The power of platforms — cancel culture’s impact

I have been invited to do a talk about J K Rowling and cancel culture in April 2021, and one of the central points I raise during my discussion about her was the power of the platform she has carved out for herself. One of my prior posts covered my opinions about her, essentially stating I was cutting myself adrift from her work and personally no longer investing any of my emotional labour in her output. This article moves my feelings on, in particular the notion that trans cancel culture is as much dissecting the power of a person’s platform as it is an attempt to remove that person’s ability to speak.

While there is always an undercurrent of brigading and jumping on bandwagons that I am uncomfortable with, personally I think it is important to analyse the hundreds of Davids who attempt to take a cultural Goliath down through cancel culture. There is always this element that unless the Goliath has done something socially scandalous or committed a heinous crime they will never be silenced. Indeed, many public figures have gone through the stations of the cross, done penance, and come out as Iron Man in a hit series of movies that completely rehabilitated them. Indeed, it is almost a right of passage that those in the public eye will have dark days of the soul. However, if that person is lucrative and worth more to money making machine, they will continue to have their platform and voice.

Cancel culture is very much a scattergun that tries to provide a certain type of justice, often causing significant collateral damage. Contra Points rightly called out the mob justice that was unleashed on her, the impact on her and those who spoke up for her was painful and caused by the very community she sought to give a nuanced voice to. That cancel culture targets people from within minority communities who express differing views says as much for the community as it does about the individual. When David turns on David, who actually benefits? Revolutions often turn inwards for ideological purity, with infractions inflated to sins, and sins conflated with all the ills. This is not to suggest that ill behaviour should not be called out, but circumspection and evidence should be paramount over reflex action.

So, what is the real value of cancel culture? Initially the #Metoo movement used it to deal a sort of justice against men who would otherwise have gone unpunished. R Kelly, Michael Jackson and others were initially shunned without convictions, their creative legacies forever tainted by their personal actions. Trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) authors have undergone a similar revision of their body of work, including Julie Birchill and Germaine Greer, and I believe this is the most significant impact of de-platforming and cancel culture. It is the reassessment of a person’s legacy and cultural impact. David may not slay Goliath, but Goliath can certain be disarmed and send to the naughty corner.

I am torn on Cancel Culture. On the one hand it serves a sort of justice that can empower and provide catharsis for minorities long in the cold; on the other, the scattergun nature of such things does collateral damage and have unintended consequences that can be far reaching and negative. In the internet age a person’s voice and platform is only as valid as the audience they have built up and potentially monetise. Twitter et al need drama to feed the click machine, and cancel culture provides that in spades. Who ultimately benefits from cancel culture could be very well these third parties who have no interest in the parties, but benefit from the likes and upvotes we provide.

In the end this is not a field of play I walk onto lightly. Identity is not a football to be hoofed from one end of a cultural spectrum to the other. While it is very easy to cite a rule book on fair play and perceived infractions, the bigger issues often lie in the power structures than enable those infractions in the first place. I believe we would be in a far stronger cultural situation if the conversation focused on fixing those inequities, repairing the very field we play on, than arguing constantly about the length of the grass or actions best intended. No, this is not going to be an easy solution, for equity demands that all downtrodden voices must be raised up, but the bigger battles sit beyond things that cancel culture can fix or provide justice for.

Cancel culture’s impact is in the history books, in the failed censorship of those minority voices who are now getting their chance to be heard. Cancelling someone does not take away their voice any more than censorship ever could. We need to tread carefully and lightly, for to cancel someone could end up turning an outed lesbian into a chat show queen who is falling from grace by her own deeds and lack of compassion. The truth is a very picky thing, always subjective from the point of view of the observer, and this is the nuance that most cancel culture lacks. Time and evidence truly do bring Ozymandias to his knees, and thus goes all in the public eye. Is this enough? It is not for me to say, but the alternative is a cancel culture that may have short term catharsis but little long term impact outside of collateral damage within minority communities it seeks to avenge.

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