Anyone who is famous on the internet in the modern age, whether an author, Instagram model, or politician, fears the angry mob known as “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is when “woke” Twitter activists decide to end someone’s career for something problematic they said, participated in, or enabled, in order to condemn this behavior and hold the powerful accountable for their racism, sexism, and homophobia. Many have spoken out against this phenomenon, saying it isn’t helpful to the cause and isn’t real activism.
Over 150 public figures signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published by Harper’s Magazine, including Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, and Gloria Steinem. The letter acknowledges the need to hold powerful conservative forces accountable but claims that this “needed reckoning” is also shutting down open debate in favor of “ideological conformity” on the left.
John Boyne, author of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” tweeted: “I agree with this letter completely. Self-appointed witch-finders hounding people for perceived moral slip- ups while trashing reputations, destroyingcareers, shouting down women & pursuing cancel culture is the opposite of free speech & reasoned debate.”
Barack Obama also harnessed bipartisan support by slamming cancel culture, stating, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re not going to get very far.”
Let’s look at what behaviors nowadays can get someone cancelled. J.K. Rowling has openly spoken out for some time about her views that trans women are not women and don’t belong in women’s spaces, perpetuating an ideology that is extremely dangerous to trans people.
The free speech argument has been used by the right to justify behaviors that perpetuate systems of oppression against marginalized people, from the use of slurs to the promotion of harmful ideologies, since as long as I’ve engaged in politics and social justice. I am amused that these supposedly progressive figures can’t see the irony in falling back on the “it’s a free country” argument that our oppressors have been using to silence us when we ask them to stop using other cultures as a Halloween costume or to use someone’s correct pronouns.
“The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” the letter reads. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Do they not realize whattoxicideologiestheyarefallingbackonto defend themselves and their complacency (or even their active role) in systems of oppression? Probably the same ideologies that harmed Rowling and Atwood when they first made names for themselves as female authors.
Transphobe J.K. Rowling and white feminist Margaret Atwood, once propped up as progressive icons, fail to see that they have now joined the establishment that the next generation must rise against. “So liberals or centrists who fear the left-wing zeal for cancellation need a counterargumentthatdoesn’trestonright-to-be- wrong principles alone,” Naman Ramachandran writes for Variety. “They need to identify the places where they think the new left-wing norms aren’t merely too censorious but simply wrong, and fight the battle there, on substance as well as liberal principle.”
Let’s also examine the purpose of “cancelling” someone. We aren’t throwing you in actual jail for your opinions, just Twitter jail. Ramachandran writes, “The cancelled individual hasn’t lost any First Amendment rights, because there is no constitutional right to a particular job or reputation.” Freedom of speech does not protectracism, homophobia, and sexism; it protects those of us who are brave enough to call out the powerful. These figures think they are entitled to being liked just because they brought us characters like Harry Potter and Offred that white, cis, straight feminists of previous generations appreciated. “What this boils down to, at least to me, is a preoccupation with an assumed right to be adored, no matter what. It’s an attempt to allow public figures with bruised egos to intellectualize their way out of understanding a very simple idea: when you – particularly the famous – do things to perpetuate or legitimize ideas or actions that contribute to further harming others, you are not entitled to remain liked by some members of the public,” writes Kuba Shand-Baptiste.
Surgeon and scientist David Gorski tweeted: “I read the letter. It’s the same old whiny BS about ‘cancel culture’ from privileged people with large audiences complaining about facing criticism and consequences for their speech. I am unimpressed.”
Our society is assumed to have made progress, but has it really? In 2020, it is still considered a controversial political statement to say “Black Lives Matter.” Thirty-five years after Atwood published A Handmaid’s Tale, reproductive rights still teeter on the edge in the U.S. We wake up every morning not knowing if another backdoor abortion ban will be passed in our state or if the essential health services that Planned Parenthood provides will be ripped out from under us. Clearly liberalism has not saved us.
“The point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority, not to bring the stars back down to earth. So a climate of cancellation can succeed in changing the way people talk and argue and behave,” writes Ramachandran. The purpose of cancelling is not to establish a moral superiority, but to progress beyond the harmful standards of our culture and our media. White liberalism has allowed room for violence against the marginalized to continue in the name of keeping the peace. We are pushing for a new standard for activists because previous generations have been failed by lukewarm white liberal movements.
However, some argue that cancelling people does not succeed in creating actual social change and ask that we shift our focus from calling out to calling up. Jeff Giesea writes for Harvard Business Review, “That’s the thing with calling people out. It often, not always, comes from a place of ego or reaction. The intent, conscious or not, is to make the other person wrong. There’s also a public aspect to calling someone out, of making them lose face...Calling people forth, in contrast, comes from a place of service and an open heart. The intent is to call the person to higher ground.”
I’m not saying this because I think we should “go easy” on the rich and famous or protect their feelings. However, in order to move forward with productive allyship to marginalized people, we can’t just cancel everyone that has ever perpetuated a system of oppression. All white people have a role in white supremacy, and we need to call each other up and have difficult conversations to take on some of the emotional labor so that people of color don’t have to. Cancelling everyone who slips up would be hypocritical of us because we all need to take responsibility, and we’d never move forward to a more equal society.
I also think that cancel culture can be used to deflect difficult discussions about race, gender, and sexuality onto the wealthy. It is very easy to criticize a famous person, who seems very distant, on social media, but approaching a friend or family member about their problematic behavior is a much different story, and also a much more effective form of activism. Are we projecting our guilt onto those with more power than us, or do the famous actually have a higher responsibility to avoid problematic behavior?
Overall, I think that cancel culture represents a public that is fed up with the wealthy and powerful not being held accountable. It represents a need to create a new standard of inclusivity and to reject ideologies that directly harm marginalized people. As self-righteous as the left can sometimes be, we reserve the right to “cancel” public figures that we believe hold harmful ideologies, and if they want to defend their homophobia, racism, and transphobia, they need to fall back on a better argument.