Cancel culture has called out historical injustices but it could threaten the most marginalized among us.
R Vaishno Bharati
With social movements finding an increasingly large base in the online public space, 'cancelling' individuals who have wronged a vulnerable person/group has become a common practice, particularly on social media platforms.
While ‘cancelling’ can be a radical, extra-judicial means for people who cannot access institutional justice to hold the powerful accountable, its self-righteous binarism risks being reduced to hate speech — appropriated by the marketized attention economy.
It is, therefore, essential to re-orient cancel culture to be mindful of the market forces that benefit from it while also ensuring that it accounts for context, intention, introspection, marginalized communities, and social movements.
The recent letter in Harper’s magazine, signed by JK Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, among others, has elicited much discussion, on the internet and outside it, about cancel culture. The letter, signed by more than 150 public figures, was published on the heels of a controversy surrounding author JK Rowling who faced widespread criticism on Twitter for her transphobic views. Responding in part to this criticism, although not explicitly so, the signatories of the Harper letter decried what they called the weakening of “norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Yet others have criticized the Harper’s letter for equating criticism with threat to free speech, and not taking the power and privilege of the signatories into account.
These exchanges have, once again, raised many questions about cancel culture. But the debate has been split down the middle, approached from an either/or perspective. Those on one side of this debate have come to the defense of celebrities or public figures who, as the argument goes, are being unjustly silenced by the so-called ‘cancelers,’ eliding systemic discrimination, institutional privilege of the rich and powerful, and the debilitating effects of celebrity impunity on marginalized individuals and communities. Others have sided with the cancelers, ignoring the pernicious effects of cancel culture – the rampant trolling and hate speech and the non-celebrities affected by it. What much of this discourse ignores is the importance of context, intention, introspection, and the role of the market in determining whether or not cancellations are effective.
But first, what exactly is cancel culture?
In and of itself, the term ‘cancel’ is straightforward. You cancel a purchase when it isn’t needed anymore; a TV show is canceled if it has poor ratings. But on the internet, the term acquires new meaning and complexity. In this parlance, Merriam-Webster defines ‘canceling’ as the “removal of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions.” Cancel culture primarily exists in the online public sphere, particularly on social media platforms. The internet provides temporal and spatial fluidity to cancel culture since tweets, interviews, posts, etc. can be dug up, often from decades in the past, and used to cancel individuals through a process in which people across the world can collectively participate. The term ‘collectively’ is important to stress here because canceling something or someone is usually the result of a mass mobilization – if at least a sizable section of the internet stands behind it.
Cancel culture primarily exists in the online public sphere, particularly on social media platforms. The internet provides temporal and spatial fluidity to cancel culture since tweets, interviews, posts, etc. can be dug up, often from decades in the past, and used to ‘cancel’ individuals through a process in which people across the world can collectively participate.
Cancel culture has always existed, but in different forms. Call-out culture, boycott culture, and cancel culture are all terms used interchangeably to refer to a public phenomenon of naming, shaming, and/or refusing patronage to individuals, businesses, and institutions perceived to have flouted certain socio-cultural norms or engaged in actions that are deemed offensive or inappropriate by the prevailing public opinion. Though these terms have been used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. While boycott culture is largely used in reference to a corporation or a business conglomerate, the call-out culture is a form of public pushback against an individual for problematic behavior, statements, and political affiliations, both online and offline.
The origins of cancel culture, and more specifically the term ‘canceled’ have been attributed by some to Black Twitter, where the act of ‘cancellation’ has sometimes been rooted in anger or outrage, or used as a form of catharsis, or been rooted in humor, and served to register a disapproval of someone or something. The term cancel had been sporadically used in the past on social media, but cancel culture has been a more recent phenomenon. It gained significance during the latest iteration of the #MeToo movement, which started with multiple women calling out Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and is often cited as one the first instances of celebrities and public figures being canceled, at least on the face of it, after they were called out online.
What does the process of cancellation entail?
When a call is made to cancel a celebrity, there are three ways in which they react – some are defiant, some apologize, and yet others remain silent. For celebrities who apologize, the extent and duration of their cancellation often depends on the perceived sincerity of their apology. Those who stand their ground receive both backlash and support online. For instance, JK Rowling’s transphobic tweets invited a barrage of Twitter responses – some explaining why her tweets were offensive and some immediately calling for her cancellation. Rowling responded with a statement on her website in which she doubled down on her position, leading to more backlash and louder calls for cancellation. Summer sales of the Harry Potter books that she authored were lower than usual and a school which was planning to name one of its school houses after the author, dropped the plan. Some fans attempted to dissociate the writer from her work. Others expressed disappointment with the author’s stance and stood in solidarity with trans, genderqueer, and non-binary folk.
So, what does a call to cancel achieve?
The latest iteration of the #MeToo movement demonstrated that public naming and shaming has consequences (to varying degrees) for perpetrators of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. More importantly, it marked a global movement of women establishing their own agency and offering solidarity to survivors. It fostered a sense of belonging and provided the strength for many others to come forward and engage in the discourse. As Zizi Papacharissi argues in her book, “affective statements can potentially allow access to fluid or liquid forms of power that are meaningful to publics seeking to break into the ideological mainstream.” Cancel culture is affective in nature as it personalizes offense and reorients the relationship between the self and the collective. It is simultaneously a collective and personal assertion. When faced with a problematic behavior or statement that a group of people disagree with, there is a show of collective dissent, declarations of broken trust, and disowning of people.
