‘Cancel Culture’ could be one of the most polarising social movements of our time: for some an overdue way of speaking truth to power, for others evidence of a mob mentality in a moralistic new world.
In a strange convergence, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump are critics, Trump calling it the very definition of totalitarianism, while Obama considers it to be ineffective activism which fails to recognise that the world is messy and that good people are flawed.
Defined as the ‘calling out’ of people considered to have done or said something offensive, it is inextricably entwined with the powerful rise of social media where information is easily shared, interest groups are connected, and ‘exposure’ is instantaneous and far-reaching, with major professional, social and financial consequences.
The literary world has not been left unscathed with writers JK Rowling (Harry Potter) and Jeanine Cummins (American Dirt) attracting waves of vocal disapproval for contentious statements and alleged cultural appropriation respectively. US Senator Josh Hawley’s book contract was cancelled after the Capitol uprising; a publisher backed out of Woody Allen’s memoir after a social media and staff backlash; in Canada, best-selling Jordan Peterson was the subject of a publishing staff revolt.
It’s a minefield of legal and commercial concerns, freedom of speech issues, and moral challenges. So, what is reasonable tolerance, and where does the right to say or print what you believe cross the line? Who decides what is offensive or unacceptable? Should businesses and individuals profit from speech and writing that spreads misinformation or prejudices others? And are some groups more protected when it comes to deciding what voices should and will be heard?
In a free-ranging discussion, journalist David Cohen, who has written about the subject extensively for The Spectator and other journals, transgender author Caitlin Spice, who has a large social media following, and author, poet, speaker and activist Sonya Renee Taylor, take up the debate with Catriona Ferguson.