We’ve all come across the expression at some point or another, most probably within the book community online; Cancel culture has become a ubiquitous term over recent years, sparking much heated debate, disinformation and public indignation. But what is ‘cancel culture’ exactly and why is it causing such a stir?
Research firm Insider explains that ‘cancel culture’ is not a new term and it has been used in the past to criticise the harmful actions of TV stars and pop singers such as Bill Cosby and R Kelly. According to them, the term started coming into public focus around the year 2017. It is often used in tandem with the phrase ‘accountability culture’ and it describes collectively boycotting or calling out the behaviour of someone whose words or actions suggest any type of intolerance towards marginalised groups of people.
Within the book community, our exposure to the cancel culture discourse more or less began in the middle of last year with British author J K Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series, easily one of the most if not, the most successful children’s series of all time. In June of last year, Rowling posted a series of transphobic tweets that triggered waves of heated backlash, in response to an article about menstrual health. Beauty and fashion website, Glamour put up an article – condemning Rowling’s actions – where you can read all the original tweets. Despite the criticism she received, Rowling maintains that sex determines gender and she refuses to acknowledge the validity of trans women, which in turn, perpetuates a cycle of violent transphobia.
Other examples include Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who also made comments in opposition to the transgender community. And more recently, Scottish teacher and poet Kate Clanchy faced intense criticism from readers and fellow writers alike over her memoir; Some Kids I Taught & What They Taught Me. Clanchy’s memoir, in which she shares her insight into teaching children from less well-off backgrounds, came under fire due to the ‘racist and ableist’ descriptions she used to describe her ethnic minority students. His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman also faced backlash for defending Clanchy and for some inflammatory tweets he posted that were directed towards authors Monisha Rajesh, Chimene Suleyman and Sunny Singh among others, for speaking out about the discriminatory nature of Clanchy’s book.
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“Cancel culture, like with reverse Racism, are terms weaponised by privileged or majority ethnic people to paint themselves as innocent victims without acknowledging the damaging real-life effect of their words.”
Many people have extremely negative perceptions of cancel culture, conflating it with a lack of compassion, bullying and a mob-like psyche. Just recently, I read the comments of another book reviewer on Instagram who condemned cancel culture as being slanderous bullying against someone for having their own opinion. Some view it as toxic whilst others claim it’s a myth.
Cancel culture in this context suggests the act of ‘cancelling’ someone. Personally, I don’t see how a person can be cancelled; the idea sounds as though a person’s right to exist is suddenly taken away and they can no longer function within society. But the last I checked, J K Rowling, Kate Clanchy, Chimamanda Adichie and other such ‘cancelled’ figures are still very much operating within their respective professions today, albeit with a completely sullied public image. What we refer to as cancel culture is less about ‘cancelling’ and more about stopping intolerant discourse that actively harms marginalised people.
Focussing the argument on the so-called mob mentality of cancel culture is a scapegoat to avoid the fact that the people or companies being criticised have made bigoted comments, be it racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-choice, homophobic, transphobic, anti-indigenous or ableist comments that help to push through a narrative about said groups that in turn reinforces the many structural inequalities we still see existing today. To claim victimhood for simply having an opinion is a wilful act of ignorance that completely disregards the detrimental impact those ‘opinions’ have on society’s most vulnerable people. Cancel culture, like with reverse Racism, are terms weaponised by privileged or majority ethnic people to paint themselves as innocent victims without acknowledging the damaging real-life effect of their words.
That’s not to say I condone people being abusive or making death threats concerning problematic authors and their destructive opinions, I absolutely do not endorse such extreme behaviour and I realise that dealing with this kind of treatment is traumatising and immensely stressful. However, I do feel like cancel culture is often used as an excuse to avoid taking accountability for the offensive things that were said. If marginalised groups of individuals are telling you that your opinions are offensive and hurtful, you listen, absorb and deconstruct. The trans community for example, is best placed to articulate the ways in which they are being discriminated against and its not for us to discredit their experiences. This is exactly what Rowling and others like her did, but as yet she has not issued any sort of genuine apology or acknowledgment of her transphobia, so yes, people are angry about it! But does this mean that she has been ‘cancelled?’ The answer is NO.