“Cancel Culture”: Why We Must Not Snub Difference of Opinion

Cancel Culture: Why we must not snub difference of opinion

Qabas Al-Musawi

Qabas Al-Musawi is a recent graduate of the MA Legal and Political Theory from UCL and also acquires a BSc in Political Science and History from Brunel University London. Her primary interests are human rights, justice, power and authority, and the role of political theory within modern society.

9th April 2021

George Frey | AFP via Getty

In recent years, social media has become a quintessential vice for many young people to socialise, entertain, and even advertise businesses. It has also become an effective tool of political awareness through the quick and easy distribution of information; in a matter of hours, one Tweet or Instagram post can be seen, liked, and reposted by thousands of people.


This has allowed the younger generations to be more politically conscious and informed on issues they may have otherwise not have had access to. More recently however, it has manifested into something more than a mere source of information. It has instead become a platform that furthers a certain narrative and snubs the views and opinions of the opposing side. 


The terms “cancel culture” and being “cancelled” are terms familiar to all those who use social media. Cancel culture identifies, targets, and de-platforms individuals in the public arena who display patterns of what is believed to be offensive or immoral behaviours. They have effectively been culturally boycotted, or “cancelled”, by losing their followers and their platform. This collective self-censorship praises itself in being the bearer of legitimate criticism.


While it once amounted to some good, by distinguishing the moral character from the immoral and influencing people to not revere morally flawed individuals, it has in recent years developed to something much more. It is no longer about whether someone expresses unmistakably prejudiced opinions but rather used to ostracise and call-out those who express controversial or merely different personal opinions. An example of which is the backlash received by J.K. Rowling in June 2020 following her retweet of an op-ed piece which referenced “people who menstruate”. The Harry Potter author expressed that replacing the word “women” with “people” in such contexts conflates sex and gender which erases cisgender women and their struggle throughout history to have their voices heard. This was taken as an attack and an attempt to silence transgender women when in fact she expressed a view that, I believe, is very much credible. It is imperative to distinguish between sex and gender in certain spaces, such as when the dialogue pertains exclusively to cisgender women’s issues i.e. menstruation. If there is no such distinction, soon the word “woman” and “female” will be completely omitted from all dialogue. Like J.K Rowling, feminists who have who express similar views are often accused of being TERFs, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, on social platforms. Defamatory labels such as this derail the dialogue from having the potential to generate intellectually-stimulating conversations to a back-and-forth of intimidation and name-calling.  


For this reason, cancel culture finds itself in the midst of debates on free speech and censorship. While the term itself is relatively new, the idea behind it is certainly not. Throughout political theory, the limitations (if any) on free speech has been one of the most contentious topics of discussion. J.S. Mill offers the most famous liberal defence of free speech in postulating that any form of speech is permitted no matter how immoral it may seem to someone else, as long as it does not transgress on others’ rights. It is precisely what these rights are that both those who champion and those who oppose cancel culture cannot seem to agree on. These rights may range from freedom of religion and expression to right to life, liberty and security. One example is the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo which depicts satirical cartoons of immigrants in France as well as certain religions and religious figures. Some people defend these depictions on the grounds that they are practicing their freedom of speech, as mandated under French law, and using satire to make social commentaries. However, others believe it is a form of hate speech as it specifically targets certain groups that are already marginalised in French society. Allowing a magazine that reproduces racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic tropes under the guise of satire would be allowing speech that dehumanises immigrants and further encourages intolerance. 


One thing that does remain clear is that there can be tyranny in the majority and tyranny in the prevailing opinion by imposing the collective opinion on self-governing individuals, fashioning them into mere imitations of one another. It removes individual agency and the free will to express your views, which is the essence of what it means to be an autonomous human being. The free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and opinions is what drives society to intellectual progression and constraining that impedes chances of reforming society for the better. Smaller-scale evidence of this is seen in research conducted by McKinsey on the efficacy of diversity on workplace performance patterns. This study finds a correlation between a diverse workforce with a range of differing opinions and a drastic improvement in the company’s customer orientation, employee satisfaction, decision making, as well as a 35% increase in their financial returns. 


Cultural studies scholar Frances Lee likens this wave of social media activism to dogmatic religion that dictates how people should live their lives. It has led to self-policing where people do not dare to pose a different opinion or even question the mainstream for fear that they may be the next target of this call-out culture. It exudes power on all those who navigate the space of social or mainstream media, from influencers to viewers.


I cannot help but link this pattern to what the political theorists Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner identify as a detrimental psychological impact of living under arbitrary power. Arbitrary power here means power that is subjective and not based on known procedures and effective rules i.e. cancel-culture. To be dominated by another agency is to be “unfree”; we remain so insofar as we enjoy our liberties by the grace of someone with this arbitrary power over us. In being unfree subjects, we practice unsolicited self-censorship to avoid being penalised by them.


When civilised, safe, and constructive, allowing different opinions to be freely expressed produces favourable outcomes.  Even if they may seem nonsensical or immoral to some, silencing them assumes the infallibility of a certain narrative. Every individual possesses a moral code and a value system through which they perceive and judge the world. Some base it on their religious beliefs, some on the law of the land, and others on their own personal opinion. This means that, inevitably, certain viewpoints will be considered immoral to some but not to others as we all base our moralities on subjective foundations. For example, abortion; a highly-contentious topic where those who disagree with it believe it to be an immoral practice and a violation of foetal personhood. Are they now not allowed to express this belief on a public media platform without being cancelled and having their social standing taken away? In the age of digital media, it is imperative to create a safe space for all sides to freely and respectfully express their views and opinions without risking the loss of their social standing. To allow this culture to coerce people into a consensus obstructs this progressive dialogue and transgresses on the democratic freedom of speech.

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