To Cancel or Not to Cancel?: Cancel Culture and Human Rights
Donald Trump? Canceled. J. K. Rowling? Canceled. Dave Chappelle? Canceled. In Indonesia, from President Joko Widodo, Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, to influencers such as Gofar Hilman were called out and canceled as well. They, and many other ordinary citizens, were canceled for different reasons: from misogynistic speech and behavior to anti-marginalized outlooks and policies. Repercussions are experienced differently, though, by the influentials and their less-powerful counterparts: Rowling just got her fair share from the Harry Potter reunion event aired by HBO, Gofar Hilman continues to profit from his entertainment activities, while the non-influentials were expelled, fired, and ostracized from their places of work or study. Nevertheless, they have undergone being called out by the general public virtually.
But what is cancel culture? What does it mean to cancel someone, a group of individuals, or an institution?
Some Key Elements of Cancel Culture
Unfortunately, there is no singular, agreed-upon definition of cancel culture. However, experts have tried to illustrate the concept, and from them, we could draw some elements that construct cancel culture.
For instance, Clark (2020) argues that cancel culture, which originates from Black Twitter’s — a network of predominantly African-American Internet users seeking to voice injustice experienced by the Blacks — use of the hashtag #Canceled in calling out several public figures in 2015, is “an expression of agency, a choice to withdraw one’s attention from someone or something whose values, (in)action, or speech are so offensive, one no longer wishes to grace them with their presence, time, and money.”
Thus, according to Clark, cancel culture is a byproduct, i.e., it is a reaction to someone (or something) viewed as taking an offensive position. In other words, there lies a causal relationship between an action (or inaction) deemed improper and the resultant act of canceling that follows. Therefore, here one may suggest that the first element of the cancel culture is the existence of a target. The second element is that the target holds an unfitting position vis-a-vis the attackers. But what position is considered offensive by the devotees of cancel culture? According to Cook et al. (2021), the target often bears an “oppressive, racist, sexist, or homophobic” view.
Once the target is identified, the third element of the cancel culture is the ensuing reaction, epitomized in the very act of canceling. According to Burmah (2021), the retaliatory act may take numerous shapes, such as naming and shaming the target or, in some cases, leaking the target’s personal information (e.g., doxing). Burmah asserts that the act may take three different typologies:
1. Canceling Threats to Norms: An act of ostracizing a target that may harm an existing norm. For instance, in a gender-equal society, an individual promoting patriarchy may be targeted;
2. Canceling Abnormal Norms: The act could be performed to target the status quo. For example, if a community is considered racist, then the attacker could renege such an unjust system and demand a more racially inclusive system; and
3. Canceling Just Because: The attacker may carry out the act just because they can do it, without a clear normative purpose.
Once one understands Burmah’s typologies, one can see that Clark’s explanation lacks one element that Burmah succeeds in acknowledging: a sense of change. Clark implies that attackers perform the act of canceling purely for the intrinsic purpose of self-contentment. However, Burmah’s explanations indicate that the act of canceling may have transformative goals. Thus, the fourth element of the cancel culture is the presence of a transformative direction.
The said transformation could take different forms. For instance, Saint-Louis (2021) claims that cancel culture aims for “sanctions affecting [a target’s] professional and personal lives.” Thus, according to Saint-Louis, the cancel culture is a form of ostracization that may have tangible, physical repercussions. Additionally, the cancel culture may also result in an exclusively abstract transformation. According to Velasco (2020), “cancel culture is a form of public shaming initiated on social media to deprive someone of their usual clout or attention with the aim of making public discourse more diffused and less monopolized by those in positions of privilege.”
But who carried out the attack? Can an individual that slanders another individual be called performing an act of cancel culture? And what about the venue of such slandering? Can offline actions be considered a part of the cancel culture? According to Cook et al. (2021), cancel culture takes place “in various media platforms, in which large groups of people publicly criticize the victim’s actions and withdraw their support from that victim.” Clark also believes that “one cannot cancel alone; evidence would suggest it takes a mob to cancel or deplatform a public figure.” Therefore, it is established that the fifth element of the cancel culture is that the attacker must be plural. In terms of the medium, Velasco’s (2020) explanation demonstrates that for an act to be considered a cancel culture, it must be perpetrated digitally, an argument echoed by other experts such as Clark and Burmah. Thus, the final element of the cancel culture is that the act originates and is perpetuated on the Internet.
Accordingly, six elements that constitute the cancel culture have been identified:
1. A clear target, be it an individual, a group, or an institution;
2. The target takes a position that is considered oppressive, racist, sexist, or homophobic;
3. The target’s position sparks a reaction from the attackers, manifested in terms of the act of canceling (e.g., naming and shaming the target, doxing, etc.);
4. The act of canceling aims to transform the target’s status quo;
5. A group of individuals commits the act of canceling; and
6. The act of canceling originates and is carried out virtually through the Internet.
Hence, we could now argue that the cancel culture is an act of collective and retaliatory online ostracization aimed at a specific target holding a problematic position, upon which the act seeks to promote a counter-narrative, shape the public’s discourse, alter the target’s normative stance, or deprive the target’s tangible privileges.
Unfortunately, the practice of canceling attracts numerous criticisms, particularly regarding the punitive nature of cancel culture vis-a-vis freedom of expression. For example, Norris (2021) claims that the cancel culture could potentially “silenced alternative perspectives, ostracized contrarians, and eviscerated robust intellectual debate.” Similarly, Strossen (2020) believes that the cancel culture “seeks to end discussion, or at least to truncate it, by summarily dismissing certain ideas — or even certain speakers — as ineligible for inclusion in the exchange.”
Here, I think a human rights-based approach may come in handy in our efforts to strike a balance between freedom of expression and the cancel culture. I will refer to the international human rights law, particularly Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and their subsequent interpretative documents, such as the General Comment №34 and the Rabat Plan of Action.
Cancel Culture and Freedom of Expression
First and foremost, it is vital to establish an individual’s duty under international human rights law. Such framing is necessary because this article does not touch upon the State’s duty vis-a-vis the cancel culture, but rather it discusses our responsibility as individuals in relation to one another. As such, it is crucial to note that an individual must respect the rights of other individuals. Such a duty entails that one must not interfere with others’ enjoyment of rights. As stipulated in the Preambular Clauses of the ICCPR, “the individual, having duties to other individuals and to the community to which he belongs, is under a responsibility to strive for the promotion and observance of the rights recognized in the present Covenant (OHCHR, 1966).” Thus, an individual must do two things: promote and observe the enjoyment of human rights by other individuals, including freedom of expression.
Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression for everyone. Therefore, everyone has the right to express their opinion freely, through spoken, written, and sign language. In addition, one could exercise such a right through non-verbal expressions, such as arts, and even express opinions some may regard as profoundly offensive.
Nevertheless, such a condition does not mean that every idea can be freely expressed. On the contrary, freedom of expression is a derogable right, meaning that in some cases, its enjoyment can be limited. For instance, Article 19(3) allows the restriction of the freedom of expression for reasons such as protecting one’s rights and reputations, and national security, public order, or public health or morals. Furthermore, Article 20 of the ICCPR also permits the limitation of such a right if its exercise is used for war propaganda or “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”
Now, let us situate the cancel culture in the context of such rights-based discussions by using a hypothetical case study. Suppose a 25-years old, blue-collar civilian named ‘A’ uploaded a tweet in 2011 saying, “Women belong in the kitchen.” A, who by no means (Twitter-)famous, enjoyed a brief spotlight thanks to Twitter’s algorithm when the tweet got 10,000 likes and was retweeted 5,000 times. The tweet was found in 2021 by a Twitter user named ‘B’ who later rallied other users to commit an act of canceling targeting A. B argues that A’s tweet is misogynistic and offensive and, therefore, it is appropriate to limit A’s expression by committing an act of cancellation. So B, who other users are now endorsing, starts naming and shaming A, and the mob follows suit.
Now, let’s position A’s tweet in the context of Article 19 and one’s subsequent duty to respect A’s rights, and one will soon realize that the issue is not as black and white as B argues. For once, it may be difficult to say that the tweet harms the reputation of others, leave alone threatens national security or public morals. Whose reputation did the tweet harm? Although one may argue that the tweet targeted a group of individuals (i.e., women), the following question is: which group of women? One may also say that the tweet threatens the existence (or, in many societies, the promotion) of a gender-equal norm. But, what if such a norm is only internalized by a group of people and not the whole society? Also, aren’t we living in a community with overlapping moral standards? If yes, whose moral standard did the tweet insult? More importantly, isn’t slandering A mean that B (and B’s supporters) fails to fulfill the duty to respect A’s rights to freedom of expression?
Now that one has exhausted almost all the problems when situating A’s tweet and B’s response within Article 19’s framework, one may shift the attention to situating A’s tweet within Article 20 and argue that A’s tweet amounts to advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination. Indeed, at a glance, A’s tweet seems to discriminate against women. Unfortunately, the Rabat Plan of Action sets an extremely high standard for calling an expression as advocating hate and inciting discrimination. The threshold is considered high because of its accumulative nature, meaning that all tests need to be fulfilled in order for an expression to be regarded as advocating hatred and inciting discrimination (Human Rights Council, 2013). Fail one, then forget about making a case.
According to the Rabat Plan of Action, for an expression to be deemed advocating hatred and inciting discrimination, one must put an expression to a six-part test. First, one must understand the context, i.e., placing “the speech act within the social and political context prevalent at the time the speech was made and disseminated.” In this case, one could start by asking whether A’s tweet, uploaded ten years ago when A was 15, fits the past and current social consciousness or not? One may declare that A’s misogynistic tweet runs counter to the social norms in the past and present. Hence, according to the first test, A’s cancelation may be justified.
Moving on to the second test, one must consider the speaker’s status in society. Supporters of B may argue that the fact that the tweet was retweeted and liked by thousands of other accounts implies that A held a certain influential status when A uploaded the tweet. However, the ground is shaky when one puts A’s condition in the present time: an ordinary blue-collar worker without any special status in society. Cordially, one moves on to the third test to strengthen the argument presented in the second test.
The third test demands the presence of an intent to advocate hate and incite discrimination; henceforth, “[n]egligence and recklessness are not sufficient for an act to be an offence under article 20” of ICCPR. Upon confronting A’s tweet to the third test, it is clear that A’s tweet could not amount to advocacy of hatred and incitement to discriminate due to the fact that the tweet blew up solely because of Twitter’s algorithm and not because A deliberately intended so. One failed test and case closed.
There are three other tests according to the Rabat Plan of Action. First, one must analyze the content and form of the expression, i.e., whether the expression in question was provocative and how it was expressed (fourth test). Was A joking, or did A mean it? Second, the extent of the speech act: was the expression publicly delivered or occurred in a private setting? How big was the audience? Was the audience weaponized to act in a discriminatory fashion (fifth test)? Lastly, one must examine whether there “was a reasonable probability that the speech would succeed in inciting actual action against the target group (sixth test).” However, the fact that A’s cancelation failed to fulfill the third test means that A’s tweet cannot be limited and still falls under the ambit of protection of Article 19. Henceforth, one of the questions one encountered when situating A’s tweet within Article 19’s framework reappeared: are the attackers violating their duty to respect human rights if they continue canceling A?
The explanations above do not mean that I condemn the idea and practice of canceling something. Far from it, I believe that the cancel culture is, on and of itself, a form of freedom of expression for as long as it follows the standards stipulated under Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCPR. Moreover, I realize that canceling something or someone may be the most instantaneous way to demand accountability. Many cases, especially in relation to sexual harassment, have proven that the cancel culture is a powerful tool for the victims and survivors to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable through social sanctioning.
Nonetheless, my aforementioned arguments do not mean that I condone the cancel culture either. I have personally observed how proponents of the cancel culture may display resistance to differing viewpoints. I have witnessed too many people walking on eggshells and choosing to self-censored themselves if they have unpopular opinions. If the cancel culture is to last, its proponents must accept the messy nature of freedom of expression, avoid monopoly, let its imagined ideals be ostracized the same way as they criticize offensive targets, and remember that an individual has the responsibility to respect others’ right to freedom of expression.
Consequently, the act of canceling is something that one needs to tread carefully. Attackers must first establish the facts before canceling a target. As I mentioned earlier, cancel culture tactics efficiently deliver social punishment in many sexual harassment cases, but with an asterisk. From my personal observation, two factors play a vital role in canceling sexual offenders: victims’ and survivors’ testimonies and the absence of a formal litigation process. The former illustrates the harm done, while the latter depicts a systematic failure. Alas, canceling sexual offenders on digital platforms could act as a last-ditch appeal for justice, in which support could flow tremendously, as long as primary facts are first established.
Furthermore, proponents of the cancel culture must think strategically. As illustrated at the beginning of this article, there exists a disparity of repercussions amongst the targets. The influentials continue doing business as usual, while the ‘weaker’ targets are getting fired from their jobs or expelled from their schools. Therefore, proponents of the cancel culture must ensure that penalties be imposed similarly, particularly for targets allegedly committing criminal acts. However, such a demand entails that civil society cancels more powerful targets, both in numbers and substance, while still surveilling the harms done by the less influential.
Moreover, those canceled solely because of an unpopular opinion are silenced without assurance that they will change their perspective. As mentioned earlier, the climate of fear produced by canceling lads the targets to self-censorship but, in turn, brews internal dissatisfaction. Thus, one needs to create an environment of persuasion for contrasting opinions. Civil society must pick their battle to win the war.
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Clark, M. D. (2020). DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture.” Communication and the Public, 5(3–4), 88–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/2057047320961562
Cook, C.L., Patel, A., Guisihan, M., & Wohn, D. Y. (2021). Whose agenda is it anyway: an exploration of cancel culture and political affiliation in the United States. SN Social Science, 1(237), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s43545-021-00241-3
Human Rights Council. (2013). Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the expert workshops on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Opinion/SeminarRabat/Rabat_draft_outcome.pdf
Norris, P. (2021). Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality? Political Studies. https://doi.org/10.1177/00323217211037023
OHCHR. (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx
Saint-Louis, H. (2020). Understanding cancel culture: Normative and unequal sanctioning. Retrieved on December 23, 2021, from https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10891/10177
Strossen, N. (2020). RESISTING CANCEL CULTURE: Promoting Dialogue, Debate, and Free Speech in the College Classroom. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED610221.pdf
Velasco, J. C. (2020). You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, 12(5), 1–7.