You may have read the news some time ago that some writers aren’t happy. A broad range of figures, including JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood have complained about the “restriction of debate” that has apparently recently occurred. There is, their letter claims, “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.” It goes on: “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
Well now. This is quite the accusation. It is in line with a very strong recent current of complaints from famous people that they’re being repressed, and that “Cancel Culture” is new, on the rise, and bad. That is, people can see events cancelled, works retracted, even jobs lost because of things they’ve said or done in the recent or not-so-recent past that were bad.
Before I get going, I want to say that I am definitely not saying that, when properly defined, there are no instances where cancel culture hasn’t existed, and hasn’t been bad. There are three examples here, though as with everything, there may be some who see those as perfectly reasonable. I disagree. Nonetheless, there are plenty of problems with the Harper’s letter, which can broadly be summarised as:
- Cancel culture isn’t new
- Cancel culture is poorly defined
- When it does happen, it isn’t always bad
- “Cancelling” happens everywhere
- Cancel culture is itself a mass expression of free speech
- Cancel culture is a natural result of democracy and capitalism
Cancel Culture Isn’t New
The anti-apartheid movement began in 1959 calling for a boycott of SA products, and gained a certain amount of following. The fact that it gained so much ground early on within the UK was significant, as following incidents such as the Sharpeville Massacre, SA was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1961. In 1962 the UN General Assembly passed a motion calling for all member states to impose a trade boycott (this was almost universally ignored in the West). In 1963 the UN Security Council called for an arms ban against SA.
In 1965, nearly 500 British academics signed a declaration protesting against Apartheid in South Africa. Two progressive academics, Jack Simons and Eddie Roux, had been banned from teaching and writing in South Africa because of their political beliefs. In solidarity, the declaration announced that, in protest, none of the academics would apply for or accept positions in South African universities. This widened to refusal to collaborate, publications refusing to publish, conferences refusing to host in SA or invite attendees from there, and refusal to allow SA scholars to use international university facilities.
The cultural boycott extended to sport: in 1964 SA were uninvited to the Olympic Games, and in 1968 the IOC’s initial willingness to relent was overcome by a threat of withdrawal from other African nations. In 1970, SA were expelled from the IOC. Boycotts followed in cricket, football, rugby, and tennis, plus other sports. Music was impacted too – many Western bands refused to play in SA, and those who did were sharply criticised.
The boycott only ended in the 90s after Nelson Mandela was freed, apartheid was ended, free democratic elections were held and Mandela became President. I appreciate that there were those in the UK Conservative Party who thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, even those who though he “should be shot“. Nonetheless, boycotting South Africa because of its stance on apartheid was widely supported, and was most certainly an example of cancel culture.
Away from the issue of Apartheid: in 1976, a competition called Cook of the Realm was held, which a farmer’s wife called Gwen Troake won. On the strength of this, Troake was invited by the BBC to partake in its show The Big Time, which gave talented amateurs the chance to be involved in a large, important event. In Troake’s case, she was asked to organise a banquet for, amongst others, Earl Mountbatten and the former Prime Minister Edward Heath.
Fanny Cradock, the famously snappy but experienced TV cook was one of the panel of admired experts hired to advise Troake. Unfortunately, Cradock acted in an enormously objectionable manner, eye-rolling, fake gagging, pretending that all British cuisine (such as Yorkshire pudding) came from France, and that all of Troake’s ideas were awful and wouldn’t work.
The public were outraged at Cradock’s rudeness, and interpreted her behaviour as ruinous of Troake’s big day. The Daily Telegraph wrote that, “Not since 1940 can the people of England have risen in such unified wrath”. Although Cradock wrote a letter of apology to Troake, two weeks later the BBC cancelled her contract and she never hosted a cookery programme again. You can see some of the details here.
Both of these are pre-internet versions of cancel culture. One of an entire country, the other of a rude celebrity. In the case of South Africa, change, apology and repentance led to the “cancellation” being rescinded. In the case of Cradock, it did not. In both cases, commercial interest prevailed.
Other examples of historical cancel culture exist. The Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. The lesser known Bristol Bus Boycott too. There are active boycotts of Israel. The Nestlé boycott is well known and still going. In the racist early days of MTV, the threat of removal of major label CBS Records’ artists from the channel led MTV to finally show Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video, which was seen afterwards as a watershed.
Cancel culture isn’t new. The clash between the freedom of (usually elevated) people to speak and others to choose to listen, decry or respond is old. The challenges of deciding whether the good deeds a person does override the bad things they’ve said or done or believe is a very old philosophical problem. This excellent essay by Dorian Lynskey does a great job of looking at our tendency for “chronocentrism” – a bias towards recent events, and believing ourselves more advanced than those of the past. So, let’s cast aside the idea that we’re living through some uniquely, existentially concerning era. We aren’t.
