Sunday 26 July 2020

Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture

"The past controls the present and future.  You can't control the past. Also, you can't control the way the past controls the present and future.  So, you can't control the present and future" - Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge.

Modern states have impeachment; ancient Athens had ostracism; Social movement has a cancellation.   Free speech is under assault by the Twitter mob who see it as their legitimate right to shout down speakers of whom they disapprove.  Speaking one's mind, which may turn out contrary to a current fashionable group thinking of the day could lead to internet shaming. People finding themselves on the wrong side of the fence either be cancelled, ostracised or dehumanised.  The dark side has meant some people have committed suicide as a result of saying the wrong thing, on social media, or even between friends.  There is a danger brewing of growing hostilities towards opinion others don't agree with.  Attempts at silencing our most basic liberty to speak our mind; the most fundamental of freedom carries a penalty of disengaging the social-cultural bond of shared values.   Bullying for the hell of it by some marginalised group with their own agenda for a new orthodoxy. Actions are taken on the assumption that the atmosphere would be improved by throwing out a dislikeable character. A judgment hinged on expressing a different opinion - a new polarising attitude in society taking place, that is democratising cruelty.  Cancelled does not mean to cancel an appointment or a meeting but a human being.

In an attempt to put a bulwark against this wave of cultural antipathy by social warriors to silence people holding contrary opinions, Harpers Magazine put out a letter signed by more than hundred people from many walks of life in defence of tolerance and debate. Contained a message that makes it abundantly clear that "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity" for the sake of damage control instances arising, where institutions, Advertising companies, publishers, university professors or individuals who are in the public eye increasingly afraid to be seen stepping out of line. The hasty and panicked decision by these institutions has meant "editors are fired for running controversial pieces. Books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity. Journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study, and the heads of organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes". There is genuine concern that free speech is being stifled.  Those who signed the letter include white people, black people, gays, Muslims, Jewish and leaders of their communities from all walks of life.

Those accused of new moral orthodoxy argue that opinion and views by public figures should be held accountable for them.  Others believe such grandstanding approach shows an attitude of patronising superiority. The counter-argument being that cancel culture can be a way for the powerless to bring down the powerful. Surely group thinking that suppresses individual thought inducing conformity, by vilification of personality for expressing views incompatible with current opinions, pretends to be the new moral orthodoxy is wholly unacceptable in today's modern society.  Losing a job, a threat to career and friends staying away for fear what may render culture contamination is intolerable. 

Among those who dared to be signatories of the letter are well-known personalities.  JK Rowling, Dame Anna Nicholson,  Salman Rushdie, Naom Chomski are among other giants of the literary world that formed the rich list of celebrities most whom have Ivy League or other prestigious credentials.  For all the good work these people do, they are rubbished and cancelled for some remark or expressing a viewpoint.  They are vilified by the collective herd of intolerance coming from bigoted group think.  Attempt to force those with the intellectual mind to acquiesce to their way of thinking who see themselves as part of the new orthodoxy.  Instead of this tyrannical approach, such exercises of none elastic approaches, they do well to draw a balance between the significant changes of life to that accepted at any one time.  

One can also argue the use of social media has made it possible the power to take down people, a privilege hitherto reserved for the press media, now snatched away, passed on into the public domain. But, somehow, Liberalism and moral freedom have delimited and abused such powers. People are pilloried for criticising a way of thinking, expressing their own standpoints, by objectors who show a tyrannical approach to silence their opinion.   Ideological clusters policing the internet, ensuring that one must not step outside a red line.  A coercive application of censorship by those who assume the power to erase others. A shoal who would ensure one keeps to their way of thinking by attacking free speech and oppressing the individual right of expression into a group-think collective that does nothing more than to acquire a herd type social opinion.   

Of course, they have a moral right to express their views on whichever side they are on.  A time of a reset maybe? Advocating a corrective of what has gone before.  There is no problem with that, but the freedom of expression is a part of a healthy democratic society, they and everyone have the right to engage with that, being mindful not to express a bigoted or hateful opinion.  The application of reason is what is essential here, it should not go missing.    If one is offended, that should be the beginning of the discourse, not the end of it.  Ask why have I offended you and let us discuss it.  Cancellation is the end of discussion. In universities, considered crucibles of free expression, where lecturers find themselves out of favour and hounded out of their jobs as we have seen recently, run diametrically opposed to what universities are about.  Universities are for the application of reason and tolerance. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

It is also important to remember that intolerance has a habit of swinging with the national mood.  An example of this is Winston Churchill.  Half a century ago following his death, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson described him as "the greatest man any of us have known".The BBC reflecting the national mood documented the funeral procession along the same lines expressing similar sentiments.  The attitude today could hardly be more different.  He is seen today by the same organisation bearing responsibility for the death of 3 million people in the Bengal famine in 1943.  At an interview on Radio 4, no one came to his rescue afraid of the moral contamination.  Indeed with the Black lives matter theme at full swing, he is today held responsible for prioritising white lives over Asian lives" and "precipitator of terrible mass killings" so he should be knocked off his plinth.  Not many do realise, in those days almost everybody on the right as well as on the left was a racist. But, when judged by contemporary moral standards, only the Right stand accused.

Judging and Branding an individual by the present structure of the world for expressing an opinion in earlier times is a twist in the understanding of knowledge reading him or her back to front. Some are proud of the structures built they form the mental housing in which they live, whereas others believe they need dismantling and start fresh.  On August 22, 1862, The New York Tribune quoted Abraham Lincoln saying "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would".   For generations of Americans Abraham Lincoln, known as the great emancipator, should he be cancelled?  Also rather doubtful if anyone wants to destroy Lord Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square for opposing the abolishing of slavery or indeed toppling the Pyramids of Egypt built by slave labour.  Like all balance sheets and the moral one is no exception, objections need to weigh up the two sides irrespective if one opinion runs against the grain of another. Let's face it, rules we have been conditioned to abide by have become our principles. With history, we start to work out what happened then bring in the morality and conclusions to it.  Instead, the warriors start with the point of view of now and re-reading the past in retrospective.

Morality is like a tide, forever changing.  Similarly, acceptance of opinions or moral judgments seems to migrate and mutate from one generation to another, at times expressing views on the right side of the line that could easily be interpreted in the years that follow as unacceptable and charged differently.  Any persons who happened to have merely agreed with that line of thinking, then, but twenty years later faced with the new orthodoxy will also be cancelled; finding oneself at the wrong end.  Moreover, anyone, say, in an old photo is seen with another who may have suffered a slip in moral judgment admissible at the time, can suffer morel contamination and similarly branded. Surely intellectual enquiries must be allowed to flourish.  Subjecting people to mob justice is an abuse of power by marginalised self-assured groups who assume newfound ability to change the world.  Instead, by such McCarthyite witch-hunt on social media, they would inevitably be inhibiting truth and imprisoning free speech.  After all, like someone said, "Because in the end, we all can be potentially cancellable – but you can't cancel my right to think."

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