The Internet came into our lives serving as a possibility, or rather a tool, that can stimulate conversations. It was with the inception of social networking websites, which connected people, their experiences and stories from all parts of the world, that we became aware of how different circumstances and events affected people from different backgrounds. This newfound awareness became a source of light and many became hopeful of change. It wasn’t long thereafter that we saw people initiating difficult conversations and engaging the masses, urging them to listen, to speak, and to change.
However, this ray of light soon took a turn for the worse. It snowballed into a phenomenon called “cancel culture” — the practice of retreating one’s support for or cancelling people in positions of power or influence for doing or saying something that can be considered offensive or detrimental to different sections of society. On the surface, it seems almost right to call out people in positions of power and influence because of the impact their words and actions have on others. However, the flaw in this concept goes deeper than the surface. To address the issue, let’s tackle a very particular instance. Popular American singer Lizzo had recently released a song called “Grrrls”. Her lyrics included the word “spaz” — an ableist slur in countries like the UK and Australia. On the other hand, in the US, where the singer is from, the word is very commonly used as a term synonymous with “jumpiness” and “sudden emotional response”. Several people tweeted Lizzo and called her out for using a slur and offending people with disabilities. In response to this, Lizzo apologised and changed the lyrics of her song. However, the conversation did not end there. And that’s precisely the problem with “cancel culture”. The Internet rallied to cancel Lizzo, despite her efforts to make amends. It seems that the Internet almost expects everyone to be perfect. It expects everyone to know everything about every place all at once. And if they don’t know everything, well then, it’s the end of the world.
People lead their lives in different ways. However, one thing that ties all these different lives, circumstances and experiences together is the way people learn from making mistakes. Leaving no room for these errors, expecting people to be politically correct always is not the solution to our problems. Rather, I believe these “solutions” alienate people from a cause. The “cancelled”, rather than being enlightened, find themselves at crossroads with these causes; for although their original error may have resulted from ignorance, no one is willing to discuss with them, explain to them, converse with them. They are just expected to know. They can’t be expected to know; they need to be told. They need to be able to express their views on it and they need to be exposed to different perspectives. They need to be involved in a discussion. A healthy dialogue is bound to create empathy within people and sensitise them to the causes of other people — to fight for what is right. But more than anything, allowing people to make mistakes, learn from them and talk to people about it is probably the most effective way to bring about change. It is certainly a more effective way of finding an answer to our problems.
Having said this, it is imperative not to be naive — not to let people make the same mistakes again. This is a difficult path to tread. Nonetheless, it is a path we need to follow. Allowing public figures to repeat mistakes that either they or their contemporaries have made could be detrimental. It is our job, collectively as a society, to help people understand the different nuances of every debate. However, with the influence that these public figures have, they need to be careful and intentional with everything they do. Hence, for them to repeat mistakes that have ripple effects can sabotage all efforts. I’m not saying we should give them an indefinite number of chances, but we can certainly grant them a second one.
I believe cancel culture is harsh. It is a method that strives for perfection from the get-go — a very unrealistic expectation, when it comes to human beings. However, this doesn’t mean we need to let go of it completely. It is an effective tool to hold people responsible, but it needs to be tweaked just a little bit. It needs to be turned into a more humane experiment. More than anything, it needs to be considerate. The Internet is powerful. We really need to harness its power. We need to bring out those voices that have been shrouded, concealed behind closed doors. But most importantly, we need to engage. We need to listen. We need to speak. We need to change.
Image: Alex Beckett