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Cancel culture: yay or nay?

There are certain topics always guaranteed to get tempers flaring at the dinner table. Namely, religion, pineapple on pizza, and cancel culture.

Banishing problematic celebrities to the annals of obscurity: Hot or not?

If you’ve got an internet connection, you’ve probably heard the phrase “cancel culture” bandied about. Dictionary.com defines it as “the practice of withdrawing support for public figures … after they have done or said something considered objectionable”. Usually accompanied by online shaming and, sometimes, career repercussions. TV shows axed, book deals dropped, sponsors abandoning ship, the works.

What’s “objectionable”? Aside from the obvious criminal examples, celebrities have been “cancelled” for everything from transphobic essays [JK Rowling], anti-Semitic conspiracies [Kanye West], racist tweets [Roseanne Barr], and covid denial [various].

Supporters argue cancel culture promotes accountability and gives a voice to communities that were previously silenced. Those opposed claim it stifles freedom of expression and is tantamount to cyberbullying.

As always, it’s complicated.

Yes, the practice of digitally calling out celebrities’ transgressions has absolutely devolved into bullying. While I find Rowling’s transgender-exclusionary “feminism” revolting, I cannot condone the avalanche of death and rape threats. We’re not going to solve transphobia with misogynist violence.

Cancel culture is also problematic when it doesn’t allow for redemption. How productive is a society that ostracises a person without the opportunity to atone for their mistakes?

There’s also a discussion to be had about separating the artist from the art. Can we, for example, be disgusted by Mel Gibson, but still acknowledge Braveheart is a brilliant [if wildly inaccurate] piece of cinema?

That said – people should have the freedom to disassociate with anyone whose behaviours do not align with their values. Some argue that “cancelling” is another way of voting with one’s wallet. From accelerating civil rights to helping dismantle Apartheid, boycotts have led to social change throughout history.

Corporations also have the power to boycott. We’ve seen Adidas distance itself from Kanye after his latest Twitter rant. In Aotearoa, rich-lister Simon Henry lost support from fellow CEOs following his sexist attack on Nadia Lim.

Isn’t this just the free market at work? Individuals and companies being able to spend as they choose?

Something I find interesting is the idea that cancel culture impinges on freedom of speech. However, there are those that view “cancellation” as a protest … and isn’t that the ultimate free speech?

This form of protest has uplifted marginalised communities – especially when institutions have proven inadequate. We know the justice system has failed victims of sexual assault [especially low-income women, queer women and women of colour]. But the #MeToo movement allowed women to take some power back – including calling out abusers and publicly removing their support.

As academic Anne Charity Hudley put it: “If [you can’t] stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate. Cancelling is a way to acknowledge you don’t have to have power to change structural inequality. But as an individual, you can have power beyond measure.”

Where cancel culture is concerned, there will be times we need to proceed cautiously. But freedom of expression doesn’t mean freedom from consequence. Accountability matters – especially when someone has such a huge sphere of influence. People like Kanye and Rowling have used their massive platforms to punch down on communities who have endured decades of systemic violence. There has to be consequences for that.

If you’re worried the “Twitter mob” is coming for your favourites – relax. You can still find Harry Potter in most bookstores. But, just as you can indulge in your nostalgic fantasy universe, others can opt out. Freedom goes both ways, after all.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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