n July 7th, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by, among others, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling entitled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. The letter essentially calls for an end to the much bemoaned “cancel culture” that celebrities have become subject to in recent years. The letter comes at a time of social upheaval and general increased distaste for rhetoric seen as intolerant or ignorant. Indeed, this is not the first we’ve heard of complaints about public shaming—every few months it seems someone feels the need to complain about how the fear of public outcry is supposedly damaging to free discourse. The Harper’s letter itself states that “[t]he free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” If this letter was one’s only source of information regarding public debate in 2020, one would be forgiven in assuming that the world had become an oppressive dystopian regime in the vein of 1984’s Oceania. This is what some celebrities— and those on the wrong side of history— would have us believe.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we have seen just how oblivious and intolerant the world’s elite are when it comes to the struggles of the average person. Despite this, the Harper’s letter makes the statement that “[w]e need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” This is a common refrain of the “anti-cancel culture” movement—"sure, our opinions may be harmful to vast groups of already-marginalized people, but we shouldn’t be losing our income over it! It’s just an opinion!” It’s an amplified, more palatable version of racist high school students being devastated when their college acceptances are revoked after their bigotry comes to light. The sad truth, though, is that those same people—many of whom are white, socioeconomically-secure, and privileged—will likely never have to do any real reckoning with themselves about why they felt comfortable dehumanizing groups of people. We’ve seen this with abusers who receive lenient sentences even with the general public watching and calling for justice (see: Brock Turner, R. Kelly, 6ix9ine, and Derek Chauvin, among others). Sure, the uproar may be considerable in this present moment, but how dire will the consequences of their actions be in a year, or five, or ten? How much will they have learned about how their actions hurt others? The truth is that there is very little systemic accountability being divvied out to those who need to educate themselves most.
As a member of the public, it has been interesting, exhausting, and disappointing to watch these events unfold and see just how short our collective memory is for ignorance and the dissemination of harmful rhetoric. Beginning with the tone-deaf “Imagine” cover initiated by Gal Gadot and hastily followed by the #ITakeResponsibility movement in support of Black Lives Matter that centered white celebrities, it seems that the public has had to check celebrity ignorance more often than usual over the past few months. YouTubers Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and Jenna Marbles—all creators with massive online platforms and followings— were called out for creating racist content, J.K. Rowling’s Twitter transphobia continued to thrive, and Nick Cannon’s recent anti-Semitic tirade earned him a firing from a show that he created. The Harper’s letter states that “[t]he restriction of debate… [by] an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” The word “intolerance” here is used as a callback: it’s meant to make you picture Klan members in full garb, or religious bakers turning gay couples away. It’s meant to tug at your heartstrings, make you reconsider why you’re being so damn harsh. But what this statement gets wrong—besides literally everything—is that those who lack power are the ones finally being given a chance to call out the intolerance that once went unchecked. Social media has globalized and revolutionized our access to information. Oppressed groups have come together to build communities, organize and rally around causes that matter, and make themselves heard. So it is ironic when an unjustifiably wealthy and powerful elite makes the point that they are in fact the ones being persecuted, when in reality, they are finally being held accountable for the violent systems that they uphold.
Accountability feels like oppression if you’ve never had to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. This is what we are seeing with regard to the tantrums that people throw about being denied “free speech:” the Harper’s letter itself references that “…the result [of cancel culture] has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.” But fear of being held accountable is not the same as having your free speech repressed. This statement in itself is telling of the obliviousness of the speaker to what real oppression and censure looks and feels like. What people who complain about this aspect of public debate are experiencing is, in reality, the fear of being called out for their ignorance. No one is creating laws that oppress free speech: what is finally happening is that people can now freely communicate with elites in a way that wasn’t possible before. Social media has opened a floodgate of information from all corners of the world and for those who do not want to do the work of learning, it can feel like an attack to have one’s words and actions examined in the cold light of day.
But, one might argue, this is the price of fame—a platform brings with it the responsibility to educate oneself and constantly be aware of the fact that people watch and learn from you. That in itself should inspire critical thinking and a long process of seeking out information before making use of the following that one has. Indeed, anyone in the public eye must take it upon themselves to understand the full weight of their words and opinions and how they can affect marginalized groups in particular. It should not come as a shock to someone with legions of fans when they are scrutinized for reinforcing the systems of racism, misogyny, classism and capitalism that we live under. These systems are pernicious and engrained and cause the abuse and death of countless people every day. It should be the bare minimum to take stock of past, present and future behavior and work to dismantle that system using the platform one is afforded.
Furthermore, what is often decried ad “cancel culture” is simply individuals choosing to boycott a celebrity and no longer partake in the content that individual provides or is associated with. Again, to those who have built an empire of wealth off of the average person contributing financially to their platform, this feels like they are being denied their livelihood. But think about it—is it not our right as consumers to decide how we choose to spend our money? And if we decide that our hard-earned dollars and cents will no longer fund the life and times of a known, unrepentant abuser or bigot, is that not our prerogative? Indeed, the phrase “cancel culture” itself puts the onus on the audience, rather than the subject of the discussion who is the cause of their own downfall.
To be clear, people can and should learn from their mistakes, and should be given ample opportunity to do so. Rapper Noname, who has started a book club to educate herself and her fans, or Cardi B, who has backpedaled on transphobic comments made in 2018 and now professes to be an ally to the LGBT+ community, are examples of the fact that the public can and will make space for those who take full accountability for their harmful words or actions and actively strive to be better. However, conflating freedom of speech with the freedom to spew hate speech is a tactic used to instill fear of oppression in people who have never truly been oppressed. The Harper’s letter states that “justice and freedom… cannot exist without each other”… but the freedom spoken of in this context is the freedom to reinforce existing systems of power through willful ignorance and an unwillingness to be wrong and learn from it. And that is no freedom at all, because it further contributes to the feelings of exclusion and fear of harm experienced by those whom society has already chosen to sideline.