Earlier this month nearly 150 high-profile authors, commentators and scholars signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine claiming that “open debate and toleration of differences” are under attack. Signatories included celebrated names like JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie and Noam Chomsky.
The writers were loosely pointing to the new internet trend called cancel culture. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, cancelling and cancel culture have to do with 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.
"There has been a weakening of the norms of open debate in favour of dogma, coercion and ideological conformity", the Harper’s letter alleges. Without alluding directly to cancel culture, it was obvious what troubled the signatories was the new zeitgeist of the internet culture: the idea that a person can be “cancelled”.
Is it true that people are consistently feeling outraged by opposing viewpoints? Have the pressures of social media and the constant, non-stop back-and-forth led to confirmation bias and groupthink?
Many believe that cancel culture harms individuals who fall in the mob’s crosshairs. Others think that it is incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse. If we had a justice culture, the argument goes, would we even need to worry about cancel culture?
So, is cancel culture a force for good or quite simply a digital witch hunt? The conversation around it is both polarising and complicated.
Gulf News editors weigh in on one of the most important cultural debates of our times.
Time to ‘cancel’ online vigilantism?
Anupa Kurian-Murshed — Senior Digital Content Planning Editor
Digital mob mentality?
Or a natural progression of the American Civil Rights movement?
To be honest, I truly got properly acquainted with it when the J.K. Rowling controversy erupted over her ‘transphobic’ tweet late last year. For a woman worshipped by generations of Harry Potter fans, she was suddenly not their beloved author anymore.
I’m going to get into serious trouble for what I will write next, but it is necessary to understand what started my journey of exploring this idea, which I had only vaguely known about till then.
From what I have read and seen online, most times it doesn’t seem to impact the celebrity targeted
Yes, parts of her tweet did seem transphobic, but she wrote it to support Maya Forstater, a researcher on business and international development at The Center for Global Development (CGD) in London.
Forstater best explains it: “Last summer , the UK government launched a public consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 towards ‘self ID’. Like most people I agree that transgender people should not face discrimination and harassment as they live their lives.
But I am concerned about the impact of ‘self ID’ on women and girls, and in particular on single sex spaces and services such as women’s refuges, hostels, prisons, changing rooms and hospital wards, as well as women’s sports.
“I am concerned that governments around the world are rushing through laws and policies which say that people with male bodies can become women simply by identifying as women. This is happening without adequate consultation or consideration for the impact on women’s privacy, safety and inclusion.
“I started to tweet about the issue and had polite discussions with people about the definition of ‘woman’. I wrote an article aimed at people working in international development, and shared drafts with my colleagues.
“I never thought I would lose my job over this. But I did.”
Do I agree with her? Yes, especially as there will be people with malicious intent wanting to prey on women, and this would give them access. And, I guess, that is where Rowling came from. But, she got hunted for it. She got ‘cancelled’.
Which brings me back to ‘Cancel Culture’.
From what I have read and seen online, most times it truly doesn’t seem to impact the celebrity targeted. Apparently R. Kelly’s music sales have not been affected. The man currently faces 22 federal criminal charges for sexual abuse of women over two decades, across the US.
I find it offensive that he’s not been really cancelled!
So, then what is the point?
Well, my guess is that it is a sense of empowerment in a situation that we are powerless in — I cannot hold you accountable, but I have the power to ignore you, thereby ‘cancelling’ you.
The original usage was apparently traced back to a Wesley Snipes movie and filtered down into Black Culture online, as per Vox.com. So, in a way, it is perhaps a version of the Civil Rights Movement or India’s ‘satyagraha’.
I get that, I support that, but, as in all things to do with social consciousness — when that fine line of reason is crossed over into misplaced vigilantism, then it is no longer ‘woke’, it’s just a witch hunt.
An empowering movement
Sadiq Shaban — Opinion Editor
We live in a world of more engagement than ever before. Social media has made this tremendous connectivity possible. While earlier there was no way an average person could put his thoughts across, the advent of platforms like Facebook has vastly amplified the voice of the ordinary person.
And each time a celebrity goes on Twitter, they are speaking directly to hundreds of thousands of their fans and the world at large.
This convergence of ideas and thoughts, while great in theory, has its practical limits. In popular culture, it soon became very easy to say things otherwise deemed racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, homophobic or anti-minority.
Previously newspaper editors, the guardians of public morality, would act as gatekeepers and keep the transgressors out. However, in the era of social media, who blue-pencils such stuff?
