Why are those with power opposed to ‘cancel culture’?

The democratising voice of social media is being felt

Tech and the online world
By Parent Zone ·
image: freshidea/stock.adobe.com

Josh (not his real name)

Young author

“Being ‘cancelled’ is not the same as being silenced”

My feelings on cancel culture are mixed. I’ve seen people claim that it doesn’t really exist, but I don’t think that’s quite true: the phrase is used as a catch-all term to describe many different things. It’s important to distinguish between ‘deplatforming’ and ‘cancel culture’, for example – the former removes opportunities for the affected person to broadcast their views, whereas the latter simply ignores them. Being ‘cancelled’ by people on social media doesn’t automatically mean you have been silenced – merely that you aren’t being given the attention you’re used to.

There’s a common refrain that ‘cancel culture’ is just another way to say ‘consequences’. And to an extent, I think that’s right – it’s just that consequences have never been inflicted by so many upon so few. Social media democratises important conversations about race, gender and class; it allows anyone to chime in at any time on any subject, as long as they follow the rules of the platform (if any exist). Often, this means many kinds of people who have been silenced in our history finally have a chance to say how they honestly feel. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for an underdog story, but this feels a lot like the beginnings of justice.

Now, writers, thinkers and artists used to such conversations being a more exclusive affair feel the cold wind of public opinion more keenly. People act on their opinions: at the ballot box, in the shops, and, now, on their keyboards. Broadcasting your opinion to the world is an implicit invitation for a response, but many public figures haven’t counted on the fact that what is to them an intellectual exercise is a matter of life and death to others. Words have power, and ideas can kill. These things are serious, and organised online responses such as ‘cancellation’ simply don’t match up in terms of severity – particularly in cases where those affected still have money, power, and other platforms through which to exercise their free speech. Which is far more than can be said for the vast majority of their critics.

But that’s not to say I have no qualms about cancel culture whatsoever. Boycotts, petitions and collective action have been around for centuries, but the tools to instigate them are new. Nevertheless, the effects of social media are already well-documented: it shortens our attention spans, polarises debate, and rewards us with dopamine in a manner similar to gambling and hard drugs. These effects are not accidents. They are built deliberately into the platforms we use, designed to squeeze more attention out of us and maximise profits for the companies that operate them.

This is why my feelings about cancel culture are mixed. On the one hand, I strongly believe that historically marginalised groups have a right to organise and exercise collective power. But if the tools of organisation lead to impaired judgement and encourage conflict, it makes sense to look for new ones.

Debates around cancel culture almost always start and finish with valuations of free speech. These are often quite impassioned, and even angry. I really don’t see the point in them. Free speech absolutism makes no sense when you consider the many strictures we happily abide by: I never hear the people who defend the free speech of Daily Mail columnists also saying it should be legal to hang up posters depicting graphic porn outside primary schools, or scream “bomb” in an airport. Both have consequences, and no one cries censorship when they arrive.

My worry is that we are being too easily distracted. Cancel culture is only one part of a culture war we are being encouraged to wage upon one another for the sake of profit. Malcolm X once said, “the white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice”. Clearly, he was right. There’s very little value in defending the symbol of free speech rather than really engaging with the reasons why cancel culture is gaining momentum – and why those with power are so opposed to it.