Has cancel culture gone too far?
Free speech, censorship, bigotry and power dynamics — there are many layers to the knotty, often-divisive topic of “cancel culture”. We debate the merits and dangers of mob justice and ask if it’s ever right to “cancel” a person.

If you’re looking to open a can of worms, simply ask someone their thoughts on cancel culture. It’s certainly a multi-layered topic, full of grey areas and, depending who you ask, akin to either an online witch hunt or a demand for social change in a world where power dynamics have shifted.

What is cancel culture?

Cancel culture is essentially about calling people out. It usually looks something like this: X says something publicly that is deemed offensive. People that disagree with X then publicly voice their disapproval. The ensuing backlash turns into a firestorm of public shaming, sometimes ending with calls for X to be socially punished in some way (e.g. lose their job).

But it’s not just about holding people accountable for their current words or actions — there have been incidents of people digging up old Tweets or Facebook posts to shame someone for views, jokes or comments made in the past.

Jimmy Fallon was on the receiving end of this last year when a Twitter user called him out for a Saturday Night Live sketch from 2000 in which he impersonated fellow comic Chris Rock while in blackface. The hashtag #jimmyfallonisoverparty went viral overnight, despite the 20-year time gap.

Jimmy did go on to publicly apologise for the sketch, and while there were some calls for his show to be cancelled, it never eventuated and his image escaped fairly unharmed.

Other people at the centre of cancel culture campaigns haven’t fared that well. Take J.K Rowling, for example; the author experienced mass backlash in 2020 for a series of Tweets that some viewed as transphobic. There were calls to boycott her books. Unlike Jimmy, Rowling’s reputation hasn’t recovered. The important distinction here is Rowling’s comments were not a comedy sketch or said in jest; they represented her opinion, which she later expanded on in a comprehensive piece outlining her thoughts on the topic. This presents another layer of debate: should we be allowed to express our own opinions if they have the potential to hurt or offend another group?

Free speech and its consequences

The “free speech” argument always comes up when the cancel culture debate gets heated. And it has its place. After all, the exchange and debate of ideas is an important part of democracy. Take Twitter banning Donald Trump from the platform, for example. While maintaining it was the “right decision”, Twitter’s CEO admitted it set a dangerous precedent. How do you decide who is heard and who is silenced?

Of course, when someone voices a derogatory or bigoted thought online, it’s hard not to call them out or, at the very least, react with an angry emoji. Professor Alan McKee, Associate Dean Research at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney, says people shouldn’t be surprised when they get called out for derogatory behaviour. Referencing those who campaigned against same-sex marriage in 2017, he says, “Yes, people can post their bigotry online, but they can’t then throw their hands up in horror when other people point out that they’re bigots. It’s a hypocritical whine by powerful people that they can no longer be abusive and dismissive in the ways they used to be, with no consequences.”

He also points out the power shift that has taken place where previously marginalised groups now have more of a voice: “Powerful people have always ‘cancelled’ people they disagree with. What they’re getting pissed off about is that now those who traditionally and historically had less power are now getting some power themselves.”

But what about those stupid comments or memes that don’t truly represent your world views which come back to bite you? Things have dramatically changed from the days before the internet. Back then, most people didn’t have a public platform to voice their thoughts. Public figures would likely receive special training for talking to the media. “We now have a situation where anybody with a social media account can go viral and suddenly become public overnight,” Professor McKee points out. “So one finds oneself in the situation where you are still behaving as though you are living your private life, but suddenly there are millions of people looking at you.”

The good, the bad and the ugly

With social justice ideals gaining popularity, there has been an obvious trend of “calling out” coming from the left side of politics in recent years. There have been many celebratory moments, like the uptake of the #MeToo movement, but it isn’t always a simple case of right and wrong. Good people can make mistakes or be misunderstood. And as illustrated by the controversy surrounding Chris Lilley’s satirical mockumentaries, well-meaning pieces of work from just a few years ago may not match up to current social values. The risk of cancel culture is basing our judgements on a surface-level understanding of something and throwing out the good with the bad.

One of the issues is that information and judgement move and mutate so quickly across social media. Look at what happened to singer Lana Del Rey; after penning a letter criticising double standards in the music industry and mentioning other female artists, people accused her of racism. She maintains that her words were misconstrued and she strongly denies this label.

Social media is a fickle place, where meaning often gets lost and messages lack context and clarity. Barack Obama weighed in on the issue in 2019 at the Obama Foundation Summit, urging young people not to be so quick to judge others: “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

But “calling out” doesn’t just come from the left. According to Professor McKee, we might be more worried about the cancel culture tactics employed by powerful people through traditional media against those they disagree with. He recalls how a fellow academic was viciously and unfairly targeted by an Australian newspaper because of something she wrote on Twitter. “They ran 20 stories over two weeks, attacking her for a Tweet,” he says.

What’s clear is that the toxic side of cancel culture is not exclusive to any particular side of politics. What’s not so clear are the messy lines of “right” and “wrong”. There’s certainly something to be said for a society where powerful people are held to account; a place where the Harvey Weinsteins of the world get what they deserve. But we must tread carefully, restrain from social media-powered hysteria and ensure well-meaning people don’t get caught up in the storm. And we must preserve the values that promote healthy conversation and open dialogue above all.

There’s a verse in the poem A Great Wagon by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, that says, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” I like to imagine that field as a space free of judgement, where two vastly different people can chat about life without offending or shaming each other on Twitter later. I’ll meet you all there.