#CancelCulture started as a hashtag on Black Twitter. The online ecosystem was quick to realise that it was the post-modern culture’s long overdue way of speaking truth to power. A ‘go-to’ tool for the marginalised communities to publicly assert their value systems through pop culture.
Cancel culture has been much more than identity politics
Therefore, when JK Rowling, the celebrated author, recently put out a condescending and borderline trans-phobic tweet, the backlash was swift. She was almost immediately called out. Those who spoke against her included Daniel Radcliffe.
In the last one year the list of people who have faced being cancelled included alleged sexual predators like R. Kelly, entertainers like Kanye West, Scarlett Johansson, and Gina Rodriguez, comedians like Kevin Hart and Shane Gillis and many more.
A common thread running through the actions, comments and tweets made by most of these public figures: dogmatic, sexist, racist or bigoted acts or quips.
True that cancel culture is open to some form of abuse by a few but it remains an effective tool in the way it has helped hold to account those in authority.
People derive satisfaction from coming together online against sustained social transgressions. In that sense, cancel culture is a clansperson of #MeToo.
With its egalitarian structure, where each individual has an easy say, social media perhaps needed a gear where even the marginalised could speak up to the privileged, and where the historical minorities could turn back and tell the elite that the monologue of the entitled must give way to dialogue for all.
In that, cancel culture has been much more than identity politics. It is an empowering movement.
Cancel the criminals, not the culture
Bindu Rai — Entertainment Editor
Urban dictionary and social media may have defined cancel culture as a millennial crusade, but the OK Boomers and generations that came long before had their own monikers to label their revolutions.
Criticism towards calling out or cancelling wrongdoers as the woke thing to do these days has found many takers in the recent past. Former US President Barack Obama was one of the most notable critics who argued that social media judgements don’t amount to true activism.
JK Rowling, author of the critically-acclaimed ‘Harry Potter’ series, also threw her weight behind Obama’s cause, while stepping up as one of 150 celebrity signatories to denounce the cancel culture in an open letter this month, which called out the “disproportionate punishments” given to its targets.
Rowling’s voice appears almost hypocritical and self-serving in light of the fact that she herself bore the brunt of online hate for her views on transgender issues in recent weeks.
Culture must also remain equally resilient to bring about real change
While the jury may be divided over the author’s stance, the question has never been about whether Rowling was right or wrong in her views, but rather, can the world keep quiet any longer in the face of wrongdoing?
It is undeniable that #MeToo used this tool effectively to bring down the empires of the Harvey Weinsetins and Kevin Spaceys of this world after years of abuse and suppression.
Calling out George Floyd’s wrongful death at the hands of a police officer, and the corresponding protests that gave a renewed voice to the Black Lives Matters movement, are not just matters of historical record or your flash-in-the-pan couch side activism.
These were revolutions given voice by the movements that the cancel culture spearheaded. Online bullying, brandishing rape and death threats can never find endorsement in true believers, but damning a powerful collective voice over the crimes of a few is also not an effective solution.
Cancel the perpetrators with zeal, but the culture must also remain equally resilient to bring about real change.
Two sides to a coin
Sanjib Kumar Das — Assistant Editor
“My right to pull a punch ends where your nose begins”. A casual acquaintance, a co-passenger rather, had once said this to me during a banter on a moving train somewhere in India, as we were engaged in a point-counter point on the merits and demerits of a democracy, vis-a-vis a dictatorship.
In the wake of the current furore over ‘cancel culture’, I was once again reminded about that statement that I had heard many years ago, the basic import of which being: All rights and privileges, in whatever form or shape they come in a liberalised world, are only relative.
Cancel Culture, more than anything else, has really brought this debate front and centre — that while opinion should be nuanced and not over-the-top, reaction to opinion should also be within the limits of civility and based on a very rational and malleable approach to perspectives — even when they are not necessarily to one’s liking.
Any communication or dialogue cannot take place in a vacuum
Cancel culture is a relatively new term, but the premise it is based on is perhaps as old as civilisation itself. And there are always two sides to this debate: A Donald Trump who holds “far-Left fascists” responsible for all things evil in the liberal world is as guilty as many of the signatories to that open letter in Harper’s magazine who feel that the “lifeblood of a liberal society is daily becoming more constricted”, for they are as much guilty with their lack of accountability and misjudgements.
