The phenomenon of cancel culture must not be allowed to infringe on free speech or open debate

In these uniquely challenging times, everyone has a reason to be angry. While the threat of coronavirus still looms large for most people, the economic outlook for millennials and Generation Z-ers in particular, which already looked dire before the pandemic, appears to be incredibly grave. Combining this with anxieties about climate change which have not even come close to being allayed by most world governments and the recent increase in the amount of people concerned with social ills like institutional sexism and racism, much rage courses through the veins of today’s youth. In parallel, they have been given more freedom to make public proclamations about their opinions and beliefs than ever before with the advent of social media allowing anyone who wants to commentate on current affairs to do so. The rage which much of this commentary is influenced by has manifested itself in the public sphere as ‘cancel culture’.

This practice is often described as an endeavour by Internet users to trawl through the online backlogs of previous statements made by celebrities in an attempt to find compromising posts or remarks. The perceived ideological infractions are almost always related to an area of social justice like sex, race or sexuality, among other things. Furthermore, Twitter is by far the social media platform with the greatest prevalence of this behaviour, perhaps due to the nature of the website which discourages complex exchanges and debates by limiting the length of Tweets. Over the last few years, debate has raged between those who see the wave of cancellations as being justified and in the public interest, and those who see the trend as indicative of a growing intolerance within today’s youth for those who hold differing opinions to themselves, regardless of how calmly and rationally the arguments are presented. The truth is, as it often is, somewhere between the two.  

In the last couple of months, the most prominent individual who has been subjected to the wrath of cancel culture is formerly-beloved Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling who has outraged the LBGT+ community and beyond with her controversial opinions on transgenderism. Debate was initially sparked by an undoubtedly smug hot take on Twitter mocking the idea that someone who experiences menstruation would be called anything other than a woman. The online masses who were not impressed by this emphasised the fact that transgender men who are experiencing various stages of transitioning can menstruate as well as those who identify with gender labels other than ‘woman’. While Rowling deserves criticism for trivialising something which is clearly a sensitive topic in contemporary society, the scale of online vitriol clearly outmatches the perceived wrong. The general trend has seen countless childhood fans of Harry Potter who would have surely once idolised Rowling dramatically turn against and vilify her with the most prominent interventions coming from the former Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. All this came despite an extended and rational explanation being issued by Rowling in which she emphasised her benign intentions in commenting on transgenderism and took aim at the extreme and sexist nature of much of the criticism aimed at her. An interesting dimension to the debate is the way in which two strands of social justice have appeared to clash. Many other individuals have been cancelled for their supposedly sexist inclinations but many on Twitter were slow to call out this language when it was directed at Rowling. In this instance, only one side of the divide clearly signalled that they were aiming for calm and rational debate. It is much easier to agree with the recent open letter in Harper’s Magazine advocating for free debate of which Rowling was a cosignatory than an angry Twitter mob attempting to aggressively impose their ideas in an anti-intellectual fashion.

Despite the controversy over Rowling, the phenomenon has drawn attention to a number of celebrities who have rightfully been ‘cancelled’ or at least severely reprimanded for their wrongdoings. Working in tandem with the #MeToo movement, despicable sexual predators abusing the power structures of Hollywood like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have been held accountable for their crimes and have been nearly universally reviled. An incredibly recent example has been the grime MC Wiley who has been banned from Facebook and Twitter for what most would consider blatantly anti-Semitic propaganda. The legacy that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has left within the UK has led to greater attention being drawn to perceived instances of anti-Semitism. Wiley’s comments, directed at Jewish people as a whole, clearly crossed a line whereby they could not be written off as anti-Zionist or merely critical of the state of Israel and it would be hard to say that the consequences which he has seen as a result of his words have been unfair. In these examples, outrage has been directed at the right individuals and ideas, although excess would have unfortunately been a significant part of these collective online reactions as well.

