What does it truly mean to be ‘cancelled’?

What does it truly mean to be ‘cancelled’?

Jenessa Williams

We’ve never tweeted more than we do right now, but potentially – arguably – we’ve also never been more fearful of what we tweet. Whatever side of the political spectrum you fall on, ‘cancel culture’ is a term that has loomed large over public discourse, the spectre of social ostracism for saying or doing the wrong thing. But what does it actually mean to be ‘cancelled’? What does it mean to be ‘wrong’? In our age of omnipresence, it’s difficult to imagine that anybody can ever be shunned entirely, left out in the cold never to return. But when somebody has committed a truly heinous act, what other choice do we have but to let our feelings be heard?

It’s a question that many of us will have found ourselves asking of late, myself included.  Running parallel to the MeToo movement, ‘call-out culture’ or ‘cancel culture’ began as a means to hold account in situations where the judicial system had failed to do, particularly with regards to sexual misconduct. Re-popularised in 2017 in relation to the outing of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein as a repeated, calculated abuser, Twitter became a space where women could be believed, where they could break the cycles of institutional power that allowed people to commit these acts unseen.

In it’s purest essence, cancel culture has been described by media studies scholar Eve Ng as “a collective of typically marginalized voices ‘calling out’ and emphatically expressing their censure of a powerful figure.” Over time, it’s usage has been applied to a wide range of circumstances; to decry serious crime, to express displeasure when an opinion is deemed unpopular, to unearth injustice both great and small. Sometimes the indiscretion is obvious, sometimes people go digging to find it. Either way, a wider torrent of socio-political activism has filtered down into a great many tributaries of polarised opinion; conversations of academic freedom and the right to campus ‘free’ speech, JK Rowling and TERF discourse, Donald Trump and his ‘stop the count’ fake news.

For me, it’s mostly been a question of music. As a media academic and a music journalist (not to mention a huge fan of both Hip-Hop and Indie-Pop-Punk), I have often found myself grappling with the notion of loving and participating in an industry that doesn’t always seem to love me back, whether that be through lyrical misogyny, casual racism or even the direct exploitation and violation of women at the hands of position-abusing band members. I have seen first-hand how the normalisations of these behaviours have trickled down into the lexicon of young and impressionable fanbases, making them harder and harder to call out. So many of us gravitate to music as a means of reconciling difficult emotions or figuring out our socio-political identities, so when the people we look to for audible comfort end up hurting us too, it can be an incredibly difficult thing to process. What does it mean to love a song by a terrible person? What does playing that music or attending that concert say about the tolerance we hold for abuse?

What does it truly mean to be ‘cancelled’?

MeToo was a movement initially founded by black American activist Tarana Burke, but somewhere along the way, many of it’s most vulnerable voices have fallen to the wayside – black women, the trans community, young people in industries that won’t listen unless you’re senior rank. From comedy to music to politics, many of the people thought to have been ‘cancelled’ have gone on to remain in power, or to resume – even improve – their careers after a due period of absence, with some taking significant advantage of the heightened media attention. Though ‘cancellation’ might create a stigma in certain people’s eyes, it makes you a vigilante in others – an outspoken crusader against the ‘woke brigade’.

When it comes to identifying problematic behaviours, there is surely a difference between somebody thoughtlessly using an unkind word as a teenager and the ritualised sexual exploitation of young people, but we do not yet seem to have developed the social framework to deduce fair and reasonable de-platformitisation that knows how harsh a social punishment should be. At this stage, the ‘cancellation’ becomes two-fold; instead of coming together to decry the initial bad act, we argue and quibble and make judgements of one another, splintering the discourse at the time where we most need to understand. For those willing to do the work, we perhaps need to create greater spaces to learn and grow, away from the scrutiny of Twitter. But yet it is also right that when we’re dealing with a public figure, they must understand that their actions have consequences which will enter the court of public opinion, with fans who might not want to stick around.

When it comes to musicians and creatives, some might say it is a case of simply separating art from artist, of finding a way to enjoy the performance without endorsing it’s maker.  Whatever you choose to do with the work of a problematic but much-loved artist, it is important not to bury your head in the sand. If we are to truly combat widespread societal misogyny and abuse, we must look inward — the hypocrises we hold, the excuses we make, the way our actions tally up with the virtue we share on social media (or don’t, as the case may be). We need to interrogate the thoughts that makes us condemn the behaviour of an artist, but excuse it when the same thing is done by somebody that we know. A right to free speech is one thing, but a right to broadcast one’s thoughts without consequence is quite another. Whatever you see cancel culture as a chilling effect on free speech or simply an act of holding people to account, it is a conversation of much complexity — one far deeper than any Twitter character limit could allow.

What does it truly mean to be ‘cancelled’?