How cancel culture attempted to silence Jamelia and Kanye West

All too often, when someone – usually a celebrity – shares a questionable or unpopular opinion, the response of many on social media is to call on others to boycott them.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Remember a time before social media, when you could only find out a celebrity’s opinion if a particularly determined journalist managed to get them to open up in an interview? It’s hard to imagine in 2018, when even the President of the United States of America is desperately shouting his opinions in all-caps all over Twitter. 

But such is modern life, and as the use of the social media platforms increases, allowing us to get deeper and deeper inside the minds of our idols, so, too, does the potentially harmful call-out culture.

The latest person to fall victim to this trend is singer Jamelia, following her appearance as a guest panellist on Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 show last week. During the discussion on Friday, the topic turned to white theatre director Anthony Lennon, who received a share of £406,500 Arts Council England grant meant for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people. The pop star defended the artist saying “he clearly looks mixed heritage” and had “suffered the journey of a person of colour”. She went on to say being racially fluid and gender fluid are essentially the same. Within a few hours of the clip circulating on Twitter, there were masses of posts online about the “Superstar” singer being “cancelled”.

The term is essentially a call to boycott someone – usually a celebritiy – who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion on social media. Some of the statements and opinions can be quite comical and outright offensive, like Kanye West saying “slavery was a choice”. It’s becoming so common that the end of 2017 was marked by articles headlined: “Celebrities who were cancelled in 2017”. No doubt they will be updated for 2018. 

The danger of cancel culture is that there's an arrogance attached to it, everyone else becomes morally superior, meaning no one else is allowed to make mistakes. As well as refusing to engage with the victim, the people participating in the call-out culture also try to silence them and boycott their work. It’s almost like trying to gather a movement against said person and it could easily be seen as a form of public bullying. 

Other public figures to be “cancelled” include TV presenter Maya Jama, after numerous tweets from 2012 resurfaced in which she had made offensive comments about dark-skinned black women. The Radio 1 DJ sent out her “genuine and sincerest apologies” for the five-year-old tweets, but had countless angry posts from hundreds of people all saying near enough the same thing: “she’s cancelled”. Ironically, Jama seems to have turned her notoriety to her advantage: after issuing an apology, she went on to co-present her own dating show on Channel 4 and has recently appeared in the JD Sports christmas advert, alongside Anthony Joshua and Jaden Smith.

Mary Bono was not so lucky. She resigned from her position as president and chief executive of the USA Gymnastics Federation after a tweet came to light in which she criticised Nike, a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor, and appeared to disapprove with the brand’s advertising campaign featuring NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who made a point of kneeling during the national anthem before games to show his support for activist group Black Lives Matters. After Simone Biles, a Nike athlete responded to the tweet, saying “don't worry, it's not like we neded a smart USA gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything”, creating Twitter havoc, memes circulated with the caption “Simone has cancelled Bono”. 

The comedian Pete Davidson was also recently “cancelled” after describing a war veteran as looking like a “hitman in a porno movie”. He has since apologised and deleted his Instagram account.

Although the rationale behind “cancelling” is clear, the trend has slowly become a toxic internet mechanism that could potentially stop people from having a platform to disagree and discuss their conflicting ideas.

In situations where celebrities make uninformed comments, instead of jumping the gun and opting for the “cancel” option, shouldn't social media users put the same energy into educating them? (Deliberately provoking the internet, a la Donald Trump, is a different matter). 

In the case of Jamelia's comments, all she was doing was opening up a conversation about race. She was not an academic claiming to be an expert, but rather sharing an opinion that others might also share, and should be addressed – even if it is just to counter the argument. 

“Cancelling" is also a form of social media abuse, which may have a detrimental effect on mental health. Chris O’Sullivan, spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation, says: “It’s easy for us to surround ourselves with brands and influencers that seem to live the type of life we aspire to, and then cancel them when they show their inherent humanity. Social media is here to stay – and as it is we need to find ways to be more compassionate online, whether that’s towards our wayward relations on Facebook, or to our idols on Twitter.

“Clearly there should be ways of removing support from once revered stars – where something like a serious misconduct happens – although a healthy way of doing this would be to unfollow or mute the person in question."

Kanye West, for example, has talked about his mental health issues, Chrissy Teigen, wife of singer John Legend, has confessed she really wants to be liked and has “real anxiety when people say awful things”. The actor Daisy Ridley deleted her Twitter and Instagram accounts in 2016 and told Radio Times it was “highly unhealthy for people's mental health”. The Murder on the Orient Express actress received backlash over an Instagram post on gun regulations and she said “people weren't nice about how I looked. And I was like, I'm out”. 

If celebrities, with their army of brand consultants, can't deal with some of the comments they receive on social media, what do we do when it happens to less protected people? O’Sullivan says, “For people with mental health problems we know that stigma and discrimination can worsen someone's problems, and delay or impede their getting help and treatment, and their recovery.”

He rightfully points out something which we are not always aware of when forming replies to tweets or commenting on Instagram posts. He says, “Following someone who causes us stress on social media, there is an element of taking personal responsibility. If there is an unhealthy or bullying dynamic in any relationship, even if this is as distant as a celebrity we follow online, this can be harmful to both parties’ mental health.”

With this in mind, it's important to remember to hear everyone out, even those who don’t always get it right. The next steps in getting past the cancelled culture is learning to “stop isolating people” as it “does not undo harm they’ve done”, says founder and editor in chief of For Harriet Kimberly Foster who speaks out on a number of cultural and social issues.

In her video titled, We Can’t Cancel EveryoneFoster correctly said that “changing culture meaningfully means approaching folks from the standpoints of ‘these harmful ideas you are perpetuating need to go. We are not going to accept this anymore, but the people themselves can be recovered.”

The word “cancelling” is becoming more aggressive, destructive and less tolerant. It gives people this idea that they’re not allowed to make mistakes or learn from them. Do you know what would be more productive? If in place of “cancelled”, everyone started a new “educate” or “teach” hashtag instead. Imagine that.