Does Cancel Culture Even Exist?
Molly Kavanagh examines the existence, or lack thereof, of “cancel culture” through the lens of #MeToo, JK Rowling and Phil Hogan.
Molly Kavanagh examines the existence, or lack thereof, of “cancel culture” through the lens of #MeToo, JK Rowling and Phil Hogan.
Cancel culture is a phenomenon that was previously limited to niche corners of the internet, but now it’s transcending that sphere and is seeping into mainstream discourse, most notably with the ‘cancellation’ of beloved children’s author, J.K Rowling. Or alternatively, has cancel culture existed in mainstream discourse all along, only we didn’t have a label for it until now? Cancel culture is a relatively new term, and for that reason, it is still somewhat ill-defined.
Merriam Webster Dictionary attempted to define it by saying: “To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.”
Merriam Webster goes on to suggest that cancel culture planted its roots in the #MeToo movement when people began to demand increased accountability for famous men who had been accused of sexual misconduct, such as the disgraced comedian Louis C.K, who was accused by several women in the entertainment industry. It seems that people are being cancelled with increasing frequency, and sometimes it happens to the people we least expect. One example is Ellen Degeneres, an American talk-show host who was famous for her bubbly personality and her positive attitude before it was revealed by former staff members that she cultivated an extremely toxic work environment on-set of The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
I’ve identified three main arguments against cancel culture: The first argument is that cancel culture and public shaming are two sides of the same coin. The public forum that cancel culture takes place in (the courtroom of ideas, kind of), is social media – mainly Twitter. Because cancel culture always occurs publicly and on the internet, it makes the person being cancelled a prime victim for torrents of online hate that border on cyber-bullying.
The second argument is that cancel culture is a form of “mob rule.” People have expressed that they’re reluctant to share their ideas and opinions on the internet because they’re afraid that they’ll be socially ostracised if that idea or opinion doesn’t conform to the widely accepted beliefs that are present on the internet at the time.
The third argument is that cancel culture is unforgiving, and it’s actually a detriment to social and political progress. People who engage in cancel culture often fall into a reductive and over-simplified binary in which a person is either wholly good or bad, and once you’ve been placed into the lesser of the two camps, there is no going back. It’s a one and done. Your career and reputation have been irreparably damaged, and there is nothing you can do to change it. The goal of cancel culture is not to enlighten and inform the ignorant or uneducated; it’s meant to punish them.
J.K Rowling addresses these arguments in the open letter published in Harper Magazine, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” asserting that: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” She further asserts that “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”
This may be a reference to the New York Times opinion columnist who lost his job after greenlighting the publication of an article written by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, titled “Bring in the Troops” in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that gripped the nation following the murder of George Floyd. But it’s impossible to tell because the wording of Rowling’s letter is kept purposefully vague. The public reception of Rowling’s letter has been mixed, to say the least – but here’s what I think J.K Rowling got wrong.
Cancel culture, in my opinion, is nothing new. It’s not a product of a spoiled, intolerant, leftist generation who grew up behind the screens of a computer, raised by the internet. Ever since we, as human beings, developed the ability to form our own thoughts and opinions, we’ve been making educated decisions regarding who we want to associate with and who we don’t. This based on their personalities, their behaviors, their opinions, and so on- we’ve probably all unwittingly taken part in ‘cancel culture’ before it was even given a name. We’ve relabelled “not wanting to associate with somebody because they’re kind of a jerk” as cancel culture, and now we’re pretending that it’s something inherently bad, when it’s actually completely normal.
J.K Rowling’s second mistake is doing exactly that; labeling ‘disagreeing with her’ as an attack on free speech when it’s actually, quite literally, the exact opposite. Even after I unfollowed Rowling on Twitter, my feed was still flooded with her tweets (or people angrily replying to said tweets). She’s an extremely privileged individual, with millions of pounds in her bank account and millions of followers on social media, so it comes across as quite hollow and disingenuous when she claims that her platform is being stripped away from her. There are absolutely no barriers to her being able to express her beliefs on the internet, many of which are just the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and false narratives regarding transgender people or the gender confirmation process.
