“Cancel culture” is the latest internet term to creep into mainstream discourse and become so overused that it loses all meaning. Thanks to JK Rowling and 149 other celebrities, everyone has something to say about this supposedly new phenomenon. Is it a sign that free speech is dead? Is it a perfectly just system for holding people accountable? A right wing dog whistle? Does it even exist at all?
As someone who has been critical of cancel culture for a very long time now, I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with the current discourse surrounding it. The open letter mentioned above demonstrates a shocking lack of understanding of what cancel culture really is, and who is most victimized by it.
What’s happening to JK Rowling right now is absolutely not an example of cancel culture.
Let’s talk about why.
WHAT IS CANCEL CULTURE?
“Cancelling” is a type of public shaming typically done by progressives on the internet. It is most often used as a way to bring justice to powerful people when they do harm to marginalized communities.
Anyone who’s spent a lot of time on Twitter or Tumblr knows what cancelling looks like: a public figure is outed as a bigot, everyone rushes to pile on them, with many people chiming in on their own takes on why said public figure is awful. Word then spreads until everyone with an internet connection knows why this person is bad. Cancelling doesn’t always work exactly like this, but more often than not, this is the pattern it follows.
“Cancel culture,” previously known as “callout culture,” is a term used to criticize the use of this tactic in online spaces. The term has recently been adopted by the centre and right as a way to discredit left wing activism, but it was originally used by progressives disillusioned with the state of online discourse.
The initial argument against cancel culture was that it was turning activism into performance. People were actively trying to dig up dirt on public figures, or even on their own peers (more on that later), simply for the fun of publicly outing them as bad people. Leftist activism was becoming a game of “who can come up with the most creative insult against this person?” or “who can dig up the most offensive thing this person has ever said?” Calling people out brought you likes, and retweets (or reblogs), and followers, and clout. It positioned you as an ally to marginalized people. It meant that you were able to recognize sexism, and racism, and homophobia, and transphobia, and ableism, and if you can recognize those things, then surely that means you’re immune from actually engaging in them. Right?
Essentially, the two arguments against cancel culture were 1) that it was ineffective at combating discrimination or advancing leftist ideas, and 2) that the people engaging in it weren’t necessarily doing it out of a genuine desire to help marginalized people, but rather out of a desire to be perceived as a good person.
While both of these things can definitely be true of public shaming campaigns, it’s disingenuous to claim – as JK Rowling seems to be claiming – that it’s always the case.
BUT DOES CANCELLING WORK?
Whether or not you think cancelling works depends a lot on what you perceive to be the goal of cancel culture.
Cancel culture isn’t usually effective at changing people’s minds about progressive politics. People are proud, and more often than not, being publicly shamed for your ideas makes you want to double down and defend yourself.
But the important thing to keep in mind when talking about cancelling is that changing people’s minds isn’t really the goal. The goal is to shame and deplatform problematic people until they leave public life.
So, is cancelling effective at doing that?
Well, it depends.
The general rule about cancelling is that it works better the less powerful the target is. The more common and more insidious forms of cancelling are not directed at public figures, but rather at people without a lot of power or influence. Often, these people are marginalized in some way and are being expelled from the communities they rely on for support. For a comprehensive explanation of how this works, I’d highly recommend checking out Natalie Wynn’s video Canceling.
These are the real victims of cancel culture. Public figures like JK Rowling absolutely do not fall into this category.
If that open letter was right about how cancel culture works, JK Rowling would not have just released a wildly transphobic book. Ben Shapiro would not have 3 Million Twitter followers. Almost every popular YA author would have lost their publishing contract, and a lot of famous actors would have been fired. I’m not going to pass judgement on the effect public shaming might have on a famous person’s mental health – I’m sure it’s a difficult thing to go through – but if you still have a career, a platform, and a supportive community around you, you haven’t really been cancelled.
SO, HAS JK ROWLING BEEN CANCELLED?
The short answer? No.
As I said, JK Rowling is going to be fine. She has money, she has a much bigger platform than most of us could ever dream of, and she has a massive support system. Her career has not been ruined. She has not been cancelled.
I’m not going to pretend that everyone who’s dunking on JK Rowling right now has good intentions – I know that’s definitely not true – but this is absolutely not an example of the performative, disingenuous activism characterized by cancel culture. People aren’t digging up her old social media posts to tear her down. They’re not twisting her words. They’re not creating drama for drama’s sake. What people are doing is debunking the outright lies she has been disseminating on her blog and on her Twitter account.
Let’s be clear about this: JK Rowling is using an absolutely massive platform to spread dangerous misinformation about one of the most marginalized groups of people in the world, to an audience that, for the most part, isn’t particularly well educated on the topic. Ignoring her just allows her to keep telling those lies uncontested. This is a situation where we all have a responsibility to counter her erroneous and dangerous claims with facts.
I think cancel culture is bad, and I try very hard to avoid participating in it, but not all public shaming campaigns are created equal. I have no qualms about participating in this one. If you feel the same way as I do about cancel culture, please do not feel like you need to refrain from calling out JK Rowling. You really, really don’t.
This is not a case of cancel culture going too far. Don’t treat it like one.