By Banseka Kayembe

We all know how it goes. Famous person in the public eye has old social media posts or tweets unearthed, in which they display blatant racist, sexist, and/or homophobic etc. views from when they were a teenager or a young adult. That person then makes a carefully constructed public apology (sometimes it’s a good apology, sometimes it misses the mark and makes things worse) normally saying those views don’t reflect who they are today and vow to do better. Sometimes, they may lose endorsements, brand deals or their whole job.

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That’s what happened to cricketer Ollie Robinson a couple of weeks ago, after old tweets of his written when he was eighteen displayed flagrantly racist and sexist views. I’m no cricket fan, so I’ll be honest I’d never heard of Ollie a day in my life, but as a consequence of these past mistakes, the England Cricketing Body suspended him from playing whilst a disciplinary investigation into his conduct takes place. Though no one could reasonably defend those tweets, which were of course deeply offensive there’s a bigger question here: how helpful is dragging up people’s previous tweets in broader movements for progress? 

Just to be clear, I’m not on a Piers Morgan-esque hype about this. There is a conception of “cancel culture” that is moronic and at times unhinged, an almost nightmare on elm street-ish vision of baying social media mobs capable of ruining people’s whole careers and livelihoods for good by denouncing them as “cancelled”. This is a hyperbole and deeply misleading; we know most people who get dragged on social media by people critiquing an individual’s either past or even current problematic views rarely translates into any actual real life consequences. 

The cases like Ollie Robinson’s however are different. It’s perhaps helpful to reevaluate what we really want the response to be, and where it’s best to put our energy. If he was still engaging in racist and sexist actions then he absolutely deserves to be in the spotlight, but when the tweets are 8 years old and when he was barely an adult when he wrote them, that inevitably changes the context. It doesn’t make those tweets correct whatsoever, but should there not be an acknowledgement that we are constantly growing, learning, unlearning and reforming, including those of us from marginalised communities? 

I certainly wouldn’t for example go around using the term “gay” as a perjorative, yet at school as a 14 and 15 year old it was routine for me to do so. As cliche as it now sounds when people say “I’m not that person any more ” there should be a space for growth and learning that many of us evidently go through and we are indeed different to who we were before.   

Perhaps most importantly is our end goal just to hold him up as guilty and a bad person and that’s it, cast out from the public forever? I spoke to Josh Rivers, the host of the podcast “Busy Being Black” and the Head of Communcations at UK Black Pride, who four years ago had to resign as editor of Gay Times when old offensive tweets of his resurfaced. He always maintains that he paid a fair price for his previous behaviour, but offers some helpful nuance to these discussions having been through a “cancellation” himself. “In my situation when I saw and heard the things I’d tweeted I had no problem apologising because I knew it was wrong. It was awful, and I had to show people the journey I’ve been on and will continue going on.” 

“People tend to be cancelled for things that happened a long time ago that they haven’t done for a long time- I think that is unfair. However much of what gets called attention too is stuff happening a long time ago and now. We shouldn’t give people a carte blanche excuse or a free pass of course, but we should be looking for continuity in the harm I think, if we are going to look at people’s social media past.” 

Is it better to recognise those past tweets were wrong, and invest in a “calling in culture” where you’re given support and help on how to do better? If we’re going to hold people accountable for their unsavoury past behaviour there surely has to be a long-term goal of wanting them to change? Josh adds “Sometimes I wonder if that’s the point? If the intention was to find out how someone’s grown and give them a chance to explain? What was demonstrated to me to my relief was that so many people that knew me said those tweets simply didn’t reflect who I am today”. 

There is also potential for people from marginalized communities to be judged more harshly and feel the material impacts of cancellation more for past offensive views, especially when we recognise that most people with the power to fire individuals will be wealthy white men. “Sometimes who is doing the cancelling impacts the degree to which there will be a material impact. In my case white gay men own all the media spaces, diversity initiatives, and decide who is good and bad as though they are not also part of the problem, and were able to materially impact me to a significant degree”.

 In contrast TV historian David Starkey,who has a long record of saying deeply racist things, said at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement that slavery wasn’t a genocide because there are still “so many damn Blacks” around. He lost teaching positions, but later had a double page spread in the Telegraph and sympathetic coverage in The Times.  He is also currently launching a complaint against the police who investigated him for hate speech, an investigation that was later dropped; so his experience of being cancelled is clearly a bit different. Twitter pile-ons don’t have the power in themselves to seriously “cancel” individuals by and large;the power to materially impact those ‘cancelled’ resides often with wealthy white men.  “Not all cancellations are equal” Josh emphasises. 

There is also the issue that for many of us, the structural and institutional oppression(s) we face aren’t being addressed. We can feel so powerless that it makes emotional sense to focus on small instances where we feel we can have a small semblance of justice. There are legitimate grievances many of us are experiencing about how marginalized groups have been treated on a macro level and sometimes redressing past wrongs of people in the spotlight can feel like justice. 

Josh adds “marginalised communities have a voice [through social media] in a way we haven’t had before, there is some power in public shaming and calling attention to the rigged nature of the system, to say ‘look at this person with money, power and prestige, and look at what they say or have said about people like us.’ It does give us a certain sense of power, even if it doesn’t translate into impact.” Whilst I appreciate and know how it feels, I worry that in instances where someone is too hastily written off, very little is gained, it sets a flawed precedent that many of us could fall victim to and fragments the important coalitions we need to foster for change. Josh adds to this that he doesn’t think cancellations in of themselves are necessarily a barrier to fostering solidarity. “I think we can cancel intentionally, but I just don’t think ‘cancel culture’ is the problem. I think it can be toxic and really harmful, sometimes perhaps excessive but I don’t think generally calling people out is a problem.” 

Black feminist scholor Bell Hooks perhaps said it best: “How do we hold people accountable for their wrongdoing, and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”. Accountability and capacity for change feel like two sides of the same coin, there is no one without the other. There will always be some people who are just problematic and will never change; but in the strive for progress which requires building solidarity amongst different groups of people, compassion and humanity are not “nice to haves’  but essential. I hope in the future we can continue to rightly hold people accountable and give people a chance to grow.

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Last Update: April 23, 2024