Cancel Culture is Poorly Defined
What even is cancel culture? For some, it is an abhorrent mob-like reaction calling for someone’s loss of a job or income. For others, it’s a mass, collective expression of justified anger over something that someone has said or written. Referring to someone as “cancelled” implies that their career is now over – that authors can no longer be published or read, comedians no longer command an audience, film stars no longer get offered auditions, and so on. Sometimes it affects products which portray past bigotry – TV shows or films are removed from availability or scenes edited, old articles taken down, etc.
The term “cancel culture” has its origins in black culture, coming to prominence via a show called Love & Hip Hop. The phrase, “you’re cancelled” started to get picked up by the show’s audience, both as a joke and as a wry commentary on celebrities saying daft things about racism, sexism and homophobia. That sense of using the power of protest and boycott to feed back to people who had gone too far – which we also saw with the #metoo movement – has, according to the article above, a rich history within black American culture. We obviously know of that use against corporations, but this applies to people – a very different proposition. But as the article makes clear, any acts of individual “cancelling” are ranged against an entire societal structure which works against black people, women, gay people and trans people. And yet, according to some, a small level of push back in the opposite direction is a terrible threat to our society.
According to this excellent article, cancel culture is actually two things, and those two things should be considered separately. The existence of two separate definitions also drives the arguments over whether it’s a good or a bad thing. I’d argue that, in reality, “cancellations” have two main expressions. The first is a mass avoidance of a prominent person or their works due to things about them that have come to light. Our first instinct here is to think of people such as JK Rowling, Louis CK or Michael Jackson. JK Rowling has recently revealed herself as a transphobe, Louis CK sexually harassed women and Michael Jackson was a paedophile. (JK Rowling is, of course, one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter). All of them have, to one extent or another, been described as “cancelled“.
Except, let’s be honest, none of them have been cancelled. JK Rowling is the most famous and richest author in the world, a billionaire, with three films remaining of a 13-film franchise, an enormously popular stage show, 14.3m twitter followers, and, of course, is responsible for one of the most beloved, purchased, read and discussed book series of all time. Compared to this, the removal of her photos from some fan sites, and some actors from the films she helped create contradicting her opinion on transgender people is not really “cancellation”. JK Rowling has suffered mountains of abuse, which I condemn, though I’ll hazard a guess that this was also the case before the trans stuff blew up, and which is a function of twitter in particular being a terrible platform which celebrates abuse of women and minorities. And, let’s not forget, Rowling herself celebrated an abusive transphobe.
Louis CK was genuinely cancelled, for a time. TV spots were cancelled, films refused distribution, gigs dried up. But, 9 months later, he was back on small stages again. Many other comedians weighed in on whether the timing was right, with lots supporting him. A few months after that, he announced an international tour. In April this year, he released a stand-up special. None of these things are possible for the likes of you and me – we don’t have the platform and I’m a terrible comedian.
Michael Jackson is dead, so he doesn’t get a right of reply to the recent allegations of paedophilia outlined in a documentary. Nonetheless, he saw several allegations during his life, and remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time. He is incredibly famous, his music is instantly recognisable, and his loyal fanbase reacted with outrage and disbelief when the documentary came out. Many radio stations did pull his music, but lots still play it. And maybe that’s right? After all, he is no longer in a position to profit from it directly, and his music is excellent. The separation of art from artist is an ongoing philosophical debate and isn’t going to be solved any time soon. That’s not to say at all that those who choose not to listen to his works any more are wrong, just that doing so, or not, doesn’t necessarily reflect acceptance or condemnation of the man himself.
The second expression, subtly different to the first, is a sense of public shaming or “calling out” of someone, enlisting mobs of people to go on the hunt against someone. It is this expression which is more likely to be directed at people without a strong platform, without the ability to fight back or respond well. It is this which is the more dangerous of the two, for the person suffering it, if they have no privileged position, but is more survivable for those with sufficient resources to ride it out. And this expression is just as likely, if not more so, to be dished out by right-wing mobs as by left-wing ones.
What does the phrase “cancel culture” mean, then? A removal of a place of honour in society (whether temporary or permanent)? A loss of publicity? The loss of an audience? The loss of a part of an audience? How much of an audience, if so? And for how long a time? How about the loss of sponsorship money, advertising money, or other income? The loss of a job or a career altogether, perhaps? Or is it simply having to face the opposition of a group of vocal people for a time?
