React Responsibly: Normalcy and ‘Cancel Culture’

Earlier this year videos circulated on TikTok of people doing the ‘Autism Challenge’ which, consists of making fun of autism by speaking and moving “In a way an autistic person would”. The challenge was rightly met with uproar from charities, while groups like Reclaim the Net who argued that to shut those videos down would be an example of “cancel culture”.

An example that might hit closer to home for a UK audience is Ricky Gervais’ show Derek. After the show aired, objectors criticised it on the basis that they saw the show as mocking people with learning difficulties. Gervais denied that he’d ever intended the character as having a disability.

That said, this throws up some interesting questions about how we talk about the interpretation of the artist vs. the role of the author. Does it really matter what Gervais intended? If we object to the mocking of disabled people on Tiktok, should we also object when a popular comedian does exactly the same thing? and is the outrage justified?


A group of 152 academics and celebrities recently signed a letter condemning cancel culture. Interestingly, they started by praising the work of Black Lives Matter and saying that Trump represents a threat to democracy. This wasn’t an immature denunciation of ‘canceling’. Rather, the letter alleged that:

“While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”

Harpers magazine, A letter on Justice and open debate.

Here’s where the issue becomes muddled. The letter has been criticised for being too vague. No one would deny that Weinstein deserved ‘cancellation’. If we’re referring to people with opposing views, what sorts of opinions? Do Info-Wars count? an outlet who’s conspiracy-babbling has led to literal acts of terrorism. Or are we referring to figures like JK rowling and Graham Linhen who have made uneducated comments about Trans people, leading to some debate as to if the backlash really counts. No one, it seems can agree on a definition or on what cancelling is justified or unjustified.

Heroes vs. Villains?

I’ve been tempted to refer to what has happened to some creators as ‘cancel culture’ in the past, yet the term frustrates me. Its like ‘fake news’, which describes ideologically motivated untruths circulated on social media, but does nothing to describe how misinformation is so prevalent:

During my dissertion I interviewed Nick davies who famously investigated the second phase of the phone hacking scandal. He pointed out that:

“The internet has allowed non-journalists not only to consume the news that fits thier prejudices but also to generate it, thus creating self-reffering whirlpools of misleading information in which falsehoods are exchanged within groups with the effect of reinforcing prejudice. If you see those two process’ interacting you see that we are entering an era of information chaos”

Nick Davies

I think we can also apply this logic to ‘cancelling’. On much of the internet, debates lack nuance. Through a process known as abstraction controversies are reduced to generic statements. So – and I say this as someone who really does not like Gervais’ comedy – the statement ‘Gervais presented an offensive and ill-informed portrayal of autisitc people’ becomes ‘Gervais is an abelist’. Using this process we go from criticisng a persons work to insulting and smearing the creator.

Like being in a busy room, reading about ‘cancelling’ results in sensory overload. With my autism, its easy for me to see the world in stark terms, and to react as if I’m in a play of heroes and villains.

Jon Ronson excellently explores this concept:

“I favour humans over ideology, but right now the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. We can lead good, ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all – even though we know that’s not how we should define our fellow humans. What’s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are grey areas”

Jon Ronson, So You’ve been publicly shamed

An example where I think this can be applied is with the play ‘all in a row’ where the autistic character, is portrayed by a puppet. Upon debuting, more than 12,000 people signed a petition arguing for the shows cancellation saying that the decision not to cast a real life actor “dehumanizes autistic children”. Do I think that the decision to cast a puppet was misguided? yes. Do I think that the intentions of the writer were bad? of course not.

For clarity, I’m not saying that you can never judge a persons personal attributes by thier actions. You can, especially when that person has a large degree of power – e.g Trump – or they consistently refuse to learn – e.g JK. Rowling. However, with our pervasive thinking we often end up shaming well intentioned people when all that’s required is criticism and a willingness to engage in a conversation.

Audiences and artists

“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar. I am the son and heir of nothing in paticular. You shut your mouth, how can you say I go about things the wrong way. I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”

The Smiths, How Soon is Now?

