Cancel Culture: The Phenomenon, Online Communities and Open Letters PT.2
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The first part of this article was shared here on September 25.
BIG CORPORATIONS AND OPEN LETTERS
Critics of cancel culture tend to highlight the oppression of those being cancelled. As J.K. Rowling’s recent statements demonstrate, they see themselves as unquestionable victims. The context of the power imbalance in which cancellations take place is purposefully left out in these critiques, as well as the extreme unlikelihood of this type of high-end cancellations having long-term harmful effects on the accused. The disproportionate reaction on the part of those cancelled is a consequence of the medium used by fans to denounce them. Echo chambers distort what we perceive and the effects that an issue can have. Furthermore, when we examine how long people keep sharing information online about a certain issue, we notice that any act of cancelling is often short-lived. The cause is overshadowed by greater social problems and the impact of activism is quickly diluted in the sea of information shared on social media platforms.
The controversies and social turmoil surrounding cancelling have not gone unnoticed by corporations which, in many cases, try to save face by adapting to the complaints of their consumers and audiences. A recent controversial instance that ignited criticism about cancel culture is the case of Gone with the Wind on HBO Max. The video-on-demand platform temporarily removed the 1939 movie with the goal of providing appropriate context to the racial stereotypes it presents. Those who saw the company’s actions as censorship resulting from social pressure deemed the removal of the movie unnecessary. HBO’s decision, however, was not simply driven by an attempted online cancelation. It was influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement that was gaining momentum at the time with an increasing number of protests around the US. Furthermore, it was specifically prompted by a direct request from John Ridley, screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave (Ridley 2020). Finally, the movie was, shortly after, made available once again accompanied by an introductory disclaimer that provides historical context (Spangler 2020).
Despite the platform having restored the movie providing context—specifically offering what online discussions are often not capable of—the case was taken as an example of a call for censoring. In academic contexts, a complaint began circulating regarding how students were now likely to complain about the content of a course syllabus in the hopes of direct censorship instead of opening a debate and considering the actual cultural and historical relevance of a novel, movie or creator perceived as racist and/or sexist. This sentiment has spread to journalistic environments, writers and other intellectuals, some of whom signed an open letter shared in Harper’s Magazine in June 2020 complaining about the unapologetic censorship that cancel culture is calling for. Afterwards, many similar letters were published in different countries. Among those who signed these letters, we find people who do hold progressive views and have often fought for minorities’ rights but who, nowadays, see their position as notable figures within their movements called into question (i.e.: their relative positions of power and in-group influence). The behaviors challenged in such contexts are often seen as going too far. Every position needs to be carefully evaluated and ideally accompanied by debate and, most importantly, criticism—even when it involves someone we admire.
The letter published in Harper’s Magazine argues that “[the] restriction of debate […] invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation” (2020). This distinction is very important and it sums up the idea that lies behind acts of cancelling that supposedly fight for social justice. In theory, from the assumed moral standpoint, they should exclusively target oppressors. While the letter claims that—not only sometimes but “invariably”—cancelling processes affect the less powerful, it purposely avoids referring to any specific examples, most likely, because some of those signing have been “cancelled” for attacking those in clearly inferior positions of power and influence (e.g.: J.K. Rowling and Stephen Pinker).
The letter goes on to tackle another problem that cancelling has, namely, the triviality of the issues it focuses on. It argues that “heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes” (Harper’s 2020). From the moral stand mentioned above, it is important, however, to define what can be considered a clumsy mistake—and, presumably, the apology that follows—as opposed to what is actually a more substantial issue. Following such reasoning, these allegedly less powerful people would consequently be banned from further sharing their opinions or doing their work for committing an inconsequential mistake. This fear of censorship assumes that those who control the mainstream public discourse are the ones making the calls for cancelling action. Ironically, those in power rarely lose their privilege or money, and the assumption misrepresents who is really in a position of power and how said power is wielded.
POLITICS AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
What cancel culture is said to assume, and the source of some academics’ worries, is that “social justice must be pursued via attempts to banish from the public sphere, as much as possible, all opinions that they interpret as insufficiently opposed to power differentials” (McWhorter 2020). Nevertheless, this is not something new that originated with online activism. Public shaming has traditionally played a central role in social change, with certain worldviews becoming progressively less acceptable within a given society. Characterizing this process as merely punishment continues to be criticized by those who are skeptical of the role of cancel culture in democratic societies. For instance, both Rowling and Pinker have experienced actual consequences. The Harry Potter author returned the Ripple of Hope, awarded by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization and given to those with a “commitment to social change,” after facing criticism from the president of the organization. Pinker, on the other hand, has faced more direct consequences, as he was stripped of his Linguistic Society of America fellow status.
These repercussions inflame criticism. John McWhoter, associate professor at Columbia University, asserts that he sees “professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook” (2020). On the other side of the argument, The Atlantic staff writer Hanna Giorgis defends that facing public criticism does not represent a real threat to freedom of speech (2020). The problem is thus framed as a political issue and as an accusation of not being politically left enough (McWhorter 2020). The question here is whether the rights and proper treatment of minorities are an issue that can be discussed in terms of political leanings. The biases that some professors might have are not mere personal opinions or “clumsy mistakes,” but a consequence of systemic racism, sexism and homophobia. In the academic context, professionals sometimes react to online criticism using the same language as those who denounced HBO’s treatment of Gone with the Wind. Despite the fact that, in this movie’s case, the “censorship” resulted in simple additions that appropriately contextualized the movie to protect the rights of African Americans by acknowledging a historical misrepresentation of slavery. In theory, a university classroom should be the ideal environment to provide students with similar contextualization.
