Universities in America are at a crossroads. In the shadow of the Israel-Hamas conflict, they’re faced with pressure from wealthy donors who threaten to withdraw funding, as students make public protests and calls to action. A reminder that our generation has welcomed what is being called ‘cancel culture’. Cleo warns whichever side of the divide you sit on, we should be worried that squashing discussions and debate is a threat to freedom, activism, and democracy.
I’m going to put up my hand and say that I have got it wrong. A number of times actually. And I’ve said things I no longer agree with. Yet I’m still here writing this column. However, the threat of possible ‘cancelling’ has become part of our daily lives. It can affect the rich and famous, a social media poster or a university academic. Typically, those who are cancelled have something to lose – usually first on the list is the pedestal where they have been placed.
Cancel culture is most often used to refer to people who are deemed to have acted or spoken unacceptably and are boycotted, or ostracised. So, what can we do about cancel culture? Firstly, I must be clear that there’s a difference between hate speech and free speech. One involves inciting violence and can be legally indicted. I’m asking us to think about the grey area of free speech. The complex issues that don’t have an answer and make us feel uncomfortable. Those issues are often the ones we are so quick to cancel.
I get it. People do heinous things, and I would never argue that people are above reproach. Yet that doesn’t stop us from admitting that we are flawed. We should be able to learn from our mistakes. We should be able to listen and discuss. Separating the individual and the idea. The art and the person. Some of the most high-profile people to be cancelled are often celebrated for the things they have done or created, and they fall unceremoniously from grace. Yet why were they placed above the rest of us in the first place? No person, however talented, is flawless (sorry Beyoncé). Why are we so quick to remove people’s humanity?
I’d argue, that cancel culture is the lack of conversation. Allowing mistakes is a learning opportunity. Banishing people leaves no room for conversation or change. How can we make society better if we don’t allow growth?
My recommendations for countering cancel culture are being open for a debate or conversation, and for everyone to be heard. Next is to truly enquire and dissect the idea, not the person. People are products of their experiences. We are shaped by the things that happened to us; the multitude of ways we have been made to feel. Rather than condemning someone for their lottery of experiences, first inspect where their ideas came from. If you shun them, that doesn’t mean they are destroyed – they just go somewhere else. Lastly, take a moment for self-reflection. Rather than asserting moral superiority we should admit that none of us are perfect.