Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for(cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Within the past five years, the rise of cancel culture and the idea of cancelling someone have become the polarizing topics of debate. Cancel culture at this point has gone far beyond just unfriending/ unfollowing people and is threatening livelihoods with several people forced to resign from their jobs for their diverging opinions.
What made the term "cancel culture" popular now?
The opinion editor of NYT James Bannet had to resign because he ran an op-ed article by Tom Cotton, a republican party senator titled " send in the troops" called for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and use military forces and asked for troops to be called out to put down the Black Lives Matter Protests after George Floyd's murder. In the days following its publication, numerous current and former Times journalists criticized the decision to run it. There was so much distress within the NYT that editor James Bennet had to resign.
A similar practice happened at the National Book Critics Circle, where half of the board of National Book Critics Circle resigned because they supported a statement related to Black Lives Matter. If they were supporting, then what made half the board resign? Carlin Romano, one of the members of the board, in their internal email discussion expressed doubts and differences with some of the arguments made. He said that some of the charges against the white majority has been exaggerated and not true. After that Wabuke, the other member of the board got upset and she leaked that part of the email conversation. This made other members resign one after the other over internal debates and discussions. Wabuke's publication of the email, and subsequent responses, prompted board president Laurie Hertzel to resign, in an open letter complaining that " private exchanges were made public on Twitter, which made impossible to continue with this discussion in good faith."
David Shore, a data analyst with a consulting firm at the poetry foundation also had to resign because he tweeted a peer-reviewed study showing how public vandalism had helped Richard Nixon's Campaign.
Because of all this, and many other smaller incidents, people started to feel that it is illiberalism in the name of liberalism. This compelled as many of 150 eminent writers, authors, scholars, intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Fareed Zakaria to write a letter which was published by Harper Magazine. The letter essentially said, “we are trying to defend the right to freedom of speech because expressing an opinion isn't about silencing other people's opinion”. It opened with praising the powerful protests for racial and social justice which are leading to bring a great change but they also stated that this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken the norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. By this letter, they are attacking cancel culture, which has been an active movement in recent times.
Further, they stated that institutional leaders, in the spirit of panicked damage control are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms because when they get hit from the cancel culture, they panic and they just fire people because that's what the easiest way for them to get peace.
In this way editors like James Bannet are fired for running controversial pieces, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity, journalists are barred from writing on certain topics, professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class, a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed study. They further claimed that they refuse any fault choice between justice and freedom, can't have one without the other. They argued that an intolerance of public views is emerging in the US discourse, which is a threat to free speech. They also noted that ‘cancel culture’ is a threat to liberalism that seeks to silence opinions and cost them their jobs.
While all this was going on a whole different opinion came out from Pankaj Mishra, an Indian essayist and novelist. He in his article stated that " no, cancel culture is not a threat to civilization. According to him, free speech has never been more widely available than it is today. However, it could be that increasingly diverse voices may be a threat to free speech of rich and powerful. Pankaj Mishra has argued that those attacking cancel culture are fighting more for their own freedom than the freedom of free speech of everybody else because they feel threatened. According to Pankaj Mishra, institutions and businesses have long been able to fire employees at will. Hundreds of millions of people lose their jobs and dignity for no fault of their own and thus it isn’t something new but had been in practice for so long. In 2019 R.Kelly, Kanye West, Scarlett Johansson and Gina Rodriguez with many others faced public backlash after social media users unearthed homophobic and racist jokes they'd made in the past. A few instances of public celebrities that had been a victim of cancel culture were still able to succeed, they were not completely canceled out. They haven't had their career totally shut down by negative criticism on the internet. In 2019 Hart withdrew himself from hosting Oscars but his movies were still successful after the backlash against him died down. Gillis was dropped from the cast of " Saturday Night Live" but he's since been greeted warmly by crowds at comedy shows.
The defense of the letter came out from Harvard professor Steven Pinker who was attacked for signing the letter. He pointed out in his article that "if you like free speech, you should also like our right to protest against cancel culture he further quoted that "difference of opinion is not harmful behaviour", " Twitter is not a great example of literate humanity".
Bari Weiss, the staff editor at NYT also resigned. Bari in her resignation letter stated that " Twitter is not the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. According to her stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their conclusions.
The practice of cancel culture though had its history but had come to be known widely recently. Barack Obama last year also spoke about cancel culture. He said that this has gone too far, people should not cancel out people just because they have a difference of opinions. "Cancelling out people is not activism" he quoted.
Critics of the cultural phenomenon say cancel culture doesn’t leave any room for constructive discourse because social media users often deliver a quick verdict, based on a snap judgment, to a celebrity they perceive as offensive leaving no opportunity for the ‘cancelled’ person to explain themselves and make their case against their own ‘cancellation.’
The cancel culture debate often resembles a tug of war between those trying to make room for discussion between people with opposing viewpoints and those not wanting to compromise their principles by engaging with a celebrity they view as problematic. But people tend to forget — whether a celebrity is canceled or not is largely up to the celebrity themself, not on those wanting to cancel them.
While social media has given a platform to many unraised voices, it also has posed a threat to freedom of speech and expression with the emergence of this new culture. In a democratic world like ours, we don’t need to cancel out people but should have an open space for debate, discussion, and acceptance of diverging opinions.
By: Nikita Sen