Cancel Culture Graphic

Roya Hakakian knows a thing or two about living outside of the mainstream.  

“I understand marginalized communities because wherever I have lived, from the beginning of my life until now, I have belonged to at least one marginalized community, if not more than one,” she says. “I lived as a woman in Iran under the Islamic Republic, where women were second-class citizens. I also lived there as a Jewish person. Then, I have come to the United States, living as an Iranian, which, you know, is a banned nation.” 

And yet, the author and poet, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, is an outspoken critic of “cancel culture,” a practice that portends to create safe spaces for marginalized people. “Canceling” someone involves withdrawing support for a public figure or company deemed by others to have said or done something considered objectionable or offensive.  

Author and poet Roya Hakakian (Photo by Heidi Guttman)

Hakakian views cancel culture as a threat to the free expression of ideas in a democratic society. 

“We have allowed diversity of opinions to flourish here … and we have understood the value of why being outside of our own comfort zones … benefits our culture and our society,” she says. “To lose that now in the name of safety, in the name of creating the so-called safe space, would be to betray those very qualities that have made America a bastion of innovation and entrepreneurship.” 

Cancel culture isn’t new, but social media has changed how it works, according to Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor of Know Your Meme, a website that documents internet phenomena. 

“Before the internet, if someone said something that offended people on TV, people would write letters to the network and say, ‘I won't be watching anymore.’ They would write letters to advertisers and say, ‘I won't be buying your product if you continue to advertise on this television show,’” Schimkowitz says. “I think things like Twitter and Facebook are just kind of cutting out the middleman. Now they're just going directly to the people that write the thing and showing them how they feel.”

Some “cancellations” appear to be permanent. Public figures like TV icon Bill Cosby and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were “canceled” after being charged and convicted of serious sex crimes. However, comedian Louis CK, who admitted to performing sex acts in front of female comedians, is back performing to sell-out crowds after being dropped by his agency and losing lucrative deals with HBO and Netflix. 

Author J.K. Rowling attends a documentary in New York, Dec. 11, 2019, in New York.

More recently, “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling was attacked online after making comments that offended transgender people. She was among 153 artists and intellectuals who signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine warning against an “intolerant climate” in the culture, asserting that the “free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”  

“Generally, the people complaining about it (cancel culture) or writing about it are already in such positions of power that it's hard to sympathize with their side of the story,” Schimkowitz says, “especially when they're writing about things that are actually hurting and affecting a lot of people.” 

But while someone as prominent as Rowling can survive the onslaught, lesser-known figures might shy away from being as outspoken, according to Hakakian, who was among the artists who signed the Harper’s letter. 

“What will clearly happen is that our scientific and scholarly communities will no longer be open to inquiry anymore … leaders and top figures will issue scientific edicts and then everybody else will have to follow suit. And we know that this is not how research, science, scientific inquiry, intellectual inquiry, can flourish,” she says. “It is important to understand that there are unpleasant positions and unpleasant statements that abound in society. And the best way to tame them, to confront them, to object to them, is through open and ongoing conversations.” 

Even former President Barack Obama appeared to weigh in on cancel culture at a summit last October. 

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” he said. 

In a piece for Time, writer Sarah Hagi asserts that social media allows marginalized people, for the first time, to be heard when calling out racist, sexist and bigoted behavior exhibited by the wealthy, well-known or privileged.  

“Because they can’t handle this cultural shift,” she writes, “they rely on phrases like ‘cancel culture’ to delegitimize the criticism.” 

“Critics of cancel culture will try to silence those who use cancel culture. Now, is that limiting free speech? It's kind of a tricky subject,” Schimkowitz says. “This thing is ruining lives, but how many? It's hard to quantify … when you're in the middle of it. Maybe we'll have a better idea what the repercussions of ‘cancel culture’ were 10 years from now.”