Cancelled Or Criticised? Who is “Cancel Culture” Really Targeting?

By: Jeremy Ullmann

Over the past few weeks, the conversation around “cancel culture” has escalated into a full-blown hysteria.

It started with J.K. Rowling posting a series of anti-transgender tweets in June, where she implied only cisgender women could menstruate (and by default, excluding trans women or gender non-binary persons). She faced a backlash online, criticising her choice of language, with many fans denouncing her and vowing to no longer follow her or purchase her work.

A month later, an open letter, published in Harper’s Magazine criticised social media users for “restricting debate” on media platforms by demanding “swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought,” signed by intellectual heavyweights such as Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling. While the letter itself did not use the term ‘cancel culture,’ the letter condemned the shift in attitudes that leads to a hypersensitivity around speech.  

But are people being cancelled or criticised? Is cancel culture new, or is it only newsworthy because of who is being so-called cancelled? Is the paranoia around ‘cancel culture’ justified? If it is, who is a risk of being silenced?

 “It is actually false to say that cancel culture is something new,” says Konrad Rudnicki, a researcher at the University of Antwerp.

 “It is just ostracism, the same ostracism that our grandfathers and our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago did,” he continues, pointing out that the only new variable is social media and the Internet.

“Ostracism is one of the most basic mechanisms of delineating the boundaries that create a group identity. We exclude those who break the norms, someone who is not following the rules of our group.”

Perhaps what is new is not the ostracism, but who is being ostracised—while a heterosexual, white male-centric view of the world has dominated the world for decades, attitudes are changing, and previously marginalized groups are taking up space and challenging the rules of the mainstream. While social media has played a role in silencing minority voices, it has also given many a chance to gain power in politics, media and society, challenging those who traditionally held power, and in some cases, holding them to account.

One example of this is the #MeToo movement—which exposed several prominent members of the entertainment, and other industries as serial sexual assailants, using social media to amplify the calls for justice and accountability, and broadcast the message that they were “cancelled” for their criminal behaviour. For a moment, it seemed like this cancellation might create change—dozens of entertainers, from Woody Allen to Louis CK, were finally called out, and dropped from networks, agencies, and projects over sexual assault allegations. Would “cancel culture” create a safer world for women?

However, it was only a matter of time before the “cancel culture” phrase was hijacked into the “left wing vs free speech” debate, equating it with mob-mentality obsessed with political correctness, and later the kind of intellectual persecution that inspired the Harper’s letter, making it larger than traditional left vs right party politics, and into a far more confusing debate over who gets to criticise, and who is silenced.

After all, is it really the signatories of this kind of a letter—people like world-renown scholar Noam Chomsky, and internationally acclaimed author J.K. Rowling—who are in danger of being cancelled? While perhaps the English author had a sort of exodus of fans after she doubled-down over her transphobic tweets, she remains a millionaire, with no tangible dent to her career.

As U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted:

“The term ‘cancel culture’ comes from entitlement—as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience & one is a victim if people choose to tune them out. Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.”

Activist Jameela Jamil agrees with Ocasio-Cortez, telling Laura Whitmore on BBC Radio 5 Live that “you can’t really cancel a white billionaire. You can criticise them and maybe say you don’t want to hear from them for a while, but you can’t de-platform them because they have so much power.”

But who is being silenced? Australian Muslim writer Randa Abdel-Fattah points out that many prominent Arab and Muslim journalists and academics have been “cancelled” for criticizing Israel, in particular the Israeli government’s multiple attempts to annex Palestinian territory. Colin Kaepernick was extensively criticized—and subsequently released—after famously kneeling during the US national anthem, protesting for civil rights. While Kaepernick eventually found employment with Nike, the consequences of taking a controversial stand as a person of colour, were clear.

What about the free speech argument? Many of the most privileged leverage this against criticism, claiming their freedom is under threat, rather than listening to how their speech is hurtful, and ways that they could be more inclusive. For Dr. Awino Okech, a Gender Studies professor at SOAS University, this argument is dangerous in how it frames all perpetrators of violent speech as equal.

“If we all ran around exercising what is being framed as an assault on “free speech” then racial and gender violence would be considered valid opinions rather than violence over communities that are marginalised,” she explains.

“Cancel culture is the marginalised taking back power from an oppressive minority,” she continues, referring to the way that marginalised people are trying to call out oppressive views.

“We all have views. The demand articulated by cancel culture is – can those views be informed by an acknowledgement of historic violence rather than reassertion of those modes of violence?”

Now, the Internet is providing new ways to challenge those who traditionally dictate the conversation, though they, and the system which gave them that power, continue to resist marginalised views to be heard. Though change is gradually taking place, marginalized groups fighting to be a part of the conversation are still more vulnerable to being ostracized, silenced, and “cancelled” in the modern sense of the word. But these are the very voices that we need to hear the most.