Even though digital access is not universal and marred by similar issues that plague access to public spaces, the internet has provided the opportunity for a large number of people to express their opinion and have a voice online. So-called cancelers are often criticized for attempting to cut off influence—be it social, cultural, political, or economic—of those in the public eye, who are influential to begin with. There is an implication that the one who is canceled is often victimized. But it is important to note that many of those who engage in calling out or canceling have historically never occupied positions of influence or power. Already canceled from accessing institutional justice, for many, calling individuals out on the internet is the only way to arrive at some semblance of justice. Cancel culture points to a larger problem in our society of the institutional power of the privileged.
There is an implication that the one who is canceled is often victimized. But it is important to note that many of those who engage in calling out or canceling have historically never occupied positions of influence or power. Already canceled from accessing institutional justice, for many, calling individuals out on the internet is the only way to arrive at some semblance of justice.
Is cancellation effective?
While it is easy to call for cancellation of celebrities who are hyper-visible, it is actually very difficult to truly cancel them or ensure that this cancellation, or the issue which triggered the call for cancellation, remains in public memory for long. As this piece in TheNew York Times argues, cancel culture is embedded in the attention economy that works largely through social media platforms. It is next to impossible to cancel major corporations and people holding political office because their reach is far beyond these platforms. The popularity of celebrities not only influences this discourse but also determines whether they will be canceled. Numerous male celebrities were named in the #MeToo movement, but nearly every single one of them (except for those who have been convicted in legal cases) is back at work. Some, like Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, have even used their experience of getting canceled as material for their recent stand-up specials.
Cancellations are more effective in less mainstream fields because the influence of the market and brand value is less or negligible. For instance, Utsav Chakraborty, a small-time comedian was named in the #MeToo movement in India in October 2018. Since the allegations came to light, he has not returned to work. Subhash Ghai, a prominent filmmaker from the Hindi film industry in India, was also among the numerous others named but this had no impact on his career. Both men have denied the allegations (though Chakraborty had initially issued an apology) and no official investigation was conducted in either case. But the cancellation was effective in the former and not in the latter.
Cancel culture also affects people other than the one being held accountable. The demand for accountability is expanded to those around the person, with calls for friends and family to disown and publicly distance themselves from the canceled or face similar, albeit comparatively milder consequences. For instance, web-series and sketch comedy starring Utsav Chakraborty have been removed from streaming platforms, affecting other actors and the crew that worked on the series.
Celebrities are only canceled when the market sees no economic incentive to come to their rescue or support them despite their transgressions. Corporations and media platforms often jump on the cancellation bandwagon in order to be seen as progressive. But the use of progressive values and ‘wokeness’ is not consistent and, more often than not, not sincere. So, big corporations extend their support to the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter but do not address the lack of diversity among their staff or ensure fair and equitable working conditions and wages. The censorious nature of the internet is regulated by the market that either acknowledges collective dissent or ignores it. Any collective move to cancel someone or something is thus easily appropriated and controlled by a marketized and highly commodified economy. The marketability of a celebrity determines whether the person stays canceled or not.
Any collective move to cancel someone or something is thus easily appropriated and controlled by a marketized and highly commodified economy. The marketability of a celebrity determines whether the person stays canceled or not.
What are the cons of cancel culture?
Cancel culture could be detrimental to the people who are already marginalized in society by maintaining and perpetuating existing inequalities. For instance, in 2017, Conrad Lariviere, a police officer from Springfield, Massachusetts posted insensitive comments about protesters opposing white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. There was nationwide backlash against the officer and the police department and he was subsequently fired. This incident set a precedent and three years later, in 2020, detective Florissa Fuentes from the same department was fired from work after she posted pictures of her niece holding a Black Lives Matter protest sign, which the Springfield police department found offensive. Her post and apology on Facebook (which have subsequently been taken down), received more abuse than her original post on Instagram.
Cancel culture can also have racist or sexist overtones, as was evident in the calls to cancel Indian actors Alia Bhatt and Janhvi Kapoor. Since the tragic suicide of Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput there have been calls to boycott the films of other actors and directors like Alia Bhatt, Jahnvi Kapoor, and Karan Johar, people who are perceived to have gotten an unfair advantage in their careers due to nepotism. Of course, the vitriolic criticism has disproportionately targeted the female actors.
Cancel culture has been criticized by people across the political spectrum who perceive it to be too sweeping in its calls for cancellation. It has been criticized for being self-righteous by primarily focusing on being right. People who have been part of social movements and have worked towards social justice have criticized cancel culture for not engaging with issues such as racism, casteism, sexism etc. with depth and nuance.
What is the alternative?
Critics of cancel culture point out that its edicts are simply too harsh, often counterproductive, and oblivious to the principle of restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harms rather than just meting out punishment. Academic and feminist activist Loretta Ross advocates for a “call-in” instead of a call-out. Calling-in focuses on learning and growth instead of pronouncing judgment or pushing for punishment. Those who suggest call-ins, acknowledge that there are instances where call-outs and cancellations are important and effective but advocate for calling-in people so that there is scope for change. Calling-in is done in person or privately, without naming and shaming, which allows for personal growth of everyone involved. While this may be an effective strategy in social change, not everyone has the benefit to do this, since having any kind of access to powerful people of privilege is in itself a privilege that most people do not possess.
Calling-in is done in person or privately, without naming and shaming, which allows for personal growth of everyone involved. While this may be an effective strategy in social change, not everyone has the benefit to do this, since having any kind of access to powerful people of privilege is in itself a privilege that most people do not possess.
The solution may not lie in ‘canceling’ cancel culture – it is the reason powerful abusers like Harvey Weinstein and R Kelly have faced consequences for their actions. Cancel culture, if disassociated from the trolling, the hate speech, and the vituperative internet publics it contributes to, has the potential to significantly impact public discourse by calling out historical injustices. The ideal scenario would be for call-in, call-out, and cancel culture to all exist simultaneously and be used appropriately; taking into account context, intention, introspection, marginalized communities, and social movements.