One term that has recently been dominating the political and academic debate is “cancel culture”. This phenomenon however is not novel, based on the Google Trends data, it has become increasingly more common on social media mainly since the beginning of 2020. As the world turns more online social media users pay greater attention to what is happening on the internet. But what does the term cancel culture exactly mean, and what does it mean to get cancelled? Has it gone too far? What are the consequences of this phenomenon?
A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
The notion of cancel culture does not have a shared definition. However, it can generally be characterized as a situation where an individual, likely a public figure, is being objectified on social media by something controversial or possibly offending they said or did a year, hour, or a minute ago. They become rejected and mocked for their wrongdoing. On the one hand, social media allows to hold those who are responsible, accountable for their actions. A great example would be the #metoo movement and the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein, who was righteously “cancelled” after numerous allegations of sexual harassment. However, on the other hand, public shaming and boycott can be misused, for instance, when the opinion of an individual does not fit into a political viewpoint of a particular group of people.
In response to the spreading events of misuse, at the beginning of July 2020, a group of 150 intellectuals from different backgrounds decided to send an open letter to Harper’s Magazine with the title, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Academics, writers, journalists and activists across differing ideological spectrums, including prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Anne Applebaum and Salman Rushdie, signed this letter, concerned about the significant weakening of free speech voice debate in favour of ideological conformity and the potential threat of censorship in society.
Many of those listed in the letter have themselves been victims of this phenomenon. The open letter also mentions journalists who have lost their jobs due to having a different socio-political viewpoint than most other people. Indeed, every single case of “cancelling someone” is individual and overly complex. However, public shaming and boycotting other people’s opinions can lead to offensive online behaviour and harm someone else’s reputation and career. More recently, the social movement has started to be present in academic life too.
CANCEL CULTURE ON UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES
Cancel Culture may have originated in the United States, but it now has also become a force of social change in Europe. As a recent report by the Policy Exchange thinktank, published in August 2020, concluded, UK universities face a rapid growth of threats concerning academic freedom. Professors and scientists are being uninvited from lectures and organized protests are disrupting the lectures that discuss sensitive social themes.
The same problem also occurred in Germany, where around 70 academics, mostly from German universities, have founded the “Network for Academic Freedom”. Their aim is to defend the freedom of research and stand against ideologically motivated restrictions.
Limiting the exchange of ideas, whether by a government or an intolerant society, must not be accepted. Freedom of expression is enshrined as a fundamental human right under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and must be preserved online and offline, as it is the very lifeblood of our liberal democracies. The famous Orwellian phrase goes: ,”If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’’.
George Orwell in some way predicted the future in his famous dystopian novel “1984”, which tells the story of Winston Smith, who worked as a history rewriter for the so-called Ministry of Truth. He was closely watched by “Big Brother’’ and the “Thought Police’’, who controlled everything people said. Even the critical thoughts of the individual were replaced by groupthink.
Yet a few decades later, the thought police bear a resemblance to the cancel culture that has “political correctness” at its core. Publicly shaming and boycotting people for their opinions or misconduct is not new; it has existed for centuries. However, this term has been developed specifically for the digital age and is growing in popularity. While the intentions may have started with legitimate criticism, as with the #metoo movement, one should know where the line should be drawn.
In addition to this, however, freedom of expression guaranteed by law comes with an implied responsibility for what is said or done with impunity. In December last year, the European Commission proposed a new legislation, the Digital Services Act (DSA), which will address hate speech online. Indeed, if we want to make social media a safer and equal space, preserving freedom of speech and avoiding censorship should be at the core of the proposed initiative. Vera Jourova, the Commissioner for values and transparency highlighted: “What is illegal offline remains illegal online’’.
The letter, signed by all the 150 intellectuals and prominent figures, addressed the open debate in the pluralistic society yet failed to mention the need to be held accountable for spreading hate speech on the internet. In conclusion, we are humans and we commit mistakes but taking something that a person said maybe even a long time ago out of context and then boycotting them should not be the adequate manner to engage with other’s opinions. As the famous philosopher Sir Roger Scruton once said: “Free speech is not the cause of the tensions that are growing around us, but the only possible solution to them.”