On cancel culture and the work of the cancelled

Cancel culture is a divisive term in itself: is it a long-awaited form of accountability or is it digilantism? Is it popular justice in the face of the authorities’ failure, or just an emotionally taxing social media pile-on? And what are we to do with art and work we love once their creators have been cancelled? I have been reflecting on, and wanting to write about, cancel culture for a long time. I think about it both on a personal and professional level, and after having read two books that have recently given me the kick up the butt to write about it, I’ve decided to cover it on the blog too.

Cancel culture: why do I care?

Since I’m Very Online, my work and support networks are strictly tied to my online communities and to my online presence, meaning that ‘getting cancelled’ is one of my worst nightmares. Far from worrying just about my income or swathes of comments against me (the ‘post-cancelling’), it’s the infliction of potential harm on communities I care about deeply (so the ‘pre-cancelling) that terrifies me. I am, essentially, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

But my interest in cancel culture isn’t just personal and moved by fear – it’s also something that stems from my and other people’s enjoyment of different artworks made by people who have been notoriously cancelled (at least on paper, more on that later), or whose bad behaviour has come to light. From pole dancers performing to Chris Brown and Marilyn Manson to people vibing to Michael Jackson, from Potterheads still begrudgingly consuming J.K. Rowling affiliated entertainment to film festivals still hosting Roman Polanski, we are all somehow still tied to, and definitely coming across, entertainment and artefacts created by people who have been cancelled for various reasons and to a different degree.

And while I don’t like the idea of people who have caused harm to others going unpunished and making a profit from my engagement with their products, those same products and artefacts are sometimes tied to memories and feelings, meaning it’s harder to ‘cancel’ them.

Because of all these reasons, I wanted to reflect on cancel culture from the perspective of a digital criminologist with a PhD on online abuse, a sexual assault and abusive relationship survivor, a Very Online person and someone who (sigh) still enjoys stuff made by horrible people.

The timing isn’t related to a specific event, but rather to me reading a couple of books that have solidified the idea for a blog post: Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, a non-fiction exploration of horrible artists and their fans by film scholar Claire Dederer, which I’ll be quoting extensively because it’s fantastic, and The List, a novel by Yomi Adegoke that I have opinions about. I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers in both cases.

Needless to say, don’t take this post as the be all end and all of discussions on cancel culture. Maybe this article will age badly, maybe it’ll change, but it’s just my own personal exploration of a specific topic coloured by my own feelings and experiences which, as it will become clear, play a role in our love for art (even cancelled art).

What is cancel culture?

The phrase “cancel culture” seems to have originated in the 1980s from the then relatively obscure slang term – “cancel,” referring to breaking up with someone in a song. Referenced in film and television, the term later gained traction on social media. According to the Pew Research Centre, 49% of Americans who are familiar with ‘cancel culture’ as an expression say it describes actions people take to hold others accountable, while 14% think of it as a form of censorship. These views varied widely depending on where people sat on the political spectrum. This should already be enough to show how divisive the term is.

Popular understandings of cancel culture and the behaviours it triggers describe it as “the idea of totally taking away someone’s (or support for someone’s) platform, fame, business, company, job, power, popularity – or any combination of the above – because of something that’s seen as unforgiveable behaviour.” Another definition can be found in a Sarah Hagi article for Time, where she describes the term ‘cancel culture’ “a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to.”

People who have been mentioned in connection with cancel culture include Louis CK (who is said to have harassed many women comics), JK Rowling (because of her continuous anti-trans commentary), Kevin Spacey (for a series of of assault allegations against men), Kanye West (for his anti-semitic remarks amongst other things). It’s basically a never-ending list – some further examples can be found here.

For Claire Dederer, cancel culture also has a personal and temporal dimension. In her book Monsters, Dederer describes the behaviours included in the previous definitions I have shared as “a way of distancing ourselves from the negative aspects of humanity.” In short, by cancelling someone we are making a statement about who we are not, and identifying ourselves as virtuous by way of condemning someone else’s behaviour.

Cancel culture is also a line in the sand separating our day and age from the mistakes of the past, of saying we no longer accept certain behaviour. This in itself is inaccurate for Dederer, as it positions our time as perfect, stainless – a belief that identifies current values and governance processes as needless of improvement: “Liberal capitalism is, in this model, where we have arrived; it is a destination, not a blip in history’s ongoing timeline,” she writes.

