CANCELLING CANCEL CULTURE
2020 has gifted us countless outpourings of public outrage; from COVID reactionaries to nut milk scandals this year has been more controversial than most. ‘Woke’ culture’s recent coupling with a lockdown-generated ennui has emboldened an ever-increasing brazenness in digital spaces. Enter ‘cancel culture’. Although launching into the social media stratosphere in 2019, the term has rapidly become a catch-all to justify severe responses to any objectionable opinion. Instagram has never been more saturated with performative Notes App apologies and short-lived hiatuses which often succeed in avoiding any actual repercussions. In all the noise of conflicting dialogues we are losing sight of our collective goal; to be better.
We are a generation raised on zero tolerance, taught that authoritatively-dictated values are absolute and transgressions must be met with maximum punishment. Cancel culture is a direct outcome of this toxic upbringing, where measures were not taken in pursuit of redemption or forgiveness but penance and retribution. Through weaponising cancellation strategies against every figure who has done or said something problematic without offering the chance of forgiveness, reflection and redemption, we construct a glass ceiling for how far complex discourses can go.
By all means identify and address problematic behaviours, but do it kindly (or at the very least objectively) and limit yourself to your plight. It’s all too easy to resort to antagonisms etc etc but this doesn’t need to become a lecture. We all know the destructive, and sometimes fatal, effects that aggressive and malicious comments have on us. Whether we are in the public eye or otherwise, whether it’s online or in the press, let’s just be fucking nice.
While ultimately we all at That Nasty Feminist are huge supporters of a culture of accountability, in my personal reading I have come to identify issues with the way cancel culture is manifesting currently in our society. Before diving into those, allow me to broaden the subject to include cancel culture's "preliminary stages" if you will; calling in, calling out, boycotting and finally cancelling. All of these actions draw attention to problematic behaviours that may be harmful to others in order to ultimately eliminate such behaviours.
Calling in refers to speaking to an individual privately, via DMs or private message, about their perceived harmful opinion or action. This method is likely most effective between friends and colleagues when someone you know has published content which is insensitive to the nuances of certain issues.
Calling out is the act of criticising an individual or organisation publicly and can be best utilised if methods of calling in are futile due to the power of the organisation or figure. Due to the density of social media users – a large proportion of whom now qualify as influencers – calling in is no longer a viable option in many cases of online controversy. Toxic celebrities with millions of followers (*cough* JK Rowling *cough*) are unlikely to read their private messages, let alone take criticism from them, so a public call for apology and redaction is often the most effective course of action.
Boycotting involves withdrawing financial support from a company with the aim of pressurising the organisation to change their practices, policies or overall infrastructure. Typically once companies meet public demands, support is resumed. Recent examples include calls from climate activists to boycott Oatly after the vegan dairy-alternative brand sold a stake to Blackstone, a private equity investment firm with ties to the Trump campaign and deforestation.
Cancellation refers to a collective attempt by a particular group (more recently cancellation campaigns have been instigated by individuals) to ruin an individual's profession or reputation because their opinions or actions are deemed harmful or problematic.
These differentiations are important because of one indisputable fact: our actions have consequences. When cancel culture's main bid is to ruin, I fear a slippery-slope towards a world where apologies mean nothing and forgiveness is obsolete. Controversies fester in a lack of consensus concerning what values, opinions or actions are deemed disqualifying in the dominant culture. Digitisation now means that the court of public opinion, which has always been vast and sprawling, is now constantly and overtly visible. Inescapable even. What this means is it has been harder than ever to objectively quantify what is acceptable. On top of this essentially infinite grey area we also have to reckon with the potential damage our digital footprint can cause.
It is a truth universally known that the internet remembers. In these virtual social arenas words and actions are not limited to their temporal contexts; a badly-told joke or ignorant comment from 2006 uploaded to Facebook or Twitter means one’s actions live on indefinitely, forever accessible while awaiting employment as troll ammunition. Because of these parameters, we are all permanently marked by our past selves, our past beliefs, our past mistakes.
Can we, in good conscience, subject the actions and words of our past selves to the standards of the current moment? There's a quote I recently heard that perfectly encapsulates my perspective on this kind of 'cancellation', spoken by activist icon Gina Martin on her podcast Might Delete Later which focuses on the nuances of social media in a then-and-now-ish format.
“There is not one part of me that would like to see anyone make someone feel bad for things that they used to think that they now have learnt from, and who are being honest about their mistakes because we cannot be giving people value based on how sanitised they are online” – Gina Martin, Might Delete Later Podcast
By cancelling others based on moments of ignorance or naivety, cancel culture discourages us all from engaging with challenging, complex issues. It evokes a fear which prohibits self-education and development. People are afraid to join the conversation, on both macro and micro levels, unwilling to place a target on their own back. This kind of fear breeds ignorance, the very thing many activists and educators are trying to combat, as no one is willing to participate in vital dialogues when the simple act of questioning can lead to trolling and abuse. Without forgiveness for our mistakes – an inevitability of the human condition – what’s to encourage truth and goodness?
Personally I think cancel culture only achieves its purpose when targeting lesser transgressors, by which I mean those with substantial followings and power but who cannot rise above the persistency of social critique. Rarely have cancellation strategies permanently de-platformed those who actually warrant social and reputational ruin. In fact, JK Rowling's upcoming novel, which will certainly be the ramblings of a transphobic piece of shit, is expected to do better in the wake of cancel culture's backlash. Yet this is a figure that warrants cancellation.
Spouting bigotry and archaic prejudices, Rowling, in all her irrelevance, has manipulated this culture for personal and commercial gain. She has consistently reiterated her disrespectful views with no hint of remorse or apology and this is a stance that no one can defend. Calling in would never work effectively due to her powerful status and, in her case, calling out only serves her further opportunity to expatiate her hateful nonsense, and announcing her cancellation would only offer her more publicity. Boycotting could be a potent consequence but only if enacted on a large scale, therefore I embolden you, my fellow shouty people, to boycott the shit out of Rowling. Her crimes are more than a lack of awareness. They are more than an innocent naivety. She is actively and knowingly – and likely joyfully – harming others, dismissing their struggles and their plights and profiting off of such vile actions. Harry Potter may live on as cultural icon but Rowling may not.
For me, Rowling has self-sanctioned her own downfall. Where I differ from mainstream woke culture lies in the double-entendre of cancel culture's objective. This culture originated from a place of compassion and support, from the action of voicing the voiceless in the pursuit of remedying the failures of justice systems internationally. Ultimately, cancel culture stems from a belief system that once strived to humanise the victimised and the marginalised, yet the culture I see manifesting daily is one founded in hate and self-righteousness. I will never be one to defend blatant oppressors or justify ignorant behaviours. All I wish for is a culture that doesn't jump to condemn for the sake of it, but a culture who pauses, considers the nuances of the circumstance and makes fair and informed decisions about how to achieve a better world than yesterday.
With all that said, I'll leave you with one final sentiment.
DO NO HARM . BUT TAKE NO SHIT.
Written by Emily Dudley