In the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, the nepotism debate raged across social media platforms in India, as actor Kangana Ranaut made it her prerogative to go after the ‘nepotism brigade’, insinuating that Bollywood’s existing toxic culture of ‘promoting their own’ is a contributing factor, that pushed Rajput to take such a drastic step.
The public was quick to lash out at the ‘privileged star kids’ and their B-town godfather Karan Johar on social media. Hashtags boycotting Johar and Bhatt trended for days, petitions were filed in change.org boycotting Yash Raj films, Salman Khan and Dharma Productions. Alia Bhatt, and Karan Johar both lost lakhs of followers on Instagram, and Bhatt was also trolled while promoting her film, Sadak 2.
It was a classic example of ‘Cancel Culture’, as public boycott directly affects the celebrities -- Karan Johar, for instance, resigned from the board of MAMI due to public outrage, and it is unlikely that Sadak 2’s release will not be eclipsed by nepotism charges.
In the past few years, we have only seen the rise and rise of Cancel Culture which can at best be described as a way of publicly shaming or boycotting an individual (in most cases a celebrity) on social media for either sharing unpopular views or questionable opinions.
One can also be cancelled if his/her behaviour is unethical -- like Karan Johar is often accused of giving ‘unfair’ advantage to a particular section of Bollywood, and Bhatt and other star kids are obvious beneficiaries of that undue advantage -- or if their behaviour is offensive to another individual, or a class, caste or race. One can even be cancelled if he/she does something illegal.
Cancel Culture has had a significant impact in shaping the cultural landscape and has impacted two of the most important movements in cultural history, in recent times -- the #metoo movement and the Black Lives Matter protests. After the Metoo movement cascaded in Hollywood, and several women called out men in powerful positions like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, these men, and their works were effectively cancelled from the public sphere. However, not every perpetrator named and shamed during the movement received the same treatment and many are still in business.
Cancel Culture also made Roseanne Barr pay for a racist tweet with her job. Apart from that, Shane Gillis was also cancelled, and fired from Saturday Night Live for his racist jokes. There are many such instances in which cancel culture has actually made companies take steps against their employees' inappropriate behaviour.
However, this phenomenon has barely found any supporters among the intelligentsia. In fact, on 7 July 2020, 150 prominent public figures like Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, Jeffrey Eugenides, Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie and others denounced ‘Cancel Culture’ in an open letter published in Harper Magazine.
In that letter, the primary reason cited for the denouncement was to uphold ‘our norms of open debate and toleration of differences’, and to maintain freedom of speech. The open letter goes on to say that free exchange of information and ideas, which is the hallmark of a liberal society, is becoming ‘more constricted’ in recent times due to such a culture.
“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters," it says. "But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”
Unfortunately, for a letter undersigned by so many illustrious writers, it hinges on platitudes, and statements generally accepted by everyone living in democratic societies, like, “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.”
However, the examples they cited don't talk about ‘those who lack power’ at all. For a document upholding freedom of speech, there is no mention of police brutalities inflicted on journalists for doing their jobs during protests in the United States, or peaceful protesters during the Black Lives Matter protests who were only practicing their right to freedom of speech, but it conveniently presses on for the rights of the privileged celebrities -- well-known writers, editors, company heads -- to have creative space to freely air their opinions, and engage in intellectual discussions, about issues that have very real consequences on the ground.
The ‘open space’ that they seek, which they and their predecessors have enjoyed for years till Cancel Culture and social media came into being, isn’t something that they can have access to as public figures anymore. VS Naipaul lived long, being a misogynistic, Islamophobic and racist person yet a popular and loved writer without ever being 'Cancelled', but JK Rowling is unlikely to get away with transphobic comments because despite it’s chaotic and often toxic ways, social media is a great equalizer.
If it gives celebrities the freedom of speech to express their views, it also gives the license to others to criticise their views and isn’t this the exact thing that 150 public figures are trying to establish through their letter when they say, ‘We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters’?
The letter uses poor examples of Cancel Culture to show the toxicity of the phenomenon as it underlines that editors have been fired for running controversial pieces because of this culture. It doesn’t offer specific details, but if I were to guess, I would assume that it is talking at the article published in The New York Times, written by Tom Cotton, (a Republican senator) in which he made a case for putting military on standby so that it can help the police force, which ‘bore the brunt’ during BLM protests. In the article, Cotton painted a picture that hinted at mass looting, and destruction of property, and mostly underplayed the massive peaceful BLM protests that were simultaneously going on after George Floyd’s death.
On publication, some of the most vocal critics of the article were The Times staffers themselves, especially black staffs, who were incredibly disheartened by this article appearing in their paper, and were quick to point it out on social media. A massive outrage also poured in from the outside, which eventually resulted in the resignation of James Bennet, the then editor of the editorial page, at The New York Times, who had unfortunately not even read the article pre-publication.
But, the story doesn’t end there. As media reports point out Bennet’s editorial decisions to often put out conservative, and opposing views for his liberal readers was already a matter of criticism, as many within the organisation were of the view that such publications were lowering the standards of the organisation. Therefore, it may be more about journalistic differences, and Cancel Culture may have only played as a trigger, that pushed the editor had to leave.
Surprisingly, siding with the heavy-weight intellectuals in the debate of Cancel Culture is US President Donald Trump. During his speech on July 3, at Mount Rushmore he said, "One of their political weapons (his opponents) is 'cancel culture' -- driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America,”.
Trump, however, has been the king of cancel culture and has cancelled everything and everyone who has disagreed with him or displeased him be it media outlets or politicians. In fact, as Black Lives Matter protests began right after Floyd’s death, Trump’s tweet was fact-checked by Twitter for glorifying violence, he tried to shame twitter for their bad fact-checkers, and literally signed an executive order to curtail the ‘unchecked powers’ the microblogging site.
However, all things said and done, there are indeed many shortcomings of Cancel Culture, which, unfortunately, the letter doesn’t outline. For starters, one has to understand that in Cancel Culture, the thing we are essentially cancelling is NOT a product or a TV show (although several of those have been cancelled too, during BLM protests), but a human being, who is not only being shamed but in most cases ostracised. They barely get a fair shot at second chances to redeem themselves, as the reports of their social media ousting ceremonies tend to live on, on the internet for years.
While the signatories of the letter have made the blanket statement that all Cancel Culture arguments are intolerant, it is not always that reductive or simplistic. But, there are of course times when social media acts as a kangaroo court and a mob-style justice are doled out to individuals at the receiving end.