The Cyber Burn Book by Vanessa Arapko

Runner-up in the 2020 Student Blog Writing Competition

Cancel culture: the withdrawal of support (cancellation) for public figures and companies after objectionable or offensive comments.

The term cancel to refer to people was, as far back as research goes, originally used as a misogynistic joke. In the 1991 film New Jack City a character Nino Brown breaks up with his girlfriend by saying ‘Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one’. Lil Wayne referenced the line in his 2010 song ‘I’m Single’. Then in 2014, during a fight with his girlfriend in the reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York, a cast member tells her ‘you’re cancelled’ the day after watching New Jack City.

Finally, in 2015, the term caught on as Black Twitter ironically employed it, slowly evolving into a way of calling for boycott of celebrities and public figures for their offensive behaviour or comments. And as is the case with most trends on Black Twitter, it got appropriated by the entirety of the social media platform.

Cancel culture became an extension of call-out culture. Where the latter pointed out problems, the former defamed the person who caused them. But is it a new tool for seeking justice against powerful people who have never been held accountable before or is it merciless bullying blown out of proportion?

It is the culture of cancellation which was the implicit target of ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ signed by 153 writers, scholars, and political theorists. One signatory who attracted attention was J.K. Rowling who, a month prior to the letter, was condemned online for her transphobic tweets. Other figures who have faced similar condemnation as a result of their present and/or past offensive comments hit back at cancel culture, claiming that it has ruined or ended their careers.

It can be said that the court of public opinion is the only remaining forum of accountability against those in power who are often shielded from criticism. Yet many of these people dodged any long-term consequences, leaving their careers well intact. Hence, despite the outcry from these powerful figures, they have not been those who face the disparage and destruction of cancellation. So who has?

Anyone online can be the target of cancel culture. Remember the infamous burn book from Mean Girls which contained all the narky commentary about girls in high school? It has re-emerged in a cyber and public form, except now anyone can be a mean girl, and you do not want to be the one in the book. Where the physical book labelled girls with particular features – ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, ‘dyke’ – the cyber burn book stamps the problematic comments made by the person as that person (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.), or as the line from Mean Girls goes, ‘it’s our burn book, we cut out girls’ pictures from the year book and then we wrote comments’.

It goes something like this: a person made a particular remark which may be construed as, say, sexist. Where call-out culture would point out the problem of such a remark, cancel culture goes further. This person is instantly identified as a sexist, with their entire identity defined by this remark. Regardless of whether it is a past comment that is no longer part of a person’s view, or a recent comment made out of ignorance, it all goes in the cyber burn book. But not only is it the person who voiced the remark whose picture gets cut out, but it is also anyone associated with them too if they fail to condemn. Any attempt at clarification, and even apology will only make the matter worse. Everything is either self-victimhood or insincere. You are a sexist and that is that.

There is a way in which the logic of the free market operates as part of the cancellations. We are called to boycott a product, except that the product is a human being. Again, anyone in a genuine position of wealth and power that is shielded from accountability still remains unaccountable in the long-term. What is of concern is that people who are targeted are often public but not wealthy figures that rely on online communities for financial support (freelancers, content creators) or are simply an average worker with an online presence. And akin to the free market, it is the small players that are vulnerable.

In his article ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, Mark Fisher describes a place that thrives on guilt. It does so in three ways: ‘by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd’. The very same patterns of desire emerge in the act of cancelling. A mistake is spotted in one’s remark (academic-pendant), a call is made to condemn and excommunicate (priest), and others join in (hipster or an online mean girl).

The problem is no longer the remark, but the person who voiced it. The solution is no longer critique, dialogue, good-faith engagement, or a call for systemic change, it is a public execution. If we boycott the symptom then the root cause goes away, right?

Much of the social energy channelled into targeting individuals and calling for their cancellations – many of who genuinely come from a place of not yet knowing – has created a moral and elite cyber high ground of mean girls. Rather than winning people over, cancel culture further instills the logic of the free market which only reproduces the problems the culture is supposedly attempting to combat.

Individuals should be held accountable but cancel culture gives no room for that process. The court of public opinion has no trial. And where that process is long overdue with public and powerful figures, the tool of cancellation has failed to be effective.

Perhaps it is time to finally burn the burn book and begin forming cyber spaces where we can criticise, disagree, learn from one another, and lift each other up without fear of cancellation. Or as one high school student from Mean Girls decried, ‘where we could all get along’.

Vanessa Arapko is a graduate student (Sociology) at the University of Auckland