But this isn’t necessarily the case, and the fact that the mere pointing out of someone’s bad behaviour is so controversial, creating the term cancel culture as a boogeyman and a shield, is a case in point. Because of this, the term itself is unhelpful for Dededer: “The very term ‘cancel culture’ is hopelessly non-useful, with its suggestion that the loss of status for the accused is somehow on par with the suffering endured by the victim.” She adds: “This is a hint that our self-concept of being at the apex of enlightenment is maybe a little off. Because if we were really so enlightened, wouldn’t we celebrate that this pointing out occurred?”

Another point against the conservative view of cancel culture is that a lot of people aren’t really cancelled, and in fact they make a comeback. Here, comparisons between the past and the present can be useful to understand what cancel culture is and what it isn’t.

Cancel culture vs damnatio memoriae

“That’s why the Access Hollywood tape was so shocking – not because it happened, but because no one really seemed to mind. There was no uproar. […] Instead, we elected the grabber president. Over the following years, the proof escalated that the things we thought we’d transcended were still there, lurking like bad fairies. But that makes them sound alien, and for the last few years we’ve been confronted with the fact that the evil fairies are us.”

Claire Dederer on the infamous ‘Grab them by the pussy’ comment by the then US presidential candidate Donald Trump

In Monsters, Dederer reflects that if people really got cancelled, Donald Trump would have never been elected. The former US president is not the only one who was untouched, or made a come-back, after being called out for bad behaviour: Louis CK came back with a documentary; Chris Brown is still making music; Johnny Depp waltzed back into Cannes Film Festival; JK Rowling received the roaring support of a set of British authors, who automatically outed themsleves as anti-trans, via social media and the mainstream press, where she continues to promote her novels. The list goes on.

This polarised, conflicting perception of cancel culture and its results, this clash between accountability vs bad publicity, and the ability for most people (particularly, for powerful cis white men) to make a comeback, made me reflect on a more ancient practice.

A few summers ago, when I was visiting my parents in Sardinia, we went to the Fordongianos thermal baths, a still active spa dating back to the Roman Empire. In telling us what the scriptures carved in the marble said, the guide mentioned that the baths may have been built or dedicated to a certain Roman official, but that we would probably never know who this was because their name had been physically hacked off the marble. He had, basically, been physically cancelled and doomed to obscurity, a phenomenon the Romans called damnatio memoriae, or “the condemnation of the report,” aka the cursing of someone’s memory.

Since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Roman Empire (I’m fully aware I’m accidentally indulging in the TikTok trend here) and about how the Romans cancelled people they didn’t like – mostly for political, and not social justice, reasons. My visit to the thermal baths was in 2021, the second summer of Covid. It was after the summer of destroying statues and rethinking links with problematic individuals, and I was mindful of the various online debacles of too many a celebrity, institutions or personalities even within the small but vocal pole dance community.

As various historians agree, damnatio memoriae wasn’t always used in the same for every person, and it wasn’t always effective – Nero was apparently targeted with it too, yet we still know who he was. What’s striking here is the contrast between the physical removal of names from buildings and history, versus public figures crying they are being cancelled from the height of their TV show, weekly newspaper columns or YouTube channels with millions of subscribers. Unlike those whose memory was cursed, these people’s power and their visibility are still there – it’s the accountability that’s missing, particularly in recent cases when abusers have been hiding in plain sight.

Cancel culture or online abuse?

As important as accountability is, particularly within existing power structures, the request for it isn’t always pleasant. Nobody (or… almost nobody) likes to face lots of criticism, to be told they are wrong, or that they have hurt communities they care about. And while a perpetrator’s ‘cancellation’ may contribute towards victims’ feelings of justice in the face of institutional failure, there is undoubtedly a darker side to the need to call out injustice.

I write this post as a sexual assault and abusive relationship survivor, but also as a digital criminologist with a PhD in online abuse – and online abuse connected to conspiracy theories and high profile criminal cases at that. So while I am personally invested in justice for survivors, a justice that I didn’t get, I have also observed the dark side of being able to accuse anyone of anything with a quick social media post first-hand.

