Cancel culture is a term that’s been going around a lot lately. If you signed up for your newsletters, you will have read Lauren McEwan’s excellent explanation of why “‘Cancel Culture’ is not a thing.” As social media has become accessible to more and more people, it has also become a powerful way to hold big names accountable. From fashion brands to YouTube stars, platforms such as Twitter serve as a direct line to call out those in power for their behavior and demand that they do better. Branding this call for accountability as cancel culture and dismissing it is dangerous.
Often brands or individual celebrities who are cancelled offer a hasty apology and then lament that cancel culture is toxic because it doesn’t give them the benefit of the doubt or the chance to grow beyond their mistakes. This frames cancel culture as something that annihilates a company’s success or an individual’s career once and for all when often this is not the case.
Let’s take for example the recent outcry against fast fashion brands refusing to pay the workers, particularly Bangladeshi women, who made their garments. This could be considered an example of cancelling these brands and the individuals who are the face of these brands. But in reality, they have been supposedly cancelled time and time again. For example, the fast-fashion giant H&M was exposed years ago for underpaying garment factory workers and yet raked in massive profits last year.
As for celebrities involved, Kylie Jenner is repeatedly called for cultural appropriation and blackfishing, and most recently, failing to pay the garment factory workers for her clothing line, but she continues to enjoy her wealthy lifestyle regardless. The criticism of cancel culture as a vindictive force that ends careers fails to acknowledge that many people being cancelled are already well-situated in privileged positions of power and wealth. This is important because, as Erica Baker, an “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech”, explains, “What powerful people want you to believe is ‘cancel culture’ is what people without power call consequences.”
‘What powerful people want you to believe is ‘cancel culture’ is what people without power call consequences.’
Recently, a letter published in Harper’s Magazine entitled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, sparked another wave of discussions about cancel culture. The letter defines cancel culture as “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.” Signed by 150 academics, it frames cancel culture as a threat to the right to free speech that defines democracy.
When I read through it, the impression I got is that this was a grand, vague appeal to the notion of democracy, as though invoking democracy’s name was enough of an argument. It reads like fear mongering about the, again vague, “forces of illiberalism” that supposedly take root in cancel culture, failing to address the elephant in the room, which novelist R.O. Kwon aptly points out: “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”
‘Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.’
By falsely equating freedom of speech with freedom from consequences, as this letter does, people in power are able to shirk responsibility and accountability for their actions. This is easy to see in the case of J.K. Rowling, one of the signatories. Just a few weeks ago, #JKRowlingIsOverParty was trending on Twitter, cancelling her for making transphobic remarks that claimed only “people who menstruate” should be considered women.
After the letter was published, she tweeted that she “was very proud to sign this letter in defense of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech.” Yet again, words like “open” and “freedom” are being used with their positive connotations to gloss over the fact that she used her freedom of speech to harm trans women, a vulnerable community that suffers systematic oppression and violence, and now refuses to face the consequences of her actions.
Rowling is a wealthy white woman with a cult-like following of millions and will continue to enjoy that privilege no matter what horrible things she says or does. Her freedom of speech is not under threat. As for the other signatories, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams who led the initiative emphasizes that it “includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”
While this indicates that not all the signatories have the same level of privilege as Rowling, all of them are renowned in their respective fields and wield a powerful platform from which they can reach a wide audience. These are not the people whose freedom of speech is being oppressed, but rather the people whose freedom from consequences is being threatened by the power of activism through social media.
The arguments made in this letter ignore the real consequences of debates, such as those about transgender people’s identities, that invalidate the humanity of entire communities.
The arguments made in this letter ignore the real consequences of debates, such as those about transgender people’s identities, that invalidate the humanity of entire communities. By putting the notion of “open debate” on a pedestal, it prioritizes the right to freedom of speech in every context at the implied cost of other basic human rights.
For this reason, I refuse to buy into the candy-coated version of freedom that this letter is selling or the idea that I need to take up arms against the imaginary enemy of cancel culture that it condemns. As conversation around the letter continues, more signatories are withdrawing their support for it.
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