Looking back over all these past instances of cancellation, it would be difficult to say that the practice is wholly contemptible. Over the past few months and years, a newfound appreciation for social justice and tolerance has taken hold amongst the wider youth population, despite the ideological intolerance which cancel culture has itself been accused of proliferating. Furthermore, a lot of the generated outrage remains confined to the Twittersphere and it is rare for an individual’s career to be truly ruined after an online witch-hunt (apart from when they are exposed for having committed the most egregious of crimes). Despite all the controversy that JK Rowling has found herself embroiled in, the months since lockdown have seen a spike in sales of the Harry Potter books while two American female singers Lana del Rey and Doja Cat have seen their careers maintain the same kinds of trajectories both before and after they were both cancelled for racially inflammatory remarks. In this way, cancel culture could be defended as encouraging boycotts of those guilty of the most outrageous crimes while those who are caught up in the wave who have committed lesser transgressions are spared outright cancellation, merely receiving a digital slap on the wrist.

However, there are undeniable downsides to cancel culture, not least the potential that it has to give intellectual legitimacy to those who are patently undeserving of it. As an ideological starting point, cancel culture attempts to diminish the capacity of an individual with whom one disagrees to go about freely in public life and make statements about their opinions. This leaves an open goal for typically right-wing problematic commentators to criticise a generation of ‘snowflakes’ and decry them as fascists attempting to contravene fundamental freedoms of free speech and liberty. This is undoubtedly a difficult line to tow. Whether there are any kinds of arguments that the public should not be exposed to unqualified is crucial to this debate. While a substantial majority of people would argue that prohibiting blatantly violent hate speech is fair, the boundaries of misinformation are more blurred when it comes to less socially sensitive issues. In 2018, the BBC was criticised for failing to challenge former Chancellor Lord Lawson when he used misinformation in an argument about climate change while more recently, This Morning presenter Eamonn Holmes was ridiculed for lending credence to the theory that the coronavirus and the establishment of 5G masts were somehow related. The key is to ensure that the arguments which people employ are sound and backed up by factual evidence or reasoned opinion. This is the difference between holding individuals to account and unnecessarily ‘cancelling’ them. Robust criticism of weak arguments should always take precedence over reactionary and anger-fuelled boycotting if civility and rationality are to govern public discourse in the years to come. The quality of communal conversation will undoubtedly be greatly elevated if this philosophy is recognised and adopted by more social media users.

Another important point to highlight is that many individuals who are cancelled are being so for something which they were responsible for several years or even decades ago. Although standards of morality and decency should apply universally and within any historical context, it is important to also consider that the paths that the lives of human beings resemble are not straight and unerring but are instead winding and full of contradictions. It surely goes without saying that the person that someone was 20 years ago may well be very different to what embodies the person that they are today. It is here that the principle of charity, whereby an individual’s words and intentions are interpreted in the most generous way possible, must be applied most stringently. If an individual expresses genuine and sincere regret for their past actions and they show themselves making an effort to redress their perceived wrongs, they surely deserve the full support of the public. Although this has been the case with footballer Andre Gray and British rap titan Stormzy who have both been caught out and subsequently forgiven for violently homophobic tweets in the past, many lesser known individuals or even un-influential ordinary civilians are left helpless in the face of their old social media posts being dredged up and angrily criticised by a large group of people. Here, reconciliation and education should be prioritised, rather than a visceral instinct to seek retribution for past misdemeanours.

Cancel culture has worked to empower a relatively powerless generation which sees itself as imbued with the responsibility of instituting a new worldview defined by increased tolerance of the choices made by individuals for themselves and a reciprocal intolerance for hate directed towards individuals on arbitrary grounds. But there is a real danger that young people will lose crucial critical thinking skills and an appreciation for free and open debate if this trend continues to accelerate. In order to address this, calm reasoning and conversation must be the guiding principle of online interactions. Society must also work to try and improve the lot of younger people who are overwhelmingly pessimistic about their role in and the fate of the world they live in. By discouraging instantaneous outrage and promoting healthy debate and tolerance of alien viewpoints, cancel culture can be reshaped and altered to become a movement which empowers young people intellectually as critical thinkers instead of reducing them to a myopic and intolerant mob, thirsty for blood.  

By L Dearmer

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