Louise O'Neill: 'Would I say that I believe in Cancel Culture? No'

When all of the sympathy is reserved for those being ‘cancelled’, how much is left over for the vulnerable people hurt by their actions?
Louise O'Neill: 'Would I say that I believe in Cancel Culture? No'

Louise O'Neill: "I can only imagine how terrifying it must be at the eye of that storm". Picture: Miki Barlok

Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of an interview, I enter into what can only be characterised as a fugue state. Afterwards, I have no recollection of what I said. I beg my partner to listen back to the podcast or read the newspaper feature and tell me if I’ve said or done anything stupid that would torpedo my career. 

I am, I suppose, afraid of Twitter stirring awake, swallowing me and my reputation whole. I’ve seen it happen to other people — an Irish journalist who was attacked by a celebrity’s fans because they were upset by the headline of an opinion piece; the author of a novel about an abusive sexual relationship between a teacher and his student accused of plagiarising a memoir exploring similar themes. And I’ve read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, a non-fiction book which looks at how the concept of public shaming has re-emerged as an internet phenomenon. 

Jon Ronson: So You've Been Publicly Shamed
Jon Ronson: So You've Been Publicly Shamed

I can only imagine how terrifying it must be at the eye of that storm, to feel as if your life has been destroyed in the blink of an eye because of one mistake, one stupid joke, one misguided tweet. And yet, despite all that, would I say that I believe in Cancel Culture? The answer is simple — no.

I listen to a pop culture podcast called Keep It, and one of the co-hosts, Louis Virtel, often remarks that what the media loves to term as Cancel Culture would be better phrased as Consequence Culture. There’s a truth to that. 

If you’re a sexual predator and have assaulted dozens of women, there should be consequences for that. (Many would argue that the courtroom is the best place to seek those consequences and I would agree: if the legal system did more to protect victims rather than prove, time and time again, that justice is rarely served when it comes to violence against women.) 

If you have made racist, homophobic, or misogynistic comments, people should be allowed to express their disapproval. 

If you are someone with enormous reserves of wealth which you have often channelled into political causes you are passionate about, it’s understandable that some may feel anxious when you cast your gaze on an already marginalised group of people.

Summer 2020 was known as the 'Summer of the Karens', as videos of white people behaving badly went viral. The case of Amy Cooper is a perfect example of this.

A birdwatcher in Central Park said she needed to keep her dog on its leash, and she responded by calling 911. “I’m gonna tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she says, deploying her whiteness with chilling ease.

The implications of a white woman calling the cops on a black man — black men are six times more likely to be killed by police in the US — caused outrage on social media and Cooper was fired from her job within days. As every small child who has ever been banished to the Naughty Step knows, there will always be consequences for bad behaviour.

However, the idea of Cancel Culture has been weaponised by many on the right and it has proven to be an effective method of deflecting legitimate criticism. 

Critics shouting about “PC gone mad!” and “you can’t say anything anymore!”, without examining what it is you actually want to say, and examining the reasons why you want to say such things if it dehumanises other people because of their sexuality, race, or gender.

And really, are people actually getting ‘cancelled’?

The likelihood is that Amy Cooper will find another job, quietly and without fanfare. Even given her contentious stance on trans rights, JK Rowling isn’t in danger of facing censorship any time soon; her new book sold twice as many copies in its first week as its predecessor. 

Rowling isn’t being silenced, any newspaper or TV show in the world would fall over themselves to give her a platform on which to discuss her views. Louis CK is back touring despite being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Lena Dunham has been buried and resurrected so many times, she’s practically Lazarus of Bethany. 

And yet still, the media rush to portray a society torn apart by Cancel Culture with a striking lack of nuance. They paint a picture of an angry mob, marching to the offender’s house with their pitchforks and torches, teeth bared, citing abuse and online bullying. 

It’s frustrating because often when you scroll through the tweets in question, 95% of them are written in good faith. The 5% that are abusive, the messages which threaten death or rape, are completely unacceptable and are denounced by most people as such. And yet it is this small minority of tweets that are held up as ‘proof’ of guilt, as a way to misrepresent activists fighting for Trans Rights or the Black Lives Matter movement as violent and dangerous. 

When all of the sympathy is reserved for those being ‘cancelled’, how much is left over for the vulnerable people hurt by their actions?

Louise Says:

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