Doha Debates– Don't settle for a Divided World
Podcast / April 21 2021

Can "cancel culture" go too far?

select player

Host Nelufar Hedayat talks about being called out online, and speaks to a crisis management expert about the best way to handle such situations. She then talks to two journalists who have faced online harassment and real-world consequences for their opinions. Finally, she hosts a roundtable discussion on cancel culture to try and parse when, if ever, canceling someone is appropriate.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

[PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]

NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:

This is a Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each episode, I explore a topic that’s dividing us during these polarized times. I talk to people with a range of perspectives on the issue, and try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me. Today, I’ll conclude our three-part arc on how tech influences our lives, how it unites us and how it divides us. 

Fair warning. Right at the beginning of this episode, people recount threats of serious violence made against them. Also, just a heads-up, we’ve beeped out some of the strong language from our guests. 

OK, now, over the last two episodes, I’ve looked at how our online world is shaping our lives. I’ve talked to politicians about the consequences of misinformation and found the limits of our free speech. Today, I explore cancel culture, how it could be used for good. 

WOMAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT: More often than not, the things that we are canceling need to be canceled. They are circumstances or people or behaviors that have been really, really problematic. 

NELUFAR: And in absolutely shambolic ways, too. 

WOMAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT: They were saying that they would slit my throat, that they would track me down and kill me. I got a death threat. I got a card sent to my dog saying that she was [indistinguishable] — serious, really nasty stuff. 

NELUFAR: We’ll have that conversation, as well as a look at this global phenomenon a little later with people who have serious skin in the game. But first, let’s get into the phrase “cancel culture” itself. 

[PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]

NELUFAR: The modern notion of “canceling” someone began in earnest as a rebalancing of power on Black Twitter. People could demand justice and inclusivity by using social media to shed light on those who have abused their privilege or benefited from exploiting others. 

But now it’s morphed into a situation where we’re essentially policing ourselves and each other. It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist or a janitor. We are all subject to a jury of our peers when it comes to what we say and do, and what we are perceived to say and do online. Cross that line and there are calls for us to lose our jobs, our reputation and our ability to even speak out publicly. 

Here on Course Correction, we seek out solutions to our hardest problems, which requires being aware of our own biases and applying all the tools I know as a journalist when reporting on things. So with that, it’s important that I tell you I have some firsthand experience with this. Yes, dear listener, I’ve been called out online too. 

[ELECTRONIC MUSIC]

NELUFAR: On one of my shows called #DearWorldLive, made by Doha Debates, the same organization that makes this podcast, I did an entire season on the fight for racial justice. And this particular show I want to tell you about was called “How to Be a Good Ally in the Fight for Racial Justice.” I was dead proud of that show. Everyone I talked to said it went well, and I was really happy with the episode. 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF NELUFAR: Thank you, guys. To all of my guests, you have been amazing. I’ve learnt so much. To all of you who are watching online, streaming #DearWorldLive right now, thank you for tuning in. It’s time to say goodbye to our wonderful guests. Say goodbye, everybody. Thank you, guys. Thanks. Thank you. So much. 

NELUFAR: But then…

[SOCIAL MEDIA NOTIFICATION ALERT]

NELUFAR: Just as the show finished, the organization where one of my guests was from retweeted a comment suggesting that interruptions during the event was seen to be systematically silencing the women of color on the show. It felt like a gut punch. Watching the show back, I have to admit, I had interrupted, but it was not with bad intention.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF NELUFAR’S GUEST: And what I want you know what…

ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF NELUFAR: I want to focus, Simamkele, on this idea that. OK, let me…

NELUFAR: Whilst I was disappointed to be called out for something, I would have been OK if things had just stopped there. The organization had felt a wrong had been done, and I had to respect that. But then that tweet started gaining traction. Other people started criticizing me. Things quickly snowballed. And soon I was being called a xenophobe or even a racist. 

