Cancel Culture: How Intrinsic is a Writer to their Work?

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Cancel culture within social media is gaining a huge amount of traction at the moment and it can seem pretty toxic. At its bare bones, the gist is someone with some sort of prominence or following says or does something problematic and the internet henceforth labels them ‘cancelled’. Basically, their power is being taken away, so that they no longer have the platform they once did to spread their problematic views and encourage them in others. They are now and forever to be known as an irredeemable baddy – supposedly.

Of course it is a very important thing to hold people in positions of power and influence accountable for their words and actions and I find it so amazing to see so many people using their platforms to call out bigoted and questionable views. However the idea that someone is irredeemable, sometimes from something as simple as a single tweet, troubles me. Obviously I am not saying that we should start (or I guess continue in quite a few cases) condoning any sort of immorality or prejudice; nevertheless I think it is important to give people second chances and provide them with the opportunity to repent and educate themselves.

But does cancel culture really have any sticking power anyway? Take for example that whole James Charles drama last year: he lost around one million subscribers from his YouTube channel in a matter of days, yet now he has over three million more than he had before the whole thing started. So what does this show us about cancel culture? Does it actually allow people space to redeem themselves and be forgiven? Or is it just a trend that people like to jump on, but wields no real power or effect over the people that are seemingly targeted. Is it something to be forgotten about, or at the very least glossed over, as soon as it’s not at the forefront of the news cycle?

We all know a certain author who shall not be named has been ‘cancelled’ recently after what I would describe to be a mass realisation (or perhaps even eventual acceptance of that realisation) of a pattern of transphobic behaviour.

I would just like to quickly point out here that in her essay response to the situation which she posted on her website, she categorised herself as being on her ‘fourth or fifth cancellation’ last December, so does this arguably dismissive attitude towards being ‘cancelled’ demonstrate a fickleness in the public’s assignations of the label, a lack of any real lasting effect on the ‘cancelled’ individuals, or is it simply arrogance?

To say her books were and are popular would be an understatement; her books were a huge part of people’s childhoods and lives, and her statements have led a lot of people to struggle with a conflict between their love of her stories and their disappointment in and disapproval of her views. This has brought the idea of separating a writer from their work to a focal point.

Now more than ever, people are starting to realise  the significance of helping underrepresented communities by supporting their businesses, artists and creators – just look at the amount of lists of books to read (or films to watch, or small businesses to support, or musicians to listen to) that have come from the Black Lives Matter movement, and not only ones with educational purposes (which obviously are really important), but just really good literature that deserves to be recognised for its merits and enjoyed. You are making a statement with pretty much anything that you buy (whether you realise it or not), be that books or a packet of biscuits; in making a purchase you are, in a way, tacitly supporting its producers and sellers. We need to be conscious of the things we surround ourselves with and where they come from. This is especially true for the literature we choose to read, because, while not always glaringly obvious, there can often be a lot of implicit ‘cancellable’ themes running through books that we need to make sure we are aware of. If we are buying books written by authors who we know to have close-minded or even hateful opinions then are we condoning their views and actions, or at least complicit in overlooking them? Surely it can be said that by providing them with royalties from our purchases we are enabling their problematic behaviour – adding to their platform by increasing their popularity. Maybe we should just ‘cancel’ them and take away that power; make sure that we aren’t contributing to the maintenance of an environment that allows them to be unchallenged in their thinking.

But is this ‘cancel culture’ really indicative of a new woke era, or is it just an example of the influence of social media – are people just being ‘cancelled’ because it’s popular to deem them so? Dickens, for example, is considered to be one of the ‘greats’ and is respected immensely as a writer. However the fact that he was a pretty proud and vocal racist is often overlooked and a lot of people don’t even realise it. There has been no mass of people worrying about whether or not they should read the work of a man who wanted the ‘extermination’ of Indians and to ‘strike that Oriental race’. Last month a Charles Dickens museum was hit with graffiti calling him racist, but I’ve not heard a single person talk about it or seen a single person post about it. We could take this as an example that a writer’s work isn’t necessarily a testament to their racism, or transphobia, or any other kind of bigotry, and hence shouldn’t be taken as such – it should be valued separately from its authors views for its own messages. Or we could take this as an example of ‘cancelling’ only being used when the media is telling us to – only when we are jumping on a bandwagon, rather than making our own minds up about something or someone. Maybe it’s not mass-social-media-backed ‘cancellation’ that’s important, but it is our responsibility to be aware of the ideologies of the creators of the things we read, or watch, or listen to and ‘cancel’ them from our own lives, perhaps as well to discuss our decision to do so with others to enable them to be aware and consider the possibility of doing the same.

Now, I don’t think that if an author’s ideology does not perfectly match your own, then they should be ‘cancelled’ and you should instantly dismiss any of their work of having any merit and think everything they have written has a hidden agenda trying to brainwash you, but if the likelihood is that there will be problematic undercurrents in their work (which is often the case if you have noticed close minded views coming from them outside of their books), then it is something you need to be aware of. This doesn’t mean you should just write off any and all books by these authors. Nobody’s perfect and if you were following that logic and looking hard enough for fault, you would have nothing left to read at all. My point is you need to be aware.

Be aware that there is a strong probability that their writing may be complicit in things you may be opposed to. And, yes, challenge those things if and when you come across them, because we should be using whatever platforms we have to hold people accountable for their actions and promote justice and equality and all that good stuff. And then it’s okay to read the rest of it. It is okay to enjoy a story for all of its good parts, even when there are things within it you disagree with, or you are opposed to the author’s ethics or politics, as long as you don’t just gloss over these things. Acknowledge the issues and talk about them. Do something about it.

Trying to just completely erase all of someone’s writing is never going to work. It is still going to be out there. Other people are still going to find it and read it and be influenced by it, and if we just say ‘nope, not reading that – they are bad’ then we are missing an opportunity to educate. By having discussions about what we find problematic and why, then it provides writers with the opportunity to recognise and own their mistakes (they may not always rise to the occasion there, but then the onus for that is on them), as well as creating a learning opportunity for others, who may have otherwise been misguided by the work or writer. Sometimes some people will be obstinately determined to stick to their way of thinking, even with all the information, but I think the key thing here is we need to normalize being able to change your opinion after you have educated yourself. This doesn’t mean anything people do doesn’t matter, because they can just say they changed their mind about it afterwards. Allowing room for growth and learning is not mutually exclusive from holding people accountable, and it does not equal automatic forgiveness.

It is inevitable that there’s always going to be some part of an author in their work, and as long as we are conscious of that and whatever implications that might have, then I don’t think there should be any guilt in appreciating the work independent of the author.

On 7th July a pretty controversial open letter signed by 150 public figures (including she who shan’t very named) was published in Harper’s Magazine denouncing ‘cancel culture’. It complains that “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.” Now call me crazy, but to me this just sounds a tad hypocritical. The letter seems to be a plea for the opportunity to say whatever they wish, without the risk of facing any consequences for it, hence denying everyone else the opportunity to even respond or react. I do agree when the letter says “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away”, but the rest of the letter seems to blatantly contradict this and ask that people actually just leave them alone on their pedestals. Freedom of speech works both ways, right?

Words by Nell Wedgwood.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

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