Lately it feels like it’s hard to wade into a cultural debate or at least just have a quick scroll on Twitter without finding yourself knee deep in the quagmire that is “cancel culture”. It’s been with us for several years but it’s had a renewed focus lately.
So what is cancel culture? Briefly, without writing a dissertation-length explanation of this phenomenon (and I’m sure there will be many), cancel culture is the expression of finding fault, criticising or judging people, sometimes celebrities, shows, ideas and products which are regarded as unacceptable, problematic or offensive in a certain way.
The Macquarie Dictionary dubbed cancel culture the word of the year in 2019 and a term that captures an important aspect of the past year’s Zeitgeist.
“An attitude which is so pervasive that it now has a name, society’s cancel culture has become, for better or worse, a powerful force.”
While we’re all aware of how the internet and social media has given so many more people the ability to express their views and opinions, it’s also made this a sometimes fraught and polarising experience. The Me Too movement, the recent Black Lives Matter protests along with progressive movements has brought marriage equality, recognition of LGBTQI rights and trans rights and exposed entrenched, systemic discrimination, racism, misogny and inequality. The ability to call out stereotypes, cultural depictions, practices and other expressions which are offensive has given voice to many who otherwise would have struggled to bring attention to these things.
But there’s a sense in some quarters that calling out something that’s offensive and articulating why it’s offensive and to whom has morphed into a polarising, one-strike mentality that wants to strike out people who expresses a view not in accordance with the right way of thinking. For those on the wrong end of this recently, like JK Rowling who’s been accused of being transphobic, it’s taken on an Orwellian tone of ‘wrongthink’ whereby the people and their views must be silenced and banished from public discourse.
This long piece on Vox looks back at the origins of cancel culture that began with calling out and public shaming, and examines the shift to expunging people with certain views and doing away with debate. Does cancel culture negate a constructive and progressive path for social change?
Is cancel culture a peril for free expression?
The pushback against cancel culture reached a high point recently when a group of prominent authors, writers, actors and others from both sides of the political divide signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine about what they see as censorship and a kind of ideological conformity.
They say wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society are much needed; however, a new censorship is also that is intolerant of opposing views, enjoys public shaming and ostracism, and has a tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
“But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
Since then, it’s been critiqued as disregarding views of those who are marginalised and the signatories attacked by those who disagree with its central argument. But as the Twitter dust has settled, has it created more space for a critique of cancel culture (not explicitly named, but its target)? Critics say the letter is the problem, while supporters say it’s time to cancel cancel culture.
Few are arguing for a return to poke-fun-at-anything humour and white men dominating culture, but the new ‘rules’ about who can say what and what can be said and the one-strike-and-you’re-gone rule is problematic too.
Defending the right to critique culture
Since then, a counter letter signed by 160 journalists and writers has said that the signatories to the original letter, many with global platforms, ignore that marginalised voices have been silenced for generations, overlook their own institutional power and don’t understand cancel culture which can critique elites publicly and hold them to account.
“It is impossible to see how these signatories are contributing to “the most vital causes of our time” during this moment of widespread reckoning with oppressive social systems. Their letter seeks to uphold a “stifling atmosphere” and prioritises signal-blasting their discomfort in the face of valid criticism. The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse, especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort.”
Glenn Greenwald, who helped break the Edward Snowden story, in a long piece for The Intercept has tried to examine “cancel culture” by way of Martina Navratilova who was branded transphobic after questioning the legitimacy of some transwomen competing in women’s sport.
How “Cancel Culture” Impeded My Film About Tennis Legend Martina Navratilova
Reconciling free speech with inclusion
The CEO of PEN America, the organisation that defends persecuted writers and free speech, has written a new book Dare To Speak, in which she argues we can, and must, reconcile the progressive movement for equality and inclusion with free speech and academic freedom.
“It grew out of a sense that our country was locked into a whole series of pitched debates over free speech that in my mind were sort of miscast, misguided, needlessly contentious and fractious.”
Bill Bragg has weighed in to the discussion around cancel culture and says it challenges the old order, rather than stifling debate.
Finally, this article from The Atlantic tackles cancel culture and argues that cheap tokenistic cancellations don’t bring real institutional change. Economic radicalism rather than social radicalism will bring real change, not woke capitalism.
A Note on Philomena Cunk
On a lighter note, to close this post, is this. Philomena Cunk is the satirical alter ego of English comedian and actress Diane Morgan. Viewers of Ricky Gervais’ Netflix series After Life will know her as Tony’s deadpan office frenemy, Kath. Cunk on Britain is her satirical take on BBC history shows and this episode, Who’s This Penis, Cunk examines primitive tribes roaming Britain “graffitiing the countryside with gigantic doodles”. Look out for Morgan’s own six-part comedy series, Mandy, screening on the BBC in August.
A Note on Kristen Wiig as Liza Minelli
Another one to hopefully give you a laugh this week is this video of Kirstin Wiig (Ghostbusters, Bridesmaids) as Liza Minelli cabareting her way around her living room to turn out a light. Being Liza it’s a theatrical event.
Photo credit: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash