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Cancel culture and sexual assault

CW: Sexual assault, victim-blaming, abuse of power


This article is inspired by a video created by Jubilee titled “Should We Cancel Celebrities For Their Crimes?” It is a discussion of “cancel culture” and the reasons for and against the boycotting of problematic public figures who have committed a crime.


Image credit @vicemedia

In the aftermath of the ‘Me Too’ revolution, the term “cancelled” has often been thrown around as a way of showing public outrage at a celebrities behaviour - particularly with regard to sexual misconduct. “Cancelled” is a term used to describe an individual whose career and work is now irrelevant or undeserving of public attention because of their behaviour. The list of celebrities who have been “cancelled” since this revolution began is endless. But as is the list of their victims.


It is easy to be angered by cases of sexual exploitation and assault within the entertainment industry and feel kinship or sympathy for victims. In our own daily lives; those which are not burdened or benefited by the price of fame, talking and thinking about sexual violence and sexual assault is hard enough. Now imagine this hardship and emotional distress plays out in front of millions all of whom have an opinion they are more than willing to give whilst the same institutions which caused your trauma now profit from it through magazines, television segments and interviews. It is a bleak depiction of how we handle serious instances of what are indeed crimes in the modern day.


In the aftermath, the public often wants to use our power as consumers to send a moral message that this behaviour is wrong. Cancel culture allows us to assert our vision for the morals and conduct of our society. Manipulating others with your success and power is wrong. Sexual violence and/or exploitation is wrong. If you are a person who commits these crimes, that is wrong.


But does that mean these perpetrators should be “cancelled” and their entire careers, over? Or is there a possibility for rehabilitation and forgiveness?


At face value, we as customers and consumers of this industry and it's product may not want to support an individual who has committed a crime because they are, simply, a criminal. Furthermore, we may want to express our own personal moral values by demonstrating though the “cancellation” of this person and our refusal to support their endeavours that we morally disagree with what they did. Our values do not align with theirs. Thus, perhaps “cancelling” a public figure or refusing to support their work is a way show our general disagreement and send an important message. The idea that it is a subliminal form of virtue signalling has also been discussed. We may want to punish the perpetrator on behalf of the victim by confiscating their greatest source of power - our attention.


Perhaps, we don’t want them to hold the same position of power and success to be able to commit such a crime again. Removing our attention and money erodes their position of influence. Discontinuing our support for a public figure because of their wrongdoings sends a message to others that you cannot get away with this form of behaviour. Therefore, it may be educational or even a way of raising awareness for why this behaviour is unacceptable and the consequences if it does continue i.e the destruction of your career.


For whatever reason, at the root of our abandonment of this person, we want to show our acknowledgement and recognition of another person’s suffering and draw a figurative (and very real) line in the moral sand. What the perpetrator did was wrong. Thus, they deserved to be punished. The victim did not deserve this crime or the subsequent trauma. Thus, they should be compensated through watching their perpetrator suffer and, additionally, knowing that there are people on their side.


We “cancel” someone to show we disagree. We “cancel” someone to show others that their behaviour is wrong. Finally, we “cancel” someone as a form of punishment because they have done something moral incorrect, problematic and awful. Thus, they deserve some form of retribution or penalty.


But does that mean their lives should be over and their careers, non-existent beyond that point?


Firstly, boycotting someone’s work is incredibly powerful. It harms their reputation and value to certain creative projects as well as their own net-worth. If you disagree with someone’s conduct you have a right to remove your attention and money from this person to show your disagreement.


Indeed, using your power as a consumer is a great way to correct someone’s behaviour and send a strong message on the morally incorrect nature of this crime. Sexual assault and exploitation is not insignificant. The perpetrator should know this and they should understand the public consensus against their actions. This can, additionally, ensure they have no further victims and the cycle of trauma does not continue by using “cancel-culture” as a way to correct and prevent the severe inappropriateness of these behaviours. If celebrities and people know that their actions will have these consequences - consequences which will cost them money and their careers - surely that is an incentive to not commit them again.

However, we cannot deny that people change. The person I was five years ago and the mistakes or offences against others I made then are not reflective of the person I am now. The growth people experience in one year, let alone decades, is profound. Additionally, we cannot deny that one’s values and morals can also change with time and experience. The values - or lack thereof - of an individual that allowed them to commit an instance of sexual violence at one time may have developed in the years following so that they are a morally different person to who they were then. Thus, should they still suffer the consequences of the actions committed by a person who they simply no longer are or share the same values or perspectives as?


