“Cancel Culture” Isn’t Real

Harper's open letter has reignited the "cancel culture" debate. But they aren't demanding freedom of speech - they're demanding freedom from consequence
J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at the White House in 2010 (Daniel Ogren/Creative Commons)

J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at the White House in 2010 (Daniel Ogren/Creative Commons)

When listening to the way big names talk about it, you’d think “cancel culture” was an unpredictable scourge, waiting for the slightest wrong step to pounce and drag them off, kicking and screaming, to its Lair of Irrelevance. Say the tiniest thing and suddenly you’re shunned forever.

Shortly after Donald Trump railed against cancel culture on the 4th of July, Harper’s Magazine published a letter online condemning cancel culture. The letter decried “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” and was signed by 150 prominent people, including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Wynton Marsalis and… JK Rowling. If the last addition feels a bit self-serving, that’s probably because it is. Rowling is the newest celebrity supposedly “canceled” after her repeated transphobic comments.

After the letter’s publication on June 7, 2020, historian Kerri Greenridge and author Jennifer Finney Boylan asked that their names be removed.

This letter, which ironically appeared the same day as Thandie Newton’s eye-opening interview with Vulture detailing her experiences as a Black actress, Harper’s condemns “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Railing against the risk of being silenced, the magazine founded in 1850 writes: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.”

It’s the classic First Amendment argument: the answer to speech we don’t like isn’t censorship; it’s more speech. But we’re not dealing with the First Amendment here. This letter doesn’t bemoan the condemnations and demands made by Donald Trump in his alleged official capacity, which, as government action, do encroach on the First Amendment. Instead, it describes the problem as “Illiberalism” and a narrowing of viewpoints from the left.

So which particular “blinding moral certainty” does the magazine mean? Given Rowling’s signature, it sure seems like they are saying that the problem isn’t her dehumanizing viewpoint, but the refusal to tolerate her dehumanizing viewpoint. That the answer to her speech–essentially transwomen are not women–is a discussion about whether transwomen are women.

Let’s be clear. Whether people have value based on their inherent characteristics is not a discussion, it’s a form of violence. The “intolerance” criticized in Harper’s letter is the refusal to debate people’s humanity.

The choice to no longer engage with people who debase others, whether through violence, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, or misogyny isn’t “cancel culture.” It’s the marketplace of ideas at work.

“Cancel culture” is a myth, a way to swaddle grotesque, dated missives in a thick blanket of grievance. It is also a form of cultural control, keeping the power of who is seen and what is said in the hands of the few gatekeepers.

In the evolution of culture, the growing and the shedding of that which does not serve society is not a form of censorship. It’s not putting up new barriers to discourse; it’s tearing down old ones to let new perspectives in. It’s growth.

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First Amendment vs Free Speech

The First Amendment only applies to government action. Private companies and individuals can take any action they choose in response to speech they don’t like, so long as it’s legal, and that includes boycotting. No one has a fundamental right to an audience.

People often conflate the idea of “free speech” with the ability to say whatever you want without repercussions. That is where that good old marketplace of ideas comes back to bite, because though people can say what they want, other people can say what they want about that.

Counterspeech can include the notion that some speech isn’t worthy of inclusion or debate. It is not a new concept; viewpoints and perspectives have been filtered from the marketplace for as long as it has existed, with gatekeepers determining what is worthy of admission. Take, for example, Esquire’s infamous “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” 79 titles by men and a single offering from Flannery O’Connor, searingly critiqued by Rebecca Solnit in her essay “80 Books No Woman Should Read.” The list did not spring, fully formed, from thin air. It was curated by people who chose who to include and, more importantly, who to exclude.

Says Alisha Grauso:

The marketplace was once stashed away in a fortress with steep steep walls and guards at every gate, deciding who and what could pass, even in our “free speech” culture. And then the internet razed the walls, and the gatekeepers have tried to rebuild them, brick by crushed brick, ever since.

