The Cheat Sheet

Is Cancel Culture good for justice?

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 08, 2020 Published on July 08, 2020

Pardon my ignorance, what’s Cancel Culture?

For starters, this is a new movement of sorts, with roots in recent socio-political events such as the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment, which took the world by storm for the sheer weight and relevance of the subjects they dealt with. Simply put, the ‘cancel’ here means to cancel out or end (a person’s career) in response to his or her offensive behaviour or action.

For instance?

For instance, if there is a celebrity — say an actor — who makes a misogynistic statement or commits an act of sexual crime, there could be calls to boycott the actor’s films and other works, banish him or her from all public events and disconnect the person from all possible social associations. As a result, the person is ‘cancelled’ or blocked culturally, socially, economically and politically.

So this is basically a boycott call, right?

Yes, in a way. But unlike in the past, in the age of social media, such calls for naming, shaming and banishing erring persons can have far-reaching impacts. Even though the origins of cancel culture ‘dates’ back to 2017 or before, the term got popular last year, when a series of Internet spats and controversies in which a clutch of celebrities was ‘cancelled out’ and as a result lost fame, money, career and, in some cases, gender privileges.

So this is an online phenomenon?

Not exactly. Those who observe such trends tell us that there are two kinds of cancel cultures. The first one a call-out culture. Here, an important or responsible individual is shamed publicly on social media for his or her statements (xenophobic, homophobic, racist or sexist) and the ensuing outcry helps hold them accountable for their errors.

Interesting. The next one?

The second variant is more serious. Here, an erring celebrity is called out on social media and a larger populace boycotts his products and services, eventually bringing an end to histheir careers. Most times this writer followed, it is very difficult to differentiate between the variants. That said, the immense popularity cancel culture enjoys, especially among teenagers and young adults, makes it one of the most influential movements in recent history.

But why talk about it now?

Well, just this week, 150 writers and academics put out an open letter pointing to the dangers of the cancel culture. The letter, signed by the likes of JK Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Garry Kasparov and Salman Rushdie, says the social-media powered cancel culture has created a stifling atmosphere that “will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

Why do they think so? Don’t such erring men and women need to be taken to task?

According to the Letter on Justice and Debate, published on the Harper’s Magazine website, such calls for “swift and severe retribution” in response to “perceived transgressions of speech and thought” cause damage, since institutional leaders, “in a spirit of panicked damage control”deliver hasty, disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

Are they hinting that this is a form of mob justice?

Interestingly, much of the criticism towards the cancel culture anchors on the fact that such campaigns avoid established channels for justice, such as the courts and police procedures, and replaces them measured and matured judicial processes with social media trials and punishments.

Critics say such easy forms of finding ‘gratification’ or ‘justice’ can be counter-productive, since they educate the young generation, who form a big slice of the cancel culture apostles, the wrong way and pave way for intolerant and impatient attitudes towards opinions that are different from theirs.

But don’t such ‘cultures’ arise out of the visible failures of established modes of justice?

Agreed. But the counter take is that our social systems and processes are results of years of social and cultural evolution, and they are still a work in progress. This fact doesn’t nullify their importance and make courts and complaint systems irrelevant.

Cancel calls avoid such democratic (though with their own flaws) systems. Today, it may be a genuine case and causethat becomes fodder for a cancel culture. But as several examples suggest next time it might not be the same, given the way social media trials have been played by vested interests and forces of capital. So, applying caution and reason will help us cancel out wrong cultures.

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Published on July 08, 2020
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