Is it time to cancel ‘cancel culture’?
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
In 2022, the phrase ‘cancel culture’ is familiar to most who have some form of online presence through social media, or anyone vaguely in touch with the cultural and political zeitgeist of the day. The phrase invariably produces reactions of agreement, condemnation, or, in the case of those ‘cancelled’, dread. In its simplest iteration, the phrase ‘cancel culture’ is used to describe the ritualistic process of eradicating someone’s career or online presence (usually both), after they have made a public mistake or past indiscretions have been uncovered.
The notion of cancel culture is an inherently ‘Generation Z’ phenomenon, as it relies on the mass use of social media as a platform for anyone, from celebrities and politicians to the ordinary person, to express an opinion. That said, although it may seem like a radical, new element of modern behaviour, cancel culture is rooted in the time-old practice of public shaming and ostracization. The use of public humiliation to engender shame is a historical method of removing someone’s dignity, utilised as a tool of political power since the establishment of early societies. Supplemented with the accessibility of social media, anyone can cancel or be cancelled.
Judging the morality of cancel culture is a complex and politically fraught subject. Some argue it cultivates censorship; causes a stultification of free speech or inculcates a tendency to form potentially rash judgements. In a 2019 interview, Barack Obama criticised the finger-pointing nature of cancel culture as, instead of allowing opinions to percolate, cancel culture encourages immediate and harsh judgement with little room for redaction or revision of thought. Furthermore, in his 2022 address to the Vatican’s Diplomatic Corps, Pope Francis warned that cancel culture encourages ‘one-track thinking’ and criticised attempts to rewrite history in line with present day values as a form of ‘ideological colonisation’ – this phrasing suggests that he views cancel culture as an aggressive imposition and attempted rewriting of ideas and events, which should be resisted.
More frequently, people are questioning the backgrounds of previously uncritically admired historical figures, and how we reconcile their faults with their achievements. Since we couldn’t erase their existence from history, would ‘cancelling’ them require the erasure of their tangible memory and commemoration instead? Furthermore, would this be a dangerous move of censorship or a necessary defence of liberal values?
Take Winston Churchill, idolised for leading Britain to victory in the second world war but whose dangerous views on colonialism, race, and eugenics are frequently minimised when raised in public debate. Churchill College, Cambridge, held several discussion-based events in 2021 looking at the consequences of Churchill’s racial opinions. Ensuing backlash from the press berated the college for defaming his character, presenting an acute irony as we are told that cancel culture is an overstep of the political left, while the right-wing establishment attack an honest engagement with history.
We should be able to acknowledge different sides to historical figures’ characters, understanding both their egregious faults and attributes without completely condemning them for not conforming to today’s standards. To ‘cancel’ Winston Churchill, to remove him from the events of history, would be an oversight that prevents future generations from understanding why his colonialist opinions were so harmful, and the role he played in imbedding colonialism into British institutional life. Yet, and arguably to a less urgent degree, it would be short-sighted to ignore the debt many feel towards Churchill, for whom he was a revered figure that saved Britain from Nazi rule.
It could be argued that those in ‘Generation Z’ are more attuned to relearning and understanding how cultural and social stereotypes have ingrained inequality in the social structures of today; they are more likely to be sensitive to such ideas than the Baby Boomer generation, and thus are more receptive to the use of cancel culture to call out influential figures, businesses, or brands for offensive action or language.
Some argue that this can be an incredible tool for accountability. There are many examples of when cancel culture has been an extraordinary asset in creating public movements for change: most notably, the Twitter hashtag MeToo of 2017 which shed light on the cultures of sexual harassment infiltrating all rungs of society. However, the morality of cancel culture becomes questionable when online users jump to ‘cancel’ when no offence has been made. Having conviction of opinion can be admirable, but when taken too far can create a blinkered mentality where opinions must be uncompromising in their clarity to be respected.
As we look towards a future that will undoubtedly continue to be dominated by social media, cancel culture could continue to grow in power and pervasiveness. Racism and discrimination should not be tolerated on any platform, requiring more safeguarding by social media companies. I believe the propensity to cancel an idea, an individual or even a corporation does not equate to the end of free speech as some fearmongers argue. However, it can stop people speaking freely, which sets a worrying precedent – will the same evolution of thought be possible if we are all required to agree with one set of opinions to avoid being cancelled ourselves?