By Mischa Alexander
The world of the so-called cancel-culture.
Your favourite writer or actor, singer or YouTuber - they’re cancelled. They did something I didn’t like, so we’ve got to utterly destroy them, remove all trace of their online presence, and leave them penniless and friendless in the gutter. No redemption, no chance for an explanation. They said the bad thing so they must be obliterated. Might seem harsh, but it must be done. That’s just the world we live in, isn’t it?
Unsurprisingly, no. It isn’t. But that would be the impression you might get looking into the discourse around cancel-culture from the outside. If you don’t know what cancel-culture is (don’t worry, no one can seem to agree anyway), it’s essentially a shorthand description of calling attention to offensive, negative, and problematic behaviours or actions of people (typically famous people) on social media. This is sometimes, but not always, accompanied with boycotts of said persons' work or demands for an apology or consequence. The severity of cancellation, as well as the consequences of it, tends to vary case to case, but the main goal is drawing attention to seemingly bad behaviour for people who may be otherwise unaware of it.
What has sparked the latest batch of takes is an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine, entitled ‘A Letter On Open Justice and Debate’, which is signed by several notable authors such as Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, and JK Rowling (the latter of whom we will have to return to in due course). The letter condemns cancel-culture as a reactionary backlash that limits freedom of speech, causing editors and publishers to be afraid of posting particular views and, in turn, causes careers and livelihoods to be threatened. This apparently limits the ability to have an open conversation about particular topics in favour of a blanket doctrine from which dissent means social ostracism. If that’s the case, then that does indeed sound scary. But despite that framing, the issue of cancellation and online response to the ‘controversial’ actions of people online is a little more complicated than the letter makes it out to be.
To start with, is cancelling someone akin to placing a curtailment on their free speech? It seems the obvious answer is no. People can, and, more often than not, will say whatever they choose to online, in interviews, in statements, in endless twitter threads. Freedom of speech guarantees someone the right to express their views without fear of government arrest. What it does not guarantee is a freedom from response and criticism. When someone posts something inflammatory, offensive or discriminatory, other people have the right to call them out on that. In the same way, it does not guarantee someone a right to a platform or for people who disagree with the choice of words or views expressed to continue to affiliate with them.
To use the JK Rowling case, the views she has expressed online recently regarding trans-identity and trans women in particular have been called out by many people as harmful and ill informed, as well as promoting a narrative that can genuinely put trans women's lives at risk. For more on this, I'd like to direct my readers to this article by Katy Montgomerie (https://t.co/E16L8iXOmY) that goes into great detail about why her views are wrong and harmful. Now, Rowling has the free speech to make these claims, and none of her critics will deny that. But a lot of trans people and cis people alike are angry that someone with so much wealth, influence, and importance is using the vastness of her platform to spread discrimination against an already discriminated group. Just as Rowling has the right to spread her views, so do her critics.
If this is what cancel-culture is, why is it a bad thing? Ultimately it is that Twitter is not a good place for any real form of organised cultural response. Lots of people tweeting publicly at a celebrity gets attention, but it becomes easy for the more aggressive, less nuanced comments to get attention and become representative of the entire movement, instead of those who write longer and more in-depth responses. On top of this, there will always be some people who phrase their criticism poorly, and those who cross the line and say something potentially offensive or abusive in their own way. When this happens, it can become easy for the conversation to change from focusing on the matter at hand, to the civility in which the conversation is being held, thus equating the statements of the celebrity (who has a lot more power and influence) with the aggressive commentator; a clear false equivalence. As a result, a lot of pundits start writing and interviewing on the issue of the backlash rather than the more important issue of harmful and false information being spread.
The problem with this is the unequal levels of power between the celebrities posting, and the critics in the comments. One person criticising Rowling for being transphobic is not going to carry the same weight and authority as a multi-millionaire posting the transphobia. Both parties may have the same right to expression, but when you have 14.3 million followers, an extra amount of press attention and a rather high level of clout, you’re able to shout a little louder. As a result the only way to ensure the criticism is expressed, and at the very least made clear to casual onlookers (who may otherwise not be well versed in trans issues) that there is another side to issue at all, is to have a clear, loud and vocal string of criticism maintained by a large number of people. This can have a positive effect, and alert people to the harm that is caused by these comments. So, a backlash can have positive effects, but these effects are often lost in the manner of the way the response is conducted.
Ultimately, this shift in the narrative from accountability to civility is just our society's unfortunate way of determining what we are able to hold people accountable for and what we are not. Are there actual conversations to be had around the idea of cancel-culture and internet backlashes? I think in many ways yes - issues of misinformation, misrepresentation of people, unsubstantiated claims and extreme hostility are all points that need to be raised. But when the focus should be holding someone like Rowling accountable, who is using her platform to spread damaging lies about trans people, turning the reaction to a conversation about cancel-culture is just a redundant distraction.