CANCEL Culture is a somewhat newfangled idea that relates to calling out public personalities (such as celebrities, socialites, artists, politicians, etc.) who have shared controversial opinions or have made particularly obtuse or unfortunate mistakes in some aspect of their lives. While I must say that I am generally against online trolling and shaming and that I cannot wholeheartedly support all aspects of cancel culture because there does not seem to be any opportunity for growth and redemption, it is difficult to ignore the importance of highlighting the errors in logic, the prejudice, or other disgraceful elements that are espoused by people with huge followings and influence in the world. With this in mind, I still believe that it might be interesting to view cancel culture as a route through which we can learn a lot about a society, based on the public opinions of personas and works that have been cancelled.
To better illustrate my point, let us use the very recent example of the Editor in Chief of ‘Bon Appetit’ magazine, Adam Rapoport, who was accused of allegedly donning brownface. One of the members of the magazine’s YouTube channel, a Person Of Colour (POC) chef named Sohla El-Waylly, alleged that the POC employees of the channel were being paid less than the white employees. Subsequently, Rapoport was cancelled on social media, and Rapoport later stepped down as Editor in Chief. Now, I am using this example because the ‘Bon Appetit’ YouTube channel has a variety of videos that appeal to people, specifically now in the time of COVID-19, when lots of people are cooking, and they rack up millions of views. Lots of my friends in Guyana watch the videos on this channel. We can evaluate these incidents and conclude that Rapoport and ‘Bon Appetit’ needed to be called out.
The accusations against Rapoport and the channel were serious and the implications were dire, and they received backlash. The true value of the case, however, lies in how they were held accountable by the public, and how the case has become one with which the public can approach other media companies to measure or understand a company’s treatment of employees and employment standards. Hopefully, it will also lead to improvements in the company. Additionally, it is also a teachable moment, particularly when it comes to understanding complex subjects such as race in America. So, there is some value to be found in ‘cancel culture’ and it does not necessarily lie in enjoying the fall of an individual or organisation, but, rather, with everything else that is gained from the incident.
Another example with which to illustrate that there might be merit in aspects of cancel culture relates to J.K. Rowling, the author of the ‘Harry Potter’ series who has been accused of making allegedly transphobic remarks. This incident led to a backlash against the author on Twitter and she was, to use the parlance, ‘cancelled.’ In this instance, there was an interesting debate about how to respond to the work of the author while also addressing her comments. Obviously, the ‘Harry Potter’ books have been some of the best-loved and most widely read books of all time. Almost everyone I know has read and has been touched by those books in some way. So, what to make of a problematic author whose work is beloved? Some people advocated for the separation of the art and the author, suggesting that the work stands apart from the creator, while others have gone on to suggest that this is not possible and that the series and the writer go together. Taking a step back and observing the situation, I think that this case allows us to review Rowling as a person, while still allowing us to hold on to the aspects of her books that we value. Her ‘cancellation’ might definitely change how she is perceived by the fandom, but I don’t think that this applies to her work.
In the end, I guess that the main point here is that in some cases, there are people who might be deserving of vitriol online, but, more importantly, and more valuable to society as a whole, is the observation of the context in which someone has been cancelled and the lessons that can be gleaned from the cancellation. As outlined above, Rapoport was cancelled, but the true value of the whole ‘Bon Appetit’ incident is that it improves scrutiny of the way POC workers in the media are treated and emphasises that there is no tolerance for brownface, blackface, or anything similar. Rowling was cancelled, but we learned from that incident that, sometimes, it is possible and necessary to separate the art from the artist, and that the outpouring of support for trans-people online is indicative of growing acceptance of trans-people in the world. I think a reflection and analysis on all of the recent cases of people being cancelled (Alison Roman, Lana Del Rey, etc.) by social media will indicate that the context and reasons for their ‘cancellation’ can yield important insights into their specific fields, and, therefore, cancel culture, is much more useful as a tool with which to learn from and better societies, rather than as a tool to only shame or tear persons down, even in cases where they deserve it.