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To cancel or not to cancel?

Amy Leibowitz media social justice social media

There’s been a lot across social media about She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named and her ongoing trans-antagonistic words and behaviors. I wanted to wait until some of the initial fury had passed to write this. (My fury, not other people’s.) The pause has given me some time to think about some bigger issues, like whether we can really separate the art from the artist and if there’s a widespread problem with “cancel culture."

First, can we enjoy a book or a film or a piece of music independently from the person who created it? That depends on several things. More often than not, the artists thoughts do indeed creep into their work. When we consume that work, we need to go into it with eyes wide open. It helps to be aware of systemic injustice and how media can feed into it subtly as well as overtly.

It also depends on who the consumer is. If that person is in a group being harmed by the artist’s words or actions, they have a right to determine for themselves what is or isn’t acceptable for them. Outside that, it’s wise to listen to their voices and understand why it’s an issue. Every single person in some way contributes to systems of injustice. Do you own a smartphone? Eat chocolate? Buy produce that isn’t locally grown? Purchase clothing from places like Walmart? Drive a car? There is a long, long list of things. There’s always a need to weigh the cost of what we think of as “ordinary behavior.” Just be mindful.

Second, is “cancel culture” out of control? That, too, depends on several things. Who is the target? A big-name author or musician or filmmaker probably stands to lose little other than their pride. When a lot of people are willing to speak up and remove their support, it can have an impact.

I also wonder what difference it really makes to some other random person if I choose not to read a particular author or watch movies from a certain filmmaker or play music by a specific composer. Is that honestly hurting anyone else? It’s my own choice. Folks may feel I’m somehow missing out, but so be it. I think I can find other media to consume should I choose to “cancel” someone.

The fact is, “cancel culture” is...not really a thing. Sure, there are blasts of people on social media saying it. Yes, it can be upsetting to be “cancelled.” It’s especially hurtful if you’re not anyone big or famous and the community you trusted turns on you. I’ve seen that happen. It’s usually one of two things: the person stood up for their principles, and bigots got mad; or they made a mistake and people took it personally. Small-time stuff tends to blow over if left alone, though.

And when it’s someone more well-known, then we have to seriously consider whether there’s a good reason for not consuming that person’s work. I’ve disengaged from things I feel uncomfortable continuing to support when there’s solid evidence of their bad behavior. In other cases, I’ve done diligent research to uncover how things started. And I’ve taken into consideration times when a fandom itself is highly problematic and toxic.

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own choices. It’s our job when these things crop up to listen to the people who are most harmed by an artist’s ideology. Then it’s our place to make responsible, informed decisions on how we plan to respond or engage going forward.

I know that doesn’t provide a clear, unambiguous answer. People are complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all-situations solution. The best we can do is keep learning, keep moving toward greater compassion and understanding. That should always be what guides us in making choices about what we consume.

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