[SUCCESSION OF SOCIAL MEDIA NOTIFICATIONS]

NELUFAR: Each comment I read felt like my insides were being crushed until I was nothing but two-dimensional. It felt like physical pain, like everything I was, I’ve worked for and am had been reduced to a tweet that now meant people could decide whether I was a good person or not, based on one quantum of information. My team and I quickly huddled, and we decided the best course of action was for me to accept the criticism. I didn’t say what I wanted to: That I was hurt by all the vitriol. That those calling me out were all wrong, and I was on their side. And if they knew me and my work, they wouldn’t say this. I was told that this was a learning opportunity for me, and that I should leave space for people to say I had done wrong. But still, it had all gone too far.

MAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT: Social media is almost become like sort of burning of witches in the olden days. 

NELUFAR: This is Tim Jotischky. He’s the director of reputation for The PHA Group. His specialty is in crisis management and dealing with high-profile individuals who’ve been canceled on social media. I told him about what had happened on Dear World Live, and he had some advice for me.

TIM JOTISCHKY: It’s interesting because quite often the first reaction is to sort of shut down, and sometimes there are occasions when that is the right thing to do. But often I would advise against it because, yeah, it can be seen almost as an admission of guilt.

NELUFAR: Fight or flight. Does engaging mean just giving more fodder to the trolls to chew on, or can it be effective in actually calming tempers? My experience really made me question myself, and honestly, since it’s happened, I’ve stopped posting as much. I’m too scared to get it wrong or to be on the wrong side of Twitter’s zeitgeist. Something I say or do with no intent of malice or animosity could in 10 years be used to show that I’m an intolerant person, and I just don’t want to be portrayed as that. 

For Tim, he says the key is separating out sincere critics from the cowards looking to score cheap points online. I was afraid he would say this, since it means entering back into the unforgiving fray of the internet. Ugh.

TIM: You know, my rule is generally it is a good thing to engage on social with people who are criticizing you, as long as they’re prepared to do it in a reasonable way. Once it goes beyond that mark, then I think you’re quite within your rights to stop engaging with them. But I think if you make a genuine attempt to do so in good faith, then people will see that. And being the most reasonable person in the room is not a bad starting point in any conversation. 

NELUFAR: This last point was something I hadn’t thought about but made a lot of sense and maybe rethink my experience after the backlash I received. The goal isn’t to win every argument when being attacked, especially when it feels like herd mentality. But a better goal is to try and clarify your points with those who have legitimate concerns about your actions. 

Admittedly, what I went through pales in comparison to the firehose of vitriol others receive when getting canceled. And when it gets that bad, is getting a nuanced understanding of other people’s perspectives even possible anymore?

WOMAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT: Nothing but total capitulation will do. And even then, it’s not enough. 

WOMAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT: And this shutting down of all kinds of critical thought. And that really, really, really frightens me.

NELUFAR: Journalist Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel can no longer go online without being viciously attacked. 

Now, before we go any further with their stories, one more disclaimer. I fully recognize that there are some out there who strongly believe Julie and Suzanne were justifiably canceled, and we should not be talking to them. But we have invited them on as guests to talk about the experiences of being canceled in order to better understand what’s going on. We’re not going to relitigate or pass judgment on what got these journalists canceled in the first place. So some background.

[PERCUSSIVE MUSIC] 

NELUFAR: Suzanne and Julie are newspaper columnists and have been writing about and campaigning for women’s rights for decades. What got them into hot water is that they also considered themselves as “gender critical” feminists, meaning they’re concerned about the inclusion of trans women in traditionally cis-women only spaces like shelters for women fleeing domestic violence. And they say biological traits are an essential part of what it means to be a woman. Julie has apologized for some of the language and tone she’s used in some of her articles, and both she and Suzanne have unequivocally denounced violence and harm committed towards trans people. Still, they say it’s wrong that they feel they can’t publicly ask questions about what it means to be a woman without being told to shut up, alongside death and rape threats. They’ve lost work. They’ve been publicly disowned by colleagues, and they’ve been disinvited to speaking engagements. These are the very real consequences of publishing their sincere opinions. Here, Suzanne. 

