The Dangerous Myth of Cancel Culture

George Woods | Content Writer

Flicking through Twitter nowadays resembles something reminiscent of an after-pub brawl. Angry, nuance-blind spectators proudly tear each other apart in their own righteous anger. Indeed, informed, critical debate is more likely to be seen at the next World Cup than on a social media site. In recent years, a small sect of high-profile tweeters have adopted a new moral mission. Rather than engage in constructive discussion in order to reach a greater truth this sect have found a new, albeit fictional, enemy: cancel culture.

For the uninitiated, cancel culture is the phenomenon where public figures are forcefully removed from public life in order to bow down the ‘woke’ mob. Accountability, rather than being a natural requisite of public life, is instead a conspiratorial endeavour between the great and the good against the ‘non-woke’. To cancel someone is to effectively destroy them.

This mythology which is pervading social media holds inherent contradictions. Suzanne Moore, in The Guardian in July 2020 outlined that ‘Cancellation might feel good, but it’s not activism’. This was following criticism of various high-profile celebrities. This assertion of the wrongs of cancellation was made in a newspaper which gets 8.2 million monthly visitors according to the National Readership Survey. If this is cancellation then its hard to argue that a platform or audience have been lost.  

This flaw in the commonly accepted definition of cancel culture is founded upon the weight placed on Twitter by the commentariat. J.K. Rowling’s tweets regarding trans people drew criticism from many including Harry Potter stars Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe and in response she co-signed a letter requesting the end of cancel culture. Cancel culture for Rowling thus consisted of criticism from Twitter users.

The material effects of this and more broader cancellations is hard to identify. J.K Rowling’s novels still hold immense cultural capital, and little has been lost other than respect from a minority of twitter users who are politically active. Reputational loss, alas, is the only identifiable consequence.

Twitter storms are not pleasant. Torrents of disagreement which can often descend in vitriol and misogyny bear no place in modern societies. Yet this is not cancellation. No one is being forced away from public life. Accountability of those with public profiles who are actively influencing national debates is a necessary tenet of societies. Even Rowling, whose involvement in public life is rooted in her contribution to literature, are rightly held accountable for putting out controversial assertions via her platform.

In so far as cancellation is not as common as celebrities claim, its catchall use will continue. As the world becomes increasingly divided, people will wrongly characterise others on Twitter as the grim reapers of cancellations. Little do they reflect that free speech does not equate to a God-given right to avoid accountability; even by the Twitter mob who act less-than-perfectly in the brawl of social media. Accountability is sacred and being held to account is not being forced from public life. 

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