Those who decry “cancel culture” are actually highlighting the power they hold, and the dissimilarity between being cancelled and being silenced.
Once upon a time (around 2017, if memory serves me correctly), the victims of sexual abuse, harassment, and humiliation overwhelmingly stayed silent about what had been done to them. They said nothing because they had been taught (groomed?) to internalize the behavior of their perpetrator and be ashamed that such a thing had happened to them.
They kept quiet because they had been taught (groomed?) since birth to accept that women – and, it seems, children – were vessels of temptation and that anything men did to them was all their own fault. They knew that if they did speak up they would not be believed, or, worse, be blamed and shunned. They knew this because the few who did speak experienced all that and worse.
After all, it was in the perpetrator’s interest to make sure that victims knew what they would suffer if they came forward. The brave few who did report their assault mostly did not go to court or, if they did, lost their cases. Only 1 in 10 reported sexual assaults result in a conviction in Australia [in the United States, it’s even less, only 1% lead to felony convictions]. And, even if they did win their case, victims were silenced by law, prevented on pain of legal sanction from speaking up about the abuse they suffered. As a result of determined campaigning by survivors like journalist Nina Funnell and 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame, these laws have been changing, but they have still not fallen everywhere. This legal silencing allows survivors’ stories to be warped and manipulated without comeback.
The #MeToo movement has changed a lot of this, including the rights of victims to own their own stories. Women, in their millions, sloughed off the shame they had carried – some for decades – and finally placed it where it belonged – in the laps of their perpetrators. Powerful figures came crashing down. Named and shamed by the very people – women and men and children – who they had once considered so unimportant they could be used and abused with impunity. In my view, it has been a long-overdue reckoning made possible by the internet. Centuries-old silencing was shattered by millions of voices raised all at once.
Until shockingly recently, members of the LGBTQI community were also silenced by law. Their sexuality was literally illegal. It still is in many parts of the world. The fear and shame attached to merely being same-sex attracted left many open to blackmail and living furtive, double lives. LGBTQI people in England, for example, developed their own language so they could recognize and speak freely to members of their own community without fear of being overheard, betrayed, and arrested.
It has been a long-overdue reckoning made possible by the internet. Centuries-old silencing was shattered by millions of voices raised all at once.
Things have thankfully changed in the past few decades, but it wasn’t until 2017 (that year again) that same-sex attracted Australians gained the right to marry the person they chose. And they had to endure the indignity and pain of waiting for the results of a “postal survey” before they knew if their fellow Australians had “given” them that right or not. The whole concept of “coming out” is predicated on the silencing of an entire community.
For generations, light-skinned POC “passed.” In other words, they allowed themselves to be identified as white so they could avoid the prejudice attached to their racial identity and access the privileges that go with being thought European. They silenced themselves about their origins and family background. The fear and pain of that can barely be imagined. Today, POC remain at high risk of being silenced by incarceration or even death. 434 Aboriginal Australians have died in custody since 1991. BLM is a movement that is all about refusing to stay silent in the face of oppression, brutality and actual murder.
Contrast this with the loud complaints of “cancel culture” we are currently hearing from those on the right, often men with huge platforms, powerful positions, accolades, awards, and prestige aplenty. They are being “cancelled” or “silenced” they claim because – um – and this is the bit I am not quite so clear about – people criticize their opinions these days. Some of them are even quite rude! Granted, some people have lost their jobs as a consequence of something they have said or done publicly. But employment and publication are not “rights.” They are responsibilities, they have always entailed expectations about behavior and consequences.
Far too often, it is the victim of poor behavior who has been forced to leave their job, rather than the perpetrator. Some powerful people have been publicly exposed and their reputations tainted and opportunities curtailed. A few have been accused, charged, tried, and convicted – like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein – but surely no one is arguing that crimes can be committed and protected by silence?
When those who had previously been ruthlessly silenced – by brutality, shame, intimidation, and the law – started to speak, most of us started to listen and we have learned a very great deal about how power and privilege work. Many of us, and I include myself in this, have had to think harder before we speak or risk being criticized – even occasionally, insulted – for our thoughtlessness and assumptions. But this isn’t “silencing,” it’s a wake-up call. When privileged white people like me were protected from the consequences of our words, actions, and prejudices, we lived in ignorance. Ignorance that caused suffering and harm. Maybe we actually need to shut up sometimes and listen to what we have previously been blind to.
We’re not being “silenced.” We’ve lost some share of voice, that is all, and not before time.