture — the strand that paints the world of policy-making and academia in black and white. The strand that divides political landscapes into extremes. And I get that.

But in other strands of cancel culture, debate is safe. In other strands, it’s discrimination, apologism and hate speech that the public comes after because people’s rights and freedoms should not be up for discussion. In other strands, sometimes things are more black and white than we think.

In many ways, cancel culture is the 21st century equivalent of humanity’s well-worn social policing. For better or worse, we judge, condemn and boycott with many of the same intentions we’ve always had. It’s just that now our methods deliver results quickly and pack more of a punch.

It’s a great power we have these days — and it comes with great responsibility. We should be careful about when, how and against whom we wield it.


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