Don’t cancel ‘cancel culture’

Addressing the phenomenon’s flaws shouldn’t mean writing it off altogether

Not all of cancel culture is bad.

Cancel culture, like anything else, shouldn’t be exempt from criticism. But in calling for it to disappear, writers are participating in the same trend they were so quick to denounce.

An open letter published this July in Harper’s Magazine condemning the widespread impact of ‘cancel culture’ has stirred up controversy. The letter, which boasts an impressive collection of signees including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and J.K. Rowling, is being criticized for its overly simplistic approach to the convoluted cultural phenomenon.

The issue lies, for the most part, with the Harper’s Magazine letter itself, not the overall sentiment that liberally applied cancel culture can dampen productive or subversive dialogue.  

The letter is championing against the one-strike-you’re-out mentality of cancel culture at its worst. It paints the ‘cancelled’ as victims of an uncaring, overly righteous cause that is happy to steamroll diverse viewpoints on its way toward uniform ‘woke-ness.’ 

It’s true that everyday people have lost their jobs and had their lives turned upside down over a tasteless Facebook comment or ignorant Tweet. This type of person is nowhere near the top of my list of people I feel sympathy for, but it’s inevitably true that some of them could've learned and grown from their mistake if given the chance to.

However, most writers, authors, academics, and journalists who signed the Harper’s letter will never fall into this category of person. Their wealth, influence, and success mean that no matter what hurtful rhetoric they promote they’ll likely never face the same world-rocking consequences of the typical social media racist or homophobe. 

J.K. Rowling has continued to spout anti-trans views at seemingly any and every opportunity, and she’s been rightly criticized for it by fans and peers. But at the end of the day, how can she place herself on the same level as the “researcher [who’s] fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study?” She may have lost a few Twitter followers, but she remains a successful author and multi-millionaire with dedicated fans and a significant platform. 

The letter asserts that cancel culture is a threat to democracy because it promotes ideological conformity. But what’s not democratic about choosing whose ideas you give a platform? Electing not to privilege the views of successful, influential people whose actions and words you don’t agree with by further promoting their views isn’t threatening to democracy—it’s threatening to entitled celebrities and writers who have grown accustomed to having an audience.

Being held accountable is not being cancelled. Facing criticism for saying harmful things doesn’t make someone a victim of cancel culture.

We need to reframe our criticisms of cancel culture. Even in its current state, it’s not some horrendous looming threat to free speech—it’s too much of a good thing.

Education, meaningful dialogue, and civil debate are all vital. Giving people the opportunity to grow and change is important. Treating other people’s views with kindness and empathy is often the most productive route.

But for people who continually demonstrate they are unwilling to change, or who say and do things too abhorrent to forgive, cancelling remains an appropriate course of action. 

Kevin Spacey doesn’t deserve a second chance. Harvey Weinstein should never be ‘un-cancelled.’ 

Cancelling used to be an impactful statement on the type of behaviour and conduct that will no longer be tolerated. It was a tool to disarm once-protected despicable people of their privilege.

Cancel culture needs to return to its roots, not disappear altogether. 


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