Guilty until proven innocent: is it time to cancel cancel culture?

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THE COMMENT

In this week’s second instalment of The Comment, Getintothis’ Nathan O’Hagan discusses the toxicity of cancel culture and argues that it may just be time to cancel it. 

In the time it takes you to read this article, at least one of your heroes will have been cancelled. 

Well, perhaps not, but it feels as though every time one logs onto Twitter at the moment, another celebrity or artist of some sort has been called out for something they are alleged to have said or done, or for an ill-thought out tweet, often a tweet from years ago that has somehow resurfaced. 

Clearly, some people unequivocally deserve cancellation, and a whole lot more. Many high profile people have faced allegations, and convictions, of gravely serious sexual offences. But, while there is a special place in hell for these people, others guilty of far less egregious transgressions seem to be treated with similar disdain.

It’s surely symptomatic of our instant gratification culture, which itself has been amplified by social media, that we go straight to ‘cancelled’, rather than thinking, “yes, I disagree with what this person has said/done, but maybe I can still like their books/films/music, and hope that they learn from this.”

Obviously there are different levels to this, dependent on the seriousness of the ‘crime’. Morrissey, for example, has survived for decades with many fans, me included, able to separate some of his troubling views from his music to some extent.

In recent years, though, those views seem to have become more and more extreme, and his proud association with the far-right For Britain party and defence of Tommy Robinson have proved too much even for many of the fans who had just about managed to stick by him over the years. Again, me included. 

Liam Neeson whilst promoting his most recent film (Taken 12 or some variation on the ageing action thriller template he now churns out), recounted an incident from his youth where a friend was raped by a black man, and he went out seeking revenge against any black man he happened across.

Clearly this was a deeply unpleasant incident, and a clumsy equivalence to use when promoting a daft revenge thriller. Neeson’s lame “I’m not a racist” defence didn’t cut much mustard. Clearly, at the time, Neeson had a racist thought and was intent on carrying out a violent hate crime. Whether he realised it then and whether or not he can acknowledges it now, Neeson clearly was a racist.

But his recounting of this incident was him attempting to point out, albeit in a cack-handed, white male privileged way, that revenge is an unhealthy thing. So what was the correct reaction to this? Is it to hope that while guilty of racism at the time, he had learned from this experience, and could learn a further lesson from the reaction to his anecdote, or was it to instantly cancel him?

Should we never watch Schindler’s List again?

Of course, this is all a choice for the individual. I wouldn’t dream of telling someone they must listen to Morrissey on a loop, or watch the director’s cut of Darkman.

If an individual decides they no longer able to listen to or watch any given artist because of their views, that’s their choice. What feels troublesome is the instant galvanising of the Twitter mob.

‘Witch hunt’ is a term that is often used lazily and inappropriately when it comes to widespread outrage, but the level of hysteria evident in some people in these circumstances is not too far removed. In the rush to outrage, sometimes innocent people get trampled.

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We were all quick to judge Johnny Depp when allegations of domestic abuse surfaced. How foolish we all look now it has emerged that Depp was, in fact, the victim, rather than the perpetrator.

There are plenty of valid reasons to cancel Depp, Mortdecai and The Lone Ranger being just two, but this was not one. The worst thing is that, even if Depp clears his name and successfully sues The S*n, sometimes mud sticks.

‘Virtue signalling’ is another term beloved of the right. But, as cancel and outrage culture have accelerated so rapidly in the last year or so, it has now actually become quite apt and, in Depp’s case, thanks to our rush to show how outraged we were, a man’s name may now be unfairly associated with something as vile as domestic abuse.

In some ways there is something brilliantly organic about ordinary people using the platform afforded them by Twitter to hold more powerful people and organisations to account.

But the speed with which we now cancel leaves little room for intellectual grey areas. 

It looked as though Louis C.K.’s career may be finished in light of some pretty grotesque allegations against him, which he immediately admitted were all true, and pledged to go away for a period of self reflection.

When he returned to stand-up less than a year later, he drew immediate criticism for his routine, which included material about the Parkland shooting. Uncomfortable stuff, but this is what he has been doing his entire career.

To cancel him for his repugnant sexual impropriety is fine, and to question whether ten months away from the public eye is sufficient time for self reflection is valid, but to cancel him for being a controversial comedian seems a worrying road to go down.

The same could be said about Dave Chappell and Kevin Hart. One has to wonder how long someone like Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce would have lasted in the current climate. 

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It’s worrying that comedy, of all things, is one of the mediums most regularly under attack. The right have been claiming for years that it’s impossible to joke about anything anymore, and how humourless liberals/the left are. At this rate, we’re in danger of proving them right. 

The tipping point for all this has now, surely, been reached and breached given the reaction to chancellor Rishi Sunak posting an image of himself holding a pack of Yorkshire Teabags. Of course, to react to these transparent attempts by out-of-touch politicians to portray themselves as ordinary chaps with mockery is entirely rational and correct.

But the overriding tone wasn’t one of mockery, it was outrage. And not even with the politician in question, but with Yorkshire Tea itself.

Within minutes of the initial tweet, the poor sod tasked with running Yorkshire Tea’s social media account had been flooded with furious replies from people blaming them for allowing their brand to be associated with the Tory party and calling for a mass boycott of the tea.

Lists of all the terrible things that had been done by this government, from austerity, to an increase in homelessness, to Brexit, were cited. Many seemed to assume this was somehow a deliberate marketing ploy by the brand itself, as though they were in cahoots with the government and using this as promotional material, and therefore tacitly approved all its policies. 

Of course, this was not the case. Yorkshire Tea were not in any way involved with the tweet. Although, while the social media team no doubt wish it had never happened, the sales team were probably grateful for the spike in sales from the anti-woke brigade now pledging to buy Yorkshire Tea to ‘trigger the lefties’. 

The eventual response from the person trying to navigate their way through this completely unnecessary storm was far more reasoned than the people attacking them deserved. 

And let’s not forget this came just days after a woman had taken her own life, having been the victim of a Twitter pile-on. 

This has become a central issue in the ideological battle between left and right that seems to be playing out on Twitter, and one that the right are weaponising. It’s all gone way too far, and, as cancel culture seems to be something propagated primarily by the left, it’s time for the wokies to wake up and realise that we need to, well, cancel it. 

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