• Tamara El-Halawani

Let's Take Some Accountability

Tamara El-Halawani looks at why we need to replace 'cancel culture' with 'accountability culture'.

Sitting with my Mum during lockdown, I was shown an article defending freedom of speech. Upon reading it, it appeared that most of my generation was regarded by hers as launching an attack against it, ready to rebuke anyone who said something that wasn’t ‘politically correct’. We were branded too sensitive, or told that we don't allow anyone to say anything in this climate. Moreover, many of us were lumped in with the Twitter mobs who angrily slammed their keys, igniting an internet attack as soon as they pressed ‘enter’ into a 280 character box. ‘Cancel culture’ has climbed its way back into our headlines.  


‘Cancelling’ someone originated as black twitter users used the hashtag on the platform to voice their opinion on issues that mattered to them. It quickly gained traction as conversations grew over the #MeToo movement, holding public figures to greater accountability for their appalling actions. This person would be culturally blocked from having a distinguished public platform or career as the following ensued: a celebrity or someone of public standing would say or do something offensive, the public would retaliate on social media armed with politically progressive views and then the #cancel that person would begin.


Those who engage in ‘cancelling’ someone often enlist activism as their justification for it. At its origins, this co-dependence appears true; those who are called out are used as an example of what you cannot say or do in society. Those who use racial slurs, that in our parents generations were acceptable, or stereotype whole groups of society, are publicly shamed by those who were oppressed. Yet, in its current form and as Obama stated, in October 2019, ‘woke [‘cancel culture’ is] ‘not activism’. It gives the perpetrator of ‘clicktivism’ a moral high where they feel superior to their peers but this doesn’t bring about change. It just ‘casts a stone’. 


It gives the perpetrator of ‘clicktivism’ a moral high where they feel superior to their peers but this doesn’t bring about change. It just ‘casts a stone’. 

The now infamous ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ published in Harper’s Magazine in July this year, disputed ‘a stifling atmosphere [that] will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time’. Over 150 academics, journalists, artists and academics signed it, declaring that society, and implicitly the left, has become more illiberal of opposing ideas. It suggested that free speech is being silenced and that this was a threat to democracy, built upon the free movement of ideas. It included JK Rowling, who recently tweeted ignorantly transphobic comments. What she and them were alluding to was ‘cancel culture’.

Chanté Joseph said on the Podcast ‘Podulting’ that, ‘For a long time, I think that the media have painted young people who are socially conscious as this hungry, foam at the mouth mob who literally just want to tear people down. But actually no, we are some of the most forgiving people... We are so much more direct about what we like and what we dislike and what we find problematic...but that doesn’t mean that you’re below being forgiven or the capacity and space for change.’ It is wholly agreeable that the ‘mob mentality’ that comes with ‘cancel culture’ is wrong; no individual should be bullied or sent death threats. 

This is where the term ‘cancel culture’ is frustrating; sometimes it is used to downplay legitimate criticism where someone might be trying to contribute to the broader discussion of a topic. This means that when people are scared to admit that they are wrong, rather than owning this and doing better, they choose to aggregate those who are criticising them with those who are giving them abuse. As highlighted in Reno Eddo Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, those with anti-racist views were seen as oppressors of ‘free speech’ in the 2015 British Rhodes Must Fall Movement. Objection by students at Oxford University calling for the removal of the statue of colonialist businessmen Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College launched the nation into debate. Those against its removal argued that it would be an undemocratic erasure of history, with the Chancellor of the University Lord Patten stating that the students were stifling the freedom of speech by protesting. In trying to stop a conversation in which students criticised their institution, he was preventing free speech. More widely, in the context of racism, it becomes clear that equality to the privileged feels like oppression.


This is where the term ‘cancel culture’ is frustrating; sometimes it is used to downplay legitimate criticism where someone might be trying to contribute to the broader discussion of a topic.

Similar debate began when students from the BlackEd movement and Elizabeth Lund at Edinburgh University campaigned in a petition for the renaming one of the most prominent buildings on campus. It had been named after David Hume, who held racist beliefs. Those against the renaming argued that taking away his name would be akin to trying to remove Hume from history. The campaign was challenging whether Hume should be so visibly celebrated, not asking for his work never to be read or discussed. While the initial counter name suggestion of Julius Nyerere drew criticism, Elizabeth Lund amended the petition to ‘not replace one bigot with another’. 


The idea that we live in an intolerant censorship driven society is unsupported by reality. We now live in perhaps one of the most controversial times where people are allowed to administer provocative statements to the masses. Those who think that ‘social justice warriors’ are a threat to free speech and democracy appear to be people whose privilege has camouflaged their ability to distinguish between criticism and censorship. In fact, those who are supposedly ‘cancelled’ are least likely to be ‘cancelled’, leading to some rendering the term as non-existent; JK Rowling still has her career and is due to be releasing a book, Shane Gillis, who had made homophobic and racist jokes and was dropped by Saturday Night Live, has since hosted many shows and R.Kelly and Michael Jackson saw increases in their music sales in 2019. Katie Hopkins also complained recently about being ‘cancelled’ after her account was removed from twitter. Her presentation as ‘cancelled’ has brought new fans as she continues to grow a new platform on Instagram. She wasn’t ‘cancelled’; her account was taken down as she was promoting hateful speech, against Twitter guidelines.

The idea that we live in an intolerant censorship driven society is unsupported by reality.

The sad irony is that the people who openly criticise these ideas tend to be those who had been historically silenced, and are minorities at the greatest risk of cancel culture. This isn’t to say that some people’s infractions aren’t tone-deaf or offensive. However, it helps the people at the tops of companies to fire employees at the bottom of the pyramid; the minimum amount of social radicalism is done rather than a change made to the infrastructure in which these views were built. 


‘Cancel culture’ needs to be changed; it is wrong for those behind a screen to send abusive messages to those who have been ignorant and made stupid mistakes. In cases such as Harvey Weinstein, the person ought to lose their platforms for the horrific acts that they have committed and profited from. When posts promote hate or violence, it becomes the duty of social media companies to remove the account. More generally though, it is unrealistic to think that humans are incapable of fault. ‘Accountability culture’ would allow for redemption, for someone to apologise and their wrong to be a step closer to a right. ‘Cancel culture’ is the scapegoat used when we don’t have time to attack the systems of inequality practically and productively. It is these structures that young people can tackle as we educate ourselves and those around us. Black Lives Matter is an example of what happens when people channel their frustrations productively. As a result and with this compassion, we are seeing a cultural shift in our generation towards progressive change. 


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