Ksenija has given a fantastic essay here on responsibility, which is something I believe every artist considers deeply and often. I feel I have a responsibility to myself to create honest art, I know I have a responsibility to my students to improve them, and the original things I create have a responsibility to make the world better in some way. But who has the responsibility to make sure we all feel that way? Who should ensure that everyone is bettering and broadening society rather than lessening it? As of late, those who do not uphold that responsibility have been harshly punished in the public sphere. But what if they are not acting out of malice, but out of ignorance?
To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
These days might feel like the peak of crescendo rooted in political correctness and wokeness that has blossomed into cancel culture—an online tectonic-power-shifting-maneuver. Cancellation has come as a long-overdue consequence for many predators’ actions (think of the #MeToo movement). The judicial piazza was none other than the frequently demonized space which often serves as a junkyard of unimportant self-interested clutter, such as selfies or pictures of food platters. Social media finally got away from narcissism and glided into a battlefield for equity, performing as a surrogate for the justice system.
Although the term cancel culture might be overpopulating our screens these days, cancel culture in itself is not new. The game of canceling public figures, including artists, is as old as the relationship between art and power. As consumers (and creators) of art, we cannot help but wonder whether the art should be consumed strictly for its appeal or does the consumption of artwork mean that we are (financially and ideologically) supporting a deeply flawed human being. By worshiping our artistic idols we might feel disappointed and confused once we find controversies similar to those of the life of Wagner, Michael Jackson, or Plácido Domingo.
The rules of cancellation are simple; one needs a) people who possess some form of power (employers, corporations, internet mob) b) pawns on the chessboard (members of society) c) a proclaimed enemy (non-wokeness). Think of everything from the French revolution to Alan Turing’s prosecution for homosexuality. Whether or not you find these events distressing is beyond the point; what is tragic is to think that Turing’s fate would have been different had he been born several decades later. (And likely all of ours, too.) The man who had cracked the Enigma and saved many millions of lives in the events of World War II was punished for something the British justice system found blameworthy at the time.
If one harbors an overly-simplistic world-view, they can come to a conclusion that Turing was victim to an obviously faulty system and that such a thing would never happen today. However, as we unravel the scroll of history, we find that laws have been porous with fallacies since their inception. Therefore, it might be not only silly, but egotistically sophomaniacal of us to believe that we have finally arrived at a point of unblemished legal justice (manifesting itself on social media, of all places). What would have saved Turing was not simply better law; but members of a community who thought twice before “canceling” him for something they found to be disagreeable.
Part of what is scary about today’s cancel culture is that it rarely affects the truly powerful (albeit, one should not disregard the importance of Weinstein’s dethroning, among a handful of others). What happens more frequently is that companies perform a symbolic trick called “hand-washing”– disassociating themselves from the easily disposable (usually a lower-level employee) over, say, a tweet. In doing so, they entertain the public’s eye by directing its attention to this sacrificial lamb, signaling, “there, we do not hire people who agree with X” – an act which is only meant to secure further financial support from the consumers. Cancel culture understands that publicly shared offensive thoughts are not sufficient to warrant an arrest; however, they do call to boycott – public participation in limiting a person’s professional activity and visibility. A call to spurn J. K. Rowling’s work is intended to both decrease her income and diminish the level of her status. In a capitalist society, the loss of status and wealth is to be used neither as a teaching tool nor a provided platform to allow the accused to redeem themselves, rather it is a cultural Memento Mori.
But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.
On July 7th, 2020, the above quote was part of a letter published in Harper’s Bazaar (It’s only three paragraphs if you’d like to take a moment and read it). The authors of the letter are cultural titans—public intellectuals, writers, professors, journalists, and others. Aware of their privileged position (realistically, it is difficult to fully cancel a tenured professor at Harvard or a best-selling author), they shared their concern for “an intolerance of opposing views” and spoke up for their junior colleagues. In an interview, Steven Pinker shared that he did this for the sake of greater intellectual culture and those younger academics whose careers might be much more vulnerable to the movement than his own. However, the cancellation does not end with young professionals. College students can be ‘canceled’, too. This brings us to the question of the day—how young is too young to be canceled?
In recent years, we have seen multiple cases of scholarships being rescinded over various types of offensive speech and discriminatory actions. One of the controversial stories included Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of Parkland shootings, who lost his spot at Harvard due to his racist writings on social media when he was 16.
While I agree with Trevor Noah pointing out that a university, by definition, uses a rule system to decide whether a student belongs there based on their high school performance, I do wonder about the reason the line is drawn there and not earlier or later. There are many prestigious high schools in the US and abroad who get to cherry-pick their students based on similar criteria. Should they look into elementary and middle school conduct with the same level of scrutiny? If we think it might be ridiculous to judge a middleschooler based on their understanding of social justice, do we not then place the responsibility of weeding discriminatory thoughts out on high schools?
Much like the legal system demarcates minors from adults in order to define criminal responsibility, the educational system necessitates a better understanding of social responsibility and age of maturity. Anyone who has witnessed a person go from moving into their first college dorm to graduating will agree that it is that exact time period which is crucial for personal growth. Just as we have learned that incarceration yields better results when paired with educational and rehabilitation opportunities, so we should understand that the young ones who demonstrate discriminatory proclivity should not be ostracized but immersed in communities where they will be provided with tools to learn from experts. In other words – if Harvard cannot correct a racist wrong, who can? And if Harvard, as an example of excellence, chooses not to – why should anyone else?
Perhaps some were born angelic into a principled family, while others came from environments that taught to discriminate. Those who do discriminate can go about it in two ways – they can walk around asymptomatic, never sharing their opinion publicly, or they could cough out their corrosive conviction on occasion. If the society reacts by scolding those who do exhibit a problematic opinion, all it does is teach it to live in hiding. Educational institutions, as hubs of intellectual elevation, should react to those people the same way hospitals do when they encounter a medically ill person. They should invite them in and assist them in healing. Ideally, the moment hospitals have completed their job is when they become obsolete. The same applies to universities – they have done (a part of) their job once people no longer need them to educate them on the topic of discrimination. If your family member says or does something offensive or hurtful, you do not urge the society to cancel them – you speak to them and listen to them. You allow them time to think about it and meet the following year for Thanksgiving dinner, keeping a watchful eye on whether they will engage in conversation with a more positive undertone. You set them up for success. Perhaps we could all reserve a bit of empathetic space within us to engage in conversation before we call on the omnipotent Internet mob to come down on a person, especially one in limbo between high school and college.
We all agree that social justice is long overdue. However, when power believes it holds moral supremacy, it is proof that it has blinded itself.
The question isn’t who is right—for we know what is right. The question is who is kinder.