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JK Rowling Getty Images 5.jpg

Cancel Culture Doesn’t Work the Way J.K. Rowling or Harper's Magazine Think It Does

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 9, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 9, 2020 |

JK Rowling Getty Images 5.jpg

My friends, I regret to inform you that J.K. Rowling is at it again.

The transphobic author of some books you’ve probably heard of has doubled down on her arrogance and bigotry with a level of efficiency and stubbornness that would have made Graham Linehan cheer if he hadn’t been suspended from Twitter for ceaseless abuse of trans women. Now, the writer has joined forces with some of the best, worst, and most exhausting public voices for an open letter in Harper’s that, of course, decries the evils of cancel culture. While most of the letter seemed pleasant enough in its vague platitudes about wanting to avoid censorship and allow debate in the free marketplace of ideas, many people pointed out the less-than-subtle dog-whistles of racism and transphobia peppered throughout. As Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff noted in her open letter to the editors of her publication who signed the letter, ‘several prominent anti-trans voices’ were among the signatures, Rowling included. Given the current climate for public and media-funded discussions around issues such as trans rights, racism, and the ethics of supporting public figures with abhorrent views, the Harper’s letter seemed less like a cry for freedom than a whine about the perils of being held accountable on a macro level.

The responses were predictable. Rowling fell into the deep end of social media bullying while the usual gaggle of talking-heads and columnists rushed to defend the poor billionaire and her wildly successful cohorts as victims of the cancel culture mob. An especially hilarious piece in The Times this week lamented the poor victims of cancel culture, including serial child rapist R. Kelly, self-confessed sexual harasser Louis C.K., the sixth highest-paid actress in Hollywood Scarlett Johansson, and long-time lover of blackface Shane Dawson. Ah yes, wasn’t it terrible how cancel culture came for R. Kelly decades after he systematically targeted and abused young black girls to the point where it was not only the biggest open secret in music but a pop-culture joke, even as those victims were roundly ignored by the press, the authorities, and his screaming fans? What cruelty.

Rowling’s evolution into a walking Mumsnet thread on ‘gender critical parenting’ was a long time coming for fans in the know but that hasn’t made it any less disappointing or tedious to watch happen. The ‘cancel culture’ debates have been a staple for a few years now, mostly fueled by media figures with a shocking level of internet illiteracy who were in need of a new stick to batter the young folks with now that the avocado jokes have gotten stale. The rhetoric is always the same: Those oversensitive leftist millennials with their virtue signaling and outrage culture cannot handle free speech or robust discourse so they must destroy people’s lives over the most minute of perceived slights. How dare they come for the rich and powerful. Look at how they killed Rowling’s career.

I hate the term ‘cancel culture’ in the same way I find a lot of these overused and misunderstood terms unhelpful. It’s a catchy buzz-phrase that was always vague in definition to begin with but has now become wholly meaningless. The term’s initial purposes as internet slang, complete with a hefty dose of irony and performativity, are either unknown to the figures who lambast the concept or they simply choose to ignore it. They never seem to understand, or aren’t willing to do so in any way, that it’s ludicrous and mostly impossible to literally cancel a human being. It’s why the term was so funny at first. Not anymore.

Here’s the thing: Cancel culture (and yes, the term sucks and isn’t especially productive right now but let’s run with it) does exist. The people who are most likely to suffer the wrath of a bad-faith online mob with real long-term emotional and professional ramifications are those who are already the most at risk on- and offline. All these bloated lamentations about cancel culture seldom focus on the women of color who are forced off social media via concerted hate mob campaigns. We don’t hear about the trans people who are put in harm’s way because the media knows how much hysteria it can whip up by playing into transphobic discourse for a quick buck. In terms of more recognizable names, cancel culture mostly impacted those who spoke out against injustice. Eartha Kitt was blacklisted in Hollywood after the CIA branded her ‘a sadistic nymphomaniac’ following her comments on the war in Vietnam. The Dixie Chicks’ career never fully recovered after their really mild comments on George W. Bush. Lenny Bruce was repeatedly arrested for obscenity for saying dirty words on stage to paying audiences who wanted to hear them. None of these examples were brought down by the hysterical far-left mobs that fit the preferred cliché of cancel culture anyway.

