Should everyone get to play moral police?
Imagine if every single conversation or a heated discussion in our life was recorded and reviewed. Would all of our opinions pass through the filter of modern political correctness? And if not – who should be our judge, and what should be the verdict? It seems that on our way to establishing social justice through online activism, we have reached a point where any alternative thoughts or questions are subject to criticism and ‘public’ punishment. And the more moral filters are imposed, the further we become from the essence of free speech.
What is cancel culture?
In the social media jargon, ‘cancelling’ means to morally condemn a public figure for offensive behaviour and cease the support for their work. The term got widespread use after the #MeToo movement in 2017 when many Hollywood celebrities were accused publicly of inappropriate sexual behaviour, harassment and rape. After the influential producer Harvey Weinstein was exposed for a lifetime of predatory behaviour and successfully ‘removed’ from the industry, many other comedians and actors appeared on the radar. The movement was a very significant and necessary step to acknowledging toxic traditions that were always present well beyond the film industry. But even though some of the accused ended up with no careers, many others have successfully returned to their jobs after the movement lost it’s momentum. One of them was comedian Louis C.K, who successfully returned to a world tour after being accused of sexual misconduct by several women.
The fact that ‘cancellation’ provides only a temporary spotlight to both the accuser and the wrongdoer suggests that moral responsibility has become a performative act. Scandals like these become hotspots for public outrage, gathering massive attention and feeding the online audience. Important to note that ‘cancelling’ turned into a common shaming ‘ritual’ amongst teenage users on popular platforms such as Instagram and Youtube. It starts when someone uploads a somewhat offensive old picture, video or a text message of from a creator. As a response, a flood of comments calling to ‘cancel’ that creator continues until Youtube de-monetises their content and depending on the quality of their public apology, their image is somewhat saved. It may be a positive thing to fight for justice by recognising and calling out someone’s insensitive actions, but this becomes problematic when the internet becomes the primary tool for it. Accusations on a public platform that use private information turn this into a type of bullying. The internet suddenly becomes the new high school, except with many more people to cast blame through likes, shares and comments.
In the light of recent movements for social and racial justice, ‘cancellation’ has grown from a selling story to systemic censorship. In the past week, 150 renowned writers, academics and artists have signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine in opposition to the lack of constructive debate in the media. Amongst those were writers Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Gloria Steinheim and many others. The letter reflects the frustration in the intellectual community, where, to quote, “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 organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” Cognitive psychologist and writer Steve Pinker also recently became subject to ‘cancellation’ when several hundred linguists (some of them with fraudulent qualifications) signed a letter demanding that he be stripped of his fellowship with the Linguistic Institute of America.
The basis for the letter was a collection of tweets that Pinker posted across the years, where he suggested a different approach to linking police violence and racial injustice in the US. He posted statistical evidence that connects numbers of police shootings to not only the racially motivated crimes but also the appointment of police in specific neighbourhoods. Without denying the component discrimination and the inequality towards the African-American community, he brought forward the idea that ‘focusing on race distracts from solving the problem’. Pinker’s views did not support the mainstream media mainly because he also brought out a Harvard study about the decline of overt racism in the US over the years and because of this, he became a simple case of ‘offence archaeology’. This term, first used by Freddie deBoer in his 2017 essay ‘Planet of Cops’, is used to describe the process of digging up evidence from someone’s past and taking it out of context to denounce their status.
Cancel culture through history
If we look at history, ‘cancelling’ is nothing new. One of the earliest manifestations was ancient Roman ritual ‘Damnatio memoriae’ – the process of ‘wiping’ people that brought discredit to the empire. The Roman senate deemed anyone who wasn’t in the good books of the emperor as traitors and erased them from the public and historical memory. The tradition is also reminiscent of Stalin’s consistent purges and cultural censorship in the 20th century Soviet Union. In the modern times, the ideological inspection continues – this time, under the disguise of a democratic society and ‘free’ speech, which is only free for those who agree with each other’s views. There is a case to argue about both sides of the issue: on the one hand, it is crucial to have sensitivity towards the injustices that have long oppressed certain groups in society. However, operating from a state of offence, aggression, and hatred doesn’t always provide a lasting solution for conflicts. Directly attacking people that do not follow trends of social media activism or have said ‘wrong’ things in the past only halts progress.
‘Cancelling’ is closely linked to very natural human qualities – finding comfort in agreeing with the majority and (mistakenly) feeling morally superior towards people with whom we strongly disagree. If we regarded the possibility that we can be equally flawed in our morals as everyone else, we wouldn’t jump on social media to become the judges of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Instead, we would focus our energy on having open discussions in real life and encouraging our close community to listen and grow.