The Culture of Cancellation

Criticism and dialogue should not be banned even if there are good intentions

You don't have to be a big social media user to understand the term: the attempt to ban someone on the internet who has exhibited behavior that is considered reprehensible, that is, the old public lynching.

Between attacks on reputations, which can be forgotten in a few days or have more severe repercussions, cancellation forbids dialogue and does not build much in place. It provides "cancellers" with a false feeling that their excellent political action was fruitful—despite neither side committing to anything.

The subject gained more visibility when the American magazine, Harper's, published a letter that echoed criticisms of the culture of cancellation in early July. The text linked this culture to the most recent protests for social and racial justice.

In the letter, artists, writers, and journalists acknowledge that the protests bring out broader demands for equality and inclusion across society, but say that this necessary reckoning would fuel a climate of intolerance. This would frighten fearful artists, writers, and journalists into losing their means of subsistence by moving away from what would be this new consensus.

I agree: there is no way to stand in favor of the silencing preached by "cancellers."

Many who say they are threatened by cancellation are so unaccustomed that, when faced with it, they run to denounce the risk of losing their spaces precisely in the large windows they have always occupied.

If the idea were to alert these new characters who ask for greater inclusion about the risks of censorship embedded in the dispute, perhaps it would be more useful just to say: "Do not do as we have always done." After all, the voices that come from the protests have always been out of discussions.

But it's not just people who get canceled. A newspaper can also be canceled. This happens when readers disagree with some content or feel dissatisfied or offended by it.

The legitimate phenomenon is old, but it intensifies in moments of greater political conflict like the current one.

Whenever a newspaper approaches a polarized theme, criticizes the government more strongly, or is attacked by it, the reader reacts in a very similar way to what happens on social networks.

For Folha the day after the polarizing event, there is an increase of 20% to 30% of the subscription cancellation requests. The effect of this on the volume of monthly subscriptions is small but significant concerning the daily average of cancellations recorded by the newspaper.

Last year, these requests came in droves due to the articles published in partnership with The Intercept website, made from messages exchanged between Lava Jato prosecutors and then-judge Sergio Moro, in addition to an interview with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT).

In 2018, a story in which Folha highlighted the phenomenon of companies supporting mass WhatsApp messages against the PT in the electoral period was the trigger for this type of request.

Indeed, sometimes the press can also help promote cancellations. This occurs when producing articles without showing the other side or when the proper checking procedures are not followed.

After reading an interview on Saturday (25) with a woman indicted for keeping a person in a condition similar to slavery, a reader said she felt that the newspaper helped cancel the woman.

In fact, Folha published an article with information from the complaint. Then, Folha published an interview with the person involved, who gave her side of the story. This is an example of bureaucratic coverage and with some exaggeration, like calling a person in charge of manager "executive of a cosmetics company."

Finally, there is also the cancellation of institutions: attacks on science, the university or politics — the latter with the contribution of journalism itself in recent years, by often equating it with corruption.

Among the institutions, the press has been one of the favorite targets of inquisitorial practice, chosen as a scapegoat by government officials who do not wish to have their actions evaluated and criticized.

The phenomenon of cancellation mobilizes concerns that have always been present in the debate: dialogue and criticism must not be prohibited either by authoritarianism or by good intentions.

Flavia Lima

Reporter specializing in economics, she graduated in social sciences from USP and in law from Mackenzie. She has been the ombudsman at Folha since May 2019.

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon