Head-to-Head: Has Reactionary ‘Cancel Culture’ Gotten Out of Hand?

Should we boycott public figures when evidence is found of controversial behaviours and views? Michael O’ Dwyer Connolly argues that we should not, followed by Adam Lawler’s rebuttal, with Adam Lawler’s argument following that with a rebuttal from Michael O’ Dwyer Connolly.

 

FOR

Michael O’ Dwyer Connolly argues that cancel culture is a dangerous new form of censorship which only serves to make controversial views more attractive. 

The recent phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’ is a dangerous, counterproductive trend, and a misfiring weapon in our arsenal of ways to deal with controversial public figures. It is both self-righteous and dangerously authoritarian. This phenomenon would appear to be a product of the increasingly divided and radicalised times in which we live, where influential groups, more often than not on the far left, feel that they have the right to shut down debate and ruin the careers of people they deem too disagreeable or controversial.

Advocates of ‘cancel culture’ and no-platforming generally argue that it should be applied to those who are extremely bigoted, hateful, and/or criminal in some manner, however it is difficult to ascertain what constitutes bigoted and hateful (as that is often subjective) and whether they are in fact guilty of any crime. We have seen numerous examples in recent years where anyone can be accused of a crime – often without evidence, and the jury of public opinion and social media will attempt to ruin them before anything is proven.

In practice, however, ‘cancel culture’ is used against people who are in no way criminal and merely express views counter to the mainstream liberal ideology that dominates the corporate media and college campuses today. One prominent case is that of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a self-described ‘flamboyantly gay Jewish-Catholic,’ who regularly experienced protests by fanatical left-wing activists at his speaking events and had others cancelled due to pressure from these groups. On the historical front, this treatment was extended to the great writer, Oscar Wilde, who was persecuted and his works denigrated due to his sexual orientation being deemed disgusting and too controversial for the time.

Lately, this totalitarian treatment has been extended to renowned psychologist Jordan Peterson due to his views on Canadian legislation penalising those who refuse to use preferred gender pronouns, as well as his critiques of radical feminism and Marxism. Ironically, it is clear that attempts to silence and de-platform people result in increased publicity for them and, usually, increased popularity.

The best way to deal with those we find controversial is to let them speak, to allow their views to be heard far and wide. If their views are truly hateful and lacking in basis then they will not stand up to scrutiny and will almost certainly be exposed and derided (as evident with the British National Party). If not, then perhaps they actually have important points that are worth hearing and strike a chord with many people. Repressing ideas gives them a level of mystery, and not only do you increase the anger and radicalisation of the silenced, you inadvertently make their ideas more attractive.

To suggest that people need to be kept from hearing controversial ideas that they might find offensive is both patronising and unhealthy. It assumes that most people are easily taken in, and shows a distinct lack of faith in their ability to use reason and logic. It also has an extremely negative effect on the scientific community, who often find their research options are limited due to the perception that some subjects are off limits.

The very idea that people who we dislike should not be allowed a platform to express their views is regressive and tyrannical. It risks radicalising huge portions of the population who hold conservative views. Free speech is perhaps the most important aspect of our civilisation; it is the method by which we exchange ideas and compromise. If we cannot debate on the controversial issues of the day, we risk pushing people to desperation and, as often seen throughout history, violence and revolution.

 

REBUTTAL by Adam Lawler

Cancel culture is not exclusive to right-wing people with conservative values. It can target anyone, including fake allies on the left, and takes a uniformly uncompromising tact against anyone who displays these behaviours.

Discussion is an invaluable part of this process, but what happens when certain beliefs do not warrant discussion? If a person demonises a whole group of people and spreads what is clearly hate speech, are we obliged to hear them out? Furthermore, are we even obliged to educate them when it is clear from their existence in a world of easy access to infinite knowledge that they have remained wilfully ignorant?

We have gotten this far and let beliefs rooted in ignorance settle to the seafloor of public consciousness by “just letting them speak.” When white men are allowed access to a platform on which they police how people of colour should feel about racism, this is dangerous. There is no element of censorship when people like Milo Yiannopoulos have been given free reign for years. As you said, de-platforming does not function as a definitive solution when ‘canceled’ figures simply reappear in other forums. We are just growing more conscious of the kind of public figures we want to support.

