By Siqi Zhu
You can cancel a YouTube subscription if you find it dull and boring. You can cancel Amazon orders if you fill in the wrong address. And in recent years, we’ve come to the realisation that we can even cancel other people.
In brief, to “cancel people” is to publicly oppose their problematic statements or objectionable actions, and to exert pressure on related organizations to silence them or, in some cases, to have them fired. The idea of cancelling individuals or companies emerged in the past several years and developed together with the #MeToo movement, which equipped many women with the courage and strength to fight against sexual assault and assaulters on campuses and workplaces. However, since then the practice has stretched its boundaries to anyone or anything offensive. Accelerated by the Internet, this kind of “cultural boycott” catalyzes cancel culture, which is known as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.”
More recently, the advent of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine reignited the debate on cancel culture. The open letter, signed by over 150 scholars, writers, journalists, and thinkers, raises its voice against the potential consequences of cancel culture: the considerable weakening of the norms of open debate and toleration of differences. They assert that “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” By telling us to calm down in the process, the letter forces us to dig into how cancel culture affects us and our society, which inspires fresh thinking. Yes, it is time to rethink cancel culture.
Many factors facilitate the rise of cancel culture. To begin with, our pursuit of social equality and justice virtually supports the idea of such cancellation. And morals, the widely accepted principles and beliefs concerning right and wrong behavior, create a foothold for cancellation. Some complex problems that can’t be immediately solved by the existing justice system urgently call on a new kind of power to cope with them. What’s more, the Internet nourishes it and propels it forward. The Internet lowers the threshold of expressing ourselves and exchanging ideas. It ignites the passion for keeping in touch with public debates and attending social affairs, which inadvertently creates an atmosphere that paves the way for cancel culture.
Cancellation can be an effective way to condemn, and to punish, but also to call the masses to action. Cancelling the alleged perpetrators of sexual violence during the #MeToo Movement brought light to less powerful people, and allowed thousands of women who had been sexually assaulted to point out their assaulters and to talk about their pain. Also, it gathered public opinion and anger and threw necessary “grenades” against sexual and racial discrimination. Nevertheless, once cancel culture evolves into a “weapon,” which harnesses its power to disturb the free flow of different ideas, it will betray its original qualities. Innocent individuals and society as a whole will suffer terribly.
However, cancellation hangs above writers and publishers like the Sword of Damocles. It is re-shaping the way we think and work. Signers of the open letter in Harper’s Magazine state the fact that “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics.” To avoid being cancelled, writers, scholars, journalists, and critics fumble the boundaries between what they can say and what they can’t, and divest themselves of any sensitive topic related to religion, gender, and race. Publishing houses serve as a filter, cautiously deleting any controversial content in books before they are published. Eventually, the publishing houses might survive, but free debate and speech are dying.
What readers can read is carefully selected by writers and publishing houses. Indeed, only uncontroversial statements are left, ensuring readers won’t have to bother dealing with offensive views. However, what they read is something they already know and approve of, so the process of reading reinforces their thoughts and beliefs. Therefore, it is difficult for readers to be confronted with a book that challenges existing norms, values, and conceptions, let alone be outside of their comfort zone. This inevitably hampers them to refresh their outdated attitudes and gain a new perception of humanity and society. Mary Ruefle, an American poet, said in a lecture, “A book is a physical expansion of a human brain.” However, a book, which mutes itself owing to the threat of being cancelled, fails to help us define the real truth of ourselves and our society, to say nothing of freeing us to enter into a wider world. Rather than a physical expansion of a human brain, it is just a rusty nail falling from a brain.
Moreover, it is no exaggeration to say that cancel culture erodes reading habits. Under the threat of cancellation, books no longer make room for the free exchange of opinions and ideas but become products waiting to be critised for their faults. Readers voluntarily act as cultural censors to figure out whether the contents are offensive to people, culture, or ideology but pay no attention to the resonation with characters, appreciating the sparkle of humanity, or exploring the real truth of our lives from books. In the long run, spiritual connections between writers and readers will be cut down, and the enjoyment of colliding with different ideas or views will be drastically undermined. It will worsen if readers are accustomed to sifting through every statement or action in books and trying to compel them to follow their own opinions. Their rejection of different views, and their ignorance of highlights in books will strengthen their arrogance, weaken their tolerance of diversity, and finally fade the value of books.
