Words By Summer Kelly
Cancel culture is perhaps controversial, but not toxic. A system that allows marginalised communities to publicly assert their value systems, is not toxic. Instead, it is demonstrative of the toxic system we have – the toxicity here being that in many cases “cancelling” is the only way to shut down hate speech and has often been the only way for marginalized groups to be heard and finally be a part of the debate.
Much of cancel culture centres around being ‘called out’ for wrongdoing or boycotting brands or events that are inherently racist, sexist, homophobic or repugnant in any way. In 2016 Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith as well as others including actor George Clooney and “BlacKkKlansman” Director Spike Lee, boycotted the Oscars due to an appalling lack of diversity. The Men in Black star stated that it reflected a “regressive slide towards separatism and racial and religious exclusion”. This act of essentially ‘cancelling’ the Oscars arguably lead to change and 2019 saw the highest ever number of black nominees and six wins. In this sense, cancel culture’s effects didn’t necessarily lead to toxicity, but to social change and social justice, however that being said, the Oscars still has a long way to go before becoming fully representative.
Jada and Will Smith’s and other’s actions against the Oscars diversity issues helped to open the public’s eyes to the inequality inside Hollywood and helped encourage racial discussions within the world of film. Clearly, cancel culture doesn’t have to be negative or toxic, for the event, structure or individual that is being ‘called out’, calling someone out can be an act of service. In some cases, of course, we must be slower to cancel, particularly in the UK – we claim to be a liberal country, meaning we should be widening the floor for debate and not infringing freedom of speech. I think that cancel culture in terms of being ‘called out’ does open the floor; it educates and brings attention to issues that matter. Furthermore, the idea that cancel culture has victimised those being called out is a very controversial issue, Rachel Ricketts, founder of Spiritual Activism, a movement which promotes racial justice, reconciliation and healing, calls this “white centering” – a prioritization of white feelings above those of people of colour. Rachel suggests that often white people are fearful of cancel culture because of a fear of being called out and therefore demonise it, but this is arguably a good thing. Being called out happens because every person matters, every voice matters and allyship is a necessity, but change can only come through education and accountability for people’s words and actions.
However, in terms of educating companies and corporations, cancel culture has allowed for toxicity to brew, but this does not mean cancel culture itself has become toxic. It has become trendy since the birth of cancel culture for companies to punish an individual that has been called out. This may sound moralistic, but in fact, it can be an issue of “woke capitalism”. As Helen Lewis highlights; “those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures – solemn, monochrome social – media posts deploring racism and firing low-level employees who attract online fury[…] because they help preserve the power.” Without sincerity behind these actions, it can appear that capitalism has taken hold of the activist’s words and intentions, made them hollow and sold them back. This, of course, leads to a mistrust in cancel culture and its effects, but considering again the people that cancel culture has given a platform to, to consider cancel culture ‘too much’ or toxic is perhaps a misunderstanding of its true purpose. The only toxicity here is that of capitalist greed. Cancel culture has allowed for transparency and accountability to increase within companies, particularly due to high profile cases, such as those of convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein and the wider ‘Me Too’ movement.
Cancel culture is a system that brings knowledge, awareness and accountability and has furthered social justice. It has helped to create safer spaces for people such as women, the LGBTQ+ community and people of colour who for far too long, have not had a place to speak about injustices and now can. The aggressive approach of cancel culture has helped to breed sincerity, thanks to the education that ‘calling out’ evokes. All too often people in the public eye are caught uttering racial slurs, being homophobic or misogynistic and offer weak responses and apologies in order to not lose deals or a fan base, without caring for their fans value systems. Cancel culture has brought about apologies that acknowledge structural discrimination and a commitment to unlearning their abhorrent views. Cancel culture isn’t some form of toxic mob mentality, but an overdue way of speaking the truth.