An open letter signed by 150 writers, broadcasters, performers, academics and activists calls for open debate and the toleration of different viewpoints.
Gloria Steinheim, Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell – these are just a few of the signatories warning that ‘our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial’.
In a letter published in Harper’s Magazine, they applaud the protests taking place around the world for greater racial and social justice, agreeing that police reforms as well as ‘greater equality and inclusion…in higher education, journalism, philanthropy and the arts’ are long overdue.
But they warn that ‘this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity’.
This constriction of ideas, this ‘intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty’ plays out most publicly on social media. All you need to do is scroll through your Twitter feed for a recent example. And if your feed is anything like mine, you won’t need to scroll far.
The speed of retribution is another element that the signatories identify as dangerous:
‘…institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
‘Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
‘Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.’
Cancel culture, call-out culture, outrage culture…these are the phrases that describe the exchanges we’re seeing online. Social media is not conducive to context, complexity or deep conversation. It’s not where you go to listen and be heard. To learn something new.
We’re seeing people act as judge, jury and executioner when they encounter something they don’t agree with.
In a thought-provoking article, Vox explains cancel culture like this: ‘A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fuelled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person – that is, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from an employer.’
The article says the idea of cancelling someone has its roots in a misogynistic joke in the 1991 film New Jack City which was then referenced in a Lil Wayne song in 2010. It appeared again in 2014 on a VH1 reality tv show when Cisco Rosado told his girlfriend she was ‘cancelled’ during a fight. And the phrase took hold, Vox says, on Black Twitter.
Anita Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America for the University of California Santa Barbara told Vox that ’the concept of being canceled is not new to black culture’, rather it’s more like a boycott of a person rather than a business. It’s an empowering action in her mind…If you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate.’
But as cancel culture has been adopted by the wider society, the pertinent question that Vox asks is, ‘Is cancel culture an important tool of social justice or a new form of merciless mob intimidation?’
The signatories argue that this cancel culture is more damaging for those in the minority than it is for those in positions of power.
‘The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.’
As they end the letter, they say: ‘As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.’
The BBC reports that the letter has not been received favourably from all corners. Emily VanDerWerff, a trans woman and Vox critic, said the fact that co-founder of Vox Matthew Yglesias signed the letter made her feel less safe at Vox. And at least one signatory, Jennifer Finney Boylan, a US author and transgender activist has recanted.
She said on Twitter: ‘I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.’