The slippery task of pinning down cancel culture and its assault on nuanced debate

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The trouble with cancel culture is that it is hard to define. Trying to do so feels like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole where you struggle to find the right path while bumping up against dead ends, tangents and he-said-she-said accusations. It’s even hard to prove cancel culture’s existence because that depends on how you define it. If it does indeed exist, it only does so in terms of giving a new name to a phenomenon as old as humanity: we are groupish and fear of being turned out from our tribes was once an even bigger matter of survival than it is today. Groups or tribes have always had cultural and ethical norms and violating them can lead to ostracization, so people naturally seek to preserve their reputations in order to keep their standing within the group.

This is basically the crux of cancel culture: a person says, tweets, instagrams something that others find offensive and they show their disapproval via the social media. If this gets amplified enough and goes viral, it may even end up in the traditional media, threatening “cancel” the accused person’s reputation and livelihood, regardless of whether they are famous or not.

In a letter published in Harper’s magazine on July 7 (and subsequent letter echoing a similar sentiment here in Spain), a group of high profile writers, journalists and academics denounced this behavior as amounting to censorship: “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” They conclude that “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

Perhaps the most famous name on the list of signatories is J.K. Rowling, the famous writer behind the Harry Potter books. She has had her own, I’ll say semi-cancel culture experience, because she’s not losing her job anytime soon and she herself said this was at least her “fourth or fifth cancelation by then.” Her most recent trouble began with tweeting support for a woman who lost her job for what were considered ‘transphobic’ tweets and later giving a ‘like’ to an activist — both of whom support the belief that sex is determined by biology. This resulted in an online barrage of criticism and threats. She explains all this and her own feelings on the issue in a blog post that sparked further anger.

Of course, the letter mentioned people who actually did lose their jobs, such as the New York Times Opinion editor, James Bennet. He was forced to resign after publishing an Op-Ed titled “Send In the Troops” by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas. In this piece published at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Cotton advocated for a show of military force to restore order in the streets. This of course outraged the Times’ left leaning readership and beyond for giving voice to someone who advocated putting people’s lives in danger. Sadly, Trump took note and has sent federal troops into the city of Portland and now others across the U.S.

If you’re expecting a definitive answer as to whether cancel culture is good or bad, I’ll tell you know that you’re not going to get one here because as we look at examples of it (and some will argue over whether these are even examples of cancel culture) we see that judgement is very much in the eye of the beholder. Also, any attempt to equate it with the right or the left is futile because both sides have shouted down voices they don’t like, even if the left is currently having a special moment struggling with the issue. As conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat notes, that “today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.”

Defenders of this behavior will argue that they are challenging power structures and the #metoo movement is the best example of this. According to the New York Times, 201 powerful men were brought down by the movement for sexual assault and harassment. The highest profile of these cases provided the impetus for the movement: in October of 2017, the New York Times and the NewYorker reported on a dozen women who had accused the hyper-powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexually harassing, abusing or raping them. Sadly, this news wasn’t particularly new to anyone in Hollywood, where his exploits were widely known and tolerated because he could make or break so many careers. But it unleashed the floodgates of #metoo outrage in the social media because too many woman have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or rape. Weinstein insisted that everything he had done had been consensual, he was fired from his own production company, The Weinstein Company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Even though Weinstein was a big donor to Democratic candidates, general consensus among Democrats was that he got what he deserved. Even more so among feminists. But as more powerful men fell, more people, especially men on the right, questioned whether it was fair for them to lose their reputations, positions and livelihoods via the court of public opinion before they could be properly tried legally. Weinstein eventually was tried in court and was found guilty of two out of five felonies last February and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

But there have been less clear-cut cases, perhaps most famously Senator Al Franken, who was accused of groping and making improper advances on nine women. He apologized but denied most of it and subsequent reporting found inaccuracies in the accusation that had received the most attention. Nonetheless, Franken was forced to resign his Senate seat and since, no legal charges have been filed against him.

I’ll take a momento here to note that in December of 2017, I wrote an opinion piece for El Pais concluding “Ya es hora de dejar de tolerar el acoso sexual de todo tipo, en EE UU y en España. Ya es hora de nombrar a los culpables. Ya es hora de acabar con esto.” But again, whether you are happy or not with the naming of names and the destruction of a reputation depends very much on your own feelings about what the accused did or said. As the concept of cancel culture — again, if we can even pin it down — moved on from #metoo to anything deemed as bad behavior by the left, it alarmed even former president Barak Obama.

Last fall, he took the unusual step of weighing into the debate, although not actually using the term: “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Obama said during an interview about youth activism at the Obama Foundation summit. “You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”

Yet the biggest critic of cancel culture is the man who has not only been accused of terrible behavior towards women — 25 have accused him of sexual misconduct — but bragged on video about grabbing women by the pussy. This man is President Donald Trump and while it remains jaw-dropping that while over two hundred powerful men have been taken down for such behavior, he remains the so-called leader of the free world. In his Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore he railed against cancel culture, accusing the left of “shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees,” and declaring that this behavior has “absolutely no place in the United States of America.”

Yet Trump himself has played his own game of quashing dissent, from threatening news organizations that he doesn’t like with revoking their licenses or blocking mergers to attempts to block the publication of books that are critical of him. Then there are the people: he won’t hire anyone who has ever said anything critical of him, something that has been a real Achille’s heel for White House hiring; he accused a TV host he’s come to hate, Joe Scarborough, of murder; and then there is his encouragement and then use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists.

It’s hard to feel sorry to famous people and especially politicians receiving blowback because, well, they’ve sought out this notoriety and subsequent power. Yet plenty of private people have also fallen victim to cancel culture, such as a Washington Post editorial cartoonist who wore blackface to a company Halloween party along with a nametag saying she was Megyn Kelly, the former Fox and NBC TV host who was widely mocked for stating that she didn’t see what was racist about wearing blackface. People at the party didn’t see the joke and found her costume offensive. She left in tears and was subsequently fired from her job.

Or more recently, there was the woman walking her dog in New York’s Central Park who called the police about an “African-American man” who was video-recording her melt down after he asked her to put her dog on a leash. The video went enormously viral and is so cringe-inducing that it’s hard to watch. Considering the climate of police violence towards Black people in the U.S., her attempt to file a false police report about a birdwatching Black man was abhorrent to say the least. She lost both her dog and her job.

Social media takes old-fashioned disapproval by a group of one person’s behavior and amplifies it into a global feeding frenzy. Since outrage is what gets eyeballs on social media, the algorithms are designs to push this content towards you, turning up the volume to a deafening screech, according to Fast Company. This also leaves little room for nuance, which is a frustrating piece of this puzzle. Is J.K Rowling really transphobic or is she guilty of trying to make a complicated argument about the nature of womanhood? Did the Washington Post cartoonist deserve to lose her job after making a terrible costume choice? Should Al Frankin have been pushed out of Senate without having to go through a legal process? Or is this really about taking down the Harvey Weinsteins of the world who use their power to sexually abuse people? The social media is not going away anytime soon and cancel culture won’t either, even if somewhere down the line it gets a new name. Arguing over what it is and who practices it isn’t terribly helpful. What we can and should strive for in public debate is nuance and evidence-based arguments, even if the algorithms hate it.

This article was originally published in Spanish in esglobal.

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