The Shroud of Cancel Culture

Trigger Warning- Mentions of sexual harassment/assault/abuse

Amidst raging protests due to the ever-persistent racial inequalities in the USA, renowned public figures are complaining of illiberal policing of speech and stifling of the public realm- how much of their claims hold water?

As Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing engulf the entire global community as a whole, On 7th July, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter titled ”A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, which has re-sparked debates over cancel culture and free speech absolutism across the political spectrum. In an age of growing social media activism, cancel culture has certainly gained widespread traction; however, this has been accompanied by misuse and distortion of the very ethos of it. Consequently, people, overwhelmingly (surprise surprise) from the alt-right, have appropriated these shortcomings in order to invalidate the immense amount of accountability cancel culture has hitherto brought in tandem with the Believe Victims and MeToo movement(s).

People in positions of power have often misused skewed power dynamics to evade responsibility and hush down voices that dared to speak against them. At the literal peak of abuse of power, came along the MeToo movement triggered by widespread allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. While Cancel Culture (alternatively known as “call-out culture”) found its roots in 2015, it really became as powerful as it is in late 2017, when the MeToo movement took the internet by storm. Womxn used it as a tool for bringing call out and bring about accountability to people in positions of considerable influence, people who had sexually assaulted and harassed them. (Toppling the politics of power then went deep into judiciary). One after the other, famous people from different spheres of professions were accused and eventually formed a scenario wildly analogous to tiles in a game of dominoes.

While the movement still goes from strength to strength, the same principle has been extrapolated and applied to a variety of other situations wherein individuals display behaviour anchored in problematic ideologies. The goalpost has drastically changed and so have the means- people are harassed, doxxed, vilified to no bounds. From a tool of social justice, it has transformed into a voyeuristic entertainment spectacle. Instead of creating discourse and engaging with people, the goalpost has now shifted to curating holier-than-thou individuals with impeccable moral undertakings; if not, then the metaphorical guillotine of social media does its job. It’s important to note that this isn’t symmetrically representative of the *entire* culture, but for a large part of it. This carries with itself another set of profound problems.

Since it aims to produce individuals who have never set a foot wrong, it thrives in the idea of creating eternal guilt within people who don’t fit the bill; people who’ve made mistakes but are genuinely trying to improve. It encourages gate keeping which is quite simply put, antithetical to the idea of creating an inclusive societal fabric. As a matter of fact, it creates insular reactionary echo chambers abhorred to the idea of meaningful engagement. Instead of bringing people into a more progressive fold, it pushes people further into their conservative cocoons, simply because it fails to meaningfully interact with them. It produces insincere bogus apologies because it doesn’t allow time for introspection and the accused just want to get the virtual mob of their back. It puts a target on the marginalized because more often than not, they do not have a community to fall back on- the one they did has already shunned them. By the virtue of being reactionary, it has little to no space for objective evaluation of a situation- people without a rational grip of a reality are people with clouded , and to exercise one’s judgement in a miasma of distortion is bound to go disastrously astray. These concerns are further exemplified by the firings of people like Emmanuel Cafferty, David Shor and Majdi Wadi.

Does this mean the signatories of the Harper’s Letter had people’s best interests on their minds? That question is a difficult one to answer, but not entirely impossible. While it would be generalizing a complex reality to answer either in absolutes, certain vested interests are quite easily discernible. The letter’s ambiguous wording doesn’t make this task any easier ( making it come across as generic statement in support of free speech without laying out any specifics), but the signatories included are an index of the nature of the forces at play here. By using the unfair termination of the aforementioned individuals and manufacturing misgivings in the minds of the reader about the left, deeming it as “illiberal”, these people want to cloak their own ill deeds under the guise of pious moral platitudes. It is preposterous to claim that the Donald Trump is an ally of the left, when he continues to denigrate everything the left stands for. A simple breakdown of the following paragraph is surely a clear indicator of the political slight of hand at display here-

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”

The Editor being referred to- James Bennet, who published piece written by a senator which called for the use of military apparatus against BLM Protestors. He admitted that the piece was irresponsible himself.

Books Withdrawn- American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins which was accused of appropriating and depicting falsified (falsified won’t be the right term here) immigrant stories/ Apropos of Nothing, a book by Woody Allen who has a history marred with sexual assault allegations

Professor Investigated- White UCLA Political Science Lecturer who constantly repeated the n-word while reading MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” despite the outright reluctance of the students

Heads of Organisations fired for “clumsy mistakes”: A bit more ambiguous, could refer to many people but most notably- John Lassester, Pixar co-founder who established unwanted physical contact with female employees/ Bon Appétit EIC Adam Rapoport, accused of underpaying people from the BIPOC community

Perhaps the only two genuinely indefensible anomalies are as follows-

Journalists barred from writing on certain topics- Perhaps referring to the Black Journalist who weren’t allowed to write on the BLM protests because of an alleged bias

Researcher Fired- David Shor, who tweeted a research paper by Prof. Omar Wasow about how peaceful racial protests were more successful in the 60s.

The authors of the letter had a novel intention on their minds, to create conversations on attacks on dissent; but the signatories were trying to make a case for public avowal of their political incorrectness. What they’re really trying to do is portray themselves as the victim of a culture which really hasn’t affected them- they still have a large audience, they still have a platform, they still have their fair share in the spotlight. It is far more probable for predators, racists, homophobes and institutions to stay in place despite long lasting criticism than it is for people to be fired over social media backlash. Their intention isn’t to protect innocent people from facing uncalled consequences. Rather, the letter serves as a desperate attempt to prevent the erosion of their privilege, a privilege now under attack (avoiding accountability). They’re afraid of spaces becoming more inclusive because the power dynamics would inevitably have to make way for a more level playing field. Their opinions will have consequences because they’re no longer acceptable, and rightly so. Plausible deniability is no longer an option.

Social media as a platform is important to cancel culture because it puts things into public discourse gets the issue into people’s consciousness but often vigilante justice is too quick to label people guilty. This creates a false sense of victory where no actual de-platforming that takes place, rather a large group of sympathizers emerges to protect the accused. Two opposing camps are drawn which leads to perpetual conflict and no constructive change is sought, which is the ultimate goal afterall.

Cancel Culture has its fair share of problems. To admit problems within a system doesn’t mean that the concept of the system is inherently corrupt, but to admit that people have used it to fulfill their own ends. It has reduced justice to a power differential, but it goes without saying that the balance had to be shifted if we were to progress towards a more progressive and inclusive space. People need to be more mindful of their utterances because the domains are changing. People from the marginalia have only begun assimilating into mainstream crowds; workplaces are becoming increasingly inclusive. As is characteristic to all transitive periods, this will bring sharp vicissitudes to people’s life, it will demand changes in public demeanor so as to alienate micro aggressions and of course, there will be pushback from people unwilling to change their merry ways. In the face of adversity, we need to continue to agitate, educate, inform and deplatform where absolutely necessary- all within a plane of responsibility.

Image Credits- Chris Armstrong, Medium

Ishatva Rajeev