Although “cancel culture” is not a new phenomenon by any means, it has fallen in and out of favor over the years. For the first time earlier this week, a petition backed by Harper’s Magazine was written and signed by more than 100 celebrities, academics, and other prominent figures calling for the cancellation of cancel culture. The petition followed harsh criticism that JK Rowling received from gay and transgender rights groups that went viral on Twitter arguing for her to be canceled after making transphobic and disparaging comments about transgender individuals.
Rowling was also criticized for her support of British researcher, Maya Forstater, who the UK has for the most part canceled themselves due to her transphobic views about gender. The “Harry Potter” series creator, was outraged to find herself in the foreign and painful throes of the rejection that shapes cancel culture and subsequently solicited the support of heavy hitters such as Malcolm Gladwell, Fareed Zakaria, and Noam Chomsky to sign their names on the dotted line in opposition of what was referred to as moral attitudes that “weaken our [society’s] norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
While credence can be given to the dangers of cancel culture, some are side-eyeing Rowling’s and Forstater’s sudden interest in advocating for the eradication of the trend; arguing that this is yet another example of white women dressing up their abuse and exploitation of racial privilege and white supremacy behind a thin veil of clear tears and a self-serving performance of victimhood. Rowling is not humbly asking for forgiveness for abusing her voice and larger than life platform to inflict pain by making insensitive and homophobic comments. Rather, she expects and is demanding instant redemption and exemption from the same accountability that Black women and Blacks overall are subjected to daily. Simply put, as my grandmother would say, both Forstater and Rowling are trying to play a mean game of “throw a rock and then hide your hand,” but Black Twitter and others aren’t having it.
In June, Rowling took to Twitter to proclaim support for Maya Forstater, a researcher from the U.K. who was fired from a prominent think tank in London for her heterosexist and homophobic viewpoints. Forstater later sued her former employer, alleging discrimination based on what she referred to as her “gender critical” perspectives which included her argument that “it is impossible to change sex.”
The court ultimately handed down a ruling in favor of Forstater’s former employer and described her views on the transgender community as “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” and that her perspectives were “incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others.” To which Rowling quickly came to her defense, Tweeting: “Dress however you please,” Ms. Rowling wrote on Twitter, where she has more than 14 million followers. “Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? #IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill.”
But this is not Rowling’s first time starring in the transphobic rodeo. She also took issue with an article discussing menstruation products using the phrase “people who menstruate”, and in 2018, she was criticized for liking a tweet that referred to transgender women as “men in dresses,” which her media team quickly diffused by dismissing her “like” as a “middle-aged moment” in which she hit the like button accidentally. However, some critics are beginning to notice a pattern of problematic behavior and are not prepared to give her a second, second chance. The release of the dramatic condemnation of cancel culture in Harper Magazine only added insult to injury and fueled the fire for many.
The misappropriation of cancel culture
Although now controversial, cancel culture originated in Black Twitter around 2015 to call highly problematic people, products, and companies to the carpet and hold them accountable for their misdeeds. Topics originally revolved around racism, oppression, and various forms of abuse directed toward BIPOC and other marginalized groups. The trend was intended to encourage members from marginalized groups to reconsider their choices and financial, digital, and moral support of events, celebrities, films, music, and trends that don’t practice or uphold equity and inclusion.
Initially, cancel culture was instrumental in providing BIPOC a safe space to speak out freely against racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior from the industry leaders, the wealthy, and others whose privilege historically shielded them from public scrutiny. However, cancel culture was appropriated by whites and became an oppressive tool used against the very group it was intended to protect — the historically oppressed. The trend turned into an often inequitable punitive reaction that was reduced to silencing and stripping social currency from offenders, but such punitive measurements have primarily been directed toward Black folks. Thus, cancel culture has become a slap on the wrist (at most) for many white celebrities and social media influences and the kiss of death to many Blacks. Because they can’t handle even the slightest bit of criticism and accountability, some white celebrities not only watch as Black folks experience the brunt of lessons learned, but they also co-opt the pain from those lessons learned to cry oppression, deflect, and delegitimize criticism and culpability. That said, on the surface cancel culture simply appears as a farce, and consequently, critics have responded to JK Rowling’s impassioned demand to end the social media trend — firing back that it’s not real.
The version of reality people upset about “cancel culture” are insisting on is false. The phrase is designed to be wielded hypocritically. Even correcting it is more recognition that it deserves. Refuse to recognize what they claim is real, because it simply isn’t. Although some white celebrities such as Liam Neeson and Charlie Sheen have experienced the true agony of being canceled, most like JK Rowling, who still has tens of millions of followers on Twitter, seem to have more lives than a cat. Comedian, Louis CK for example, admitted to masturbating in front of female comedians, and although he was released from his agency and contracts with both HBO and Netflix, he still sells out of tours regularly. Or, Taylor Swift who shared her experience being “canceled” after her infamous Kanye West run-in. After the debacle, many expressed strong feelings against what they thought was another “Karen” incident in which it was believed that Swift disingenuously portrayed herself as a victim of a Black bully. Although she adamantly denies this to be true — even if it were — she is far from canceled. Swift has remained one of the highest-paid celebrities in the world. It is no wonder why many scoff at the true existence of cancel culture.
But the same grace and mercy that is bestowed upon white celebrities and influencers who have found themselves in hot water has not been given to countless Black celebrities such as Jussie Smollett whose name still trends whenever a story related to dishonesty goes viral, actor Isiah Washington – who like Rowling – was caught making homophobic remarks, and rapper/singer Cee Lo Green who lost his spot on The Voice, his TV show, and even many of his previously scheduled concert gigs after several insensitive tweets about rape and homophobia went viral during the time he was involved in his own sexual battery case. Mo’Nique experienced similar at the hands of Lee Daniels who admitted that Hollywood blackballed her because she “didn’t play the game.”
The truth about cancel culture
Cancel culture works, but primarily when targeted towards Blacks. Even worse, Blacks have also experienced being historically silenced at no fault of their own. In many cases, Blacks have not been erased because they were racists, or homophobes, or abusers, or rapists. Quite the contrary, the people who were erased were often minorities, which was cause enough for their erasure.
Their contributions didn’t matter because they, as a person, couldn’t matter. They weren’t allowed to take space; they were canceled. For example, Alice Ball, a chemist who found the cure for leprosy that would go on to be used for over two decades was never recognized for her significant contribution to science and medicine because she was a Black woman. Others will continue to be erased.
Cancel culture was not intended to erase people for who they are, but for what they do. More often than not, the “victims” of cancel culture are people who are enacting some kind of privilege, like JK Rowling. They are mostly predominately white men and women who are privileged and find themselves occupying center positions take advantage of that to make jokes, marginalize, or even abuse those in the margins. Even worse, in many cases, they do so to exploit people and make a profit.
When we call them out we are not marginalizing them, we are attempting to revoke their privilege. We are not calling for pitchforks; we are calling for empathy. However, cancel culture is now being used to further perpetuate racial privilege and white supremacy, yet again, on the backs of people of color. Because people like JK Rowling and Maya Forstater are accustomed to not being questioned and hiding behind the defense to play the victim after unapologetically offending an entire population of people, their behavior comes off as privileged, manipulative, and deceitful. To them, it is simply their attempt to recalibrate the comfort and security of whiteness, affluence, and power to which is their norm. The feeling of potential erasure is maddening because they have been positioned as the center of the norm for centuries. After all, we have been enduring erasure for centuries, and with much less reason.