Idée Fixe 5: Cancel Culture

Do all opinions matter?

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I’m Toni Cowan-Brown and each week I share with you insights on the ideas in tech, politics, and pop culture that matter and dominate our minds. I’ve also now added a section on the latest in the F1 2020 season. And each month I dig into one specific idea that is particularly top of mind. 🧠


Idée Fixe #5: Cancel culture 💀

This month I wanted to talk about ‘cancel culture’. The idea of ‘cancel culture’ has been top of mind for a while now. I’ve attempted to write a piece on it a half dozen times and disliked every version I had for a variety of reasons:

  1. I’m still unsure exactly where I land on the whole topic.

  2. There has been an overwhelming amount of coverage on the topic in the past months.

  3. The concept has been used and abused, and often misused in my opinion.

  4. Most pieces on the topic lack nuance and context which at best is problematic, and at worst dangerous.

  5. It’s an ‘easy’ and very current way (to not say woke) of explaining something that has actually been around for a long time.

I have no desire to debate who was ‘canceled’, why they were ‘canceled’, and if they should have been canceled. Rather, I would like to make the case for creating spaces and opportunities where we can fail and learn from our mistakes.

🖐 Heads up part one is roughly 1,700 words. I’ve kept this idée Fixe succinct (or as succinct as possible), and added lots of links and stories for a further deeper dive. let me know if you like, or even prefer, this format.

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The origins of ‘Cancel’ Culture’

These days no matter where you look, elements of the ever-thriving ‘cancel culture’ rears its head. Everywhere you look; the news, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… we are faced with people ‘trying’ to cancel one another. Both known personalities and the unknown online goers.

“Celebrities are the easiest people to target, but the hardest people to actually cancel.” - Ross Douthat

The most noticeable shift with today’s ‘cancel culture’ is the speed at which it can be dished out and the reach of said cancellation, often magnified on social platforms

According to the Urban Dictionary, the activity around the term is at an all-time high in September of this year, the term has evolved from meaning doing something that is considered ‘bad’ (being racist, sexist, manipulative, etc.) to ‘rejecting an individual and an idea.’ It’s important to note that this often requires an attack on reputation, credibility, and employment.

On the one hand, it’s used as a tool for social justice (albeit a somewhat passive tool), and on the other, it has seemingly become a deterrent for honest and unscripted conversations. And when we aren’t canceling each other, we are debating whether it’s even a real concept, if it matters, and who it benefits...

The concept of ‘cancel culture’ refers to the social trend of ending (or attempting to end) an individual’s career or prominence to hold them to account for violating moral norms. It’s been noted that the predecessor of what we know today as ‘cancel culture’ is ‘call-out-culture’ which has its roots in the early days of Tumblr and arose with fandom blogs. Whereas ‘cancel culture’ may actually have its roots in the civil rights boycotts of the 50s and 60s. Thus, the two should probably not be used synonimously.

Many questions initially come to mind, specifically: who decides what these moral norms are? What happens when these norms evolve (because they always do and that’s a good thing)? How do we make sure everyone (across generations and continents) is aware that the norms have shifted? Who’s responsibility is it to policy these norms? What’s the punishment for straying from these moral standards?

👉 More reading on the topic:

A New Wave of Cancel Culture and further polarisation

With more or less everything now happening online, we face a growing paradox which is that we are simultaneously stuck inside filter bubbles and also exposed to every opinion possible and imaginable - you never have to look very far to find someone that agrees with you and someone that disagrees with you.

Neither of these is great for us. I’m not sure we are built to be exposed to so much content, information, and opinions, and we were certainly never taught how to deal with any of this.

There is a very valid fear that this ‘cancel culture’ will further divide an already polarised society. We aren’t simply polarised by our ideas, but now also on how to tackle our differences and failures.

👉 More reading on the topic:

An American Export No One Asked For

Whilst doing my research, I ended up down a Quillette rabbit hole and was very thankful to land on this piece about how America is exporting ‘cancel culture’ to the rest of the world. Up until this point, I had somehow forgotten to put this concept within a more global context.

