Unless you live a particularly peaceful and unproblematic life outside of the internet, then it’s likely you’ve heard the phrase ‘cancel culture’ being used. The thing is, I don’t think we’ve always been using it correctly.
By Tara Pilkington
Due to the current online landscape, and thanks to movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, many of us have been engaging in conversations around how and why we need to demand accountability from public figures.
We’re living in a time where the language that we use, both online and offline, is more important than ever. We are all personally responsible for holding ourselves accountable for our actions, engaging in sometimes difficult conversations, and educating ourselves to ensure that we are informed on subjects which have not previously occupied a large public space.
So when we use the phrase cancel culture, what exactly do we mean?
Forgive me for being cliche and starting this off by pulling out a couple of dictionary definitions here, but it felt as good a place to start as any… On the Merriam Webster website, cancel culture is described as: “the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behaviour or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.” According to Urban Dictionary, “it typically begins when one or more persons speaks out and accuses a person, typically popular, of terrible things (ex. pedophilia, domestic abuse, harassment, etc.). They usually produce a lack of evidence or screenshots/videos, and/or evidence that is out of context.”
This is where things start to get a bit more complicated…
Urban Dictionary definitions are definitely more colloquial examples, written by the public. However, other examples on Urban Dictionary highlight how the phrase has now been hijacked by a new kind of ‘online mob’, one where online bullying seems to be operating with a moral superiority complex (whether these online crowds should operate from a higher moral ground isn’t always clear). In these instances, the problem with cancel culture is that social media is not always the appropriate landscape to navigate or facilitate what is often a complex and nuanced discussion.
There has been a lot of research into where the idea of someone being ‘cancelled’ originates from, with one piece by Vox suggesting that it was first used in the 1991 film ‘New Jack City’, when Wesley Snipes’ character says: “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one” when dumping his girlfriend.
Skip to 2014 and in an episode of the VH1 reality show ‘Love and Hip-Hop: New York’, a cast member said to a love interest: “you’re cancelled.” After the episode aired, the phrase started to appear on social media.
As cancel culture has started to gain more traction online, many have conflated the idea of cancel culture with ‘call-out culture’. When we consider how our understanding of the two phrases exists in close proximity to one another, it’s easy to see how the media tangles the one concept with the other. This fusion of these different online frameworks is sometimes identified as ‘outrage culture’.
Is outrage culture the way to go?
In a New York Times article by Loretta Ross titled: ‘I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic’, she explains how the modern idea of cancel culture can sometimes do more to splinter social justice than it can to unify it, as it shifts the focus onto individuals that do not perfectly agree with our own opinions, rather than remaining “focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice”.
Calling someone out is necessary when it comes to challenging those who are deliberately hurting others, especially when these remarks are coming from people who hold positions of power and would typically be beyond our reach if it were not for platforms such as social media.
Critically engaging with those who have different opinions is, as Ross explains, an important tactic for achieving justice. However, as we have already pointed out, calling someone out operates in a similar way to public shaming, despite some key differences in discourse.
In her article, Ross also identified how “most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.” This is the hook to which public figures are trying to hang their counter-argument against, as it absolves themselves from having to actually engage with their critics because it automatically discredits them as someone who is just following a mass of people online.
An open letter and weaponising cancel culture as a counter argument
Most recently, JK Rowling has been at the centre of online debate following comments regarding the transgender community (of which she is not a part of.)
Rowling, along with other prominent figures, recently signed an open letter on ‘Online Justice and Debate’. What makes this a particularly frustrating move on Rowling’s part is that is seems as though Rowling has made little to no attempt to actually hold herself accountable and explore the reasons why her words which started this entire backlash are considered problematic. This is frustrating not just because of the views that she holds, but because she is a person in a position of power whose words have influence, something she also fails to recognise.
There are undoubtedly instances where cancel culture has been weaponised to incite suffering which has prevented constructive healing. However, is JK Rowling really a victim of this?
Can someone who is in a position of power, whether this is financially, culturally, politically or any combination of the above, really be cancelled? While JK Rowling may feel that she is wrongly being ‘cancelled’, the online threat of being cancelled and actuality of being cancelled are two very different things.
The cause and affect of being cancelled
Communicating across differences is never an easy feat to achieve, and social media isn’t the best place to facilitate these highly emotionally-charged conversations. Because of the immediate and reactive nature of social media, cancel culture and sometimes even just the threat of it, can stifle a person’s ability to rehabilitate. Especially in instances where online accounts are more focused on ostracising someone before allowing them the opportunity to educate themselves on why their behaviour is unacceptable.
The issue seems to be that cancel culture has now become a vague, catch-all phrase used to encompass a vastly different range of situations and circumstances. What originated as a way of holding people accountable online has splintered off to mean many different things to many different people. Cancel culture, whether we like it or not, is a feature of modern online debates, not something which automatically prevents these debates from happening.
Having an online presence, regardless of how many followers you have, invites the opportunity for people to observe your behaviour and criticise it. For anyone who is being cancelled, the cause-and-effect seems to go as follows:
A person does something problematic.
- Does the person recognise this and apologise for their behaviour?
- Do their subsequent actions reflect a genuine commitment to change?
- Do members of the community which were at the receiving end of their problematic behaviour accept this as a genuine apology?
Social media is our life taken out of context and adapted into an online representation of us. As we all have to follow the same steps to sign up for a Twitter account, it’s easy to forget that we don’t all have the same life experiences up until that point. People may not have had access to the same resources or life experiences as us, and when someone does something problematic we need to provide them with the opportunity to learn, self critique, genuinely apologise, and move forward with behaviour which reflects this new understanding.
We are more than our social media accounts
How effectively, by reading an out of context tweet, can we assess whether something is a case of wilful ignorance or a genuine lack of understanding? Social media is not known for always being compassionate, and this is something which is beautifully articulated by Ayishat Akanbi during a video discussing “The Problem with Cancel Culture” for Double Down News.
As Akanbi explains in the video, cancel culture is complex because humans are complex, and this is something that we don’t always consider in online mediums. We are all much more complex than the sum of our online social media accounts would suggest, and difficult journeys of personal growth can be glossed over on our feeds and positioned to create the best picture of ourselves.
There are certain fundamental things we can agree on. Racism is never okay. Discrimination towards the historically oppressed is never okay. Erasing someone’s identity and repeatedly speaking on behalf of a marginalised community (often which a person may not be a part of themselves) is never okay. In all of these examples, someone is using their position of power to discriminate against someone who historically holds less power.
If someone refused to educate themselves and shift from a viewpoint which has repeatedly been proven to be harmful to another person, particularly a person who is a member of marginalised community, then online backlash is just someone facing the consequences of their actions, and not a mindless act of cancel culture.
JK Rowling has become the latest catalyst into the role of cancel culture in our society. Rather than public figures recognising how their power holds influence and understanding why they are being held to account, the issue has spiralled into cries from other public figures for us to cancel cancel culture. The problem with this, and with the open letter that she has since signed, can be summarised in this video from writer Tess, Please!: