Cancel Culture Continued: Author of the Handmaid’s Tale called out

Cancel culture remains a phenomenon of online debate that exposes the boundaries of democratic societies by veering between freedom of speech and self-justice as well as self-government and ‘sousveillance’ (a term some of you might remember from the Introduction to Cultural Studies). ‘Cancelling’ someone publicly online has indeed been compared to biblical or medieval practices. At the same time, calling-out can be a tool to unmute hitherto unheard voices, misogynistic structures or guilty perpetrators. As we discovered ourselves when debating this topic in one of our ‘Zoomin’ in’-sessions earlier this year, it is difficult - sometimes indeed impossible - to distinguish between fact and alternative fact. A regular site for these kinds of disputes or, indeed, ‘shitstorms’ are social media.

An example of the past week illustrates this very well while at the same time offering a unique glimpse into the misunderstandings of online communication. The publicly cancelled figure is the Canadian author Margaret Atwood; the reason for calling her out as a “transphobe” and “TERF” (i.e. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism) is an opinion piece from the Toronto Star which Atwood shared on Twitter without comment. Thus, we are not dealing with a quote out of context, an overheard remark, hear-say or actual “hard evidence” of a person voicing their opinion. We are simply dealing with a text and the 4.000 critical – and some may say unreflective – responses to it.

The opinion piece in question uses the anniversary of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a vantage point: during a recent commemorative act parts of the Justice’s speech on the topic of abortion from the year 1980 were quoted, albeit with gender-neutral alterations. An act for which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) later apologised, since the Justice’s views on human rights were clear without needing the (well-intended) changes.

The author of the opinion piece, Rosie DiManno, in turn uses this story in order to show the “outer orbit of linguistics” in which “both women, as a gender, and ‘woman’ as a noun are being blotted out”. In doing so, she questions the misogyny behind these acts by asking “Why [is] ‘woman’ the non-speak word and not ‘man?’.” Yet, as it turns out, the backlash Atwood faced for sharing this piece (and she continues to defend herself on twitter) seems mostly based on the title the editor’s chose for it: “Why can’t we say ‘women’ anymore?”. Or, as one tweeter remarked “The editor chose a title for the piece that doesn’t really capture what it’s about. I suspect people are focusing on the title and not the substance of the piece.” To which Atwood briefly responded “Agree”.

With nearly 50.000 tweets to her account, this is not Atwood’s first time in the eye of a shitstorm: just like fellow-author J. K. Rowling, Atwood, too has been called out as anti-feminist (in spite of her famous feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale and her feminist rewriting of fairy tales) or indeed radical feminist and, again, like Rowling she was one of the many signatories of A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, calling out, so to say, the culture of “calling out”. Here, too, the often shared meme and sentiment that ‘social media is neither media, nor social’ comes to mind. As in all instances, there are bound to be misunderstandings, when complex issues are being reduced to titles, memes, or soundbites.


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