SUZANNE MOORE: When you’re online, especially something like Twitter, every position is polarized and extreme. And when you talk to most people, especially on these issues, most people, I’d say, are broadly liberal. And, of course, we support trans rights. And of course, we think trans people should have the best health care. But when you actually have a more nuanced conversation in real life, about, you know, who can enter women’s spaces, changing rooms and all that sort of thing, everybody goes, oh, hang on a minute. It’s complicated, isn’t it? And that’s what we miss, not that people are good or bad, but that we all of us are more complex than we’re allowed to be online. And we are more fearful of that complexity. 

NELUFAR: Yes. Complexity. The kind of complexity and ensuing disagreements we were able to hold space for in our conversation. My next question was to Julie. 

NELUFAR: Julie, you and I, we can disagree fervently because I’ve created the space in this podcast to do so. I’m not going to, like, cancel you or deplatform you because I vehemently disagree with your opinion or perspectives. And I do think that you crossed the lines a few times. But, you know you have and you know that criticism can be labeled at you. 

JULIE BINDEL: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I have crossed the line. And I think that, you know, we all crossed the line. If we’re outspoken and if we’re political activists, we get things wrong and we should know when to apologize and when to say “I got that wrong.”

NELUFAR: But I also know that Suzanne and Julie have done years of work, advocacy work, journalism work that has helped pave the way for women all over the world. They have stood side by side with the lesbian and gay community and have stood up against domestic violence. 

JULIE: When I was a young lesbian in a gay club, I was actually beaten up by a member of Combat 18 that raided the joint, and they started lashing out at the women. And you know, who defended me and with their high heels off and wig and ran after those bastards? That there were crossdressing drag queens who would have called themselves transvestites, who now would be under the trans label, they were our friends. We all recognize that we were marginalized people. We hung out together. We went and had breakfast together at 4 in the morning. They looked out for us, and we looked out for them. And what’s happened now is the absolute trashing of any solidarity that women might have together. 

NELUFAR: Today, Suzanne and Julie’s opinions have made them social pariahs. I wanted to find out what happens when your intent is well-meaning, but some people still find you offensive. Should you be canceled? And is it even possible to have a discussion with someone whose language has been called out as harmful to others? Or is their opinion so dangerous that we can’t even hear them speak? 

SUZANNE: I think at the beginning of Twitter, I would say it was possible almost to have a dialogue or even a conversation with people. But now people are already defined and put in boxes, and people are just shouting into this kind of chaos. So people are driven to say more extreme things and think we’re driven to say also to indicate that they are always on the right side. 

NELUFAR: Yes, because it’s about virtue signaling. I find that a lot of this is people who want to be seen to be an ally or who want to be seen to defend the vulnerable because it’s really woke, right. Like, oh, I really care about these niche rights of the oppressed and I’m going to virtual signal away. And so I’m going to cancel. So, Suzanne, would you say that you were canceled? 

SUZANNE: No, never.

NELUFAR: What happened?

SUZANNE: Well I will tell you. But I just want to say that campaigning and doing political activism is something that you do every day. And it’s really, really boring and dull. And you get up and you do it. And that is just so different. The experience, of just, pressing a “like” on Twitter and saying, “Hey, I’m an ally of all people.” 

But now as being canceled — no, I’ve never claimed to be canceled. I never said I was canceled, but I read constantly on social media every time I write something, right, “Oh, my God, that [EXPLETIVE BLEEPED], I mean, she keeps going on about being canceled, but here she is again.”

Well, my words were enough to make someone feel unsafe, apparently. Now all words — actual violence — are words themselves harmful? To me, that’s a really very, very dangerous position. If words are equated with actual violence, you know, it’s like an old friend of mine who is actually trans said to me, you know, “This is book burning, but you just do it word by word.” And I thought, well, that’s so true. 

