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How do we think about cancel culture? Show more Show less

In June 2020, cancel culture claimed its latest victim: the popular children's television show Paw Patrol. It was claimed that its protagonists - animated dogs who operate as police in a fictional universe - were being derided. These pieces said critics saw its positive portrayal of law enforcement strengthened a culture of deference to the police. Headlines around the world stated cancel culture had gone mad. But none of this was true. What began as a joke about cancel culture had grown into a conspiracy tearing across the internet. This crisis underpinned the bigger picture: anyone can be cancelled, and it has gone so far it can reach the international news without questioning. In recent years, the practice of withdrawing support for public figures who hold controversial views has exploded. And not just amongst the cartoons. Michael Jackson, JK Rowling, Louis CK, Woody Allen: the list of its celebrity victims is growing. The boom has divided opinion. Some believe it is a form of online activism that helps the marginalised hold the powerful to account. Their opponents see it as a devastating attack on civil liberties. So, who are these groups, what do they stand for, and why?

Cancel culture is critical for democracy Show more Show less

This approach argues that cancel culture empowers marginalised groups. It understands that society is built in institutionalised hierarchies that cut across social identities. The de-platforming of offensive views is therefore an important type of activism. Cancel culture has become an important tool to redress these inequalities.
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Cancel culture is being weaponised by a privileged elite

Critics of cancel culture are largely made up of society's traditional beneficiaries: those in power.
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Context

The Argument

Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic writes that “cancel culture,” while widely debated, is only a source of panic for the most elite in our society. Sarah Silverman says that comedians’ voices are being muted when their entire purpose is to draw attention to the controversial. She still supports Dave Chappelle although he publicly criticized and patronized those who had come forward to say they had been sexually abused by Michael Jackson. Comedian and screenwriter Rob Schneider believes that comedians and public figures are being subjected to an “intolerable inquisition.” Yet, Silverman is a long-time comedian with over a million followers on Instagram, and most powerful people who have been criticized on social media do not face any tangible damage to their careers, especially when they snap back at critics. Nwanevu says that most of the time, this “spirit of defiance” actually enhances their public image; people love to see a rebel in action if the behavior does not directly impact them.[1] Comedians and entertainers are not the only ones aghast at “cancel culture.” In July of 2020, a myriad of writers and scholars published a letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying the cruelty of publicly “cancelling” someone online.[2] Nwanevu notes, however, that comedians and other cultural and political leaders seem to be more interested in preserving their own comfort than they are in adapting to new audiences who have been educated by the all the voices that are no longer silenced, that are taking to social media to create a better world.[1] The majority of the names signed to the Harper’s letter are affiliated with powerful academic institutions or serve as highly-educated cultural leaders, and their engagement with and preservation of civil discourse is appreciated. However, “cancel culture” is a manifestation of this very discourse, a space for people to investigate morals and to call out violence that will not be tolerated. If the signers of this letters are leaders of our society, “cancel culture” seeks to hold them to the high moral standards everyone else is held to. They say, “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes.” There is nothing wrong with this desire. Everyone makes mistakes, but they should have consequences, and they should lead to change.[3] Nwanevu points out that the perhaps the most intimidating part of “cancel culture” for those in power is the new set of voices behind it. There are women and marginalized groups, all mostly young, typing out persuasive and biting remarks on abusers of power. Nwanevu reminds us that these groups of people have never had a chance to speak before, let alone be heard by millions on social media. It is not that people are just now misusing their power or that the public is suddenly more sensitive to it; it’s just that there is now a widely accessible platform for the truth to be told. That being said, “cancel culture” is the bare minimum, and not nearly as damaging as it is painted to be. It is true, Nwanevu notes, that “cancel culture” is not reserved for the obviously rich and powerful. When football star Kyler Murray’s homophobic slurs resurfaced from his teen years, he received public backlash. Yet, his career remained very much intact; now, he plays for the Arizona Cardinals.[1] This new tool of “cancelling” seeks to name violence, to demand justice, and to give voice to those who have too long been silenced (and still are.) It seems that those who are most afraid of its strength are leaders who value their creative freedom more than they do the existence of an equitable social platform.

Counter arguments

Criticizers of “cancel culture” seem most wary of both where this phenomenon can lead and that it doesn’t seem to get to the root of the problem. “Cancelling” someone online is slippery; it does not lead to a direct legal course of action, for instance, and most of the time, there is no official or tangible change, especially for those in power. Former President Barack Obama famously commented on “cancel culture’s” lack of nuance at the Obama Foundation summit in October of 2019. His problem is surely not with amplifying marginalized voices; he warns that “cancel culture” can do the opposite. It is performative activism with little substance, he explains: “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” Many of our issues are systemic and deeply rooted, and we have all grown up under their domain, so Obama explains that humans will make mistakes without fail. He calls on activists to dive deeper.[4] Natasha Tynes, award-winning author, faced the consequences of “cancel culture” after she sent out a frustrated tweet on her morning commute, paired with a photo of a black metro worker eating her breakfast on the train. A post of this nature could cost the metro worker her livelihood, especially considering the prejudice and violence black women face in America, and soon Twitters users called Tynes out. Before long, her publishing house, Rare Bird, was made aware of her inconsiderate Tweet and her book was cancelled.[5] The behind-the-scenes aftermath of “cancel culture” is often the most damaging. Tynes is a Jordanian immigrant, a self-proclaimed Democrat, and the breadwinner for her family including three children. Tynes explained that she only realized the damage she could have caused this worker after the fact; she did not grow up in the U.S. and therefore did not understand the consequences of a post like this for a black woman. Although Tynes had worked tirelessly over her novel for four years and had come to realize the enormity of her actions especially on social media, it would be a risk for the publishing house to move forward with her book after the public backlash.[5] The internet is out of our hands; we have no control over its memory or its power. Quickly, Twitter users eventually twisted the initial goal to hold Tynes accountable into an ambush of online cruelty. Tynes ended up facing an onslaught of xenophobic, racist, and sexist slurs even after her book was cancelled by the publishing house, and her initial shock sent her to the hospital. Worst of all, she endured threats to her family. Tynes was experiencing at a high volume exactly what she was “cancelled” for. It seems that “cancel culture,” when misused, can target far more than just the privileged elite.[5]

Framing

Premises

Rejecting the premises

Proponents

Further Reading

References

  1. https://newrepublic.com/article/155141/cancel-culture-con-dave-chappelle-shane-gillis
  2. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-10/column-cancel-culture-harpers-rowling-open-letter-apple-pie-america
  3. https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/
  4. https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/canceled-destroyed-life-68311913
  5. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/tasneemnashrulla/dc-metro-writer-tweet-eating-train-book-sue-publisher

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This page was last edited on Thursday, 23 Jul 2020 at 18:19 UTC