Cancel culture isn’t about denying freedom of speech, it’s about consequences

Piers Morgan
Piers Morgan storms off of the 'Good Morning Britain' set. ITV/Screengrab

Piers Morgan refutes a woman’s suicidal ideation and racism claims. Sharon Osbourne is accused of numerous racial slurs. Andrew Cuomo is called out for alleged sexual misconduct and even assault.

All these individuals are in the public eye. They all are white, wealthy and wield varying degrees of power and privilege, but putting these unsurprising similarities aside, they have also all been labelled by many right-wing politicos as the latest victims of cancel culture.

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It seems weekly, even daily we hear about individuals or institutions being called out for racism, sexism, even sexual assault. But when such claims are made, instead of focusing on the behaviour that caused the initial indignation, instead the outrage is redirected toward “cancel culture.”

But cancel culture, or as I refer to it, consequence culture, serves as a means by which minorities and marginalized groups are demanding that public discourse shift from those historically in power, to include all members of society. It is about holding individuals and institutions accountable for their actions. It is about consequences for wrongful behaviour.

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Yet critics of cancel culture argue it is an infringement on their free speech.

The likes of Piers Morgan want us to believe that cancel culture is a new phenomenon that is threatening our very democracy.

“If our rights to free speech are denied, then democracy as we know it will die. It’s time to cancel the cancel culture before it kills our culture,” Morgan recently penned in his first piece for The Daily Mail since abruptly leaving Good Morning Britain last month.

Click to play video: 'Piers Morgan storms off the set of ‘Good Morning Britain’'
Piers Morgan storms off the set of ‘Good Morning Britain’

Cancel culture has existed for centuries. The difference is, up until recently, only those (predominantly white) people in positions of power were doing the cancelling and not just metaphorically. Entire communities have been silenced throughout our history — particularly Black, brown, Asian, Indigenous and LGBTQ2 voices have been degraded, abused and erased for centuries.

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In 1983, two years after I immigrated to Canada from England, my own experiences with racism began. I was five years old at the time. I was cancelled time and time again for not being white enough or wealthy enough.

I’d hear things like, “Dirty P-KI!” or “You smell like curry” or “Go back home!”

Sometimes they were overt racial slurs. Sometimes it was more covert, like the exclusion of invitations to join certain clubs or events as I got older into adolescence. Then, I would hear things like, “you probably can’t afford to come” or “there won’t be anyone like you there.”

It continued into adulthood. For example, at an annual film conference, one of my white clients once asked me, “Do you feel out of place because you’re not white like everyone else here?” I hadn’t felt out of place until that moment when I was subtly told I didn’t quite fit.

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Until recently, the reasons for cancellation have been different, whether it be a failure to meet levels of whiteness, straightness or class. But make no mistake, this has been the real cancel culture at play for years. And sadly, for many, this still feels much more palatable than speaking out against any injustice or humanitarian reason.

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The problem with cancel culture is that the dialogue very easily shifts away from the actual issue deserving attention, be it an act of racism or sexism, to a conversation on political correctness. Yet cancelling isn’t about pushing political correctness, nor is it a means of policing morality, for that matter. It is about consequences for behaviour.

In sports, you are given a red card, put on the sidelines, even ejected altogether for bad behaviour — it is not refuted as cancel culture, it is simply seen as a consequence. It is accountability for actions. Yet we struggle to hold ourselves to these same standards in everyday life.

Click to play video: '‘Cancel Culture’ may not be a new phenomenon, Trent University experts say'
‘Cancel Culture’ may not be a new phenomenon, Trent University experts say

Inevitably, even when individuals or institutions are so-called cancelled, they still take up space in the public consciousness. This is how accusations of racism, xenophobia and homophobia are gaslit, and instead of focusing on victims, the narrative becomes centred on those who are being tasked with accountability.

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It is easy for many to sympathize with the accused as the victim — the victim of cancel culture, political correctness, wokeness — and vindicate them of their actual behaviour.

The truth is, if being cancelled had you fall from a position of power, you’re pretty certain to eventually fail back up.

Memories are short. Jessica Mulroney is back on Instagram with more followers than before she took time away to “listen and learn.” Chris Harrison will soon return to The Bachelor. Jay Leno’s garage will remain stacked. Louis C.K. will continue the stand-up circuit. Lori Loughlin will be making Hallmark movies again and J.K. Rowling will continue to rake in millions, as will the estate of Dr. Seuss.

Cancel culture has become a game of semantics, diversion, and distraction. But if you pay close enough attention, it’s easy to see the real cancel culture is still fiercely at play — one that promotes deep divides in equality between the haves and the have-nots, and one that ensures historic power structures remain intact.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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