Rowling can never be canceled, at least not in the way she seems so arrogantly fearful of. Neither can most of the big names who signed that letter with impunity. The perils of this canceling concept seldom hurt anyone with any sort of real power. If you’re very rich, very famous, and buoyed by the support of major industries and corporations, you’ll never go away, no matter how many Twitter hashtags are directed at you. On some level, I’m convinced that Rowling must understand this. She’s not a stupid woman, even if her transphobia seems to have blinded her to reason and empathy. At the very least, she is certainly aware of her own power in this current context. She knows that she will be listened to and amplified more than any trans person on the issue of trans rights simply because of her wealth and fame. No matter how ugly her bigotry gets (and let’s be honest here, it’s going to get a whole lot uglier), she will be fine. Warner Bros. isn’t going to stop making movies from her books. Her publishers and agency won’t drop her. People will still buy her work. The media will always give her the loudest and most impossible-to-ignore platform to espouse her lies, forever flanked by a mob of talking-heads ready to echo them further with no pushback or fact-checking.

J.K. Rowling risks nothing.

What Rowling and her cohorts see as cancel culture simply cannot operate in the manner they seem to think it will because capitalism’s poison will never allow it to. Instead, what they fear is accountability. Hell, not even real accountability but the mere potential of it. They’re worried that their impenetrable shields will be dented, that the people who they depend upon to willingly swallow whatever bile they are offered will refuse and start to question the status quo. They’re all for free speech — for themselves. The rest of the plebs can stay in their place.

An oft-overlooked aspect of the supposed perils of cancel culture is that one can actually make a lot of money from being the kind of blindly contrarian mouth-piece for bigotry and bullying that is reportedly at risk from those braying SJW mobs. That piece in The Times mentions Laurence Fox, who has recently decided to revamp his image from that of occasional TV character actor to Katie Hopkins-style right-wing rent-a-gob. Suddenly, he went from someone you saw now and then on the box to a ceaseless presence of bad opinions and forced controversy, all while writers like Camilla Long celebrated him as a much-needed alternative to those oversensitive left-wingers who think being racist is bad. While Fox moans about the fact that he can’t book an acting job anymore because he’s the victim of anti-white racism, he seems perfectly happy to cash in on the sort of mundane bigotry he picked up from YouTube videos and Daily Mail comments sections. He now has a Patreon and is soliciting donations to PayPal. I would suggest you use your money more wisely.

This overheated fear of cancel culture from the media and figures like Rowling only further highlights how toxic the status quo for discourse is. You can’t claim to be a bastion of free speech when your voice is ridiculously overamplified and you use it to talk over those with far less power. There’s no ‘robust debate’ to be had when the biggest newspapers, websites, and politicians on the planet are all parroting the same bigotry and the slightest pushback against it is decried as censorship by those very same people. They are the ones who dictate what conversations happen, how they happen, and who gets a seat at the table. Shock horror, that ends up being a whole lot of cishet white people who have long held the reins of power and have no intention of loosening their grip. They’re certainly not interested in condemning the abuse that people like Emily VanDerWerff are experiencing for offering the mildest of critiques to that Harper’s letter. They’d be supporting her right to free speech, not silently excluding themselves from the narrative they created while right-wing hate mobs target vulnerable people.

Free speech is a game for people like Rowling. It’s an abstract concept to invoke whenever accountability rears its ugly head. For the media who have made their bread and butter in forcing unbalanced debates on issues that never should be reduced to point-scoring, from trans rights to Black citizens murdered by the police, they fear having to change their archaic way of business. Anyone who pushes back or notes the unfairness of this must be the enemy or a supporter of censorship. We all have free speech but some have more free speech than others. Three guesses who they are …

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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