J.K. Rowling Official Portrait Photography Debra Hurford Brown © J.K. Rowling 2018

Public figures must atone for and learn from their actions,  instead of being canceled, writes Jasmine Razeghi.

Author J.K. Rowling was recently criticized for her transphobic tweets which sparked outrage amongst her fans who called for her cancellation.

She bashed an article titled, “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” and tweeted, “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” which dismissed trans women that do not have menstrual cycles and trans men that do. 

LGBTQ+ organization GLAAD took to Twitter to respond to the author’s transphobic tweet, stating, “JK Rowling continues to align herself with an ideology which willfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans. In 2020, there is no excuse for targeting trans people.” 

“Cancel Culture” Versus Accountability

The author recently signed the letter to denounce “cancel culture”  that Harper Magazine published, which by many prominent writers and academics signed. While the letter called for accepting the mistakes of others, Rowling has yet to recognize that she made a mistake by being trans-exclusionary and transphobic in her past and more recent comments. How is Rowling held accountable for her transphobia? 

While the letter voiced the concerns of those who do not wish to be “canceled” after owning up to their mistakes, it lacks any form of accountability for those who make mistakes and take no responsibility for the harm they cause. Denouncing “cancel culture” does not erase the need for accountability. There should not be a free pass for public figures and celebrities to spew hatred without ownership of their mistakes. 

The letter mentioned the concern of the consequences public figures face when they make a mistake, stating, “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”

While Rowling’s critique of harsh consequences was understandable, her inability to apologize to the trans community for her hateful rhetoric only defends why people support “cancel culture” in the first place. Even though celebrities are prone to making mistakes like everyday people, their influence goes beyond their family, neighbors, or community. Fans often idolize celebrities and celebrities are also able to influence masses of people across the world. Fame comes with a responsibility to do what is right and to own up when mistakes happen. 

Hate Speech Versus Free Speech

When J.K. Rowling tweeted the letter, she stood by her signature and stated, “I was very proud to sign this letter in defense of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech.”

However, hate speech should not fall under the category of free speech. While prominent figures should face critique for making mistakes, whether they are forgivable is up to those hurt by their remarks or actions. 

“Cancelling” a prominent figure leaves no room for self-improvement and does not hold them accountable for their actions. Certainly, everyone’s right to think and speak needs protection. However, when hate speech imposes harm on others, society should strengthen its intolerance.

Do Celebrities Really Get “Cancelled”?

While “canceling” a celebrity is an immediate response for society when celebrities do something wrong, it does not always work. 

For example, in 2018 people canceled Kanye West after he made the claim that 400 years of slavery was a choice, in addition to being an avid Trump supporter. In April, he officially became a billionaire. This year, he declared that he would run for President. It does not appear that being “canceled” stuck at all. 

Another example is Chris Brown, who assaulted Rihanna in 2009. Even after the assault, he faced rape allegations, yet still receives continuous support for his music career. He is still a millionaire with a successful music career. “Cancel culture” appears to be more of a public shaming rather than any form of boycott or accountability for celebrities who make mistakes.

What Should Celebrities Do After Making A Mistake?

When celebrities make a mistake, they should own up to it. This can happen through public apology or reflection on why what they said or did was harmful. Additionally, when their actions harm a specific marginalized group, they should consider donating, supporting, and advocating for an organization that contributes to that particular community or cause. In Rowling’s case, she should donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Gendered Intelligence, or another trans organization. 

Hateful rhetoric against marginalized groups remains present in society. In the case of J.K. Rowling, her influential voice easily secured transphobia in the language or thoughts of many of her followers who will continue to support her. Rather than canceling people, society should instead hold celebrities like Rowling accountable and demand justice for those who are trampled by their wrongdoings.