This is the main hook of the second book that inspired me to write this post, The List by Yomi Adegoke. The novel centres around a couple of high-profile, Very Online London based journalist-influencers who we meet just over a month before their wedding. Hailed as the epitome of Black love and success, Ola and Michael’s relationship (and their working lives) begin to fall apart when his name appears in an anonymous online list of abusers in the media sector.

Full disclosure: I didn’t love Adegoke’s book. Although it is set up to be a sort of whodunit, with Ola attempting to figure out whether the allegations against Michael are true, The List really does read like something the Not All Men brigade could take in their stride to show the effects of being called out for your actions. At points, I had to remind myself this was written by a woman.

What The List does do well however is show how the ability to ‘cancel’ someone at the flick of a switch can bring out the worst in people, leading to digilantism (or digital vigilantism made of stalking and connected punishment) and online pile-ons against potentially innocent people which could, ironically, even prejudice abusers’ convictions. In the UK, for instance, commenting on an active criminal case can result in contempt of court, an offence which results in the accused not getting get a fair trial, and the obstruction of the course of justice.

I know I said I was only going to discuss two books, but The List did remind me of one of my favourite books, the one that inspired my PhD topic: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. Here, the journalist explores digital public shaming by speaking to a series of different people, from 4chan trolls to those who were cancelled for saying something, as Dederer would say, ‘nasty’. The aftermath of cancellation was, particularly for the latter people, devastating – a more nuanced and balanced take on the digilante power of the Internet.

This is section is not to say that people shouldn’t be held accountable. In fact, I’m a big believer in the power of gossip, and I understand how withdrawing support from celebrities and artists can be a form of restorative justice for survivors. For every opportunity there’s a dark side though, and I have watched people thrive as they enjoyed or created the public spectacle of piling onto others to feel like ‘the good guys’. That is the difference between what conservatives call cancel culture to stop any form of societal change – the healthy, necessary pointing out that certain behaviours are unacceptable towards the pursuit of justice – and what I believe cancel culture actually is, aka a form of networked harassment where people are digitally threatened and abused.

Should I still support or enjoy the work of someone ‘cancelled’?

Now that I have explained what I think cancel culture is and what I think it isn’t, let’s go back to our own engagement with it: can we, or should we, cancel our love for and engagement with the art and products of problematic people? For this there are two main schools of thought but, as you will see, I am leaning towards a third, something that I have believed for a while and that Claire Dederer managed to explain perfectly in Monsters.

The first school of thought says we should fully separate the art from the artist. That a piece of art remains masterful, or enjoyable, no matter who made it. For Dederer this belief is, often, spoused by powerful men who have not had to be in a victim’s shoes – and it is also hypocritical, given that we’ve been marketed people’s biographies as an addition to art, especially in the social media age. For her, separating the art from the artist isn’t fully feasible, because an artist’s biography ‘stains’ the work – and we feel that when we see it or hear it, whether we ignore it or not. She writes:

That’s how the stain works. The biography colors the song, which colors the sunny moment of the diner. We don’t decide that coloration is going to happen. We don’t get to make decisions about the stain. It’s already too late. It touches everything. Our understanding of the work has taken on a new color, whether we like it or not.”

Claire Dededer

According to Dederer, whoever asks to separate the art from the artist is asking audiences to ignore the stain – but that’s not how stains work: the stain is a feeling, and simply telling someone it shouldn’t matter doesn’t stop people from feeling that feeling. It doesn’t stop it mattering.

“I noticed that I’m not immune to biography,” Dederer writes. “That’s for the winners of history (men) (so far).” In writing this, she is reclaiming her power as the audience. The audience of a piece of art, whatever that art is, is expected to connect with it through their feelings. And those feelings can be clouded, stained by biography. The artist’s biography raises the question of praising someone who has done wrong, of elevating someone to a genius/God-like status, above justice (because often they will have escaped it) but of leaving them at the mercy of our own judgement.

When I ask what to do about the art of monstrous men, I’m not just sympathising with their victims – I’ve been in the same shoes, or similar. I have the memory of those monstrous things being done to me. I don’t come to these questions with a coldness or a dispassionate point of view. I come as a sympathizer to the accusers. I am the accusers. And yet I still want to consume the art. Because, out in front of all that, I’m a human. […] It’s not a philosophical query; it’s an emotional one.

