The Cancel Culture is a relatively new Western trend that has already infiltrated many countries. Donald Trump criticizes it, calling it a “witch hunt”, while Barack Obama agrees with him and is convinced that it “will not lead to [positive] change”. Let’s look at how modern society “undoes” public figures and ordinary people (like you and me), and how a culture of cancellation differs from ordinary public harassment.
Rise and Fall Of Harvey Weinstein
The term “cancel culture” became part of the public perception in 2017-2018 after the rise of MeToo, a movement condemning all forms of sexual violence and harassment. Back then, film producer Harvey Weinstein was targeted by activists, who faced dozens of accusations of harassment from women who had worked with him in the past. As a result, once one of the most powerful men in Hollywood has lost everything – from work in the Weinstein Company (his own company) to a substantial part of the income. But his reputation suffered even more. Even before the trial and investigation, contrary to the presumption of innocence, society recognized Weinstein as a monster who must answer for his crimes and “sentenced” him to a cultural boycott and a lynching.
Yes, two years later Harvey Weinstein was proven guilty in a court of law, after which he went to prison for 23 years, so one could say that the public, particularly MeToo activists, were more effective and swift than the American judicial system (and besides, raised the issue of harassment in Hollywood, which had been silenced for decades). But either way, in the case of the infamous film producer scandal, there were elements of what would later become the definition of “culture of cancellation” – public condemnation of behavior that does not meet contemporary ethical standards or the majority view, followed by widespread harassment.
So how is the Cancel Culture different from the usual wave of “hatred” on the internet these days? First, it has a moral agenda and usually takes place under the banner of fighting for ethics, equality, tolerance, and justice. Haters, on the other hand, do not need such a high moral reason to launch an attack. Secondly, the culture of cancellation has a very definite goal – to hold the accused accountable and punish him accordingly (loss of status, job, income).
If a person admits guilt and tries to make amends, public anger may gradually turn to mercy on rare occasions. A prime example of this is the scandal with Regina Todorenko, who, after an interview where she blamed the victims of domestic violence, publicly apologized for her remarks, made an educational film on the topic, and donated money to combat the problem. The haters, on the other hand, don’t care whether the person is sorry for what they’ve done or not, admits they’re right, or on the other hand, defends their point of view. They will continue to bully because of the very process of insulting and humiliating the victim gives them pleasure.
So it turns out that a culture of cancellation is not such a bad thing? The noble aim of “cleansing society of its defects”, worldwide support for the idea and high impact. Unfortunately, it’s not all that simple.
Social Murder Of Journalist Bari Weiss
Typically, Cancel Culture is a lynching that takes place in the vastness of the internet or the workplace environment. Unlike in the Middle Ages, when it ended in the physical execution of a person, today it leads to “social murder”. This is how the well-known journalist Bari Weiss, who has experienced it first-hand, described the result of the culture of cancellation.
In July 2020, she was forced to resign as Opinion Editor of The New York Times due to staff harassment. A few days earlier, a column by US Senator Tom Cotton had appeared on Weiss’s editorial page, suggesting that troops should be deployed to calm the “George Floyd riots”. The publication issued a public apology to the American public and Bari Weiss (who was not even the author of the column, but has always stood for the diversity of opinion) was taunted and insulted by her colleagues, making it impossible for her to continue being in the newsroom. “They called me a Nazi and a racist,” she admitted. – The few colleagues who tried to be at least outwardly friendly with me were being ostracized by the others.”
As a result, Bari Weiss resigned. On the same day, she confidently stated that ” representing a centrist position in a modern American newspaper should not be a courageous act,” and also expressed incomprehension as to why NYT journalists live in fear in the 21st century, afraid to break the rules of political correctness. After all, it is 230 years since the US ratified the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees its citizens freedom of speech.
Thus, the victims of the culture of cancellation can be people who simply do not agree with the majority’s position on politics, culture, or social norms. Any casual phrase, controversial comment, or reckless act, rather than criminal atrocities such as Harvey Weinstein’s, could trigger another “witch hunt”.
Cancel Culture and J.K Rowling
Such was the case, for example, with Joanne Rowling, who in June 2020 allowed herself to be ironic on Twitter over an article that contained the phrase: ‘people who menstruate’. “I’m sure we had some word for people like that,” she wrote. – Somebody help me out here. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” (obviously referring to the word Women). But social media users didn’t appreciate the joke. Instead, they lashed out at the writer, accusing her of being transphobic and uneducated.
The fire of public outrage flared even higher when Rowling refused to acknowledge her lack of progressiveness and intent. She explained that she had always been respectful of transgender people but disapproved of abandoning the very concept of gender because it erased the essence of female identity (simply put, she was used to thinking of herself as a woman and wanted society to identify her as such).
As a result, the writer has been declared war not only by internet users but also by the LGBT community and major publishers. And the actors who starred in the cult Harry Potter franchise, based on J.K. Rowling’s books, refused to work with her again. The hashtag #RIPJKRowling, which Twitter users started to use to symbolize the death of Joanne Rowling in their eyes, became the height of the harassment of the writer.
Cancel Culture has touched many other celebrities too. In 2018, rapper Kanye West posted a photo on his personal page wearing a cap that read “Make America Great Again” and called Donald Trump his brother. The public has been left extremely unhappy with this endorsement of the president, who is considered a racist. Some 9 million people unsubscribed from Kanye West in protest. But over time, the story was forgotten and fans returned to their idol.
Actor Johnny Depp faced not only public shaming but also serious career and financial damage. In the autumn of 2020, he lost a lawsuit against tabloid The Sun. The judge ruled that the publication’s articles that the actor repeatedly used violence against his former lover Amber Heard were not slander. Johnny Depp was not satisfied with the verdict and has decided to appeal, but the public has already made their conclusions: Warner Bros. refused to cooperate with him, excluding him from the set of the new “Fantastic Beasts”, Disney has put a veto on Depp’s further participation in the cult “Pirates of the Caribbean Sea” and streaming service Netflix has removed from its American library of all movies with the actor.
Sometimes opinion-makers are even held accountable for their statements and also for actions which happened 10 or even 20 years ago. Comedian Kevin Hart has been suspended from his honorary role as host of the 2019 Oscars because of his homophobic tweets posted in 2010-2011. And Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to publicly apologize for an 18-year-old photo of him dressed as an Arab prince (with brown make-up on his face) at a theme party. The politician admitted the act was racist.
Conclusion of Cancel Culture
Undoubtedly, Cancel Culture forces people, both famous and public, to be more cautious about the information they broadcast to the public domain and how they behave in it. However, its own lack of categorization and fear of being ostracized does not, as a rule, motivate people to think about their position on this or that issue, but rather intimidate them into silence or a quick apology under an avalanche of public condemnation.
But just as important as “retribution,” however, is the opportunity to give a person a chance for correction (of course, we are not talking about proven crimes), as in the case of Harvey Weinstein. And the almost complete absence of this is perhaps the main shortcoming of the culture of abolition. It simply “crushes” all those who have fallen under this roller of social justice – deservedly, accidentally, or for company.