JULIE: That’s a really good point. And actually, if words were violence, I think you and I would be black, blue and dead. I mean, I’m not a free speech campaigner. I’m not one of those posh white blokes that go on about, you know, wanting to be able to be racist and sexist without being challenged. All of those that get shoved down their throat whenever we say that we have been prevented from speaking out. And then, of course, what gets thrown back at us is, “Oh, these women, here we go again. They say that they’ve been canceled and they’re writing about it once again in The Spectator and in The Telegraph and in The World” Well, do you know what? First of all, we are doing this because we can. Suzanne and I both have a platform. We’re lucky. If we don’t do it, then who is going to speak out about this? Because the younger women who don’t have a platform and who aren’t privileged as we are can’t do it. So, of course, we’re going to do that. We have a moral and political obligation to speak out because we can. 

NELUFAR: This is true. Both Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel still have a platform and their careers as journalists. So they haven’t been completely canceled, as in, being completely silenced. Julie still publishes their opinions in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. Susanne resigned from The Guardian after public fallout with her colleagues. She continues to write columns for other newspapers. But both still face threats of sexual violence, harassment and ridicule online. 

And this has taken its toll. One could argue, “Hey, they chose to be public figures. They chose to write on controversial topics.” And in Julie’s case, she readily admits she’s in the past made poor choices in her language. So shouldn’t they have to face the music? To a degree, yes. But there’s a difference between calling out offensive speech or passionately disagreeing with someone else and completely trying to cancel someone’s existence and then trolling them. Julie told me how she’s held to a different standard than others. 

NELUFAR: Do you think that men and women get deplatformed or canceled differently, and how so? 

JULIE: Well, first of all, men don’t get canceled and deplatformed hardly at all. 

NELUFAR: Well, well, well, that there’s — well, there are examples. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos got deep platformed for some of the stuff that he was saying, quite scary things that he was saying and talking about. There are, there are various people who would write for Breitbart magazine, quite a far-right magazine. So there are instances of people being taken off of platforms when they, you know, of men being taken off of platforms.

JULIE: You’re right. You’re right. I suppose I wasn’t thinking of those kinds of extreme right-wing lune-balls, but you’re absolutely right to point that out. If you think about progressive men, because both Suzanne and I are progressives, both on the left with both actually good people. I just want to say that because you often forget about that, we actually try to do good things in the world. We’re flawed like everyone, but we’re good. 

And in fact, when Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I did an Intelligence Squared debate with two blokes recently about cancel culture. Both of us were saying this is something that happens to women, it happens to poor women, it happens to black women. It happens to women who’ve lost their places at university, who’ve been kicked out of their friendship groups, who have been monstered and bullied. And you don’t get to hear about them. You just get to hear about those with a profile like Suzanne and I. But what about all of these women?

And all these two blokes could do was talk about the right-wing white privileged men like David Starkey, like Yiannopoulos. They’re the only examples that they could give about how there’s no such thing as cancel culture. All it is, is progressives’ finally having a voice to shut the fascists and the bigots up. Well where are Suzanne and I in that? Because we’re not powerful white blokes who are homophobic, racist and misogynistic. We’re largely speaking to the decent people. Why are we being no-platform, deplatformed, canceled, whatever you want to call it, alongside these men that yes, you would cross the road to avoid?

NELUFAR: Suzanne and Julie agree. They’ve been treated unfairly, yet they see themselves less as victims, but more survivors. They’re both proud of their resilience. 

SUZANNE: Yeah, I mean, things happened. It was really extremely hurtful. But you cannot take away my thousands of years of experience. You cannot take away my thought, you know, I mean, it’s you know, it’s a bit Orwellian, isn’t it? But you can’t actually make me think differently, and you cannot deny my experience. 

JULIE: I’m actually hoping that we can somehow inspire and encourage women, young women, young men to stand up and be counted, knowing that we’ve got their backs as well, because then those that come behind you and those with less privilege can also look to us for inspiration. And that’s what I would love. It would all have been worthwhile, all the hell over the past 16, 17 years on this particular issue, would be worth it. If there’s a group of women who could say, because of you, because of Suzanne, because of the other women that speak out, I’m going to do the same and know that we’ve all got each other’s backs. That’s politics. That’s feminism. 

NELUFAR: My deepest thanks to journalists Julie Bindel and Suzanne Moore for speaking with me. 

