Trigger Warning: Should Our Entertainment Heritage Be Immune From “Cancel Culture?”
I define our “entertainment heritage” as any product resulting from an act of artistic creation, regardless of era, inclusive of but not limited to the written word, the moving image, music, and the visual arts.
Today’s New York Times published a troubling and already controversial article, seen here:
Prominent Artists and Writers Warn of an 'Intolerant Climate'
An open letter published by Harper's, signed by luminaries including Margaret Atwood and Wynton Marsalis, argued for…
The open letter in question, as published by Harpers and signed by numerous artists, can be found here:
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate | Harper's Magazine
July 7, 2020 The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine's October issue. We welcome…
I agree with these artists, and if asked I would have signed that letter as well with absolutely no hesitation.
It’s about fighting back against so-called “cancel culture.”
From Wikipedia: Cancel culture describes a form of boycott in which an individual, who has shared a questionable or controversial opinion, or has had behavior in their past that is perceived to be offensive recorded on social media, is “canceled”; they are ostracized and shunned by former friends, followers and supporters alike, leading to declines in any careers and fanbase the individual may have at any given time. Harper’s Magazine published an open letter on 7th July 2020, signed by 150 public figures, setting out arguments against “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
In my opinion, dissenting voices must be allowed to express themselves freely in all matters of art, whether we like it or not, or whether we find it offensive or not.
Immersion (Piss Christ) is a 1987 photograph by the American artist and photographer Andres Serrano. It depicts a small…
All too frequently, it is the job of the artist to create resonant metaphor through their work.
Without differing views, those metaphors would cease to exist in favor of homogenized art.
I am not a fan of “cancel culture” as presently and popularly considered. To continue my perspective, I am a staunch supporter of the BLM and #MeToo movements, and I have written numerous articles on this platform about racism, and on sexual misconduct and women’s rights.
We’re No Angels: An Honest Man’s Guide to What Some of Us Really Believe About “Sexual Harassment”
The answers may surprise you.
I have walked on the front lines of protest for both, and have interviewed several entertainment industry thought leaders as to their opinions on the former.
My Zoom Interview With Actor-Director-Writer Bill Duke on Racism Today
Bill, an old friend, joined me for a no-holds-barred conversation about race and transformation.
Regarding a related primary current argument, I believe in the removal of offensive statues and art if that’s the majority view, but I in no way support the destruction of such history.
That is where I draw my personal line.
I noticed, interestingly, most of my friends of color agreed with me on the statue issue. Not that many of my Caucasian friends did, which may or may not speak volumes with a larger sample.
Regardless, the line above is equivalent with the line I draw when it comes to our entertainment heritage.
Our Entertainment Heritage
We cannot pretend that in 1927 Caucasian performer Al Jolson did not act and sing in blackface in the film industry’s first talkie, “The Jazz Singer.” Quentin Tarantino’s overt use of the word “nigger” in several of his films did and does happen. Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, used the following tag on its movie poster:
Would “rape” figure so prominently if the film was released today? Would such a film even be released today?
Should such a film be released today?
For my views on the matter, I posted the following article in late-2019:
Defending “A Clockwork Orange” in 2019
‘Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.’
The new streaming service HBO Max recently received immense criticism for canceling “Gone With the Wind” from its service, before backtracking and reinstating with opening commentary.
As for books, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” have been banned for years. We used to laugh at banned books, remember? Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical “The Bell Jar” was similarly discarded from many schools as the author eventually took her own life and the work was considered “unsavory.” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” has been a long time favorite of those who considered themselves our moral authority.
We can certainly go on, and delve into aspects of the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism, of Senate subcommittees … and the dangers of comic books.
Speaking of, in the 1950’s, EC Comics’ (“Tales From the Crypt,” “The Vault of Horror”) publisher William M. Gaines employed the following argument against Senator Estes Kefauver during a hearing on juvenile delinquency. The subject of the moment was based on the following cover:
Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Gaines: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
Gaines: A little.
There would almost be no way such a cover would pass muster today.
But does that mean we should destroy it?
My equivalence is the plight of author Salman Rushdie.
Salman Rushdie had a fatwa issued against him in 1989 by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who ordered his execution for blasphemy in his writing of “The Satanic Verses.”
Did Rushdie’s death warrant make those extremist factions who burned him in effigy, as an estimated 20,000 gathered in Parliament Square to watch, simply more sensitive or politically-correct by virtue of their outrage?
So-called “cancel culture” to my mind is that ridiculous.
As I asked earlier, where does it end?
Answer: It does not, as any special interest group could take it upon themselves to destroy what they find personally offensive, or what they believe others would find personally offensive.
In as much as many artists refused to sign the above Harper’s letter, and countless more are saying they would never do so for various reasons, I’m reminded of a recent Facebook comment made to me by an associate when I honestly expressed my views about not destroying art or history:
“And that’s the hill you choose to die on?” he asked, incredulously.
Since George Floyd’s death, as elaborated upon in the letter, we have been exploring a new moral ground.
But destruction is not a moral issue to me.
So to the question that opened this piece: Should our entertainment heritage be immune from “cancel culture?”
You’re damn right it should.
And I believe art by controversial artists should likewise be reconsidered for public display, but salvaged and taught as opposed to destroyed.
The Artist or the Art?
In 1977, 44-year-old director Roman Polanski was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl. The charges included rape by use…
Art if removed or banned will never truly go away, and nor should it. Art will always be suppressed. Historic symbols by comparison, such as that of Naziism, for example, have been proven to only return at another time.
That time is today, and education is key here. As a Jew who has lost relatives in World War II, I can agree with all authority that if we ignore our old symbols and history we will only repeat them.
The following words are displayed in Auschwitz and I could not agree more:
Display the offensive art and the history in a museum. Write about them in books.
But books do not last forever.
Are We Vulnerable to Another Library of Alexandria-Level Loss of Knowledge and Art?
The myth of Egypt's Great Library of Alexandria is that innumerable scrolls, records of knowledge and historic events…
And maybe one day the cloud will be hacked.
We cannot take those chances. Store the art and the history if need be but never destroy it.
We cannot afford to forget in order to progress.
As for our artistic heritage proper?
We must learn from it, and move forward.
Al Jolson, if he was alive in our modern era, would never be allowed to do what he and the filmmakers behind “The Jazz Singer” once did. And to great commercial and critical success, I add.
Today, it would never be tolerated. That’s progress to me.
But we cannot pretend his indiscretion, as innocent as it may have been at the time, never happened. Nor should we ever forget it.
That’s the difference.
We’re all equal. Only our skin and our genitals are different. So let’s move forward together under those auspices, with the freedom to create resonate art … and also to disagree.
Create, and educate. Destruction is uneccesary.
Otherwise, imagine a world where our art offers nothing but safe homogeny. Think of the myriad entertainment forms that have helped many of us survive and deal over the years, and especially during our current pandemic.
Truly, think about it, and let me know your thoughts.
Thank you for reading.
If you would like new stories and exclusive content sent directly to your inbox, please enter your email address to subscribe to my free newsletter. CLICK here:
Writing For Your Life
Honest, practical advice on the writer's life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters.
For those interested in a special emailed Sunday edition of “Writing For Your Life,” you can click here: