The essay 21 Fallacies Feeding ‘Cancel Culture’ should give us much to think about, not least that a piece with this subject matter needs to be written in the first place. If ever there was a time the Left needed to unite is it now. The world humankind inhabits has always been in turmoil of one kind or another. But in today’s world of ecological crisis the stakes have never been higher. Yet, as 21 Fallacies so eloquently demonstrates, instead of uniting and dealing with the turmoil, cancel culture has us tearing each other apart. The phenomenon is so severe that a person who attracts public attention, regardless of their track record, will almost inevitably do or say something that doesn’t meet an impossible standard imposed by the cancel culture police; and when they do, they will face the kind of wrath that might be reserved for a mass murderer.
It is important to clarify before going further that often the concerns leading to cancel culture behaviour are real and significant, for example, if someone has been racist, sexist, homophobic. In these and other cases, it is right we don’t simply accept them as societal norms. It is right we draw attention to the fact that it’s not good enough to behave this way. It is right that if required the law is invoked, and if the law is inadequate that it’s made adequate. It is right that the punishment fits the crime and justice is done. This is what we must do to progress as a society and many of us do respond in this way. The problem with cancel culture is that its punishments are very often harsher than the crimes and the only justice good enough is somebody’s head on a virtual stick.
Ultimately, what is the good of any response if it doesn’t change anything? Achieving equal pay for women or ending institutional racism would be more meaningful and impactful than cancelling a few offensive people on twitter because they’ve told a tasteless racist joke or made an insensitive sexist remark. And of course, we don’t have to stay quiet about hurtful jokes or remarks but we can put them in perspective, call people in, not out, and put our energies into the real prize of radical change.
It is fair to say that those who engage in cancel culture do so because they believe that winning radical change or a post-capitalist world is impossible. If we truly believed a better alternative was possible, we’d be too busy winning to have time to waste on cutting down the very people who could or should be our allies. We’d be too busy achieving equal gender pay or ending institutional racism to waste time on cancel culture. 21 Fallacies draws attention to this position: if winning is unattainable, why not focus on what is attainable, that is, living on social media and cancelling whoever crosses us.
The ruling class has always applied divide-and-conquer as a tactic to keep the rest of the world under their jackboot. Dividing the masses, pitting us against each other, making us blind to what binds us, is what allows them to remain on top and in control. The ruling class expends enormous amounts of money and energy on this approach because they know it’s effective. With the emergence of cancel culture, what we see is divide-and-conquer in action. But rather than the ruling class having to drive it, the Left is doing their dirty work for them. If it weren’t so tragic, it would be funny.
One of the 21 Fallacies, i.e. the passage of time being irrelevant, is closely related to another fallacy that could be added to the list: the unforgiving permanency of social media.
To begin exploring this, it’s worth pointing out that cancel culture behaviour is not new. Humans have probably always manifested toxic behaviour of this kind. However, cancel culture has a unique distinguishing feature that didn’t exist in the past: the Internet, and with it, the ability to transmit images around the planet in the blink of an eye. Consequently, cancel culture takes place in a global space where the entire world can watch and / or participate. The naming and shaming of perceived or actual perpetrators isn’t confined to a specific geographical area, to a single moment in time, to a particular group of people. Cancel culture is trial by social media where there’s no such thing as privacy and there’s no such thing as forgetting.
We need to ask ourselves what should happen to the person who makes a mistake; who says something stupid; who behaves like an asshole and is bang out of order. Should they have their misconduct recorded and posted on social media for the whole world to see? Should they be cancelled, ostracised, black-listed? Should they lose their job, their reputation, their privacy? Should they suffer endless online attacks, be the target of vitriolic posts that spew whatever poison people want to write about them? The person may be sorry or mortified or regret what happened to the core of their being. None of that matters because in cancel culture they can never live it down and never be forgiven.
But haven’t all of us at one point in time been guilty of doing or saying something we regret, that could be examined in the righteous light of day and make us ashamed? Haven’t we wanted to be shown mercy, for our transgression to be shared only with those people who were directly involved at the time it occurred, for it to be forgiven and forgotten? Isn’t this part of the human condition?
Worse still, what if we’re blamed in the wrong or have exaggerated and unfair accusations made against us? What then? Public humiliation? A ruined life? Lies and hate broadcast? No means of recourse? No right to reply?
The European Union—which is hardly a paragon of virtue—has legislation known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which contains a directive called the ‘right to be forgotten’. This means that if an individual doesn’t want their data processed any longer and there are no legitimate grounds for retaining those data, they will be deleted. The ‘right to be forgotten’ was tested out in 2014 when a case was brought to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The background to the case was that in 1998, a Spanish newspaper reported on the forced sale of properties resulting from social security debts. The report included the identity of one of the property owners and this person complained that when his name was entered into a Google search, it led to that specific information about him. He believed it had happened so long ago that it was no longer relevant and he asked for the information to be removed. In its ruling, CJEU upheld the ‘right to be forgotten’, stating that Internet search engine operators were responsible for their processing of personal data appearing on web pages published by third parties.
The upshot was that a search engine operator must consider requests from individuals to remove links to freely accessible web pages resulting from a search on their name. Grounds for removal include cases where the search result(s) “appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive in the light of the time that had elapsed.” If the search engine operator rejects the request, the individual may ask relevant authorities to consider the case. Under certain conditions, the search engine operator may be ordered to remove the links from search results.
GDPR can be applied to social media too but cancel culture gets away with violating it time and time again because enacting the legislation takes a lot of effort on the part of the victim of cancel culture. Trying to uphold the ‘right to be forgotten’ on social media is like trying to gather dispersed gas molecules into a bottle. Once it’s out there, it’s next to impossible to get under control. So, while legislation can and should be in place, it’s still no guarantee of protection from cancel culture.
So, where is the solidarity, where is the empathy, where is the decency, where is the respect? Instead of cancel culture, what’s wrong with simply engaging with the person you disagree with; hearing them out; challenging their views and presenting your own; using your powers of persuasion and argument to counter theirs and possibly bring them round to your way of thinking; maybe even learning something from them or have them learn from you; realising that you might even have some things in common or that if you do fundamentally disagree that you can agree to disagree? What’s wrong with civilised behaviour that lives and lets live?
Cancel culture comes from a place of people feeling wronged and having their rights trampled on. It’s ironic then that their response to such injustice is to trample on the rights of those who are perceived to have slighted them, often times in much harsher and more permanently destructive ways. Rights work in two directions: they are received but they must also be given. It’s time to see each other as humans, whether we do or don’t like or agree with each other, and to treat each other with the respect and decency we would like for ourselves.
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