Cancel culture, or online shaming is a growing online phenomenon in modern society, especially on social media platforms such as Twitter. Often associated with the far-left, cancel culture seeks to silence, ‘cancel’ and abolish public figures or entities after they have transgressed perhaps via offensive or problematic remarks. Social media is a powerful platform for social justice, allowing much needed social reform to take place. Holding people accountable for racist actions and remarks, spreading awareness for movements such as black lives matter, the LGBTQ+ community, climate change and the #MeToo movement all promote real and justifiable change. However, some instances of ‘cancel culture’ blur the lines between cultural reform and bullying. So, when does cancel culture go too far?
Dictionary.com defines cancel culture as: ‘Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.’
The viral #MeToo movement, held sexual predators accountable, exposing thousands of cases of sexual assault and allowing long-buried voices of women to be heard, it drew the eyes of the world to the common treatment of women. Statistics such as 1 in 5 are raped, 1 in 5 college women assaulted became more well-known. Social reform is a noble cause and recent BLM protests, both online and offline, following the death of George Floyd have been a powerful force that have promoted change in both policy and attitude.
However, cancel culture is targeting not only much needed areas of change, but has on several occasions cancelled those for seemingly minor faults – if any faults at all. Huffington Post reports: ‘recently, Killing Eve actress Jodie Comer was effectively “cancelled”, following rumours she’s dating a Trump supporter. There was even a hashtag: the #jodiecomerisoverparty.’ It is quite common to find that some social media users involved in ‘cancelling’ go as far as to send death, abuse and rape threats to the targeted party. After one social media witch hunt, Love Island presenter Caroline Flack committed suicide.
Recently, prominent figures signed an open letter defending freedom of speech and protesting against the often out of hand witch-hunts that cancel culture prompts. The letter entitled, ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ was published on Harper’s website on July 7th 2020 and signed by 153 figures, including Margaret Atwood, J. K. Rowling, Fareed Zakaria, and Malcolm Gladwell. The letter looks to expose and move away from the colloquially dubbed cancel culture that silences debates via “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Ultimately arguing that cancel culture is a threat to liberal and democratic society. Writers and artists should have the freedom to explore topics without fear of losing their livelihoods. Arguing that the way to deal with controversial opinions is through debate and persuasion rather than silencing or ‘cancelling’.
The letter, on Harper’s opens:
‘Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.’
Going on to argue that the freedom to exchange ideas is central to liberal society, but the ostracism initiated after perceived transgressions is limiting the ability to discuss and debate important topics. Stating that: ‘Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.’