If you ask anyone outside of the U.S about ‘cancel culture’ there is a fair chance they will have only a faint idea of what you are talking about or have only recently heard the term. Or they will immediately attach this concept to hate speech.

“This would have been unthinkable in the Netherlands a year ago. Over time, American influence has spread cancel culture here.” - Dr. Eric C. Hendriks

There is one big difference between the U.S and the rest of the world worth considering (apologies for lumping everyone else together, I’m really trying to keep this succinct) - and that is free speech.

Whereas Americans value the individual right to self-expression above all else - so highly actually that Americans tolerate ‘hate’ speech that might make some less equal or less than. Europeans, on the other hand, place greater value on the ‘democratic collective and process’, and our duty as citizens to participate fully - this is more important than our individual rights.

As such it is worth noting that it’s likely that most of the debates around ‘cancel culture’ are happening in the U.S. And if they are happening in Europe, they are mostly tied to hate speech.

👉 More reading on the topic:

Did we learn nothing from censorship?

Just like European history has shown us that censorship does more harm than good and ends up being disproportionately enforced against the very marginalized groups who had hoped to be protected, ‘cancel culture’ often ends up hurting these same minorities - women and racialized minorities.

In my above set of questions that come about when you start talking about ‘cancel culture’, I forgot to add a question about power, and who has it. Similarly, we often find ourselves asking who has the power to censor - which right now very much sits with the American (and Chinese) tech giants who are at the head of some of the largest social media platforms.

For example, as a woman working in tech and who wants to see this industry become more diverse, yet it scares me to see just how many more women, especially female founders, are scrutinized. In some way, we could argue that female founders are setting themselves up for failure as many look to create mission-driven companies with big goals and even higher standards. Leaving little to no room for error.

I would also point out that many women don’t benefit from the same networks that the men do and as such have to spend a lot of time building out their own personal brand to create awareness and credibility. This requires putting themselves out there even more so that their male counterparts. And with more of their personal lives, opinions, and beliefs are out there for all to see, there are more opportunities for ‘failure’.

👉 More reading on the topic:

An Opportunity To Learn From Our Mistakes and Grow

Today ‘cancel culture’ is used as a swift action to ‘makes things right’. It has become this symbol of accountability and offers a fairly straight-forward opportunity to move on. But does it really?

Merely calling out and canceling people and ideas we disagree with is akin to playing wack-a-mole and in the long term will prove to do little to no good. There are certainly no positive long-term benefits.

As President Obama put it, “The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws […] I think one danger I see among young people […] and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of “the way for me to make a change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people. And that’s enough.”

The more we talk, listen, and share. The more we replace hate and visceral reactions with understanding. The more we will learn to make the fundamental difference between honest mistakes (sometimes locked into the ‘archaic’ thinking of a certain time) and actual hate.

These so-called ‘teachable moments’ can only be that if we create an environment in which we allow each other to fail, learn, and grow whilst still being held accountable. We also need to start getting comfortable hearing uncomfortable things - either because they are ill-informed, old fashioned, incorrect… (again, not to be a mistake with hateful content).

As Buster Benson puts it, “I believe that unproductive disagreements is currently the greatest existential threat to our civilisation and future prosperity. If we can’t even get to the point of talking productively about our problems, it’s only a matter of time until they bring us down.”

Finally, Jameela Jamil said it best when she called herself a work in progress. This sentiment, for me, ties in nicely with the above thought behind President Obama’s statement about cancel culture. None of us are flawless and we have all said something that we would rather not repeat. We are all, both a work in progress and hopefully a more informed version of our past self. And with so much of what we do, recorded online, we are bound to be caught saying something less than ideal or ill-informed (again, not to be a mistake with hateful). 

It’s this initial fear that pushed me to delete over 20,000 old tweets of mine this year. And yet this same year I decided to embark on a whole new journey of turning unscripted conversations with one of my favourite people into an unedited podcast - Unapologetic Women.

There is value, real value in more speech, more dialogue, and more forgiveness. This is far more powerful than the short-term release provided by today’s ‘cancel culture’.

👉 More reading on the topic:


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