Since the rise of social media, but especially in these past few months, the idea of cancel culture has been brought to light. With the tense political atmosphere in Canada, the United States, and the rest of the world, people are quick to cancel – that is, to withdraw their support for – people, specifically celebrities and public figures, once their problematic behaviour is outed. One such example would be the cancelling of Lea Michele, made famous by her role of Rachel Berry on Glee, when multiple coworkers of hers revealed her lack of respect for the rest of the cast and crew.
Many people have spoken out against this and have instead suggested that we ‘cancel cancel culture.’ There are multiple different reasons provided as backing for this argument. A common argument is that cancel culture delivers swift retribution on the accused and does not allow room for personal growth and betterment. In some ways, this is true. There are instances where situations from years ago are revealed and the person responsible for this action is immediately cancelled, even if they have shown growth from the year of the incident to when it was made public. The problem then lies within the sincerity of accused; if their apology is true, if they attempted to make reparations for their actions outside of the social media verse, if their allyship is real or performative.
On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine released A Letter on Justice and Open Debate which will be appearing in the magazine’s October issue. It has 150 signatures; there are university professors from Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia, newspaper columnists and journalists from the Huffington Post to the New York Times, and famous household names, such as Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky and J.K. Rowling. The letter, while applauding this “needed reckoning,” condemns it at the same time for its apparent restriction on free speech and ability to debate. The letter states that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” It continues by asserting that those who signed the letter “refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other” and “need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
As tweeted by journalist Osita Nwanevu, “it’s hard to take claims like this serious, especially when it’s plain that people are complaining about an unprecedentedly free and open speech environment.” With this letter, we must focus on differentiating what we consider to be free speech and what is actually a threat to someone’s identity. This is an extremely important distinction, especially when we look at the people who signed the letter, as a number of signatories have been called out for their takes on topical issues – J.K. Rowling, a primary example.
In June 2020, J.K. Rowling once again brought her transphobia to the forefront of social media. Starting with a thread of tweets and continuing with an essay, Rowling shares her belief that transgender people are confused about their gender, transgender women are not actual women, and the existence of transgender people is threat to homosexuality. This is not the first time Rowling has shared these views and she refuses to apologize for what she says, arguing that she is correct in her way of thinking. This ‘opinion’ she holds is a prime example of ‘free speech’ that is harmful and threatening to an already marginalized group of people; thus, her stance can no longer be considered as an idea as the Harper’s Magazine Letter suggests. Her so-called cancellation was not a result of snap judgement or a reckless need for social justice, but was years coming and, to many, well deserved.
In fact, some signatories, such as author and transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, apologized within hours of the letter’s publication once they realized who else had signed the letter.
Should we denounce cancel culture? And if so, did these signatories fight for the right reasons? You can read the entire letter at the Harper’s Magazine website and decide.