This week’s Feminist Friday presentation, titled “Not Cancel Culture, Just Consequences,” unpacked the popular term and social movement termed “cancel culture.”
“...I am going to argue that we’ve always had cancel culture and it was just called consequences, it was just called accountability,” said Rita Mookerjee, an assistant teaching professor of women and gender studies at Iowa State and this week’s speaker.
Mookerjee defined cancel culture as a “public, social process that involves a call to cease support for something, usually a person or practice.” She also notes that a person or practice has been officially canceled when the call to cancellation has been sounded, assessed and enacted.
“In the public arena, we see cancellation processes working to affect feminist change, particularly when they involve high profile figures,” Mookerjee said.
She continued to state these high profile figures can include many public figures, such as celebrities and politicians. According to Mookerjee, cancellation can involve shaming, boycotting, financial loss and loss of credibility and reputation.
Mookerjee then explained a general timeline of what occurs when someone or something is being socially canceled. She said cancellation begins with an inciting incident, such as an act, utterance or something they wrote in the past or present.
Mookerjee then explained the different reactions the canceled individual might have.
“On the one hand, they might continue their behavior and speech… They deny the issue at hand. They deny the inciting incident or rob it of any meaning,” Mookerjee said. “Another outcome with denial can be that canceled person calling themselves a victim and calling for support from others — trying to defend their name."
While she notes wanting to defend your honor is a natural reaction, accountability is the correct reaction. Mookerjee said some canceled individuals will respond responsibly and in a positive light.
“Some people are canceled and they accept it. And they say ‘Wow, OK, that wasn’t great and I need to reflect. And I am sorry,’” Mookerjee said.
Mookerjee said the best response to being canceled is the most rare — apologizing and then taking steps to make a change. But, unfortunately, according to Mookerjee, many high profile figures, when being canceled, choose to either play the victim or make an ingenuine apology and continue their destructive behavior. She explained this isn’t the only issue with cancellation.
“The problem, one of many, with cancellation is that sometimes when we create a lot of discourse around a person or practice, they get more and more attention,” Mookerjee said.
She continued to say this could encourage the canceled individual to build up defense for themselves and can be difficult for audiences to witness as the issues gain momentum rapidly.
Mookerjee then went on to show an interview of former President Barack Obama speaking about activism and judgement online and on social media platforms.
In the video, Obama said many people believe being an activist for a certain topic only involves them being judgemental of other people. He said that’s not the right way to bring about change. Mookerjee had a different perspective.
“...One of the problems that we hear is that people deserve a second chance or they deserve room for improvement. I think that’s true for regular day-to-day people. I think with people that have money, people that have power, people that have both, there aren’t really excuses,” Mookerjee said. “I think that that attitude about compassion and support and needing to help people grow and change is very generous, and I don’t think it should be applied to people who have had the opportunity to [...] do all that.”
Mookerjee said if something is harmful to someone, they are well within their rights to call someone out. She said all feelings are valid and it is fair for people to share their thoughts and feelings.
“...Even though it can be very tempting to let things go, even though it can be very tempting to take the moral high ground [...], your feelings are real,” Mookerjee said.
She continued to say cancel culture has given a voice to those who are afraid to speak up and has given them a community to share their experiences with.
Mookerjee then said after the justice system has failed marginalized communities, it’s understandable to see why many individuals take to social media to express their feelings and experiences.
Mookerjee then examined one of the most famous cases of cancellation — that of American film producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexually harassing 87 individuals. Mookerjee briefly summarized Weinstein’s downfall, but focused on how rapidly he went from being a high profile celebrity to a largely hated man in America.
According to Mookerjee, the time between the initial accusation against Weinstein and the time when he was fired from his own company was less than two weeks. Mookerjee discussed the repercussions of Weinstein’s cancellation, such as multiple lawsuits and the social media movement known as #MeToo.
“You had people coming forward in [massive amounts] to fight the stigma around reporting their abuse, to share their story and to share that, ‘Yes, you’re not alone,’” Mookerjee said.
Mookerjee said #MeToo spilled over into many other communities and became a way for people to come together to reflect on abuse.
“I think it’s very exciting when we have these moments where a collective can form and all say, ‘We’re watching you,’” Mookerjee said.
Mookerjee said the first step of the cancellation process is identifying what the problem is. She then said the next step is verifying credible sources. She continued to say you should look at the history of the accuser and what their end goal is.
“If you agree and support the initiative — support the goal of the person accusing or the group accusing the canceled party — you should cease support of whatever is being canceled,” Mookerjee said.
Mookerjee said if you disagree with the goal of the accuser, it is best to have a conversation with the accuser and try to understand their perspective.
Mookerjee finished her presentation by reminding attendees to take responsibility for their actions, whether that is them being canceled or them attempting to cancel someone else, and to respect and consider the opinions of others.