It’s not just about speech

In her interview, Thandie Newton talks about the way some in the press characterized the abuse she “allegedly” suffered from director John Duigan as “an affair.” Said Newton, Duigan began grooming her when she was 16. He was 39 and in a position of authority. Perhaps a little more “blinding moral certainty” would have protected Newton from the normalization of this abusive relationship.

From Harper’s:

“But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

The very deliberate, very passive-aggressive “perceived” serves an important role in that sentence. It takes words out of the real and concrete into the ethereal where they can flit harmlessly outside of ivory towers. But words are not harmless. And JK Rowling’s words are not innocuous offerings at a prime-real estate stall in that idea marketplace.

Writes Dana Levinson in this must-read thread:

Words shape norms. Words shape culture. Words shape the acceptable and the unacceptable. Words, as we’ve seen day after day in one explosive racist video after the next, foment violence.

We cannot and should not be guilted by those with first-class marketplace access to accept a culture that gives equal weight to the competing ideas that certain people have value and that those same people do not have value.

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So Is Cancel Culture even real?

Uh…no. If it were, Mel Gibson would never have worked again after his anti-Semitic tirade in 2006. Or when tapes of him abusing his then-girlfriend surfaced in 2011. Instead, he acted in 14 projects, produced 8 projects, and directed 4 only to be “canceled” again after his abuse of Winona Ryder resurfaced in 2020. He reportedly said at a party years ago, presumably in front of other people, “You’re not an oven dodger, are you?” He also asked a gay man if he’d get AIDS sitting near him, also presumably in front of others.

People get canceled yet never seem to go away. Louis CK, for example, who did a gig unannounced, essentially without the consent of the audience to see him, or Matt Lauer who penned an Op-Ed attacking Ronan Farrow and was given the platform to do so by Mediaite. A CNN list of people canceled in 2019 leads off with R. Kelly, which one might argue underscores the value in, rather than any problems with “canceling” people.

JK Rowling, co-signer of Harper’s letter, still has her platform, allowing her to write an essay rationalizing and justifying her anti-trans stance. Her books remain on the shelves and for sale at book retailers. No one banned the movies based on her books.

The truth behind “cancel culture”

The cry of “cancel culture” is, like so many things, about entitlement and privilege. The argument in the small print is that people who have large audiences have a right to those audiences, that an audience saying they are no longer interested in what a famous person has to offer is depriving the canceled of something that belongs to them.

In this time where anyone can put words out to the world, when anyone can put art out to the world, when anyone can make the world laugh without someone else first deciding they are worthy, we have the freedom to decide for ourselves what we do and don’t want. It’s no longer a choice among three channels, all run by people you couldn’t tell apart in a lineup.

Here, in the future, we shape and reshape culture at a dizzying speed. Haper’s beloved institutions are lumbering and slow and still post gatekeepers to mind the ruble.

Meanwhile, culture has never been a stagnant thing. It evolves as we do, from past horrors like “Birth of Nation” to possibly unintended atrocities like “Song of the South,” to blackface episodes pulled from syndication.

The fiction of cancel culture is the visceral shift from those with the platforms telling us what ideas are worthwhile to us telling them what dehumanization and normalization we will no longer accept. They may not like it, but it’s already too late. It’s no longer their choice to make.

Art without Gatekeepers

In a new world where we are our own editors, we are our own art scouts, we are our own judges of talent, everything becomes less monochrome. The internet is the great equalizer, granting access to without checking in with the guards. We were told we needed them, but do we?

A work of art does not need to be curated or even identified make an impact in the 21st century:

Samantha Van Wie puts a makeup tutorial to good use:

Sarah Cooper, making Trump’s voice tolerable again, exploded into stardom through the power of Twitter alone. Here she tells us how to mask:

Speaking of wearing masks:

And Dutch sisters Rosa, Yarah, and Norah, can speak to the world all on their own, their talent landing them on Ellen:

Speaking of incredible dancers around the globe, this sensational student gained a global audience for Leap of Dance Academy in Lagos, Nigeria.

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Opinion // Culture / Free Speech / Media