Wikipedia offers a definition:
Dictionary.com feels similarly:
Usually public figures are said to be canceled after it has been discovered that they have done something offensive. It involves calling out the bad behavior, boycotting their work (such as by not watching their movies or listening to their music), and trying to take away their public platform and power. This is often done in a performative way on social media.
A boycott, then. Other people freely voicing their concerns. “Freely voicing”… maybe we could call this “free speech”. That same free speech which is in danger. Hmm.
Cancel Culture Isn’t Always Bad
Harvey Weinstein got cancelled. He raped and abused women for years, ruined their careers and got rich from being a pathetic, petulant bully, and used NDAs to suppress their voices.
Bill Cosby got cancelled. He drugged and sexually assaulted women for years.
Rolf Harris got cancelled. He indecently assaulted various young women over an 18 year period.
Roseanne Barr got cancelled. She wrote a series of racist tweets about an adviser to President Obama.
There are more. Of course there are. But these ones are pretty well known and seem justified to me. Some people acted like monsters or idiots, and didn’t get away with it. That’s a good thing.
Now, to be clear: I’m not arguing here that cancel culture is always good. A fair set of complaints about instances of it are that it is frequently over-reactive, unforgiving of long-past errors, features a certain amount of mass hysteria and shallow consideration. My friend Sarah Hearne has documented one such sad example. I’d certainly like it if people could calmly approach these topics and hear each side before taking action. But nonetheless, that doesn’t make cancel culture a universally bad thing.
There’s also a fair discussion to be had about the concept of forgiveness and allowance for past transgressions before any “Cancelling” happens. Does someone recognise the wrongs of their past actions, and are they sorry for them? If they are, then great, let’s move on. (Note, even the relatively small step of apology is a step too far for some who describe themselves as anti-woke – apologies are for cissies, after all). Was it a genuine mistake? Is there an explanation which makes sense? If so, good. But often the process of allowing someone accused of something the chance to explain is minimised or bypassed, and that is a problem. However, if we’re going to give a chance and a listening ear to someone on the cusp of cancellation, then it is also incumbent on those who decry cancel culture to listen to the cries of anguish from marginalised parts of society – those same parts of society who tend to be most sensitive to perceptions of racism, sexism and so on. And if the naysayers refuse to do that, as they so often do, they are in no position at all to start complaining about hysteria.
An additional complaint would also be “but what about the abuse?!?!?!“. What indeed. Abuse is everywhere, unacceptable, obviously, and anyone arguing any point which incorporates abuse should fully expect their point to be ignored or, most likely, deliberately opposed. Abuse has been directed in all directions (though, weirdly, the abuse by my side is always, in my view, lesser both in volume and vitriol than the abuse by your side, no matter which side you and I are on). But abuse is generally recognised as being a step beyond normal free speech in almost all contexts. It is the responsibility of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to mediate and remove such abuse, when it is reported. Their repeated and deliberate failure to do so is not a comment on cancel culture specifically as on all culture generally: especially so when abuse is common to all people with any kind of platform, any opinion, anywhere. Being female, gay, trans, an ethnic minority or any combination thereof will naturally intensify that abuse. Again, it remains irrelevant to cancel culture.
Cancelling Happens Everywhere
“There is no tendency across the entire political spectrum which does not engage in boycotts of some variety, governed by their specific ethical red flags” writes Tristan Cross in a stunningly good article on cancel culture. Indeed, we saw that just this week when 15,500 definitely un-racist people decided to complain to Ofcom because some people did a dance about George Floyd.
Or consider Dominic Cummings. When he decided to break lockdown, break the law, endanger his children, jeopardise the faith of the people of the UK in the government, and just generally act like a self-centred moron, the country rose as one – from each side of the political spectrum – to email their MPs, complain to media outlets and so on. Some decided that this was just fake media outrage, but it wasn’t. It was hurt. Many of us, myself included, demanded he be sacked – cancel culture writ large. He wasn’t sacked, and the trust of the people in Government sank low as a result.
Or consider Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Eleven years ago, they left a series of distasteful, lewd answerphone messages for the elderly actor Andrew Sachs which ended up (eventually) causing some consternation. Demands for sackings came in, commentary was voiced from all over the place, particularly the right-wing. Both men ended up leaving the BBC.
Everyone, from whatever point of the political, ethical, religious, moral, philosophical or cultural spectrum, has things which they believe should be deemed Too Far. And when those red lines are breached, people get angry and Do Stuff. Cancel culture isn’t just for the “woke”.
