NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – The other night, as a sort of psycho-cultural experiment, I tried to watch “The Usual Suspects,” for many years one of my favorite movies.
I couldn’t do it.
I stopped less than two minutes in. The film is brilliantly done and has long fascinated me. I used to quote the dialogue all the time. I’m pretty sure I’ll never again quote a single line. All because the film stars Kevin Spacey and was directed by Bryan Singer, both of whom have come down hard as the #MeToo movement storms through the entertainment industry.
Much to my surprise, I seem to have joined what has come to be called “cancel culture.”
Cancel culture is as hotly debated as it is variously defined. At its heart, the term refers to editing one’s own awareness of the world of popular culture, to eliminate from active consciousness the works of those who have been credibly accused of doing terrible things to other people — particularly when they have faced few or no legal consequences.
Amanda Marcotte, writing recently at Salon, puts it this way: “We can’t make them go to jail, the thinking goes, but we can take them off our screens and out of our headphones. It’s an attempt to assert control over a situation where victims and their allies often have none.”
The occasion for Marcotte’s reflection was the back-to-back releases of Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” and HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” — a sad coincidence that has occasioned a great deal of soul searching. Over at the Ringer, a headline asks: “Can the Music of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly Be Canceled?”
This is cancel culture at its best: an appeal at once to the individual’s conscience and aesthetic sensibility. The effort is not to force anyone’s judgment on anyone else; rather, the effort is to discipline the self to set aside an affinity for that which is now tainted. Viewed this way, cancel culture falls within a long tradition of stoical movements that disdained part or all of the larger world. The very inwardness of cancel culture creates its moral appeal.
The movement becomes more insidious, however, when it marches beyond the borders of nonparticipation and into the realm of prohibition. This has arguably happened in young adult fiction, where social media campaigns can lead to the postponement or even cancellation of a title. That’s a bad result, in part because books themselves, in their infinitely provocative diversity, are a good; but also because the movement is then engaged in trying to make unavailable to everybody else whatever its own members would prefer not to read. History teaches that “no one should have access to the things I hate” is a dangerous claim.
Better by far to leave the choice to the individual. Last month, New York magazine listed what it considered the best movies streaming on Netflix. Two of them — “L.A. Confidential” and “Seven” — feature Kevin Spacey. Omitting them, either from Vulture’s list or Netflix’s library, would have been peculiar. Both are excellent pieces of work; and they are not less excellent because of the credible accusations leveled against one of their stars.
But even if no less excellent, a film might become less watchable. Some viewers will see this as the place to make a stand; others will not. What matters is that the viewer be allowed to make the choice.
And those choices can be difficult. “Am I a bad person if I still watch Woody Allen movies?” a worried fan asked last year on Quora. Allen was once among the most honored directors in the world, and his oeuvre has brought me considerable pleasure over the years, but nowadays a lot of people are ready to pledge never to watch another one of his films.
On the other hand, Jeva Lange, writing in The Week, argues that there’s a crucial difference between boycotting a singer’s music and boycotting a director’s films. A solo singer is, in effect, the entire production — certainly from the point of view of the consumer. A film, she contends, is different; there isn’t really a single auteur: “To summarily dismiss ‘Woody Allen films’ because Allen himself is accused of despicable behavior is to also inadvertently write off the symphonic city shots of Gordon Willis in ‘Manhattan,’ the zany costumes designed by Ruth Morley for ‘Annie Hall,’ or the underrated Ingrid Bergman-esque performance by Geraldine Page in ‘Interiors.'”
And Lange adds a caution, made urgent by the #MeToo moment: “Perhaps you believe that one bad apple spoils the barrel; I would strongly caution that this dismissal often brushes off the contributions particularly of women, whose incredible work is all too frequently in non-directorial positions.”
Moreover, if we boycott the director, shall we boycott the producer as well? Consider the case of Harvey Weinstein, the accusations against whom are perhaps the most compelling. But he helped produce one critically acclaimed film after another — including “Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Shakespeare in Love” — and had a hand in some of Broadway’s most important productions, including “Frost/Nixon” and “The Producers.” If we don’t watch what Allen directed, should we also not watch what Weinstein produced?
Moreover, even if there are artists whose work we can no longer stomach, we must be wary of writing them out of history. Consider Michael Jackson, whose 1982 “Thriller” album — and, particularly, the video of the title track, released the following year. The song and the video not only rescued a moribund music industry but arguably brought black music back firmly into a mainstream that was in the process of shoving it to the margins. We can choose never again to listen to his music, but it would be a terrible wrong to pretend that his influence was less than it was.
I’m not arguing for particular solution to the problem of who should watch or listen to what. I’m arguing only that we leave the judgment to individual fans — in that sense, that we let the market decide.
Marcotte correctly calls cancel culture “an incoherent and inadequate response to sexual abuse.” But its appeal, she adds, lies in the lack of alternatives: “People turn to it because real justice is elusive.” She’s right. Sometimes, deciding what we can and can’t stomach is the best we can do.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”