Beyond Borders is TEDxLondon’s exploration of different topics and ideas that inspire and intrigue us. In this edition, we ask: is ‘cancel culture’ cancelling free speech?

It’s rare in 2020 to log onto Twitter without seeing the name of a celebrity trending. Usually, there are three conclusions: the person has died, they’ve done something adorable or admirable enough to win over the Internet, or they have been cancelled. 

If the media is to be believed, we are living through the era of ‘cancel culture’ – an online practice of calling out public figures for objectionable, offensive or dangerous behaviour and/or opinions. The term is widely understood to have come from Black Twitter, the loose networks of Black users active on the site, before graduating into mainstream public consciousness in recent months.

This process is as painful as it is necessary, as exhausting as it is exhilarating. But in order to be truly worthwhile, it needs to lead to lasting transformation across individuals, businesses, systems and societies. Whether it’s meeting our urgent climate goals, imagining a better future for refugees, demanding racial justice or securing essential rights for LGBTQIA people, we need to shift our focus from short-term gains to long-term change.

In practice, cancellation signals a cultural boycott, says Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of digital media and race, gender and sexuality. “It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, or give money to. People talk about the attention economy — when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.” Nakamura believes that cancel culture is a way for many people to regain a sense of control on platforms which are notoriously poorly regulated, and on which many groups are subject to sustained abuse. Instead of waiting for Twitter or YouTube to remove an offensive message or account, fans can de-platform the offender themselves, usually accompanied by the hashtag #celebritynameisoverparty.

But the act of cancelling alone is not usually impactful enough to kick a politician out of office, cause them to lose a job, or create any significant consequences lasting longer than a few days. For celebrities in particular, cancel culture seems more akin to an enforced pause than a lifelong silencing. 

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
G.K. Chesterton

After multiple women accused him of sexual assault in 2017, it looked like comedian Louis C.K.’s career was over. Instead, after a short break, he re-emerged only months later with new material – including jokes based on those same accusations. Earlier this year, he sold out multiple shows on his comeback tour.

His is not an isolated case. While the nature of their ‘crimes’ may differ, famous figures from Taylor Swift to Scarlett Johansson to Kevin Hart have all been ‘cancelled’, only to continue to sell out tours and headline films. The few blacklisted exceptions tend to be those who have committed the kinds of crimes that cross ‘woke’ boundaries to elicit unanimous shock, disgust and even criminal charges.

The waters are muddied further by retrospective cancelling – when celebrities are shamed for public statements or behaviour from their past. A notable example of this was when James Gunn was fired as director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films in 2018, after fans discovered old tweets in which he joked about topics including rape and child abuse. However, even in this case the cancelling was short-lived: after pressure from the cast, Gunn was reinstated as director by Disney a few months later.

Is cancel culture the opposite of free speech?

While it may sound counter-intuitive, the first step in building resilience is to reject denial and surrender to the reality of the situation in front of you. Don’t feel you have to engage in what TED speaker Susan David calls the “tyranny of positivity”: instead, allow yourself to feel the full spectrum of your emotions, so you can face what comes next with honesty and courage

The cancel culture versus free speech debate has become a focal point for many public figures. Earlier this month, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter which argued that our culture is becoming increasingly intolerant of opposing views, stemming the free exchange of information and ideas. The letter had 153 signatories, many of whom were high-profile writers and academics, including Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling. The sentiments contained within the letter were echoed by journalist Bari Weiss in her recent resignation statement to the New York Times, in which she claimed that the paper’s writers had started self-censoring for fear of online backlash.

On the other side of the debate are those who say that the ‘cancel culture’ has turned into a catch-all for when powerful figures receive criticism or face consequences for their actions. In the light of the Harper’s letter, many pointed out that simply by being asked to sign their name, the signatories proved there was still a significant platform for their views to be shared.

Seyi Akiwowo speaks at TedxLondon Beyond Borders 2019

When does cancel culture become public shaming?

While many examples of cancel culture are ultimately harmless, history shows us that things can turn nasty very quickly. Figures such as Monica Lewinsky have been outspoken about online bullying and the life-long impact of public humiliation on a global scale. Lewinsky’s shaming, as she pointed out in her TED talk, was one of the first to be blown up by the digital revolution: “I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously”. In a post #MeToo world, Lewinsky’s story is a particularly harrowing example of victim shaming, in which we were all complicit.

TEDxLondon speaker Seyi Akiwowo was elected as the youngest Black female Councillor in London at the age of 23. After a speech she delivered at the European Parliament went viral, Seyi was subject to torrents of racist abuse on Twitter, which, for too long, went largely ignored by the platform. Now, Seyi is the Founder and Executive Director of Glitch, a not-for-profit organisation determined to end online abuse. Seyi explains how marginalised groups have learned to anticipate online hate speech before it happens, examining their words to see how they can be misconstrued. While she is not in favour of restricting freedom of speech, she wants us all to learn how to protect and advocate for each other online to make social media safer for all.

So, are there benefits to cancel culture? Yes, when it comes to standing together against hate. We need to stop treating all online criticism as part of the same sweeping movement to cancel out freedom of expression, and instead take meaningful steps to end online bullying, hold each other to account and be willing to learn from our mistakes – publicly, if necessary.

Cancel culture: a definition

As defined by Urban Dictionary: “Cancel culture is a social attitude that facilitates the unanimous agreement amongst multiple people that somebody is worthy of hate and slander due to controversial behaviors they have engaged in. Things like using racial or homophobic slurs, saying the n-word, and even offensive videos or tweets by you from several years in the past could lead to your cancellation.”

Cancelled during corona

L-R: Actor Evangeline Lily, Musician Bryan Adams, Musician Lana del Rey, Actor Vanessa Hudgens.

Further resources: Stay woke

Barack Obama calls out cancel culture

The history of the cancel culture debate

When online shaming goes too far

Everyone is cancelled

Elites are losing power in the social media age

Cancel culture is not about free speech

How to fix the glitch in our online communities | Seyi Akiwowo| TEDxLondon
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