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Dealing With Cancellation Culture

Home > Everywhere > Celebrity | Music | Performing Arts | Psychology
by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published March 23rd 2019
How do we cope when stars do the wrong thing?
Warning: This contains subject material that may be upsetting to some people.

The Issue
Cancellation" of an artist is a term where the works of an artist are consigned to history and the public is encouraged to act as though the artist never existed. This could involve such things as music not being played, films not being shown, artwork not being displayed, or even the entire person's career obliterated, retconned out of existence. It is not a modern phenomenon, but it is something that has so much more reach with the Internet, social media and modern connectivity.

Recently, the 4 hour documentary Leaving Neverland was broadcast on many TV channels across the Western world. In it, serious allegations were made against performer Michael Jackson. The documentary was one-sided, only putting forth the stories of 2 boys and their families; in response, Jackson's estate has condemned the documentary and everything in it as untrue.
Michael Jackson, music, cancellation

Elsewhere, R.Kelly is facing serious allegations and even criminal charges involving underage girls. In response, he is denying it, but things are progressing regardless.

However, also in response, quite a number of music broadcasters have decided to stop playing Jackson's and R.Kelly's music.

And this brings the question: what is an appropriate response?

This is not an easy question to answer, and it does depend on where you personally stand within the whole situation.

The first response is to go along with the cancellation and stop listening to the music. Shunt the music to the back of the cupboard or get rid of it, mute the radio or change the channel when their songs come on. Especially for people who are victims of abuse themselves, this sort of response is a natural one, and one that should be supported by those around the person.

Already we have seen Gary Glitter almost completely cancelled after his convictions for improper relationships with underaged people. In professional wrestling, we have seen Chris Benoit erased from WWE's history after he killed his wife and son and then himself. (For more on Benoit, I recommend this column. It also touches on music, but looks mainly at wrestling.) Many fans can no longer watch his matches, knowing what he did.

Following the path of cancellation is a valid and reasoned response.

Separate The Art From The Artist
Separated by the tyranny of distance, by the lack of any personal interaction or real history with the person, or by not being emotionally invested in the performer, for many being able to separate the artist from the artwork they created is a response they are comfortable with.

One example is Australian artist Donald Friend, who admitted to abusing boys in Bali, some of whom were subjects in his artworks. And yet his artworks are still on display in many galleries and collections. Another is Roman Polanski, who has been living in Europe to avoid going to gaol after being found guilty of having sexual relations with a minor, and yet his films are still viewed and still celebrated by many.

While there might be a period of feeling awkward, this is a response that many will feel they can live with. Dislike the person or, more specifically, the person's actions, but continue to enjoy the art they created.

This is most likely the response of the die-hard fan. A supporter of Michael Jackson will side with the singer's estate and say that these are only allegations, that nothing has been proven and they remain just words someone else has said. To this person, they could even go beyond normal patterns and increase their interactions with the artist's work in order to show support or solidarity.

Donald Friend comes up again here. Many figures, especially the Australian art fraternity, deny he did anything wrong. Some wrestling fans still believe Benoit did not kill his family, that it was some others. Another way people look at this is that it was 'out of character', or it happened 'a long time ago', and so no longer matters.

This is the response of a true fan, a true believer. This is a response that makes those people feel comfortable, as they do not want their illusions shattered, do not want to see their heroes knocked down. It is a form of worship, but they are comfortable with that.

Consume with Caveats
Yes, the person did some terrible things. And it is really hard to separate the art from the artist because the art reminds the audience of the artist and, hence, what that artist did (or is alleged to have done). This could be where the majority of people stand. Because where does a boycott end? What about the artists influenced by the artist? What about the musical legacy Jackson has left behind beyond what he has personally created?

This is the situation many people find when dealing with Phil Spector, currently in prison for murder, and Harvey Weinstein, currently facing court with allegations of sexual misconduct and rape. The music Spector has produced and the films Weinstein has produced are still played and enjoyed by many people around the world, but many of those people look at the products with a more critical eye of the process, and enjoy the music but look at the overseer as something less than before.

It seems from many online comments that a lot of people fall into this category.

The first thing to remember when dealing with this situation is that everyone's responses are different. A person cannot assume that another person will share their way of looking at this situation. And it's probably not even a decent subject for conversation. I mean, how do you bring this up in conversation?

Being famous does not make a person automatically a "good" person; just because a person creates wonderful art does not mean they themselves are wonderful. Worship at the altar of fame is fraught with many dangers.

Next: children.

How a parent tells a child is up to the individual parent. They know their child and their household, and they know how this will affect them. Speaking as a teacher, though, I would recommend that parents talk to their children if they bring anything up, either coming from the Leaving Neverland documentary or from news reports about R.Kelly. What conversation they use and how it is put forth is, of course, up to the parent, but the truth is always a strong option. Also, especially if the conversation goes to sexual abuse, it should not be a one-off, but part of a continuing conversation. Children need to be empowered to call it out when it happens; parents need to be there for them to do that. Another thing I learnt as a teacher: there are no stupid questions. Take each question seriously and as it comes.

The four ways of coping I detailed are all valid for different people. None are "wrong". Only you know yourself and where you stand. Do not feel you are doing the wrong thing. This a complex issue and there are no hard and fast answers.

For a good discussion on this topic, the first 10 minutes of the Bang On (episode 97) podcast is really, really well done.
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Why? Some things are challenging to deal with
Where: Everywhere
Your Comment
Well said. It is a tough question. Thanks Steven.
by Michael Genrich (score: 3|1656) 504 days ago
Serious topic and thought-provoking Steve.
by May Cross (score: 3|6968) 503 days ago
You may like to refer to this article:
by May Cross (score: 3|6968) 503 days ago
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