Word of the day: cancel culture

Over recent years, we’ve seen the push for greater equality come in many shapes and forms – there have been the calls from Black Lives Matter protesters for an end to police brutality and racially-motivated violence against black people, the #MeToo movement has been campaigning against sexual abuse and harassment and has outed the worst offenders, and more and more people are calling for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. However, as the demand for more rights has increased, so too has the backlash against all of this. Much of the resistance to change is played out via social media, with particular buzzwords becoming vital weapons in the culture war.

I’ve already written about the word woke and the ways it’s now used to slap down those who speak out about social injustice. Today I’d like to explore the idea of cancel culture and look at how – and why – the word is generally used.

It’s a question that’s close to my heart as recently, when sharing a blog post about the positive discrimination that privileges certain EFL teachers because of where they were born, I was myself accused of encouraging ‘cancel culture on social media’, and warned that this ‘just divides different groups of people up even further’. I responded by pointing out that many job adverts are already discriminating on the basis of where applicants were born, which is incredibly divisive itself, and added that I struggled to see how commenting on this could create further division.

The argument raged on over another twenty or thirty comments, and went over plenty of very familiar ground. I was told that cancel culture and calling out people that you feel are guilty of discrimintion – criticizing them and challenging them to explain their words or actions – was encouraging aggression and anger; it would result in mobs of people rampaging around the Internet, completely out of control, hungry for blood – either metaphorically or even quite literally – and ultimately, it would lead to social breakdown and anarchy. When I tried to counter these arguments, I was then told that I was trying to cancel all disagreement – to prevent it from being aired, to stop any opposing voices from being heard. This frustrating exchange left me feeling that in this instance at least, ‘cancel culture’ seemed to be what people who don’t like anyone criticising discrimination call the criticism of discrimination.

Now, you may be thinking that this was simply an isolated incident, but a few days later, one of my in-laws forwarded on to me an article from the notoriously right-wing, Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post. I was informed that “apparently, Beethoven is the bad guy now” and that “the woke PC mob want to cancel him”. I read the linked article – titled CANCELING BEETHOVEN IS THE LATEST WOKE MADNESS FOR THE CLASSICAL MUSIC WORLD – and it was full of the by-now familiar linguistic tropes: there were the hysterical descriptions of woke fascists, the cancelling of Western civilization, online mobs seeking to silence dissent, and much more. The article begins by praising Beethoven’s work – and why not – before going on to claim that academics want to ‘cancel’ the great man ….. and that this is all tied in with BLM.

Curious about what may have elicited such a heated tirade, I then read the original article it was responding to. What was most striking about it was the fact that nowhere did it call for Beethoven – or anyone else for that matter – to be ‘cancelled’. Instead, it simply argued that the reverence for Beethoven is rooted in a white, male, upper-class viewpoint . . . and that there’s a lot of other amazing music out there that’s not getting heard as a result of this elitist perspective. That’s it.

This all begs the question of who’s cancelling who here. Are the academics asking for fresh new composers to be added to the repertoire of different orchestras somehow guilty of cancel culture? Are they naming and shaming people? Is their critique an act of social censure? Or are these accusations being weaponised by upper-middle class white men in order to maintain their grip on power and shut down other voices?

I shall leave it to you to make up your own minds on that one.

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Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which movements in your country have been pushing hardest for greater equality? Have they faced much of a backlash?
  • Have you heard any stories of (alleged) abusers being outed?
  • Have you heard any stories about police brutality anywhere?
  • Have you heard of any examples of companies or people getting named and shamed? Why?
  • How do you feel about the idea of calling out people that you feel have made offensive comments or done offensive things?
  • Do you think it’s actually possible to ‘cancel‘ people in the public eye? Can you give any examples?
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