Perhaps cancel culture and boycotting a celebrities endeavours/work should be more corrective or short-term rather than permanent. An example of when this has been successful is the case of Rick and Morty creator, Dan Harmon. In 2018 Harmon admitted to repeated instances of sexual misconduct and harassment against a female writer. When the female survivor stepped forward and revealed the impact his actions had, their were calls to end his show and, subsequently, his career. She asked that people not be hasty and requested a sincere apology instead. He delivered and made a lengthy apology on his podcast. Not only did he acknowledge his wrongdoings but he went into detail on the specifics of his misconduct. He took on all the blame and made no excuses. This is an example of how public opinion and the threat of career destruction can be a catalyst for the recognition of your wrongdoings. Although it seems like the public may be more concerned with an apology than with the actual change within the person, it is better than denial and victim-blaming. It is a preliminary blueprint of how the public and survivors can together influence the actions of powerful people.


Perhaps, the injury caused by even a temporary boycott of someone’s activities is damaging enough to prevent further crimes. When people are given prison sentences it is often not for life, except for in severe cases like first degree murder. This form of punishment - a prison sentence - attempts to correct misbehaviour and provide an incentive for a cease in such crimes. Boycotting someone’s work for only a short period of time to correct their misbehaviour and as retribution for their crimes against others could be a method the public could use to show their disagreement, rather than a life-time cancellation. It can also be, frankly, impossible to prevent all interactions with their prior, previous and future work because of their pre-established success. Furthermore, not everyone is going to agree with a boycott, believing we can seperate the product from the producer. A short-term abstinence from their work may suffice.


However, this is why this does not work.


Temporary “cancellation” of someone’s career and abstaining from the consumption of their work/outputs for a delegated period of time will not work for repeat offenders. Furthermore, there are some individuals whose power is so unchallenged and whose supporters are so loyal (i.e Donald Trump ect.) that this method is practically ineffective. This is illustrated in E. Jean Carroll’s recent expose in the New York Times (https://www.thecut.com/2019/06/donald-trump-assault-e-jean-carroll-other-hideous-men.html ). Within this comprehensive and eye-opening piece, she details the many hideous men she has met in her lifetime many of whom were repeat offenders of sexual assault and harassment. For some, there was widespread acknowledgment of their behaviour and crimes. However, their power, privileged and influence was so significant that no matter how many people refused to support their endeavours, they still ended up succeeding, profiting from their exploitation of young women and men. Sadly, as she reveals, many ended up in positions of power despite public knowledge of their offences and repeated allegations.

In the culture we exist in today, the notion that we can ignore someone’s activities and refuse them our attention and money, thus, solving all our problems and permanently ending their conduct is not always going to be effective. It’s idealistic to think that temporary boycotting will correct the vile tendencies of powerful men. In these instances permanent “cancellation” , let alone short-term “cancellation”, is unlikely to be widespread and influential enough to deconstruct the very foundation of a culture and sentiment which has allowed these things to occur in the first place.


Finally, there is a moral issue with this idea that we can temporarily boycott someone’s work. For survivors, they do not get a this clean-slate after a certain period of time has passed. This crimes concern’s their entire life and their suffering will often be long-term. It is unfair that the perpetrators ‘sentence’ be defined or limited for their wellbeing whilst their victim certainly does not have that same privilege. The long-term consequences for cannot be minimised when we feel they have “done their time” like we are suggesting for perpetrators.

We do not owe the perpetrator a discussion or the chance to explain themselves when their victim will not be offered the same catharsis. Furthermore, should we offer them a chance at forgiveness when that is the victims right to bestow? Should we offer them a chance to get on with their lives when their victim will not be allowed the same opportunity as easily?

There are so many creative, inventive and outstanding individuals who aren't toxic. So many people who deserve recognition over those who hurt others in their creative and business pursuits. Shouldn’t our energy, attention and money be placed in those people, rather than the one’s who may create amazing things, but are exploitative and destructive in the process?


Cancel culture has a place in how we treat harassment, assault and exploitation in the current day. The public can influence the conduct of those in positions of power. Although cancelling someone’s career may seem unfair there are certainly those who are deserving. Actions and crimes have consequences that should be as permanent as the distress these perpetrators have caused. Furthermore, we have a right as consumers to show our disagreement and direct our time and money to areas and people that are not problematic.

We should be wary to never forgive. What is the point of atoning and recognising your problematic behaviour if society will never except you back into the fold anyway? However, when the power of a select few individuals is so ingrained and immovable that they can commit crimes without consequences and continue with their lives and successes, it’s time that the public takes matters into their own hands and deny them their greatest asset - our attention.


- Anonymous

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