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Looking for common ground in the battle over ‘cancel culture’

People hold up images of Harvey Weinstein, President Trump and Louis CK during the Women's March in New York City in 2018. Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Getty Images - Credit: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Gety

Both sides in the cancel culture debate are misrepresenting each other and taking pot shots at straw men, says JAMES BALL.

If you’re unfortunate enough to spend much time on the internet – and in the era of coronavirus that’s almost all of us – furious rows about ‘cancel culture’ have been all but unavoidable online in recent weeks.

There have been rival open letters, Twitter threads, columns and counter-columns (and now this one), full of visceral disagreement about cancel culture – the idea that individuals or companies face a swift public backlash or boycott over statements or actions that are considered ‘offensive’.

As well as over individual cases, arguments have raged about whether such a ‘culture’ exists in any meaningful form and, if so, whether it has gone too far and threatens freedom of speech or the very fabric of society itself.

But like many such rows – trading in heat rather than light – there’s not been much in the way of attempts at making sure we all agree what we mean when we talk about cancel culture.

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For those who are arguing that it isn’t an endemic problem we need to worry about, the case runs roughly like this…

We saw in movements like #MeToo some small but real progress in holding people accountable for their actions who previously – largely due to their wealth and status – had been impervious to their consequences.

In a few high-profile cases, this led to prosecutions, or at least firings, while in others it led to public apologies and the loss of work for some actors, comedians and journalists.

But in many other cases, the targets of even high-profile ‘cancellations’ – supported by well-evidenced national or international media coverage – managed to keep their heads down, or make a token apology and continue much as they did before.

In other instances, cancellation doesn’t appear to last for long. The American writer and performer Louis CK resumed his comedy career less than 18 months after he was accused by five women of sexual misconduct.

Figures in the British media and political orbit have repeatedly been called out for – and publicly apologised for – sexual harassment and bullying, only to resurface as bylines, or as viral blue-tick members of pro-EU Twitter.

It is not hard, then, to see how from this point of view the problem with cancel culture is that it isn’t prevalent enough or powerful enough: if it can’t get even keep the handful of people it manages to spotlight cancelled, how can it possibly have gone too far?

We do not live in a world where people with power or platforms are held to too high a standard, or need fear the consequences of their own misbehaviour too much – but rather the very opposite.

This is rarely the argument those saying cancel culture has gone too far are tackling, however.

Instead, they’re generally advancing one of two cases, one self-serving and one more reasonable and widely applicable.

The self-serving argument is simply that social media feels very different if you have 50,000 followers as opposed to 500, and if you write for newspapers or appear on television.

Say something stupid, get the wrong headline on an article, or just give an unpopular opinion about someone with a loyal fanbase – whether One Direction or Jeremy Corbyn – and suddenly your social media, email inbox and more is full of hundreds or thousands of abusive messages.

This is more disconcerting than you might expect until it happens to you: a mildly rude message is easy to shrug off in isolation, but several hundred in quick succession is a much more significant experience.

But such issues generally hit people who have access to huge public platforms themselves, and where they fall short of actual abuse or threats, probably don’t qualify as matters of broad public interest. Nevertheless, they get coverage because they happen to people in the media.

Given such campaigns often call for the publication or organisation concerned to fire the idiot, delete the column or do something similar, this can feel like cancel culture to the person affected, even if virtually no-one ever actually loses their job as a result.

The more interesting and worrying phenomenon is when this happens to people without public platforms – to regular workers, or as it did this week to a 12-year-old alleged to have sent racist messages to a footballer.

The disproportionate effect of huge public shaming and attention – and the natural caution of many employers – means that people with no public platform or experience can lose their jobs and reputations quickly and easily.

Twitter is fond of a villain of the day, and is rarely short of one. Several of the notable writers who signed open letters or wrote on this subject made the argument that they were not doing so on their own behalf – the ‘poor me’ of people who don’t need additional protections – but rather trying to flag the effects of this culture on people without their status and incomes.

If sincere, that seems a worthy cause, even if it ties in to people with otherwise controversial views (particularly on trans rights). It is one that can be used as a fig leaf for writers actually trying to avoid flak for their own opinions, but self-service in the media is hardly an original sin.

The result is that we’re having two completely disconnected online arguments about cancel culture with each side furiously pummelling a straw man with almost no connection to what the other is actually talking about.

We need more accountability for the powerful and the high-status, and frankly we need more cancellations of such people.

But we do also need a conversation about the habit for social media to encourage us to hunt in packs and bay for blood.

We need to stop pretending those are the same conversation.

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