Cancel culture used to refer to your flaky friends who would always back out of your carefully-laid dinner plans. Now it means something more sinister — an online pile-on that can result in banishment from your job, an event, or even from public life. It has come to prominence recently after a number of high-profile writers and intellectuals wrote an open letter to Harper’s Magazine calling out cancel culture after J K Rowling faced a social media backlash for tweeting about trans women. There then followed another open letter from other writers and intellectuals cancelling the first letter. How about we cancel lengthy open letters?
People are arguing over whether it even exists. But it always has. Organisations have always guarded their reputations and have distanced themselves from high-profile individuals who have embarrassed them.
When it comes to free speech there are accepted lines. You can say what you like but if you choose to say something so awful, there are consequences. Very few people — even on the Right — shed a tear for David Starkey resigning from a number of academic positions after his appalling racist comments on slavery.
But what has changed the dynamic of “cancel culture” is social media. It’s now much easier to voice your outrage and distress because we have a direct means of communicating with the rich and famous. They are in the palm of your hand to praise or damn.
It can feel good to pile on someone. Until of course you become that someone. When the outrage morphs into a frenzied attack, it’s a terrifying experience. It becomes a vortex for unfettered contempt and hatred. I’ve come close to being cancelled by both the Left and Right for my political views and I know many other women, who are not rich or famous, who have too.
After the death of Caroline Flack, #BeKind trended for about two days
There can be nasty undercurrents when it’s a woman being cancelled. Who knew? It moves well beyond your opinion; it suddenly takes a dark turn. You’re a fat, ugly, disgusting waste of skin. We’re coming for you. Watch out. Threats of violence and sexual assault. When I’ve been the midst of that kind of digital pile-on, I have felt like I was physically under attack. I couldn’t sleep. I was in tears. I was frightened to go out. I felt shame. And of course all of that has a chilling effect. And no one can be protected from that unless they leave social media. You can’t just “ignore the trolls”. And it can have tragic consequences.
After the death of Caroline Flack, we talked a lot about mental health and #BeKind trended for about two days before we went back to abusing each other. There are no easy answers. In a democracy, we don’t have a set arbiter of free speech and the lines inevitably shift. And there is a legitimate question of whose speech is dominant. As a brown Muslim woman on the Left, I’m acutely aware of how intolerant our daily discourse has become.
Whether you’re black, Muslim, trans, disabled, or any other minority, you feel like your voice is cancelled because it is denied a platform. I feel I’m pretty well versed in the privileged, white, heterosexual, cis, male life experience. In fact, it could be my Mastermind topic. Let’s mix it up. It would also help if we all tried really hard — whether it’s on social media or the airwaves; in newspapers and in real life — to not be a massive arse. We also all need to calm down and remember — we’ve literally all just been cancelled. By coronavirus.