Sam Crocker is a junior media studies major.
A quick search for the phrase “cancel culture” on Twitter will yield hundreds, if not thousands, of recent tweets weighing in on the hot-button topic. Cancel culture refers to the condemnation and mass withdrawal of support for someone — most often a celebrity or high-profile individual — who has said or done something offensive. In practice, cancel culture usually manifests as a collective bashing of said person on social media platforms. Over time, however, discourse surrounding cancel culture has grown more tiresome and obsolete, as it devolves into a counterproductive discussion about celebrities who are in no real danger of being canceled. This discussion takes up so much space that it has effectively silenced marginalized voices, and our focus should be on un-doing this.
In the online era, open debate has been democratized like never before. Groups of people whose voices have been suppressed in the past now have multiple online outlets through which to contribute to discussions. Members of marginalized communities can speak out publicly against systems of oppression and reach many more people than was possible in previous decades when social media apps didn’t exist. They can speak directly to politicians for millions of people to see and their businesses can be advertised. #BlackTransLivesMatter can trend on Twitter. These are all incredible things! However, when we get too bogged down in conversations about cancel culture, these voices are effectively silenced all over again.
I used to be a firm believer that “canceling” wasn’t even possible. Take, for example, a handful of recent targets: Kanye West, canceled for his support of President Donald Trump, went on to release two No. 1 charting albums; Scarlett Johansson, canceled for dismissing those with legitimate concerns about her taking the role of a transgender man, continued on to be the highest-paid actress of 2019; or, most recently, J.K. Rowling, canceled for grossly transphobic rhetoric and forced to live with her measly hundreds of millions of dollars and reign over one of the most popular pieces of intellectual property in existence. Being canceled must be so hard.
There are, however, notable exceptions to this pattern. Actor Kevin Spacey, industry mogul Harvey Weinstein, singer R. Kelly, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, and a whole array of politicians were served justice as a result of the #MeToo movement’s insurgence, and all had their influence effectively stripped away. That said, #MeToo was a well-organized movement with a focus on the specific issue of widespread sexual harassment and abuse across multiple institutions, and is more distinguished than a less organized, more vague, completely online culture of cancellation.
However, by and large, famous people are uncancelable. Internet outrage, no matter how noble or well-placed, will never strip these celebrities of their wealth or platform. If anything, their platform will only grow larger due to the rush of attention. Author Phoebe Maltz Bovy argues something similar in an article written for The Washington Post. “The paradox of cancel culture is that one only ever hears about it from those unlikely to be harmed by it,” she wrote — and she’s right.
Maltz Bovy was one of 153 signatories of a letter on “Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s Magazine in July 2020. The letter argues that the “free exchange of information and ideas” is being “constricted,” as people censor themselves to avoid saying something controversial in public forums.
Personally, I found the letter to be remarkably tone-deaf. Those who signed included Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, as well as the aforementioned J.K. Rowling. Note: If you want people to take your letter on cancel culture seriously, I would advise against including a signee whose diatribes and online tantrums lead directly to violence against a marginalized community, and who is still quite literally impossible to cancel.
Maltz Bovy’s follow-up in The Washington Post was much more agreeable and separates itself from the letter in Harper’s. Cancel culture is really only a danger to the underrepresented and often-silenced groups which, in theory, it should be serving. I can agree that we should create space to forgive and allow people to grow, but celebrities have nothing to lose from saying something cancel-worthy.
If you really want to create a culture of forgiveness, allow marginalized writers, thinkers, and activists the space to say disagreeable things. Let them speak their mind, and if they misstep, offer them the forgiveness that you feel multimillionaires deserve so badly. Ultimately, however, conversations about cancel culture almost always serve as distractions from actually pressing issues — our time would be better spent demanding equitable healthcare and climate justice than needlessly defending celebrities from the non-existent threat of cancellation.