J.K. Rowling is not the first celebrity to decry ‘cancel culture’ and she will not be the last, so it’s important to understand what ‘cancel culture’ is and what’s wrong with it. After all, a conversation is useless if it’s not an informed one.
‘Cancel culture’ refers to the internet trend of attempting to ‘cancel’ people through boycotting their work, calling them out online and asking their employers to fire them. This process is usually started by a celebrity saying something considered offensive, or by a celebrity’s past conduct or comments being dragged up and labelled as offensive.
The argument against ‘cancel culture’ is that it ruins lives. Except it doesn’t. When Kevin Hart lost the chance to host the 2019 Oscars after homophobic jokes he’d made in the past were dredged up his career was not over. He is still a beloved comedian and actor to many people, his last released film Jumanji: The Next Level raked in nearly $800 million at the Box Office. The timeline of the scandal itself actually revealed a great deal about how ‘cancel’ culture’ works. Having made jokes that reinforced harmful stereotypes about the LGBT+ community before and after his initial success, Kevin Hart stated in an interview that he would not repeat such jokes because people were more “sensitive” in modern times. This statement revealed more about the comic than it did about his audience. Homophobia has always been wrong, and his inability to understand that led to him rationalising the decline in such humour with the idea that political correctness had taken over. The star also initially refused to apologise when people called for him to step down from the Oscars job, before realising that such a refusal was ill-advised and eventually stepping down from the role voluntarily.
This is one side of ‘cancel culture’. Obviously as social attitudes change, things that may once have been considered acceptable are now seen as offensive. The issue is how celebrities handle being held accountable for remarks made in the past. Many people forget that just because society saw it as acceptable, it didn’t make it right. Homophobia and racism were just as disgusting when they were mainstream as they are now, the difference is that, as a society, we’ve acknowledged that. With every new generation we come closer to accepting people for who they are. Cheap derogatory remarks made in the past to sell your brand do not make you an inherently bad person, but an apology is still owed, and an acknowledgement that you were and continue to be imperfect, that you learn as you go through life, is still due.
The other side of ‘cancel culture’ is a more boundless type. While there may be more celebrities than any one person could name, and the record of problematic comments may be vast, it is finite. The potential for celebrities on social media to make an arse of themselves is, unfortunately, endless. When J.K. Rowling decided to throw her lot in with TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), she demonstrated the immediate form of ‘cancel culture’, where people are held accountable for things they say, as they say them. She may believe that in defending her remarks, she is standing up for free speech against the wave of PC censorship, but she is mistaken. Despite what we may instinctively want to do, we cannot lock people up just for what they say. The criticism of her remarks and subsequent fall from grace for the author in many circles is not an example of censorship. It is an example of debate and accountability. Her remarks were detrimental to the struggle for trans rights, and many fans decided she no longer deserved their admiration. Rowling is notably still a free woman, who is not followed by a police officer waiting to arrest her the moment she utters a ‘wrong’ sentence. However, she has expressed transphobic sentiments, and seems to take issue with the fact that other people took issue with her remarks. She may be less popular than she used to be, however she still has a substantially larger platform and vastly more wealth than countless people who have not sought to degrade trans people.
‘Cancel culture’ should be reserved for celebrities. They should be held accountable for what they say and do to a greater degree than a regular person, because they have more power, a larger platform and the greater responsibility to be a force for good than most. As children we idolise celebrities, as adults we admire them and listen to what they say. When your grandmother says she isn’t ‘comfortable with gays’, what she says is still offensive and harmful to those around her, but most of our grannies don’t have followings larger than some countries. You should of course call out individuals for bigotry, and not blindly give them your respect as they are not automatically entitled to it. In the same way, celebrities are not automatically entitled to the benefits of fame and wealth, the greatest punishment they may face for being ‘offensive’ is to become one of the common folk again, how terrible!
There is unfortunately a downside to the increased willingness of people to call out prejudice. When you dox a regular person for being a racist, sexist, transphobe etc. and lose them their job and friends, that is not justice. That is mob rule. Thankfully, potential victims of this sort of pile-on are, by their nature, not famous, which makes instances where the response is truly disproportionate rather infrequent. Although no less ridiculous.
In summary, ‘cancel culture’ is not really a culture of cancelling people. In practice it is more a culture of temporarily not lavishing famous people with praise for saying something stupid things. We shouldn’t dox normal people for being offensive (attending a white nationalist rally is of course a different matter), and finally, celebrities are not exempt from the basic human decency that the rest of us are expected to display.
David Lam is 21 and from Carrickfergus. He is studying Law at Dundee University and wants to get involved in local community activism after he graduates.