[SPACEY MUSIC]

NELUFAR: At this point in my journey to understand cancel culture, I really, I felt drained, confused. But what should I think? Clearly, getting canceled or even being unsuccessfully targeted for cancelation has real-world consequences for people. But does that mean we should cancel cancel culture completely? Isn’t it a good thing when hurtful people are called out? Or is it naive to think that the internet can ever be a forum that can deliver real justice and not just mob vengeance? 

I’ve been going around and around, but this isn’t just some philosophical exercise. My everyday existence is under the blinding glare of the media spotlight. I need to get this right. I don’t want to be called out again. I knew who was going to help me better understand and process all of this — or who three, anyway, So meet Sonya Renee Taylor, an author and an activist known for her movement The Body is Not an Apology and her TEDx talk on cancel culture. Isobelle Clarke is a senior research fellow at Lancaster University in the U.K., where she studies and deconstructs language on Twitter. And Naomi Baron, a renowned linguistics professor at the American University in Washington, D.C. Yeah, I assembled the A-team. I went to Naomi to find out about the linguistic origins of canceling. It goes back much further than I thought.

NAOMI BARON: I want to give a context you’re not expecting, and that is something written by Lewis Carroll in 1865 called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And there was a character called the Red Queen. And whenever there was something she didn’t like, she would simply say, “Off with their heads.” And I think that’s the best description of cancel culture as it’s practiced in the hyperbolic sense today. But this notion of “get at someone without even thinking through, without even giving a fair trial,” as we would say, goes way back in history.

NELUFAR: Well, it seems we’ve all well and truly fallen down this rabbit hole. Here’s Sonya. 

SONYA: I am not an “off with their heads” person, but I am a person who says, if people are in power and power is relational and contextual and can leverage that power to manipulate or harm me, can leverage that power to hold unconscious bias that they are unwilling to look at that consequently impacts my life, it is important to hold to account. So calling out is the space that we’re talking about right now. And then there is calling in, which is privately reaching out to someone, sharing what it is that they did, sharing why it was harmful. But the challenge with calling in is oftentimes the person who was harmed then is responsible for all of the emotional labor of carrying the person who harmed them to enlightenment. And I think that that is a replication of many of the ways in which we put the responsibility for healing, the problems that other people caused, on the people who were most impacted by those problems. 

NELUFAR: Now we’re really getting into it. And so this is when I turn to Isobelle, who has studied how people communicate, interact and even troll on Twitter. 

ISOBELLE CLARK: Twitter is based on following and following is non-reciprocal. So just because I follow someone doesn’t mean that they have to follow me back. And as a result of this, the size of a follower list, it’s often taken as a sign of status and importance. 

NELUFAR: Oh, my God, that’s me. When I go on Twitter, it’s because I want to feel validated because I’m like, oh, I’ve got 100 more followers. 

ISOBELLE: If you cancel someone, if you’re the first person to notice someone and cancel them, then you also gain attention. You’ll know that one person that’s called them out, then, and also you’re the one that’s opposing them. You’re showing opposition to them, which also gains attention. 

NELUFAR: This is it. This is it. This is a double-edged sword of cancel culture right here. On the one hand, as Sonya points out, it can help hold corporations and powerful people to account. On the other hand, it could be a self-feeding frenzy of getting that hit from someone liking your post or tweet. 

NAOMI: Here’s one of the dangers that I’m seeing. Once one has said, gee, I can cancel this politician and what I put online, you can engage in the same linguistic behavior by canceling somebody, let’s say, within your — I’ll talk about a university community. Because that’s what I’ve been hearing a lot about where what’s happening in my own university community is people are canceling individuals, I mean, really without a trial. And what’s happening is it’s not just I’m saying “I will never speak to you again because I don’t like your values or what you said.” You’re telling all these hundreds or thousands of other people how you feel about that person. And then through mob behavior, they’re saying, “Oh, I didn’t know this was such a terrible person. OK, let’s all cancel him or her.” And this poor individual may be treated wrongly, and you don’t know. 

