You can’t say anything these days. From Fessdrews to national news, it’s a popular opinion that political correctness has gone too far, hindering our ability to have productive political and social dialogue with one another. Everyone is shouting about the danger of ‘wokeness’ stopping anybody from saying anything, a view that seems to have gained traction since the J. K. Rowling controversy. I see the term ‘cancel culture’ everywhere, and it seems to be the scapegoat for the increasing political polarisation we are witnessing right now.

The argument I see a lot is that free speech is under attack through an insidious culture of ‘cancelling’ anyone who doesn’t live up to a Western standard of wokeness. That we must protect the right for anyone to spout violent and hateful language, as to not do so would start us down a dangerous road of censorship. Sure, crying ‘cancel culture!’ every time a public figure is called out for upholding oppressive language or ideals is catchy. And sadly, it seems like catchy slogans remain a lazy tactic to garner public support (has anyone else heard the phrases Make America Great Again and Get Brexit Done?). However, denouncing liberal cancel culture as a cancer to our rights and freedoms seems a bit excessive and doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of social discourse online.

To ‘cancel’ someone is to stop supporting them, like a social boycott. However, it is commonly used in the media to reference a culture of bullying and social ostracising to a point of no return. This view was reinforced by the narrative surrounding J.K. Rowling.

The Rowling controversy only reinforced for me how the narrative on the severity of cancel culture is misleading. The truth is that a bunch of people ceased to follow, support, or interact with Rowling after feeling like she was misusing her influence. People, especially marginalised people who are most harmed every time something problematic is said online, are allowed to remove their support for public figures. We do it all the time, discussing politicians and celebrities in our homes. Unfollowing somebody whose views do not align with yours is not bullying. Posting social commentary that is critical of a public figure is not bullying.

Having so many people tweet negatively in response to something you have said is overwhelming and will obviously feel like an unfair attack. However, as a public figure talking in the public domain, people are well within their right to respond. Their response doesn’t even have to be nuanced, considerate of your feelings, or particularly polite. When the domain of social commentary becomes Twitter, 280 characters only allows for a certain level of cushiness. Social media is designed to share fast and easily digestible views. The problem is not cancel culture, but having important conversations exclusively on social media. This habit has caused great political and social division in society.

In rushing to paint herself as an innocent victim of mob mentality wokeness gone too far, Rowling missed an opportunity for social dialogue. An opportunity to use her platform to spread awareness of a possible tension between recognising the fluidity of gender and maintaining the safety of vulnerable women. Rowling argues those who ‘cancelled’ her were threatening free speech and our right to open dialogue, but Rowling herself missed an opportunity for this. Instead, she used the opportunity to paint herself as a martyr of free speech, all while managing to increase interest for her new book about a cross-dressing serial killer (a cynic might think this was convenient). This self-serving response was the most disappointing part of the whole controversy.

J.K. Rowling still has tens of millions of followers, hundreds of millions of pounds to her name, and an outcry of support from the mass media. The same can be said for endless numbers of Hollywood celebrities who have been accused of sexual harassment, or hundreds of public figures who have been openly racist. Most of them still have their various sources of social power. Can the same be said for trans folk who face real social ostracization? What impact does the reinforcement and legitimisation of transphobic narratives have on them?

Online bullying, echo chambers, and mob mentalities are real consequences of having important social dialogue almost exclusively on social media. The danger of ‘cancel culture’ rhetoric that is popular right now seems to be an extension of anti-liberal slogans used to gain political popularity. Painting the left as irrational bullies who silence anyone who disagrees with their agenda is a far more insidious threat to harmony than the calling-out of problematic celebrities. We are not losing our right to free speech; we are exercising our right to debate and critique, the very thing anti-cancel-culture also promotes. Large scale criticism of society is essential to its progression. Do not let cries of ‘cancel culture’ stop you from exercising your right to push for social change.