BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 30 DEC 19

Does Cancel Culture Work?

The moral high-ground has been claimed by many in the 2010s; it has also been placed in perpetual doubt

BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 30 DEC 19

Like a dad kicking-off because his daughter took a class in gender studies and now refuses to watch Top Gear (2002–ongoing), the 2010s have been a decade of the old hurling insults at the young. Their slur of choice? Snowflake: a liberal who melts at the first sign of racism, transphobia, misogyny or environmental catastrophe. Generation snowflake, however, turned out to have venom in their ice crystals. Ok boomer, they retorted, channelling the combined energy of Frozen (2013) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). We’ll use the skills we learnt spending the best years of our lives on the internet to mobilize a troll army and cancel you. The battle lines were drawn for a decade of moral warfare: millennials found a new bloodsport, nuance was about as fashionable as the plastic straw and nobody was considered too big or too small for public shaming.

UK Army posters. Courtesy: Ministry of Defence

Cancel-culture began in earnest in 2013 with the Justine Sacco debacle. ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’, the New York-based PR executive tweeted to her 170 followers from the runway at JFK airport. Whether it was racist or an attempt at ironizing white ignorance, by the time she landed in South Africa she was top-trending on Twitter and her life was in ruins. The pile-on became such a popular pastime that Jon Ronson wrote a book about it, and a new form of pariah-celebrity emerged. Enter Nkechi Amare Diallo, formerly Rachel Dolezal, born white but living as a black woman in Washington state – until her parents shopped her to the press in 2015 and she became a global symbol for centuries of cultural appropriation. She lost her job and her friends. She also got a Netflix show and a book deal. When you take the paper sleeve off the hardback edition, the cover underneath is brown. (Geddit?) Whatever you think of Diallo, she never wavered from a conviction that she was born into the wrong body, presenting a conundrum for our era of identity politics: Can a person be ‘transracial’?

Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, 2015. Courtesy: Picador

The #MeToo movement saw numerous powerful men accused of sexual harassment and assault successfully cancelled from public life. Here’s to no longer looking at you, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and the former Artforum publisher Knight Landesman*. After it came to light that the Sackler family had made a fortune from the opioid crisis, they fast became patrons non grata, their money declined by the UK’s National Gallery and Tate, their name removed from the walls of the Louvre. (After Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017, reportedly built with forced migrant labour, the idea of that museum taking the high-ground is about as credible as Trump leading a right to choose protest.) Anger at the display of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) at the Whitney Biennial 2017 bubbled over into international news. Schutz’s depiction of the dead Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy lynched by a white mob in 1955, triggered accusations of a white artist making a spectacle of black death. An open letter requesting the painting be removed and destroyed reached peak-mainstream when Whoopi Goldberg chastised the author on the talk show The View (1997–ongoing).

Whoopi Goldberg at The View, 2017. Courtesy: The View

Cancel-culture emerged from a colossal loss of faith in institutions to fix entrenched societal ills. If the establishment won’t listen, said the snowflakes, we’ll take matters into our own hands. Only sometimes the establishment had other ideas. After the artist Subodh Gupta was accused of sexual harassment on an anonymous Instagram account, he sued. In autumn 2019, the high court in Delhi ordered Google to remove around 18 news articles in connection with the allegations. Facebook, which owns Instagram, was also ordered to remove the accusatory content and, in a blow for whistleblowers, to reveal the names of the people behind the account. (Both Google and Facebook are contesting the orders.)

For all the shredded reputations, the decade is as notable for the ones who got away. The anti-snowflake brigade have developed some successful countermoves. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump consistently showed that if you arrive caked in dirt your supporters don’t mind when you lather on some more, and a climate has emerged in which any gesture of solidarity may be taken as evidence of a perverted leftie soul. ‘Is the baffling Turner Prize 2019 result just a virtue signal for the snowflake era?’, ran a headline in The Telegraph, following the nominees’ decision to share the award – a response taken straight from The Devil’s Guide to Parenting. (It’s not the taking part that counts, wimps, it’s the winning.) When students at Cardiff University petitioned to rescind a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer in 2015, on account of her chronic transphobic verbal-diarrhoea, she gave an object lesson in rebranding ‘being understandably unpopular’ as an urgent free-speech issue. Greer wracked up countless column inches and even threatened to cancel herself, before giving the talk accompanied by uniformed police.

Transgender rights activists protesting against a lecture by the feminist writer Professor Germaine Greer in Cardiff University, 2016. Courtesy and photograph:  Taz Rahman / Alamy Stock Photo

The moral high-ground has been claimed by many in the 2010s; it has also been placed in perpetual doubt. Be warned, 2020s. Like any blockbuster from the last decade, Cancel-Culture: Revenge of the Snowflakes is destined for endless sequels.

* It remains to be seen if the cancellations will be permanent. As the accused scramble to salvage their image no manner of spin is off the table. Ahead of his forthcoming trial for rape, Weinstein recently made the extraordinary claim, in a December interview with the New York Post, that he’d ‘done more for women than any other filmmaker’.

Main image: Dana Schutz, Open Casket (detail), 2016, oil on canvas, 99 × 135 cm. Courtesy: the artist and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer and editor. Her novel Sinkhole: Three Crimes is out with Montez Press.