 

AGAINST

Adam Lawler argues that public figures need to be taken to task to make inclusivity and intersectionality a part of our culture. 

‘Cancel culture’ is a relatively new phenomenon that sees large factions of people on social media declaring their intention to boycott or ‘cancel’ the careers of public figures of whom evidence of bigoted behaviours and beliefs has been unearthed. This phenomenon has reached a new peak of fervour and influence, but I do not believe that it has gotten out of hand. I think it is a fledgling offshoot of activism that is still developing for reasons pertaining to the very nature of discourse.

It began as something purely reactionary, for entertainment value more than anything else, where celebrities who exhibited racism, sexism, transphobia, and more were declared ‘over’ by a small group of people. Back then it seemed borderline gleeful, but that was simply because the cases were black and white. The figures consistently showed signs of bigoted behaviour and no remorse for their actions. It was easy to pledge to avoid someone who was universally considered problematic, and this initially took the form of hashtags. When rapper Azealia Banks went on a racist tirade against Zayn Malik, the hashtag #AzealiaBanksIsOverParty was popular, and this particular mode of boycotting proved effective (Banks was suspended from social media and dropped from many festival appearances).

The conversation has gradually developed to the point where opposing factions row over who deserves to be boycotted, whether numerous microagressions equal one act of overt bigotry, and what exactly it would take for a public figure to redeem themselves. The case of Emma Watson is the most immediately satisfying example; as a prominent advocate for feminism who helped launch the #HeForShe campaign, Watson was often labeled a white feminist for not factoring race into her view of gender equality. Instead of reacting in the defensive manner common of white people confronted with this label, Watson delivered an introspective response which showed that she had taken a step back to consider how she “upholds a system that is structurally racist,” how she can make it a teachable moment, and progress with a mindset of inclusivity.

On the other end of the scale there is lauded author and outspoken feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was criticised last March for suggesting that trans women are not “real women.” Instead of considering that the outraged majority may have a valid point, she closed off, and her retort that the backlash was due to the “language orthodoxy” of the left was disappointing to say the least.

Even Azealia Banks has proven to be more receptive to criticism. Since being shut out of the public consciousness she has apologised numerous times, and frequently calls out racism as well as the misogyny evident in the demonisation of black women for the same behaviours for which black men are lauded. This relative self-awareness would not have been possible had she not been taken to task by the public and forced to consider her harmful behaviours.

We have reached a point where internet discourse can make a real difference. The outcry of hundreds of thousands can make a tangible impact on the careers of bigots and abusers, and this is why cancel culture originally came about, as an attempt to give voice and a semblance of power to those who felt that too many public figures faced no accountability for their actions. That the arguments surrounding who should be canceled and why have grown more nuanced makes sense and runs in parallel with the development of discourse on social issues in general. I think we only need to wait until the kinks of this new mode are worked out and we will have an effective new form of activism that sends the message that the public will not tolerate certain behaviours.

 

REBUTTAL by Michael O’ Dwyer Connolly

If anything, it has only been made clearer that this ‘cancel culture’ phenomenon is unstable. To trust social media as censors of debate, and to give them the power to destroy people’s careers based on mere assumption is one of the worst and most dangerous trends of the day. The online example is only half of the story, however; ‘cancel culture’ has been even more damaging in silencing speakers on campuses with actual violence.

To attack and silence famous individuals, or anyone for that matter, based on spurious accusations of ‘microaggressions’ and eminently subjective standards of bigotry is demented. For example, who is to say that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is wrong? She merely voiced an opinion on a subject that is still widely under debate, only to be viciously and personally attacked online for it instead of her argument being dissected and discussed.

This demonstrates that the people behind ‘cancel culture’ are simply blind ideologues. These are the last people who should have a say on which opinions should or should not be permitted, as they demonstrate minimal insight along with abundant authoritarianism. Public figures should face accountability; too many get away with what any ordinary person would be crucified for. However, it should not come in the form of endless legions of online ideologues with a penchant for threats and personal attacks.