Going back to the definitions shared at the beginning of this article, criticism around SJWs and cancel culture is mediated by the perception of in-group and out-group members, with those outside of a group attempting to silence its members. As US President Donald Trump put it in his 2020 4th of July speech “[o]ne of [the left’s] political weapons is ‘cancel culture’—driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees” (Trump, 2020). Contrary to this complaint—and as we have seen through several examples—cancelling posts are not always motivated by progressive thought. Radical alt-right groups have numerous and very active online communities. They organize, influence opinions and disseminate biased information. In the end, considering the context provided by the existence of echo chambers and the emotional involvement that cancelling often entails, these actions are first and foremost a way to vent anger about social issues in a way that feels much safer than engaging in “real-life” activism or even debate. Nonetheless, these online actions are likely to have a strong impact on the cultural and political landscape, just like some academic circles have perceived.
The problem with criticism of cancel culture is that it inevitably ends up creating the same Manichean narrative that proliferates in the media coverage and, just as the actions it criticizes, leaves little room for debate. As Ng argues “cancel culture itself is now subject to being cancelled, even as others have pointed to how the negative effects on the people targeted have been exaggerated” (623). The position presented within public discourse is that you either actively engage in cancelling, or you adamantly oppose it. The issue is very complex and there are many factors to take into account, from the people involved in the cancelling—both the ones who purported it and the accused—to the established power relationships between them. And, in the case of corporations, while one should always be aware that their actions are motivated by profit, providing audiences with additional context and fostering debate can have very positive effects. While the cancelling process in itself is often short-lived, the issues that underlie the criticism – be it homophobia, transphobia, or gender violence – are very prevalent in society. In this context, part of the purpose behind cancelling is to ensure that individual instances that contribute to systemic problems do not continue to be swept under the rug.
 Kerry, Kennedy. 2020. “A Statement from Kerry Kennedy. President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.” RFK Human Rights. Published August 3, 2020. rfkhumanrights.org/news/a-statement-from-kerry-kennedy-president-of-robert-f-kennedy-human-rights
 Powel. Michael. 2020. “How a Famous Harvard Professor Became a Target Over His Tweets.” The New York Times. Published July 15, 2020.www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/us/steven-pinker-harvard.html
 See: Hodge, Edwin and Hallgrimsdottir, Helga. 2020. “Networks of Hate: The Alt-right, “Troll Culture”, and the Cultural Geography of Social Movement Spaces Online.” Journal of Borderlands Studies, 32.4: 563-580.
Castells, Manuel. 2012. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Giorgis, Hannah. 2020. “A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech.” The Atlantic. Published July 13, 2020.www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/07/harpers-letter-free-speech/614080/
Harper’s Magazine. 2020. “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Harper’s Magazine. Published July 7, 2020. harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/
Holman, Kylie J. 2020. “Can You Come Back from Being Cancelled? A Case Study of Podcasting, Cancel Culture, and Comedians during #MeToo.” University of Nebraska at Omaha, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
McWhorter, John. 2020. “Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Their Freedom.” The Atlantic. Published September 1, 2020.www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/academics-are-really-really-worried-about-their-freedom/615724/
Ng, Eve. 2020. “No Grand Pronouncements Here…: Reflections on Cancel Culture and Digital Media Participation.” Television & New Media, Vol. 21(6):621–627.
Norris, Pippa. “Closed Minds? Is a ‘Cancel Culture’Stifling Academic Freedom and Intellectual Debate in Political Science?” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series, August 3, 2020.
Ohlheiser, Abby. 2015. “Why ‘social justice warrior’ a Gamergate insult, is now a dictionary entry.” Washington Post, Published Oct 7, 2015. www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/10/07/why-social-justice-warrior-a-gamergate-insult-is-now-a-dictionary-entry
Ridley, John. 2020. “Op-Ed: Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now.” Los Angeles Times. Published June 8, 2020. www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-08/hbo-max-racism-gone-with-the-wind-movie
Romano, Aja. 2020. “Harry Potter and the Author Who Failed Us.” Vox, Published June 11, 2020. www.vox.com/culture/21285396/jk-rowling-transphobic-backlash-harry-potter
Rowling, J.K. 2020. “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.” JK Rowling. Published June 10, 2020. www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/
Spangler, Todd. 2020. “HBO Max Restores ‘Gone With the Wind’ With Disclaimer Saying Film ‘Denies the Horrors of Slavery’.” Variety. Published June 24, 2020. variety.com/2020/digital/news/gone-with-the-wind-hbo-max-disclaimer-horrors-slavery-1234648726/
Trump, Donald. 2020. Speech at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. Published 4 July, 2020. www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-south-dakotas-2020-mount-rushmore-fireworks-celebration-keystone-south-dakota/
SUGGESTED CITATION: Álvarez Trigo, Laura. 2020. “Cancel Culture: The Phenomenon, Online Communities and Open Letters.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published September 25.