By: Kelly Chia, Features Editor
There’s no question that the internet has brought us intimately close with many of our favourite artists and content creators. Unfortunately, this also means that we now have a front-row seat to all of their flaws and problematic worldviews. In response to some very public comments made by public figures in recent years, so-called “cancel culture” has arisen as a community-driven means of unseating creators from their public platforms, revoking their celebrity status, and in some cases, punishing them financially. In general, cancel cultures aims to force public figures to acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made.
Cancel culture has the potential to be disastrous for those in the public eye by encouraging people to stop supporting them when their words or actions harm other people. While the intent isn’t always necessarily to end careers, it’s often used to impose consequences on problematic creators who otherwise would continue to benefit from positions of influence — and from those positions, disseminate hurtful worldviews. This can take the form of demanding a creator be taken off of their platforms, be dropped by publishers, or a call for fans to stop supporting problematic creators.
These call-to-actions make cancel culture a very potent but also necessary tool for socially conscious consumers, especially since an absence of consequences for harmful behaviour signals a societal acceptance and tacit agreement with said behaviour.
Recently, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter decrying cancel culture. The letter, signed by several high-profile creators and academics, takes issue with how morally absolute cancel culture is. Cancel culture labels content either problematic or not problematic, with no room for nuance or personal growth. According to the signatories, the consequences are too heavy compared to the mistakes an individual has made, and are more limiting than they are good.
People make mistakes, and it is understandable when they are made in ignorance. But if creators have hurt people with their mistakes, they must also own up and properly make amends. They have to show a willingness to learn from the voices of those they’ve hurt. If they don’t, if they continue to be hurtful to people who have called them out multiple times — such as signatory J.K. Rowling has done — then they deserve to be abandoned by their fans, and to have their influence diminished.
Harper’s’ letter minimizes the people who have been hurt when it says that these are just clumsy mistakes that don’t deserve the consequences that cancel culture imposes. They point to examples like researchers being fired for sharing certain academic papers as a reason why society should be more lenient with problematic viewpoints.
I’m not saying that we should always operate on a black and white morality scale of mob rule. Some people such as researchers do occasionally have to take risks with their work. Think of what happened at SFU in the late 60s when the conservative administration fired professors and broke up an entire department over fears of openly Marxist views and research. Cancel culture should only be deployed when words or actions of public figures are consistently and unapologetically made at the expense of marginalized communities. If it hurts those communities, then those communities deserve to speak up about it and demand that creators do better.
Content creators today have so much potential to influence their audience into believing that they do no wrong. If content creators are racist, homophobic, or have otherwise been hurtful to minority groups, their audiences deserve to be able to turn their backs and wallets away from them. Some content creators may grow out of this behaviour with or without listening to their audience’s concerns. However, by collectively taking action against areas where the content creators themselves will feel the effects — as cancel culture does — it allows those who were wronged an avenue for justice where they are so often powerless to enact change in other ways.
Ultimately, cancel culture doesn’t always seek a punishment, but rather a forced recognition: if you have hurt people with your actions, what will you do next? Will you ignore their hurt, or will you apologize and do better for yourself, your work, and your audience?