The constraint of content smashes writers’ confidence to embrace a sensitive topic, but at the same time, may encourage them to transform their works and pay attention to creative writing. To some extent, the attempt to change the form of a literary work will stir up literary criticism and arouse public debate. But “form” and “content” are like the two feet of a literature. If one of them is hindered by a stone, it is impossible for literary criticism as well as literature to step steadily forward.
If a tiny, different voice is rejected by the general public, it doesn’t mean that this voice is completely wrong and unworthy of attention. Conversely, we should be grateful for the presence of this tiny voice sometimes. Currently society is making the plea for equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people because we hear their voices and recognise their requirements. They were excluded by mainstream discourse in the past. Back when their voices were deliberately muted and cancelled, it was less likely for us to know their needs and to be in conversation with diverse groups. If people deprive them of the opportunity to express themselves, the pursuit of LGBTQ+ rights will never succeed. Faced with different ideas or opinions, trying hard to silence or get rid of them is the worst way to deal with these problems.
Celebrities and public figures are frequent targets of being cancelled. Recently, what J.K. Rowling wrote in a tweet was deemed offensive to transgender people. It attracted many angry responses and dragged her to the brink of cancellation. Many people started to reject her tweets, her books, and even J. K. Rowling herself. Frankly speaking, causing some controversies shouldn’t obliterate all contributions she made. It is ridiculous to judge a person and to cast her aside, merely based on a tweet or a few words she said. If people are isolated and even systematically excluded only because of expressing some controversial ideas, nobody will dare express their own opinions in society.
Cancel culture, which used to give women courage in the #MeToo movement, became a special kind of online bullying. The depressive atmosphere will undeniably stifle self-expression and individuality. And it poses a threat to the free flow of various ideas and information. Everyone will be the victim of cancel culture if they are blind to the seriousness of this situation and refuse to take steps to change.
In most cases, a remedial measure might be more effective than punitive action. Suppose we find someone does something or says something considered offensive, what should we do to deal with it? We can point it out, declare our disagreement, and discuss it with them rather than react aggressively, force them to shut up forever, and even pressure relevant organizations to fire them. Take Rowling’s offensive tweet mentioned above. Immediately attacking and boycotting Rowling due to that tweet does not solve the problem. We can press the “I dislike this” button or leave our thoughts in the comments section below, and then all we can do is allow her to rethink her tweet and respond to objections, by which she can further justify her opinion or notice the unconsidered aspects in her tweet.
People often make mistakes, and most people can correct them and avoid making them again. We need a culture that allows us to make mistakes, correct mistakes, and tolerate controversies, debates, discussions, and differences. Only in a tolerant climate can writers stretch out their hands in an attempt to dig little-known truth and can readers enrich and refresh themselves with the new understanding gained from books; only in a tolerant atmosphere can we ordinary people learn to respect diversity and embrace difference; only in this way can the negative side of cancel culture be cancelled.
So, why don’t we calm cancel culture down?
Meet Siqi Zhu, one of RevUU’s editors. She is originally from China and finished her Chinese Language and Literature Bachelor’s program in Beijing. Currently, she is pursuing the English track of the Master’s program in Literature Today, Utrecht University. Within the literature, Siqi is particularly interested in interculturality and women’s writing.
“What Does Cancel Culture Mean?” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, 16 Oct. 2020, https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/. Accessed 04 Oct. 2020.
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Harper’s Magazine, 7 Jul. 2020, https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/. Accessed 04 Oct. 2020.
Ruefle, Mary. “28 Short Lectures: Mary Ruefle | Woodberry Poetry Room.” YouTube, uploaded by Harvard University, 21 Oct. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=227__gQc8s4. Accessed 04 Oct. 2020.