The Smiths acted as a champion of the outsider. That was why I was baffled when thier frontman, declared his support for the far right ‘For Britain’ party and started repeatedly posting white supremacist videos to his social media. Its easy to see how this might do damage to the Smiths original point, and leave people who were fans feeling betrayed. Make no mistake, Morrisey is a racist and we can make a judgement about him based off that.

That’s quite a pertinent point. We’re talking about stigma attached to certain points of view, right? But what about stigma attached to identities. Can you be ‘cancelled’ just for being yourself? Because a lot of people in minorities would liken the experience of discrimination to that of being isolated and shut out. Autistic people can definitely feel that, especially those who haven’t been diagnosed, and struggle to make sense of themselves. As the Interactive autism network says, a lot of the stigma attached to autism can invite “a loss of a feeling of normalcy”.

In response to the kind of ‘transgressions’ we hear from Morrisey, its quite common to hear calls to ‘separate the art from the artist’.

This demand links to the theory ‘death of the author’. In his essay, Roland Barthes argued that a piece of work and the creator are unrelated and that authorial intent dosen’t matter. That “Literature is the trap where identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”

However, just as the Smiths are rooted in a counterculture of being welcoming and open minded, so is every text informed by the context in which the author writes. Separating art from the artist dosent work in that a representation of autism from the 1970s is likely to be different to a representation today:

“Literature can impact on society, either effecting or reflecting change in views. The way humanity thinks has not stayed uniform, and literature is constantly evolving. To say that there is nothing ”original” in the often rebellious ways people write to enact change or voice opinions that have been suppressed doesn’t seem right”

Idid’ntwantanyflowers blog

Sometimes the anti censorship movement deserves lambasting, especially when people like Morrisey defend thier bigotry. Still I’m aware that those views do not represent everybody who resents public shaming. The same nuance applies to social justice crowd. The culture of mob justice can be dangerous in the wrong context. However, empowering minorities to speak out against harmful representation or certain figures in the public eye, can do as much good as harm.

To overcome the negatives, we should embrace the new wave of entertainment that seeks to learn from its own flaws. We can see this approach in two things I’ve been enjoying: the musical Hamilton, and the Netflix show Atypical. Both of these have faced ridiculous calls for cancellation. Despite that, the creators have often tried to engage with critics, to understand and even act on the limitations of their work.

What about those who have refused to apologise for thier mistakes or are bad people? I think a good way to approach this is not to be judgmental of other fans. Different people will draw the line in different places. As a music fan, I no longer to listen to the music of Kasabian or Morriseys solo work. I do still listen to The Smiths and Brand New, largely because the music means enough to me to still find comfort in. I’m sure there will be many who still are still inspired the Harry Potter books, which goes to show that even without crow-baring the artist away from the art, there are ways we can reclaim that which we love.

An Atypical Perspective…

Debates too often lack nuance: I often feel like I’m in a constant battle between two sides of myself: the side that’s idealistic and wants to frame everything as a war between good and evil, and the side that has an eye for detail. This is why I’m frustrated when debates – particularly online ones – take a surface level approach to criticism using attacks and misrepresentations in order to insult an opponent. I’m well aware that its rarely worth debating toe to toe with bigots or ignorant people. However, I still consider criticizing their ideas in a detailed way useful and necessary.

You can’t (entirely) separate art from the artist: Personally, when I find an album or a book I like, I want to know everything about the creator and where they got thier ideas from. An artist always puts thier experience into thier work. Its why ‘rain man’ – a film that was made early in our understanding of autism, differs from ‘the good doctor’ – a show which, while flawed, paints a detailed picture of autism. The demands to ‘separate art from the artist’ ignore the social significance texts have to thier time period, and stops audiences from engaging with creators in a way which might be educational.

There should be more communication between authors and audiences: This will help us identify artists who care about thier representation, and audience members who have legitimate criticism. Take Atypical: after the first season the show received criticism for portraying Sam’s character as sort of an archetype of every autistic trait. In response, the writers listened, engaged with autistic critics of the show and corrected thier mistakes. Manuel Miranda despite not making any major changes to Hamilton, has been very welcoming of criticism. This approach may help to create a less noisy media environment whereby creators seek to learn from audiences, and criticism is handled constructively.

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