SONYA: Part of the reason we’re seeing this mob behavior, this sort of thing, is because what we’re doing is we’re raising to the surface a different level of what we decided is acceptable and not acceptable in society anymore. And I think that raising awareness is necessary. I think the problem is that along with raising that, we haven’t changed the way in which we deal with certain kinds of grievances. We haven’t changed. We deal with people’s problematic behaviors, and so we treat everything with the same sort of punitive, carceral way in which we deal with all issues in society. 

ISOBELLE: I feel like canceling someone should often be sort of this last resort that we do. And I think we’re all entitled to make mistakes and make errors and say the wrong things. But as long as we are aware of those wrong things and we’re given an opportunity to learn from them, this whole idea of canceling, it sometimes takes it to a point where we’re not given a chance to learn. We just suddenly canceled. 

NELUFAR: I feel like we burn things to ashes, including people. We treat people with the most basic of the characteristics, with the simplest of mistakes or errors they have made, a crime. How quickly things happen in cancel culture. I really want to get you guys’ opinion on that. 

NAOMI: Take the phrase “rush to judgment,” which within the law suggests maybe you haven’t looked at all the evidence. So the notion of speeding things up, even long before there was the internet already was in our consciousness. What the internet has done, as you have correctly depicted, is said, “You have to have an answer to the questions right this minute,” rather than saying, “Here’s a problem. Now, let’s think about it. Let’s see if there’s a case to be made.” 

ISOBELLE: Yeah, and consequently, that means that there’s an assumption of guilt. Well, you wouldn’t like — rather than hearing from both sides of the story and allowing some would sort of justify what they’re saying or amend what they’re saying, it’s just, “You’re guilty and we’re not going to forgive you for it.”

NAOMI: But just one thing to add here. You look at some of the issues of cancel culture having to do with sexual inappropriateness of people in positions of power. So the Harvey Weinstein case. People were really upset and rightly so, but that went to a court, and the court got to decide whether there was evidence or not.

NELUFAR: Trial by media or Twitter. The distinction here is super, super important. What I’m hearing from Naomi, Sonya and Isobelle isn’t that cancel culture needs to be canceled, but that too often for good reason or bad, it’s a fait accompli. The thing not being said out loud when we all accept cancel culture in its current form is that it narrows discourse down to the correct opinion. And frankly, whatever you believe, we can all agree that a correct opinion — well, that’s just ridiculous. But Sonya had a more nuanced rebuttal to my view. 

SONYA: So here’s the problem. I think that we are assuming that the systems that are in place to handle these things are impartial and have generally worked in favor of the people who are most harmed by the systems. And I disagree with that wholeheartedly. There is nothing, as me as a black woman, there is very little reason that I have to trust the courts to render opinions that actually honor me, in in cases of sexual assault, in cases of race, that there’s not a history, that I will be treated fairly. 

NAOMI: Amen, amen. I’m not questioning that principle. 

SONYA: But secondly, this person who has been accused of significant harm still gets to hold power while that mechanism rolls. 

NELUFAR: I totally get that. But like power is the key to cancel culture. Cancel culture should only apply with relation to how powerful the people we want to cancel are. When you’re trying to cancel old Steve from, like, the English faculty, who is just like maybe a little creepy or whatever, but he’s not actually a bad guy. Should we be canceling normal people the same way we cancel celebrities, should there not be a different system? 

SONYA: Power is relational. Power, so power only exists in the context of relation. So old Steve, the faculty member at the university, absolutely has power, and “creepy” is a vague word that we use to talk about “harmful.” It is important to hold Steve to account, and “account” doesn’t necessarily mean “cancellation.” And I think that’s the piece that we have got to wrestle with. 

NAOMI: You probably need more characters than you have in an average tweet. A big part of the problem with a lot of our online communication is it’s too short to explain what the issues are. So one of the things I think we really need to ask is, to the extent we want to have social interaction and judgment done in online space, what is a civil conversation with another person? If you’re going to accuse me of something, tell me why. What’s your evidence? Not just: “I accuse,” but, “I accused you because I think you did such and such.” And that takes far more work than most of us have been willing to put forth. 

