From linguist Noam Chomsky, feminist critic Gloria Steinem to former US President Barack Obama, everyone has a problem with the ‘cancel culture’. This debate is back with aplomb, and this time, it has quite a few people rallying behind the tug of war between the perils free speech is allegedly facing and what could very well be termed as consequences of problematic behaviour.
Interestingly, at one level, this debate has also turned generational. Those who back the fact that ‘cancel culture’ should be cancelled, invariably belong to the boomer generation. Or perhaps that inclination is not so surprising after all.
It all began with a letter. On 7 July, over 150 prominent personalities, including authors J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, musician Wynton Marsalis, former New York Times Opinion editor Bari Weiss, among many others penned an open letter decrying the “intolerant climate” in the US as well as “swift and severe retribution” to “perceived transgressions”.
For far too long, boomers have scoffed at the younger generation for their use of buzzwords and for reducing complicated and nuanced matters into social media hashtags. However, at this point, they are doing exactly the same by whining about how their free speech is imperilled and crying agog over this alleged ‘cancel culture’. It’s almost like they’re baiting us to yell “Ok Boomer!”
But what is so essentially evil about some people facing long, overdue consequences for controversial behaviour that even a raging pandemic could not stop these individuals from raking up the issue?
At this point, with the Black Lives Matters protests, the US is definitely going through a cultural and historic moment of reckoning. And as is expected of all such movements, there have been fallouts and this liberal quagmire of ‘cancel culture’ is one such mess.
Free speech but only for the privileged
What is ‘cancel culture’ though? I am fairly certain no one really knows what exactly the particular phrase means or rather alludes to. It has been used and re-used in a variety of contexts and no essential meaning can really be attributed to it.
Here’s a helpful guide to understand the many aspects of it.
However, the most agreed upon definition is the trend of intense backlash, often on social media, against an individual due to problematic behaviour on his or her part. Often, this culture of ‘cancelling’ individuals leads to loss of prominent positions in their professional life.
The fateful letter titled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate opened a veritable can of worms. Soon enough, there were accusations and counter-accusations flying over social media over the veracity of the claims and whether free speech was actually under threat.
That question is answered enough easily: Free speech has always been under threat. The more important question then is, whose free speech? And it is most certainly not of those who actually signed the letter.
A look at the signatories of the letter indicates that certain parameters needed to be considered — a large following, prominence, wealth. In a nutshell, they are all privileged. Thus, when people who already have a massive platform lament the lack of one, forgive me for being uncomfortable. Perhaps some of the 150 signatories did want to brave the storm for that lesser-known individual bullied on the internet, but for the most part, the letter seemed more like a banner claiming — ‘MY free speech is under threat’.
As author Jessica Valenti puts it: “Facing consequences for what you say and do is not a free speech violation. And there’s nothing new or brave about signing a letter that characterizes criticism of the powerful as dangerous.”
Consequences of ‘cancel culture’, or lack thereof
Rowling is a self-professed victim of ‘cancellation’. After her anti-trans tweet, where she basically erased the lived experiences of trans women, she did face massive backlash. But other than perhaps hurting her feelings, she is still pretty much the same. Still powerful, still rich and still very much making her anti-trans stance public.
Perhaps the most important point in the past few years where ‘cancel culture’ became most prominent was during the MeToo movement in 2017 and 2018. In the West and in India, a moment of reckoning came forth for powerful men and years of sexual harassment.
Looking back, three years later, several of these men who were allegedly ‘cancelled’ then have found their way back to their professional spheres. People like former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, despite being convicted, still hold enough sway—when a female comedian criticised him, she was the one lambasted.
Actor Scarlett Johansson was relentlessly criticised for agreeing to play a trans man, despite being a cisgender herself. She did drop the role after the criticism, which was only right. But that has not even remotely damaged her prospects in Hollywood.
Comedian Shane Gillies was fired from Saturday Night Live because he made some racist remarks and continues to be a fairly successful touring comedian.
There were rape allegations made against veteran actor Alok Nath but he continues to play the saintly father figure in movies. Comedian Tanmay Bhatt confessed to being complicit in shielding a sexual harasser, but his YouTube videos garner several million views every single week.
For sure, there are always exceptions to a rule and there may be people who have been unfairly judged and had to resign from their job as a result. But aren’t these unfortunate circumstances part of any and every culture?
And the more important question is: Do these exceptions eventually override the rights of people, especially and more importantly of those who belong to communities that have been historically marginalised, to point out things that they consider as problematic?
Twitter not on NYT’s masthead, but it levels the field
Bari Weiss recently resigned from the NYT Opinion team with a rather explosive resignation letter where she declared, with dramatic flair, “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”
The rallying cry against Twitter is a common trope among these self-proclaimed defenders of free speech. Often comparing it to a place where mob justice is dispensed. And they are right, ask any woman’s experiences on Twitter, and they will tell you just how toxic the place can be.
But it also cannot be denied that despite its obvious flaws and toxicity, Twitter has in a way democratised the business of opinions. Now, instead of a one-way spoon feeding, people can actively engage with what they deem as problematic.
There are far more platforms pioneered by women, Dalits and Blacks than before, purely because of the reach of social media. The MeToo movement, the BLM protests, the anti-CAA protests were all founded and sustained through social media.
Therein also lies the irony of the letter and this entire argument. They want absolute free speech but at the cost of others not expressing their own opinions on people’s comments. Hypocrisy much?
‘Cancel culture’ is not a millennial whim
It’s almost like those who wrote the letter wish to ‘go back’ to a better time. However, a past mired in silences of the marginalised and women is nothing to aspire to. Things were easier earlier because well, several people were conveniently shut up — and there is nothing ‘progressive’ about it.
Demanding better from people in positions of power is not an attack on them. It’s just a reminder of the responsibilities that come with the clout. Neither is this vast trend of ‘cancel culture’ simply a whim on the part of the millennials. It is a moment in time where people should be scared about how they conduct themselves and should be cognisant of who they may hurt as a consequence.
“When reason, respect and responsibility are all under threat, accountability offers us a better foundation on which to build a cohesive society, one where everyone feels that their voice is heard,” wrote activist Billy Bragg for The Guardian.
In fact, this is a trend that needs to catch up in India. Targeting people, hate speech, Islamophobia, sexism, racism are way too rampant in this country — on political platforms, 9 pm prime time news and even in activism circles — with no regard for consequences.
And ultimately, that is the bottom line of this debate—you call it ‘cancel culture’, I call it consequences.
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