The problem with ‘cancel culture’ isn’t cancel culture itself. Really, it’s an issue of freedom of speech – in particular, the way people on both sides of the argument weaponise it.
What is ‘cancel culture’?
Let’s start with a definition.
Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (‘cancelling’) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.dictionary.com
Cancel culture is a by-product of the democratisation of media. In the past, mainstream channels controlled mass communication. If you wanted to broadcast a message, you either had to attract media coverage or you had to pay to advertise it. Sometimes a major issue might lead to an organised strike or demonstration, but these took a lot of time and effort to organise. As an ordinary citizen, you had limited influence to raise awareness of causes.
Social media has changed all that, though. Now everyone has a voice with the potential to reach millions of people. Some messages go viral. But even if they don’t, the aggregation of many small voices – via hashtags, algorithms and curation tools such as Twitter Moments – can amplify a message with unprecedented speed. Build enough support from enough people and it is now possible to ‘cancel’ someone, no matter how big they are, within hours.
J K Rowling is one of the world’s best-selling authors, with around 15 million Twitter followers. But when she recently made controversial comments relating to transgender people, Twitter quickly appointed itself as both prosecution and defence counsel, not to mention judge, jury and executioner. Cue cancellation.
The good, the bad and the ugly
And this is where the debate around cancel culture gets trickier.
There are elements of cancel culture that are inherently good. It gives ‘small’ people the opportunity to mobilise quickly and effectively. Their voices don’t require editorial approval. They can open up debate, demand change and sometimes even achieve it.
There are also features of cancel culture that are both bad and ugly. How do you prevent debate from turning into playground taunting and bullying? Who decides where the line should be drawn between freedom of speech and debate, and hate speech and misinformation? Who is the final arbiter of ‘truth’?
I have plenty of opinions on this, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers. So I turned to some of my TSC colleagues for their thoughts.
The TSC view
TIM: So, ‘cancel culture’. Talk to me about the positives.
KATE: Cancelling someone is a useful tool for challenging genuinely unacceptable behaviour and making someone no longer relevant in today’s world.
TIM: Agreed, it can be a really powerful force for change – but I really dislike the term itself. ‘Cancelling’ implies an act of negation rather than solution, one opposite eliminating the other. It treats the symptoms, not the cause.
Some people oppose cancel culture because they say it inhibits freedom of speech. But what’s the difference between ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘hate speech’?
JAMIE: I’ve been watching the J K Rowling crisis unfold. I believe free speech becomes hate speech when its perpetrator is unwilling to entertain the idea they might be a danger to people. As an example, phrases such as “opposing views” and “in my opinion” suggest LGBTQ people are somehow presenting a ‘view’ that requires debate. People should obey free-speech guidelines, or at least be ready to discuss the reaction to it.
KATE: I believe in freedom of speech; it is a right. But free speech should not mean that people are free from consequences. I am all for having a discussion with someone who has opposing views, but if those views are based around prejudice then they should feel the full wrath of the consequences that follow.
AMIE: Yes. As the open letter in Harper’s states, debate is a part of free speech and should never be taken away. But if you enter a debate, you are likely to experience conflict and need to be prepared for that. That said, debate should be civilised and informed, so simply throwing insults and trolling someone – whatever their viewpoint – until they are too afraid to speak up isn’t acceptable.
TIM: This is an issue with all ‘debate’ on social media, not just cancel culture, right? Any attempt to hold a proper discussion is quickly drowned between two rising waves of emotion: argument versus counter-argument. No one listens, and the only way to ‘win’ the debate is to shout loudest for longest.
AMIE: That isn’t debate, that’s simply bullying and the distinction between the two needs to be very clear.
TIM: Absolutely. You don’t beat a bully by being a bigger bully. People on opposite sides of the argument use the terms ‘cancel culture’ and ‘freedom of speech’ as both a shield and a weapon. In claiming to further the cause of free speech and debate, they end up discouraging it instead. Instead of stimulating discussion, they quash it.
KATE: It’s slowly becoming a way to silence someone just for having opposing views. Similar to the #BeKind movement, which started as a way to encourage people to think about how they communicate with others. It’s now used to shut people up.
TIM: For sure. Just because someone disagrees with you – or holds an unpopular opinion – does not mean you should automatically cancel them. A lot of this stems back to people having entrenched opinions and dealing in 280-character soundbites. There is space only for black or white; there are no shades of grey. And even if you do try to have a nuanced debate, Twitter’s conversation stream moves so fast that it’s like trying to play chess while white-water rafting.
I’ve tried walking the middle ground countless times; I still do it as much as I can. But when you walk in no-man’s land, both sides will see you as the enemy and take pot shots at you. That can be an exhausting and thankless task. It’s far easier to just pick a side and stick to it.
Cancel culture isn’t really the problem
The more I think about it, the more I realise that ‘cancel culture’ is just a new manifestation of an old problem.
At its core is the fact that the very thing that enables cancel culture – the accessibility and speed of social media – is also what makes it impossible to have a proper debate. And the problem isn’t even the technology. It’s the people who use it – us – and our inherent flaws and biases. [What’s the expression? Guns don’t kill people; people with guns kill people – Ed.]
We are so desperate to make our voices heard that our freedom of speech comes at the cost of someone else’s. Too often we shut down dissension and deny the right of reply which is a fundamental tenet of free speech.
No matter what the subject, people will always disagree. And that’s okay. Freedom of speech means allowing differing opinions to be aired. What it does not mean is making incendiary comments and then running away unchallenged. Freedom of speech should go hand-in-hand with the right for both sides to openly debate points.
Equally, hurling personal – often playground-level – insults is an abuse of free speech. The same goes for those who immediately shout down every counter-argument under the guise of “you’re cancelled”.
That’s the real point of the Harper’s letter, which has been distorted somewhat by people on both sides. People should never feel they can’t state an unpopular opinion – but they must be prepared to argue its merits. Making statements from a position of privilege does not grant anyone – not even J K Rowling – immunity from scrutiny. But both sides should have the right to reply. That’s what debate is.
While I disagree with the comments made by Rowling and other targets of cancel culture, I don’t deny their right to make them any more than I deny the right of others to call them out for it and challenge their validity. I’d rather we had the ability to debate them openly than drive such views underground, away from the prying eyes of scrutiny. However, the danger of cancel culture is that ultimately the one thing it may succeed in cancelling is freedom of speech itself.
It’s a bit like watching two evenly-matched tug-o-war teams. There is lots of noise and lots of effort, but little actual movement. This isn’t how change happens. And until we find out a way to self-police these debates properly, the impact of cancel culture will always be limited.
Written by Tim Liew, with contributions from Jamie Beaglehole, Kate Everall and Amie Caitlin Shearer.