NELUFAR: Naomi, Isobelle, Sonya, I want to know your concluding thoughts on cancel culture. Is it a performance of shaming people or is it the last resort of the too-often oppressed? I want to come to you first, Naomi. 

NAOMI: I’ll give you two answers. If we’re talking about a social ill that has to be reexamined writ large or a very public figure who holds power not just as popular and makes money, but who holds power, then I think cancel culture has a real function. 

However, when it comes to individuals, I would like to remind us that nobody is telling us we have to have a Twitter account, we have to have a Facebook account, or we have to use our smartphones. We have become a totally neurotic society by saying we have to package ourselves to impress other people, to get lots of likes and to get lots of followers. What kind of human beings are we becoming? And I think one of the main things that cancel culture has done in terms of targeting private individuals is giving us an opportunity to rethink who we want to be as human beings, who we want to be as social creatures. We do not have to be online for our whole lives to either put out or take in negative commentary. 

NELUFAR: Isobelle, let me come to you. 

ISOBELLE: So I think it can be quite problematic to view all instances of cancel culture or public shaming as sort of one-size-fits-all. I mean, by and large, if the powerless are becoming powerful, through canceling, I think that’s a really good step towards just like social progress. But if canceling is largely for this whole gaining of attention, then really it’s used for the wrong instances. 

NELUFAR: Let me come to you now, Sonya. Is it just the latest form of pieing someone in the face or is it a bastion of the uprising of the often oppressed?

SONYA: I think even your question speaks to the challenge that we face, which is that we are so easily persuaded to organize things in the binary. Either it is this or it is that. And I would offer that it is all of the above, and that we are all of the above, the systems and structures that get called to task inside of what we’re calling cancel culture. Our systems, the structures that for decades, centuries, have needed to be called to task. And those systems and structures reside in us. And so the same ways in which we see harm being perpetuated at the systemic level, we see harm being perpetuated at the individual level, both by what people do to us and how we choose to be with others. And so I really think this is an opportunity for us to say where are these systems? How do they cause harm? How am I showing up as a replication of that system in this interaction right now? And what do I need to do to change that? 

NELUFAR: My thanks to Sonya Renee Taylor, Isobelle Clarke and Naomi Baron. 

[PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]

NELUFAR: Canceling may be as old as time, but it’s thriving off the lightning speed and constantly changing landscape of social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube. There definitely needs to be a recalibration of what is and isn’t acceptable. But that will take time, and it will take all of us on every encounter with cancel culture being misused to speak up. And having said that, there is an important thing to note that over the last perhaps six months, there’s been a shift in who is claiming to be victimized by cancel culture. 

There are people hiding behind the facade of supposedly being silenced to justify the right to say anything they want, no matter how hurtful, intolerant or false. This year’s theme for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, as it’s known in the U.S., was “America Uncanceled,” and speaker after speaker railed against cancel culture. Here’s Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan. 

ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF JIM JORDAN: They canceled the host of The Bachelor. They canceled the start of Mandalorian. They’re coming after Fox News, Newsmax, One America News. You see, last week they tried to cancel Kermit the Frog and Mr. Potato Head. You see that? They backed off Mr. Potato Head. I think he told them his preferred pronouns were he/his/him, right? I mean, this is scary where the left wants to go.

For me, the future is unclear about the utility of cancel culture. Will it serve the disenfranchised and dispossessed that too often have been overlooked and hurt? Or will it be another tool in the arsenal of bigots to silence the very people who cancel culture originally meant to empower? 

[REFLECTIVE MUSIC]

Whoo! That’s our episode. What did you think? Please tweet your thoughtful, insightful and non-trolling comments to me. I’m @Nelufar. I love hearing from you, or you can tweet us @DohaDebates. And here’s one more request. Please write us a review of this show, if you can. It really helps spread the word about what we’re trying to do. 

Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy with producers Sarah Kendal, Sofía Sánchez and Rosie Julin. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.