In the ongoing “culture wars”, cancel culture – the idea that somebody should be “cancelled” and their career ended for transgressing norms of behaviour – has become a real point of contention.
The right-wing argues that it is “wokeness” gone mad, and that you can’t say anything anymore.
But I don’t really believe that the claim that you can’t say anything anymore is even true – let’s remember how the 45th president of the United States got into office. It certainly wasn’t by restraining himself from offensive tweeting.
What is interesting is where cancel culture is coming from, and why it seems to have absolutely no effect on the problems pervading our society.
The dynamic at work behind the constant clamour for “cancellation” is a widely misunderstood one.
In a world where corrupt people seem to rise to the top of system after unaccountable system, the cycles of suffering perpetuated by the powerful and unchallenged need to be ended. And, indeed, it is right that someone like Harvey Weinstein should never work again.
And the punishment meted out to individuals by cancellation may be satisfying in the short term but that is not what justice means.
Justice means the reform of systems so that such a person can never rise to the top again; it means putting in place a means of holding people to account to create safe workplaces and environments.
Systems of accountability
Yet rather than tackling these issues, companies and organisations have by and large willingly participated in “cancel culture” instead – throwing one of their own under the bus rather than facing up to the institutional problems that allowed such transgressions to occur. And that will ensure they reoccur.
It is no coincidence that sexual abuse scandals seem to abound in the same places. Institutions without systems of accountability attract those wishing to abuse their power like moths to a flame, and never investigate or eject them.
Cancel culture is not quite scapegoating – most of the time, the person under fire has indeed done something they shouldn’t – but it allows one person to take the heat for an institutional failure. The institution jettisons that person and continues on unharmed, stating they have taken the appropriate action. They have not.
With this in mind, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s decision to bar Will Smith was inevitable, because it means they do not have to face up to wider problems in Hollywood. By demonising Smith as an individual, there is no discussion of the wider context of his action, which was in response to Chris Rock, a host chosen by the academy, making both an ableist joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett-Smith and a misogynistic jibe at Penelope Cruz.
Banality of bigotry
To criticise Rock’s behaviour would mean to reflect on the banality of bigotry within the academy, and such self-reflection puts the institution and its members at risk. Therefore, Smith is framed as a lone force of violence disrupting an otherwise genteel evening, and the academy is safe.
In fact, the academy has a long history of avoiding self-reflection. Roman Polanski was ejected from the academy 40 years after he fled the USA on charges of child abuse and won an award – with a standing ovation – in absentia. He lost his membership of the academy at the same time as Harvey Weinstein, in 2018, when the MeToo movement made it clear that a visible action was required.
Removing them from the academy was better than nothing, but still the easy option . While it recognised the abuses that have taken place within the film industry, it did not take any steps to counteract the continuation of these abuses.
The assumption that underlies cancellation is that these acts are performed by lone perpetrators rather than being enabled by the system – a deeply dangerous assumption which allows such terrible suffering to continue.
It is also interesting that it takes much longer for sexual assault to be recognised as a problem by the academy - almost certainly because it requires the acknowledgement of abuses within the industry, rather than a solo angry man at an award show.
Invoking the dangers of cancel culture is an easy way to demonise the left as career-ruiners, implying the hands of major corporations have been forced against people who made simple mistakes. In fact, it is an incredibly useful way for corporations to hide their own endemic failings.
Molly O’Gorman is an Irish writer and playwright