Days after New York-based Harper’s magazine published a letter, that had among its signatories academics, intellectuals and writers such as Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, John Banville and J K Rowling, warning against the rising tide of intolerance in civil discourse, in Mumbai, comedienne Agrima Joshua was being panned for an act she’d done in April 2019. In the segment, a clip of which had found its way onto the internet, Joshua is speaking on the upcoming statue of Shivaji in Maharashtra, the home of the 17th century Maratha leader. Before long, condemnation and threats of bodily harm were pouring in both online and off it, with a YouTuber delivering rape threats in an expletive-laden Instagram post.
How are the two connected, though? In the letter, the signatories write, “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: 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…it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” It further states, “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Loosely speaking, the letter was calling for cancel culture — the same that Joshua was facing — to be cancelled.
As many critics noted, despite its intentions, the letter was not without its flaws. Rowling was already under fire for her controversial views on LGBTQ rights and the position of privilege enjoyed by the signatories was not lost on anyone. If we look around, cancel culture has always existed. It’s been there in elite institutes, in the privileged coteries of old boys’ associations, in the corridors of power, where old money spoke to its own, and, in professions meant to foster diversity. Cancel culture has fundamentally worked in favour of the privileged because getting their voices to drown out those who did not conform has never been an issue. From Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to a former Indian union minister accused of sexual misconduct, if the #MeToo movement that began in 2017 showed anything it was this: That it takes decades for those at the receiving end of a power imbalance to make themselves heard, and, oftentimes, that may not be enough.
What the call-out culture achieved, at least initially, was to push back at this imbalance of power by creating a sense of community among those who share a long history of marginalisation and for whom traditional modes of redressal have often proven to be ineffective. And so, in a decade that has seen a remarkable number of people’s movements, cancel culture has been both a solace and a sharp scimitar. It has fostered a sense of solidarity, an alignment of forces to counter injustice, but it has not been an impulse privy to the marginalised alone. In bandying together and protecting their interests, the powerful have long determined who gets to make the rules of the game and there is no equality in that.
The problem with the age of wokeism is that it does not allow us room for mistakes. Compartmentalised into us-versus-them binaries, it makes a virtue out of moral certitude. A couple of years ago, during an interview at a literary festival, the feminist historian Mary Beard spoke of the necessity to accommodate nuance in conversations. “The fact that we don’t easily agree doesn’t mean that we have to be at war with each other. These are things that are very hard, and rightly hard, to agree upon. What people are allowed to say is one of the big issues that every political culture has always faced. We are not new in facing this. We need to examine it, talk about it outside some kind of echo chamber,” she said.
If anything, the debate over cancel culture has shown us that it’s imperative to introspect on who we are when we are not performing to an audience. In disquieting times, speaking up is a virtue and so is taking sides. But, sometimes, pausing to come up for air is an equally brave choice. How much of our outrage is tokenism? How far are we prepared to shrug off our privileges to understand that which affronts us? Is it possible that we are articulating our well-meaning support in ways that can come across as condescension? Can one feel equally strongly about every injustice in the world? Is it possible to admit to being wrong and begin again? In this constant masculinisation of our social discourse, uncertainty teaches us to listen and to unlearn. There is empathy in vulnerability because otherwise, in trying to find ourselves mirrored in every second person, we inevitably fail to do so even in the best of our allies. In the end, we fall back upon well-rehearsed rhetoric of umbrage and one-upmanship.
And, it is here, in the certainties that it seeks, that cancel culture falters. When we judge without knowing, we deny ourselves empathy. The world has never been ideal, now, even less so. Unless we learn to soften the angularity of our rage with grace, temper our insecurities with courtesy, the conversation will always end up as a monologue — full of sound and fury, achieving little.
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