J.K Rowling is an example of a controversial public figure attempting to use cancel culture as a tool to victimize herself and shame her audience for not giving her their unconditional support in light of intolerable behavior. J.K Rowling’s air of moral and intellectual superiority stems from a misguided belief that she is somehow more tolerable than the mob of young, entitled snowflakes denouncing her on social media, but is she inadvertently engaging in the very same thing she’s condemning? Is she attempting to “constrict free speech” by invalidating people’s criticisms of her, and publicly denouncing those whose beliefs don’t align with hers? By Rowling’s own logic, I think the answer is yes. After all, what’s the difference between the people supporting her on social media, alongside the dozens of writers who co-signed her open letter, such as Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and John Banville, and the mob that J.K Rowling claims is attacking her?
Another example is former European Commissioner for Trade, Phil Hogan, who was forced to resign after he attended a golf event with eighty other guests in Kildare, despite there being COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time that prohibited large gatherings. A journalist for The Irish Times responded by referring to those who called for Hogan’s resignation as being part of a figurative “lynch mob,” accusing the current government of being “spineless” in the face of a “hysterical media.” The word choice is important here, because those who find themselves, or somebody they support, in the midst of a cancellation often use emotive and inflammatory language to paint those who are seeking accountability as being crazed and unreasonable, foaming at the mouth and calling for blood (instead of simply being concerned citizens who are demanding that their elected officials be responsible and law-abiding). If cancel culture removes officials who are incompetent, or don’t represent the views of their communities, from office, then where’s the problem in that? What’s the difference between cancel culture and demanding better behavior from people in positions of power, and what’s inherently wrong with that?
The most important question, however, is: does cancel culture even exist? The answer is “maybe, kind of, but not really.” At the very least, cancel culture does exist, but not in the way people think it does. The concept of cancel culture is similar to boycotting a corporation that is engaging in unethical business practices, except instead of boycotting a company, you’re boycotting an individual. For example, Louis C.K was “cancelled” in 2018 after it was revealed that he sexually harassed multiple female comedians and writers. But here’s the thing- Louis C.K returned to stand-up comedy in late 2018, and released a special in April of 2020. People attended his sets, paid to view his special, and although many of his professional partners severed ties with him, he remains a relatively successful comedian who retained many of the fans he had prior to the misconduct allegations.
J.K Rowling’s transphobic comments will impact future Harry Potter sales to some degree, but the fact remains that she’ll nonetheless still retain millions upon millions of loyal fans. Cancel culture, like everything, is entirely subjective. In my social circle, in my rather isolated little corner of the internet, sure, J.K Rowling is cancelled- but just because I’ve cancelled J.K Rowling doesn’t mean that everybody else will too. It doesn’t mean that everybody else disagrees with her in the same way I do, and it doesn’t mean that other people won’t choose to simply separate the artist from her art, and continue to financially support her in spite of her bigotry. In a way, I think cancel culture being subjective is somewhat of an oxymoron, because I was under the impression that the reason cancel culture is so harmful is because it destroys reputations, and leaves the cancelee totally isolated, with not a single supporter left in their corner. If this isn’t actually the case, then it becomes harder for me to recognize and acknowledge cancel culture as being a serious issue that is independent from just… deciding you don’t like somebody anymore.
So that’s what cancel culture isn’t. I do think there is a valid argument in which one could argue that cancel culture can be more accurately defined as a toxic mindset, in which young people are encouraged to believe that redemption is not, or should not, be possible, and forgiving a person for their harmful behaviors isn’t an option. In a way, it could be characterized as a gesture of power, in which young adults or teenagers on the internet relish in the fact that they’re the ones who now decide whether or not a person’s career is allowed to continue. At best, I do think this mindset, one of constantly looking for the very worst in people, is exhausting and unhealthy, particularly for young people who are bound to make plenty of their own mistakes as they come of age. At worst, I think this mindset is a worrying example of performative activism- former U.S President Barack Obama spoke against cancel culture in an interview, saying: “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’ But that’s 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.” Many young people today might think that cancelling somebody counts as activism, when in reality, it does little to actually educate the person who committed the wrongdoing, and instead further alienates them because the criticism of them can sometimes be perceived as bullying.
However, I still believe that we should abandon the use of the term cancel culture. If you want to have a conversation about cyberbullying, have a conversation about cyberbullying, and if you want to have a conversation about performative activism, then have a conversation about performative activism. Using the phrase “J.K Rowling was cancelled” or “Phil Hogan was cancelled” or “Louis C.K was cancelled,” shifts the responsibility and makes it seem as if something happened to them, rather than each of them having done something that then warranted a negative response. Cancel culture is still quite nebulous and ill-defined, but it’s important that we attempt to come to a mutual understanding of what it is and what it isn’t so that it doesn’t become a tool for victimization and circumventing accountability.
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