It is obvious to anyone who watches the news or spends even an iota of time surfing the ‘twittersphere’ that there are people who tout controversial opinions. The spectrum is vast; from “anti-vaxxers” to “flatearthers”, racists to homophobes, the internet holds them all. It wouldn’t take you long, if you were prone to taking offence from the anonymous void, to be apoplectic with rage after merely a cursory glance at your Twitter feed each day or the thread under one of Donald Trump’s Tweets.
When those who hold, or even held, these contentious views get challenges this is where cancel culture comes into play. The issue here isn’t that there are people with abhorrent views, rather it is how we have decided to deal with those express them. This is a nuanced difference, but one that leads to drastically divergent and dangerous outcomes.
In other words, there is a difference between public criticism and cancel culture and I am pro the former and anti the latter. Criticism allows for discourse, rebuttal, growth and forgiveness. Cancel culture calls for a person’s erasion while allowing for none of the above.
And in case it isn’t obvious, that is an important distinction. The idea that our society is right about everything at this point in time is dangerous and arrogant. The only way our society progresses is if we create an environment that allows for offence; by that I mean allowing space for disagreement and progression. I myself am not arrogant enough to believe that all my views on societal structure are correct; they aren’t. The only way I am going to grow out of my ignorance on such issues is if you challenge me. And I you. Cancel culture destroys that possibility, but criticism, when done rightly, increases it.
Interestingly, cancel culture wasn’t always without virtue. It is hard to deny that the motives for cancelling people such as R. Kelly and Jussie Smollet will in many ways be admirable. Cancel culture is effective towards those in the public eye. The rich and famous depend on people to idolise them. Like politicians, when they have such influence they must be able to be held accountable. However, what use is this accountability if no change is made. Our collective gaze via TV, our phone screens and social media gives them the foundation that they build their fame on, and often to build their abuses under. To collectively decide all at once to take it away from them is a powerful tool.
However, this was several years ago. Since then we have become drunk with the power of cancel culture as it has spread and permeated throughout our society at an alarming rate. For example, in January this year when ITV newsreader Alastair Stewart was fired for quoting a Shakespeare passage in a twitter argument with a black man that used the term “an angry ape”. Needless to say, racist accusations were made and Stewart was promptly fired. This became more problematic when it came to light that Stewart has routinely used the same quote in arguments with white members of his twitter following. Should Stewart have exercised more sensitivity with his choice of quote? Probably. But here, yet again, a chance for growth was missed due to our cancelling culture.
Instead of criticising Stewart and allowing him to develop more nuance and sensitivity in his online engagements, we cancelled him. Just like that he had no more platform. One quote out of context and you’re silenced. A newsreader with over 40 years of journalistic experience and someone who has argued for objectivity in reporting again and again, gone with a single quote of Shakespeare.
And sadly cancel culture is no longer exclusively wielded only toward the powerful. In June of 2019 we saw the sacking of ASDA employee Brian Leech who shared on his personal Facebook page a comedic routine of Billy Connelly containing jokes at the expense of Christianity and Jihadists. Leech was reported by one of his colleagues and, despite taking the post down and apologising on his page to his Facebook friends, was promptly fired two weeks later.
Without getting into the age old debate of comedy versus offence, the point should still be obvious. Leach was fired for sharing a video of someone else’s comedic performance on his private Facebook page despite subsequently apologising. Again, another opportunity for growth missed as the claws of cancel culture reach deeper.
What the above examples display is that whilst cancel culture began as a knee-jerk reaction to offensive action, it has morphed into a mechanism for controlling speech and thought. Our society now has a new group of elites who wield the weapon of cancel culture, and they police with vehemence anything that doesn’t fit their narrative. Let me be clear, the firing of Stewart and Leach is not a win for anti-racism. Instead, it is a victory for groupthink and a loss for freedom of speech.
The 19th and 20th century are a towering testimony to the dangers of groupthink both from the right and the left. We must strongly defend the right to criticise, debate and have dialogue with one another where we hate the views and not the person. This is the only environment in which intellectual growth and change can take place. So, I suppose this is an appeal. Even if you find someone’s views abhorrent, do not cancel them, but criticise instead.