Cancel Culture is Free Speech
What we are dealing with when it comes to cancel culture is the ability of a mass of people to collectively agree that something is bad, to express their anger about it and then act further if they so desire – whether to complain, demand resignations, boycott or whatever else. Now, you or I might disagree with the thrust of their argument – and I certainly do when it comes to over fifteen thousand absolutely-not-racist people complaining to Ofcom because some other people pointed out through the medium of dance that US police murdering a black man is bad – but they have the right to say it.
Our culture has come from a place where the power of free speech, whilst it is a right for everyone, has been concentrated in the hands of a few privileged people. Usually white, male, straight, old people, with access to an audience to whom they can say what they think.
Previously, the opinions of these people in high places, whether they be racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever else, could be published but wouldn’t receive a lot of blowback. The main reason for that is that any complaints which did get sent were reasonably hidden, or dealt with behind the scenes. Occasionally, as with Ross & Brand above, a newspaper might pick the story up and run with it, leading to considerably more attention on a situation. But again, the power there lies behind closed doors, in the hands of the media moguls who wield it in as discriminating a way as they like. And if they decided that, say, a blond-haired old Etonian shouldn’t see much career harm from being a repeated racist or a serial cheat or having xenophobically insulted a wide array of places or frequently lying, or being utterly untalented, then those media outlets will see to it.
However, nowadays, places such as Twitter, as much as I loathe it and refuse to join it, have allowed for the democratisation of free speech – I can join, if I choose, and tell Piers Morgan that I think he’s a fanny. And he can tell me in response that he thinks I’m a fanny, if he so desires. Happy days.
The privilege of an audience that so many famous people have is not immutable – the audience have minds and can remove their membership of it if they so desire, for whatever reason they want. That is free movement, free assembly, free association. They can vocally discuss why they have done so, on blogs, or facebook, or twitter, or anywhere else. That is free speech.
So, if some people believe that the author of a children’s book series has written things which are transphobic, they have, these days, both the right and the platform to say so. That is, after all, free speech. If some of those people are famous, that right remains, and the platform is somewhat bigger (though not necessarily bigger than the author). The Laurence Foxes of this world might believe that famous people having starred in a film adaptation of those children’s books means they no longer have a right to speak their minds on the matter, because they owe their careers to the author, but he is wrong. Even those poor, damned souls still have the right to free speech.
If those people get organised, work out their arguments and voice their opinions in argument against that, that is free speech. If they call for removal of sponsorship, that is free speech. If they write letters demanding resignations, that is free speech. If they state they will refuse to work for the company unless they act, that is free speech. If they arrange a protest, that is free speech. If they remove photographs from their website, that is free speech. Even “public shaming and ostracism”, to quote the Harper’s letter, are free speech. Not necessarily tasteful or just, but free speech nonetheless.
Demanding, as the Harper’s letter does, the ability to publish an opinion “without the threat of reprisal” is a suppression of the free speech of the audience. No one has that right. No one has the right to demand silence from their audience. No one has the right to universal acceptance of their opinions.
As Tristan Cross writes,
Opponents of ‘cancel culture’ don’t appreciate all free speech, though – particularly if it might cause real-world adverse consequences for them. It’s all ‘open debate’ until it becomes ‘cancelling’, then it’s too far.
Free speech isn’t in danger. If anything, it’s flourishing. It has finally got into the hands of people who have never had it before, and they are using it. And those who have always had an audience who, crucially, will silently nod along, don’t like that. They hate it. They hate the idea that their speech has consequences, whether for them or others. They hate that other people can dare to join together to condemn something they have done or said. They hate that there is a medium – which they freely chose to join, without having to pay – through which others can reach them with replies. They hate that people can call for them to be boycotted, or for their resignation, or for sponsors to withdraw their support.
An important point here is that those people who have that audience, generally speaking, still have it. They can still say what they want. They still have freedom of speech. They can still proffer their opinions to the world. They will typically continue to have a platform much larger than those calling for their “cancellation”. How many of us get to have a letter published in Harper’s? How many of us get to revitalise our failing acting career by deliberately being a disagreeable bellend and getting booked onto Newsnight as a go-to contrarian, like Laurence Fox?
What these people don’t have, and never did, is the right to speak in a vacuum, without response. But they do want that. After all:
If you’re able to convince people that it’s a far greater abuse to point out your transgressions, than it is to commit them, you can act with total impunity.
