#RipEllen recently trended on Twitter. No, the network TV mega-star hasn’t unexpectedly passed away. The hashtag is merely the latest example of Ellen hatred, where users are mock-mourning a smattering of images of short-haired celebrities from Kathy Bates to Niall Horan. This gag, which may seem harsh to some and hilarious to others, is born out of a larger strata of online retaliation dubbed “cancel culture,” a term used to describe the trend of boycotting or ceasing to promote the work of someone who has exhibited allegedly problematic behavior. Miriam Webster traced the current use of the term “cancel” back to black Twitter users during the birth of #MeToo, a movement that relied on identifying perpetrators of sexual assault by name and bringing them to justice. Since then, the term has been applied to countless more culprits, from Sarah Silverman to Doja Cat to the fitness club Equinox, all for a broad spectrum of offenses. The Tumblr blog “Your Fave is Problematic” keeps a convenient list.
It’s hard to think of a current public figure who hasn’t been canceled at least once in their career. The popular hashtag format #[insert name]IsOverParty seems to circulate almost every week, just swap in the name of the latest subject of scrutiny. It’s part and parcel of Twitter culture, and the list of those implicated grows larger every day, seemingly exponentially so in the wake of current widespread institutional reckonings. The cycle doesn’t appear to be anywhere near ending, but that doesn’t deter those dedicated to chipping away at it.
On July 7th, Harper’s Magazine published a high-profile letter decrying cancel culture. Signed by prominent liberal writers, artists, and intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, and Malcolm Gladwell, the missive praised the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death while arguing that this “needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The letter equates cancelation with silencing, and warns against a custom of suppression and censorship. While many readers agreed with the letter’s championing of free speech (an idea that’s hard not to get behind), some were suspicious of the intention of its elite signatories. Vox co-founder Ezra Klein tweeted, “A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power. And there’s *a lot* of power in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of free speech defender.”
The inclusion of author J.K. Rowling as a signatory, days after she posted a tweet that many saw as transphobic, also sparked intense backlash, with some claiming that her presence gives the seemingly positive if somewhat vague letter an air of defensiveness. Some see Rowling’s support as a way for her to flag innocence, play the victim, and wave her hand over the criticism she received. Of that opinion is Emily VanDerWerff, a cultural critic at Vox who tweeted an open message to her employers, condemning colleague Matthew Yglesias for his support of the letter. “The letter,” she wrote, “signed as it is by several prominent anti-trans voices and containing as many dog whistles towards anti-trans positions as it does, ideally would not have been signed by anybody at Vox, much less one of the most prominent people at our publication.” Her statement sparked a swarm of online vitriol, and she reported receiving “Death threats, rape threats, invitations to commit suicide, constant misgendering, etc. On every platform,” which she was sure to note that the signatories (who claim to be against this type of violent repercussion) have said nothing about.
Twitter rants and messy intra-publication drama aside, the issue raised by this discourse is relevant to anyone who publicly shares opinions, and in the social media age, that’s almost everyone. The argument boils down to a question of free speech, which, like many of our other amendments, is much more complicated than what was imagined by our founding fathers.
The force behind much of this complexity is social media. The proliferation of buzzwords like “cancel,” which the internet works to facilitate, can erase nuance and flatten the range of the human experience. Under the umbrella of the internet, Harvey Weinstein is canceled just as Alison Roman is canceled, though one is serving jail time for a litany of insidious, criminal sexual assault charges, and the other is a food writer who made a misguided remark about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, and proceeded to actively spend time and money to learn from her mistakes. This flattening of language works build the culture the Harper’s letter criticizes. This is not to say that Roman, and the many liberal media stars like her who have been brought to task by Twitter, should not have been called out in the first place. It is necessary to critique the behaviors of those who benefit from cis-het-white-able bodied supremacy (read: a lot of people). Shame can help us learn, and part of the work of progress is making it known that the people we uplift, even the people who speak out about injustice, are often complicit benefactors of the systems they critique. Micro-aggressions matter, and rendering them large does important work of educating the uninformed.
The trouble comes when there is no room to grow from one’s mistakes. But for the most part, there is. The internet has a short attention span, so a lot of subjects of cancellation have been given the space to bounce back after an apology and some period of lying low. Scarlett Johansson was publicly condemned for accepting roles written for an Asian-American perspective, but continues to be cast in Oscar-winning films. Lin Manuel Miranda was critiqued for Hamilton’s glorification of slaveholders, but the musical’s Disney Plus reboot received glowing reviews from major newspapers. The internet is powerful, but not all-powerful, and for many, cancelation is a lot less permanent than it might seem. In an ideal world, online backlash is a consequence of bad behavior rather than a unilateral dismissal of a whole personhood. In reality, of course, there are many instances where the punishment outweighs the crime, and that can be devastating for well-meaning people, but that’s a symptom of being on the internet- a place that often rewards loudness over thoughtfulness.
The signatories of the Harper’s letter would most likely argue that cancel culture has more serious ramifications than just hurting people’s feelings, though- that it threatens our world into a monoculture, uplifting a singular moral authority, a shout away from McCarthyism or the Cultural Revolution. As anyone who has ever scrolled through Twitter knows, humans have not stopped and will never stop sharing their opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be.