Claire Dederer

Here, the moral dilemma starts: when do stains get become too much for us to ignore? How far do stains expand to? That’s when it gets tricky, and subjective.

“Does the stain go so far that it touches the child who will become the monster?” writes Dederer, thinking of the Jackson 5 era of Michael Jackson’s career. “And what about that child’s own experience of having things done to him?”

There is no straight answer. Your life, your experiences, your traumas, your feelings can take over your own enjoyment of artwork by someone who has been stained by their own biography. After all, according to Dederer, “Consuming a piece of art is two biographies meeting: the biography of the artist that might disrupt the viewing of the art; the biography of the audience member that might shape the viewing of the art.”. As she argues in one of the salient chapters of Monsters:

“Your aesthetic experience might be in fact the opposite of disinterested; it might be deeply emotionally interested. My answer is different from yours. I didn’t dance to R. Kelly at my wedding reception; maybe you did. Maybe you want to revisit that memory. […] Aesthetic experience is tied to nostalgia and memory – that is to say, to subjective experience. Lived experience expands and illuminates the art we take in. […]

What makes great art depends in who we are and what we live through. It depends on our feelings.

Claire Dederer

This is something I deeply relate to. Supporting an artist through streams, purchases and shares means financing then, and I try my best not to finance someone whose behaviour I despise because I don’t want to indirectly finance hate or harm for my own selfish enjoyment of something. But memories are hard to kill, and those memories are clouded or stained by biography – mine, and the artist’s.

As much as I despise JK Rowling’s turn to anti-trans beliefs and the weaponisation of her following against people I care about deeply, her novels and the movies they inspired are tied to my childhood. I don’t want to put any more money into her pockets, so I don’t stream them, buy merch or anything related to them. But I do rewatch the DVDs when I feel like taking a trip down memory lane (while simultaneously feeling angry and betrayed).

People (and artists) are not cancelled for the same reason. It’s not just about a hierarchy of harms, but rather about our own personal triggers. I know that allegations of rape and misogynist behaviour are mine, and that they will immediately make me stop supporting someone, because of my own experiences of sexual assault and abusive relationships. Case in point: as much as I loved Marilyn Manson, who made some bangin’ pole dance music, I can’t feel sexy, strong and powerful to his songs anymore. Hearing them makes me feel gross because of my own biography.

It’s complicated (and it’s about money and feelings)

If you were looking for a specific answer about when it’s right to cancel someone in this post, I’m sorry I haven’t necessarily provided you with one. TL;DR: what conservatives call ‘cancel culture’ is just accountability for people who’ve escaped it for too long; but some people take it too far and turn it into networked harassment.

Having witnessed the effects of damnatio memoriae however, I am not sure I want to fully erase an artist or someone in the public eye – I want to remember why I liked them or followed them, why I stopped, and why their talent should not be a get out of jail free card. I want to remember the art and the harms so that people don’t get harmed again, not because we are “better” or “have arrived” as a society but because we have enough examples of what we could have done to stop them.

For this, justice should actually work, so that the market, money, people’s power and their ability to buy silence, and our own subjective, relative beliefs about who we should be supporting aren’t left to decide.

I think it’s worth concluding this post with Dederer, since I quoted her so much and her book has finally given me the kick up the ass to write this post.

We attempt to enact morality through using our judgement when we buy stuff, but our judgement doesn’t make us better consumers – it actually makes us more trapped in the spectacle, because we believe we have control over it.

The fact is that our consumption, or lack thereof, of the work is essentially meaningless as an ethical gesture.

We are left with feelings. We are left with love. Our love for the art, a love that illuminates and magnifies our world. We love whether we want to or not – just as the stain happens, whether we want it or not.

In other words: there is not some correct answer. You are not responsible for finding it. […] You do not need to have a grand unified theory about what to do about Michael Jackson. You are a hypocrite, over and over. You love Annie Hall, but you can barely stand a painting by Picasso. You are not responsible for solving this unreconciled contradiction. In fact, you will solve nothing by means of your consumption; the idea that you can is a dead end.

The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.

[…] But pretending the love doesn’t exist, or saying it oughtn’t, doesn’t help anything.”

Claire Dederer

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