The writers of the Harper’s letter claim that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” I’d suggest that this is itself arguable, especially so when it comes to debating the relative humanity of particular groups of people, or their rights. We shouldn’t need to have debates about, for instance, racism or homosexuality any more. And whilst it might work in certain cases, in other worst cases, allowing exposure to these ideas allows them to breed and spread. The same people complaining there about the shocking gall of these plebs, daring to question their intellectual superiority, are also the ones who dominate those debates, crowding out or shouting down voices attempting to outline, for example, the subtleties of the impact of microaggressions, or what it’s like to live under a cloud of cultural bigotry. The tendency instead is to approach these topics from a distance – high decoupling – without the emotional connection which makes it so vital to those fighting it every single day. If they feel less willing, more timid, to voice their uninformed spleens on whatever subjects pass through their brains, perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps it creates room to listen to people who know what they’re talking about, if anyone can be bothered to give them a platform instead.
So free speech isn’t under threat. But, if anything, there is an argument that free speech flourishing as much as it is, particularly on social media, is nonetheless doing damage to our society. Discussions on WhatsApp and private Facebook groups allow considerably wider spreading of conspiracy theories and far-right nonsense than has been possible up to now. The bullshit that is QAnon has thrived in these conditions. Anti-vaccine groups or those opposed to Covid-19 pandemic interventions such as mask-wearing can spread their dangerous ideas to much larger portions of society than ever before. Once we declare our position on a topic, we are easily able to filter out those who disagree, on whichever platform. Anti-immigrant or “Incel” groups can form, debate ideas, become ever more extreme the longer their echo chambers exist, and then do some real damage. These groups have plenty of time to inoculate themselves against the cold light of reality shining on them – they can spread their ideas much faster, and do much more damage in a short space of time than can be alleviated by some famous writers holding forth in a newspaper column, book or blog.
Cancel Culture is a Result of Democracy and Capitalism
Ultimately, who is responsible for editors being “fired for running controversial pieces”, books being “withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity”, journalists being “barred from writing on certain topics” or heads of organisations being “ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes”? It isn’t those who demand resignations who actually make those decisions – it is employers, organisations, corporate entities who ultimately are concerned about company reputation (and therefore profit) and being seen to support potentially damaging things. I’d agree that it’s true that such corporations are more sensitive to negative feedback than they once were, but that isn’t the fault of those providing the feedback. They are as entitled as anyone else to voice their opinions – whether anyone listens is a different matter entirely.
Take an example cited in the Tristan Cross piece. James Marriott, a deputy editor at The Times, wrote some articles, and people responded with disagreement and comments on the shape of his head. He kept his job (telling a wide audience of people what he thinks), if anything he gained work, and all that happened was some mild criticism. And yet this is, according to him, being “nearly cancelled“. He wasn’t, though, was he? The Times had no interest in sacking him, not when there were a full 25 articles to be published that week on cancel culture, so cancellation was not on the cards.
Commentary has become much more democratic now – I can vent my spleen on Twitter or Facebook and every now and again might have my views taken note of by a substantial amount of people. In turn, the vast array of commentary that is now out there makes this exceedingly unlikely, unless I already have a substantial platform. And if a hundred or a thousand of those people decide that they don’t like the cut of my jib, they can try to find out who employs me, contact them and demand my resignation. What then? Well, my employer can choose to heed those demands or not. The power lies in their hands, not those of the complainants. Sure, such a situation won’t be fun – it’ll be horrible, distressing and upsetting. Nonetheless, it remains ultimately the concern of the employer to deal with.
An employer choosing to heed angry views will stem from simple modern-day capitalism – concern for the bottom line, for reputation, for relevance. This is nevertheless the same capitalism which right-wing people angry at cancel culture frequently accuse left-wing people of trying to undermine. The interaction of both democracy and capitalism is one which has some interesting consequences at times, but this is one which is entirely a result of broadening the ability of people to speak and of corporations to listen to their views. Most would think of that as a good thing.
And there’s the rub – ultimately, the main force of cancel culture is not the voices of marginalised “woke” people on the left, it is the reactionary nature of employers who choose to acquiesce to the demands of a few complainants, rather than be careful, take their time, support their employees and make a balanced, thoughtful decision. If people think the limits of that acquiescence are widening further than they should, their ire should be directed at those companies, not those who carry opinions and act on them. If people think employees are sacked too easily, their call should be to improve employment rights – an idea which, again, right-wingers tend to shun due to their supposed fervent love of capitalism.
Those fighting against cancel culture, ultimately, are concerned only for their own privileged positions being maintained. They aren’t interested in debate, they don’t want to consider others’ views, and they are blind to examples of people other than “wokies” behaving in exactly the same way. Their only concern is being allowed to continue to have a cultural communication system where they voice their opinions and everyone else has to listen and shut up. It is a way of shutting down opposition to some really quite toxic views – opposition which is now centred in the hands of those who have suffered all manner of cultural and societal damage and abuse over the years. It is nonsense.
My thanks to Stephanie Davey and Sarah Hearne for their help in writing this.