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.
Where did it originate?
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.