Any communication or dialogue cannot take place in a vacuum. Context is what makes any interaction worth being a part of. And this question of context cannot be seen or understood in isolation from the subject on hand. When author Salman Rushdie made certain contentious comments in his celebrated work ‘Midnight’s Children’, the temptation, for some, to take it out of context and give it a sinister twist was too high.
That was far from being a constructive critique. Issuing a religious edict to stifle a creative voice is the worst form of fundamentalism. Likewise, when painter late M.F. Hussain depicted images of a certain deity that seemed to be derogatory to some, the reaction it generated from a section of self-proclaimed gatekeepers of religious and cultural ethos was shocking to the core.
Both, in case of Rushdie and Hussain, cancel culture was at play in its ugliest form perhaps. The debate was taken out of context to give it a hue that the creators of the original works had probably never intended. That was unfortunate.
But on the flip side, didn’t Rushdie and Hussain also make an error of judgement in not realising what could be the fallout of a sweeping cultural generalisation?
If they didn’t, then that was their hubris. Creators of content, in any field or occupation, ought to remember that it is all right to project reality or a perception of reality or a myth or an analogy from a certain sense of artistic entitlement, so long as that sense of entitlement is not based on a perceived sense of intellectual superiority that tends to co-opt broad cultural ethos and sensitivities.
Cancel culture does not threaten free speech
Tabitha Barda — Baby and Child Editor
Everyone seems to have a slightly different perception of what cancel culture means and because of that it’s not a terribly helpful term.
However, the movement at its roots has a positive role to play.
At its core it is a way for people to rally together and call for a boycott or ‘cancellation’ of high-profile, influential people who have been offensive or harmful in some way to a marginalised group.
The ‘ganging up’ aspect of this may feel uncomfortable, but the point is that these people would not be heard on their own — the group is what gives them a voice.
It overlaps with call-out culture but goes one step further: holding privileged public figures to account for their words or actions, and calling for retribution through a “cancellation” of their status and influence.
It can quickly become needlessly sadistic and slide into online bullying
Cancel culture does not threaten free speech — It is using the strength of many voices to balance out an already amplified voice
However, like a lot of things on social media, it’s easily abused, and can turn cruel and destructive in a flash.
The power structures at play are important. If the person being ‘cancelled’ has considerable public cachet and has said or done something to marginalise a minority group then that’s cancel culture (as I understand it). If any of these dynamics is slightly off then it can quickly become needlessly sadistic and slide into online bullying.
Without a doubt there are many instances of supposed cancel culture that have really been trolling disguised in a cloak of woke.
But where it comes into its own — and the reason why it is so profoundly unsettling for many people (especially for the sort of writers and thinkers who signed the Harper’s open letter) — is where it calls out and punishes those public figures who are doing something or expressing an opinion that up until now has been widely accepted.
This is where it truly challenges the status quo and can be a powerful force for societal change.
Put it this way: Were you aware that defining “people who menstruate” as “women” was controversial before JK Rowling was ‘cancelled’ for doing so? If not then cancel culture has done its job.
We need to stop trying to tear people down
Yousra Zaki — Senior Features Editor
The first time I came across cancel culture, was when I read about a “feud” between two beauty influencers over YouTube. The two make-up moguls, James Charles and Tati Westbrook, had a falling out.
The YouTube and social media battle of immense proportions played out right before our eyes. The YouTube star and make-up artist Westbrook, had at the time completely severed ties with 19-year-old YouTube megastar Charles.
Tati posted a 43-minute YouTube video titled: “BYE SISTER” in which, she explained the ongoing feud between both of them and her decision to cut her ties with James. Basically, all he did was promote a vitamin brand that is a competitor to her own vitamin brand.
A person’s actions do not define who they are
The beauty community “cancelled” James. He lost over 1 million YouTube subscribers in less than 24 hours. People sent him hate messages on social media and unfollowed him on his platforms.
This is an example of how cancel culture is a dumb way for society to invest their time in blowing people’s mistakes or negative comments out of proportion. The entire idea of cancelling people is poisonous because humans make mistakes, they say dumb things and they sometimes act stupid. However a person’s actions do not define who they are.
JK Rowling for example, has donated the proceeds of the two of her books to Comic Relief — a total estimated at over £17 million. She regularly contributes to over 20 different charities including supporting AIDS, cancer, homelessness and more. However, she was cancelled due to her comments.
Rowling has drawn criticism for posting tweets taking issue with the phrase “people who menstruate”. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out,” she had tweeted earlier, resulting in many calling her out for being transphobic.
We need to stop trying to tear people down.