If you have a social media account, you must certainly have come across the phrase cancel culture. It describes the act of collectively unsubscribing from a person, the way you might from a Netflix or New York Times subscription. The term was first coined on black Twitter. What started as a righteous call to boycott celebrities like Bill Cosby and Louis CK in light of the sexual assault allegations against them during the #MeToo movement has now turned into an insidious bipartisan undertaking, which targets journalists, academics and activists who do not toe the line within their political cliques.
Cancellation is a natural extension of call-out culture, wherein the person guilty of wrongthink is often not only publicly called out, in order to turn her into an outcast on social media, but her livelihood and real-world social affiliations are targeted.
On the liberal-left, gender critical feminists have become the latest targets of cancellation. Tax consultant Maya Forstater lost her contractual employment with a think tank for her tweets questioning the UK government’s policy on self-ID. When J. K. Rowling came out in her defence the woke mob turned on her as well. But as they found out—much to their chagrin—it isn’t quite as easy to boycott a billionaire, who is also one of the best fiction writers of our time. Dominican student Raquel Rosario Sánchez was forced to end her studies at Bristol University for her ties to radical feminist organization WPUK, and filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar was invited to screen her documentary film on workplace sexual harassment in New York by The Polis Project, only to be informed a week before the screening that the event was being shelved due to her gender critical tweets. The last two instances are especially interesting, since the victims are women of colour, and their detractors are predominantly privileged white liberals—a peculiar case in the Social Justice realm, where every action is first weighed against the balance of intersectionality and power structures.
Almost every piece written in the liberal publications that have been defending cancel culture as righteous justice paints its victims as rich celebrities with large audiences, in an attempt to downplay its toxicity. They conveniently leave out regular folks like Julie Bindel, Forstater, Sundar and Sánchez because these women don’t fit their righteous little David versus the privileged, politically incorrect Goliath narrative.
But the malady of overzealous cancellation is not restricted to liberal-left circles. Indian right-wingers routinely share social media hashtags calling for the boycott of Bollywood celebrities, such as Swara Bhaskar, and stand-up comedians, such as Kunal Kamra and Varun Grover, for taking shots at the incumbent far-right Hindutva government. When journalist Barkha Dutt’s book Unquiet Land was released on Amazon, the page was inundated within hours by bad reviews from right-wing trolls, who hadn’t even purchased the book.
Cancel culture as practised on social media, then, is a form of tribal justice that seeks to achieve one or all of the following:
- Deplatform the victim and turn her into a social media pariah.
- Rob the victim of her livelihood by reporting her wrongthink to employers, or at the very least, cause a financial dent in a corporation or brand.
- Send a message to others with similar ideas, that not toeing the line—be it the left’s line on gender or the right’s line on nationalism—will have consequences.
What Cancellation Is Not
When I shared Nick Cohen’s brilliant piece on cancel culture on Facebook, a classical liberal acquaintance accused me of practicing cancellation myself based on my social media practices. It seems that my personal choice not to indulge rabid Trumpists on social media with my time and patience is “a microcosm of what is wrong with the liberal-left.”
As a liberal who broadly subscribes to the ethos of democratic socialism, I have a few conservative commentators among my mutuals, whose opinion I value, and whom I consider friends. I believe that there is a difference between a conservative in the John McCain mould and a Trump supporter. I can disagree with and debate the former on fiscal policies and gun control, knowing that he also has some basic human decency and a mutually agreed upon foundation of reality.
But I can’t be bothered to debate a dogmatic supporter of a sex offender who mocks disabled people and thinks neo-Nazis chanting Jews will not replace us are decent people. This doesn’t mean that I want Trump supporters deplatformed and fired from their jobs. I just do not wish to devote my time to arguing with them. I’m sure most of them will not find my political opinions of any interest either.
While working in the oilfield, I have known a bunch of Bible-thumpers from the southern states who believe that black people are inherently lazy, have a higher propensity towards violent crime and that the slave trade was started by Africans, who sold their kin to white colonizers. To those who wish to debate such colleagues with facts and data—more power to you. I do not have the time or patience to point out why their beliefs are flawed. But my refusal to engage does not amount to cancellation. I still work side with side with them and do not think they should lose their jobs.
There is also a fundamental problem with the sanctimonious advice that we should talk to the other side—as famously propounded by self-proclaimed centrist talk show host Dave Rubin—when that side believes that a section of society is inherently sub-human. To ask victims of racism to sit down and chat with those who dehumanize them is condescending.
People often seem to interpret cancellation as a right to have their sense of entitlement validated on an individual basis.
Most Areo readers will probably find this distinction quite elementary. But I felt the same way about freedom of expression, until I found that the vast majority of Indian right-wingers on social media think that being blocked by a celebrity to whom they have sent rape threats is a violation of their free speech. So I wrote a primer explaining freedom of expression in terms that I hoped they’d understand.
- If you reply to my tweet telling me that adding pineapple to pizza is a Soros, Clinton or Deep State-funded conspiracy, and I block you, or refuse to debate the subject with you, that is not cancellation.
- If you are fired from Pizza Hut for believing in Soros, Clinton or Deep State-funded conspiracies, that’s cancellation, and I’d be outraged at your wrongful termination.
- If you were fired from Pizza Hut because you accused all patrons who ordered pineapple toppings of being Soros, Clinton or Deep State agents, and voiced your intention to poison them, then you’re not being cancelled. You’re being terminated for being dangerously unhinged.
- If a feminist is invited to speak at a public event about women’s rights and the invitation is later rescinded due to her gender-critical views, she is being cancelled.
- If I refuse to address your Facebook comment about why you think Munroe Bergdorf is from the planet Andoria, you are not being cancelled.
- If you’re a creationist who writes suspense novels and I do not wish to buy your book because I judge you to be dim-witted, you are not being cancelled.
- If you’re a creationist and I remove your suspense novels from the fiction section of a school library where I am the librarian, then it amounts to cancelling.
- If you’re a creationist and you write a book about why evolution is a hoax, and I refuse to include that book in the school syllabus, that is not cancellation. That’s just separating the fiction from the science syllabus.
Cancel culture is an exigent problem in a leftist ecosystem that is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its pursuit of social justice. However, let us not hand out the label to every victimhood games Olympian, who mistakes a Twitter block for a social boycott.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez