Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.
As the debate around cancel culture rages on, is the mere idea of it doing more damage than just upsetting a few celebrities and commentators? Is it, in fact, stunting our personal and societal growth?
Another week, another batch of ‘cancel culture’ stories. As sure as the world keeps turning, someone somewhere will be getting a kicking on social media for something they said or did, while people fight about the merits of said kicking, and the sun sets and rises again.
If you haven’t heard of ‘cancel’ or ‘call-out’ cultures then you’ve either been living in the proverbial cave for a decade or have sensibly detached yourself from all news and social media. They’re buzz phrases for the age and, as such, lack agreed, concrete definitions. However, the gist is that they are the mostly-online practices of naming, shaming and, in the case of ‘cancelling’, attempting to inflict reputational or financial damage on people or organisations for alleged moral transgressions.
There is no political affiliation needed to join the club: the left, the right, the up and down all have people who love a good cancellation, from the ‘reactionary right’ calling for sporting stars to be sacked for taking a knee to the ‘woke left’ wanting to deplatform anyone who dares mention biology and gender in the same sentence.
They then, of course, criticise each other for effectively doing the same thing they’re doing.
The most famous cases feature the most famous people, naturally. Perhaps most famous being the ongoing ‘JK Rowling vs Trans People’ set-to, in which the Harry Potter author continues to talk about wombs and trans rights activists call for her books to be magically disappeared from shelves.
You don’t need me to elaborate.
The truth is, celebrities are rarely cancelled in any meaningful way. If they’re big enough to be noticed, they’re usually too big to be hurt, no matter how much they protest about being “silenced” to their millions of social media followers.
They might lose the odd book sale or get fewer after-dinner speaking gigs, but they won’t end up scraping gum from lampposts for a living.
Some much lower-profile names, like British journalist and author Julie Burchill, who was this week dropped by her book publisher Hachette for Islamophobic comments, actively seek a highly-visible ‘cancellation’ because it’s their best route to publicity.
(Her book, by the way, is titled ‘Welcome To The Woke Trials’ and Hachette were very happy to print it, so it’s hard to reason that this is a company of oversensitive lefty snowflakes. But more of that later.)
And for every well-known celebrity criticised, there are plenty – such as Nick Cave, Sarah Silverman, Matthew McConaughey and Ricky Gervais – ready to make more articulate and measured critiques of cancel culture.
There have also been incidents where ordinary people, such as Justine Sacco, have lost their jobs or been ostracised for as little as an ill-judged and misinterpreted tweet – a subject well covered by Jon Ronson in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. But these are heard of less often, for obvious reasons.
What, though, if we put aside debates around what cancelling means and what, if any, measures under that broad canopy are acceptable? What if the mere notion of cancel culture and people’s understanding of it is doing damage greater than upsetting celebrities? What if it’s stymying our development both as individuals and as a species?
The high-profile cases have created a reasonable perception that publicly speaking one’s mind or admitting past misdemeanours risks judgement or abuse. This, logically, makes people less likely to put their head above the parapet. If you think you’re going to get shot at, don’t make yourself a target.
”I think this whole culture creates huge anxiety,” says psychotherapist Mark Newey. “If you’ve got something to say and you’re passionate about what you believe in, yet you’re worried that somebody’s going to pick you up and call you out, then you’re going to be double-checking what you’re saying.
“It creates anger and anxiety, particularly online. And those are both lethal in terms of mental wellbeing.”
I understand this. There are moments from my past that I’m frightened to mention, thoughts that I keep to myself, for fear of the consequences. These are also things I want to discuss openly because I think it would help me and others to discuss them, but I will never breathe a word of them.
It’s this latter point that concerns psychologist Maryhan Baker. She says that not only does fear of judgement create a huge negative in this anxiety, but it suppresses a vital requirement for positive change.
“I don’t think that you can really begin to address the changes that you need to make until you’re entirely honest and vulnerable in who you are,” she says. “I think that’s what ends up inhibiting people’s personal development.”
The fear of being cancelled (or just heavily criticised) is an inhibitor to openness and therefore growth. But surely that growth also requires us to take criticism. If we’re never held to account, we can say whatever we like without challenge, which is equally damaging. If our views aren’t challenged, we’ll remain intellectually and emotionally stunted.
If we’re called out, with reason, then we might reflect on our actions or views and possibly move our position. Unless of course our position wasn’t reached through reason in the first place. As Jonathan Swift said, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” But there’s not much you can do about that.
This is where the subtle difference between ‘calling out’ and ‘cancelling’ comes in. If you’re called out for a particular action, that’s one thing. To be made persona non grata or to be labelled a ‘bad’ person for that action is something altogether more harmful.
“It goes beyond being able to accept that they’ve made a poor choice,” says Baker. “It becomes about them as a whole being wrong. That’s where you get the difference between guilt and shame: I feel guilty for the decision and the choices that I made but I feel shame because the whole of me is shameful.”
“It’s very different to say that a single situation is indicative of who that person is and therefore we need to cancel every contribution that that person’s made. By cancelling people, we also open ourselves up to later realising that we’ve wronged them. Then how do you then make good? Not only to that person, but their families. The repercussions are so profound. Let’s call people out, not cancel people.”
“It’s the aggressive nature, in my opinion, that’s above and beyond what was necessary,” he says. “I have no problem with the call-out side of it because if somebody says something wrong, they need picking up, but it’s the aggressive shaming, particularly online [that’s an issue].”
So what or who’s to blame for this situation? It’s simple: the people making the biggest fuss. These fall into two categories.
As mentioned, celebrity cancellation stories have fomented the atmosphere, despite the bullets bouncing off the most famous names. A more insidious problem is minor names, such as Burchill and British actor Laurence Fox, who now see ‘cancellation’ as a career path and have become both professionally offended and offensive.
Not even in the top five actors in his family, few people had heard of Fox until some of his rather base (not ‘based’) views drew criticism online. This brought him attention, which he liked, and he now supplements his income being ‘wounded’ by cancel culture.
These people know that as soon as they’re dropped by a publisher or agent (which is well within their rights in a free country – book deals aren’t yet handed out as a form of Covid relief) they can make a big noise about it, get a backlash to the backlash, and profit from it. They simply turn up the dial on their diatribe and double down on the victimhood until… kerching! There is no higher purpose or philosophical motivation.
No-one cares much about Laurence Fox or Julie Burchill but the volume of their bleating, egged on by commentators and columnists, adds to a misguided perception that “you literally can’t say anything these days.” It’s in their interests to exaggerate and distort the issue, which in turn ups the anxiety.
A perhaps greater share of the blame goes to those most vociferously doing the cancelling. Some simply chomp too readily at bait, but many are worryingly censorious and absolutist; too ready to cry ‘cancel’ for behaviour they don’t completely agree with. They too want to be heard, they too increase – and indeed justify – the anxiety.
It’s an issue that worries a lot of people. Matthew McConaughey recently said that the world needs liberals, not the “illiberals” who are doing more harm than good with their uncompromising stances. Even Barack Obama took a swipe at “wokeness” and “callout culture” last year, calling out the caller-outers for being too judgemental.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke… you should get over that quickly,” he said at a talk on youth activism at the 2019 Obama Foundation summit. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids.”
Maryhan Baker thinks that people’s overly-censorious reactions could even stretch to an element of subconscious self-loathing.
“Freud talks about this idea of projection,” she says. “His argument would be that we often criticise qualities in other people that we don’t specifically like about ourselves. So we’re triggered by aspects of people’s behaviour that we see in ourselves.
“And a lot of that is, ‘there by the grace of God go I’. I could have very easily been that person that put my foot in it. Let’s point the finger, let’s deflect from me.”
So what are the solutions to the problem? Assuming the professionally cancelled and fervent cancellers aren’t going to be quiet, anyone wanting to get a dark secret off their chest or even just air an opinion that they think might not be airtight faces a tough call. The consequences of getting that call wrong could be dire, professionally and socially.
While Baker believes that honesty is important, she says we should proceed with caution.
“In some ways, you want to just dip your toes in to test the water,” she says. “If we get to that point where we feel, actually, if I say something to someone I know, I’m worried about the judgment, then speak to a professional. But actually, I would say the best place to be open and to voice those things would be with close friends, because they know you and that there isn’t that shame, but a lot of it depends on how you perceive it.”
Judgement isn’t new – people being ‘cancelled’ isn’t new – but where it now lives (i.e. the internet) cranks its effects up to 11 and makes it almost impossible to avoid. The internet is a place where people pretend to go for civilised debate but actually go to find a) people that agree with them, b) people who don’t and c) animal videos.
It’s rarely a ‘safe space’ for anyone, not least because the people who live in this glass house joyously lob stones without hesitation. We are none of us perfect and yet neither are we shy of slinging increasingly intransigent verdicts on others.
“I think we need to look deeper than we actually do,” says Newey. “Until you’ve actually really put yourself in that person’s shoes, you can’t empathise.”
Nick Cave said of cancel culture in August: “Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) – moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.”
I’m atheist but I like to borrow the better bits from religion. Perhaps we could all benefit from showing more ‘Christian forgiveness’ and giving people a shot at redemption. We could certainly gain from being more civilised and less supercilious in debate. This is probably wishful thinking, though.
Perhaps, in order to grow, we simply need to switch off.