Cancel Culture: A Simplistic Misnomer

In July 2020, prominent names in pop-culture and academia including J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, and Margaret Atwood, author of the “The Handmaid’s Tale”, signed an open letter to Harper’s Magazine denouncing the cultural phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’. The open letter condemned a “weaken[ing] [of] our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” 

This (in)famous Harper’s letter criticises the trend of ‘cancelling’ individuals, groups, corporations, etc, because of supposed intolerance of controversial views. The signatories propound that “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity” among others. The crux of the concerns posed by the signatories seem to stem from the perception that this phenomenon of ‘cancelling’ stifles freedom of opinion. The letter’s signatories argue that ‘cancel culture’ impinges on an inalienable right to free expression. On the other hand, some believe ‘cancel culture’ is merely a long overdue process that holds blatant wrongdoers accountable for their actions. Notable personalities that deny ‘cancel culture’ outright include writer Sarah Hagi who wrote an extensive op-ed in Time magazine in November 2019, and Singapore’s own loving critic, Alfian Sa’at, who took to social media to refute a particular blogger’s take on ‘cancel culture’ earlier this year.

‘Cancelling’ is also pervasive in popular culture. When we hear the term ‘cancel culture’, images of disgraced celebrities and powerful people emerge out of the dearth of our memories. Probably the most recent and high-profile casualty of ‘cancel culture’ is disgraced sex offender Harvey Weinstein, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison on the grounds of rape and sexual assault as a consequence to the #metoo movement. This was widely believed to have accelerated the use of the term ‘cancel culture’ as a movement to hold powerful men accountable for their crimes. However, is sticking a superfluous label of ‘cancel culture’ sufficient to chronicle the heinous acts committed by one of the most infamous sexual predators of all time? It seems that labelling Weinstein’s sentence as merely ‘cancelling’ is highly reductive as it ignores the nuances of the case and downplays victims’ testimonies that finally allowed Weinstein to be held accountable for his monstrous deeds.

What exactly is ‘cancel culture’? Who does it affect? How far is ‘cancelling’ justifiable? What is the relationship between ‘cancel culture’ with censorship and free speech? This article will attempt to analyse ‘cancel culture’ in its component parts and central points of criticism. The umbrella term of ‘cancel culture’ will be further broken down and its oversimplified usage will also be examined.

‘Cancel culture’ refers to a larger social phenomenon of online shaming, which has become ubiquitous within cyberspace with the aid of social media. According to Professor Nakamura who studies digital media’s relationship with society at the University of Michigan, ‘cancel culture’ is a “cultural boycott” of celebrities, brands and concepts that the majority of people find offensive or distasteful. Despite ‘cancelling’ itself not being particularly new, ‘cancel culture’ has made headways into the contemporary social media landscape and has sparked intense debates over its existence. 

On the individual level, ‘cancelling’ of groups’ or individuals’ right to free speech such as making offensive remarks that may be construed as insensitive to certain communities is something perennially etched into our minds. There may be a prevailing fear that resurfaced comments or posts from your past results in your ‘cancelling’. Public personalities are particularly at risk to this due to the very public personas and lives that they live out. Recently, Singaporean blogger Wendy Cheng, aka Xiaxue criticised being ‘cancelled’ by a ‘woke mob’ that supposedly “silenced” her with a police report made against her for an offensive tweet in 2010. 

Does the law protect victims of cancellation? In Singapore, there is no overarching law that criminalises ‘cancel culture’ per se. However, legal frameworks exist to deal with the multifaceted aspects of online harassment. For instance, ‘cancel culture’ has often been associated with leaking private information on the culprits, or doxxing. Doxxing, referring to publishing personal information with the intention to harass, has recently been added into the protection from harassment act in Singapore last year. Additionally, victims of ‘cancel culture’ are regularly harassed, or even stalked. These attempts to silence wrongdoers are codified in the protection from online harassment act. It is reductive to refer to these laws under one umbrella of “cancel culture” as it ignores encompassing factors like fake news, misinformation, and harassment. Distinctions should be made.

When looked through the lens of corporations, ‘cancel culture’ seems to be conflated with consumer boycotts and brand accountability. Being reliant on consumer tastes and habits, corporations need to be held accountable to their customers despite having the freedom to create unique brand identities. Fashion houses worldwide have had the spectre of being ‘cancelled’ looming over them especially with high-profile incidences of blackface products. Marketing blunders such as Gucci’s US$890 balaclava jumpers with exaggerated red lips and Prada’s blackface figurines in its New York City stores stirred much criticism worldwide. 

Even though corporations face immense backlash from the public, their brand image persists. Even though ‘cancel culture’ has the potential to shut businesses, the ‘cancelling’ of corporations can be seen as accountability for their marketing blunders. Corporations and businesses should expect backlash due to brand associations and identities. Should consumers criticise these brands and threaten to boycott their products, it is arguably a legitimate form of consumer action. ‘Cancel culture’ thus seems to be a misnomer in describing legitimate demands for accountability that reflects consumer tastes and preferences over time.

Finally, ‘cancel culture’ is not brand new. However, the impact of social media has made ‘cancelling’ more prevalent and visible in society today. Unlike censorship which is sanctioned by the state through laws and legal frameworks, ‘cancelling’ has been associated with mob mentality on cyberspace that actively seeks out to destroy the reputation of some unwitting celebrity or individual. The key criticism of this is that “keyboard warriors” are enacting their own form of retributive justice. However, as mentioned by Hagi in her op-ed, social media has enabled marginalized people to express themselves in a way not possible before and labelling this newly acquired empowerment as ‘cancel culture’ simply delegitimizes the voices of the affected. Even celebrities that have been targets of ‘cancelling’ such as Taylor Swift, have been able to remain successful despite their attempted ‘cancelling’. If ‘cancel culture’ is as dangerous as society has labelled it, how can we explain these exceptions? Whether or not social media should be used as a force for change, and the extent of change that results from it, could be debated further. Nevertheless, ‘cancel culture’ can be seen as a form of accountability through one of the most accessible public platforms of the modern world. 

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive take on ‘cancel culture’ or online shaming. In fact, this write-up is far from exhaustive. Deeper layers of analysis are needed to truly gain a better understanding of the role social media and cyberspace plays in accountability. However, the generalised definitions of ‘cancel culture’ need to be re-examined and reflected upon to understand contexts rather than blindly labelling every instance of harassment or boycott as ‘cancelling’.

Header image by Markus Winkler from Unsplash. Feature image by Holly Crawfield from Flickr.

About the Author:

Lance Wu is a first year Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences student with a keen interest in current affairs. When he is not going through some surreal existential crisis (like most FASS students do), he enjoys late night talks and quality time with friends.