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‘Cancel Culture’ and the Deterioration of Individual Thought

Keegan Lee-Ng received a high commendation from the John Locke Institute for the psychology essay he submitted to the 2020 Essay Competition. He hopes to read English Literature at the National University of Singapore later this year.

Cancel Culture has now solidified as a term to describe the social trend of admonishing, expressing outrage and publicly shaming people or groups who have said or done things perceived as offensive, often against minorities.

In theory, Cancel Culture is supposed to hold people accountable for problematic behaviour and to de-platform or derail the careers of influential people who have abused their powers to spread pernicious and hateful rhetoric to their audience. Initially, it’s principal concern was to confront and dismantle historically contingent power imbalances present in society (patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.); in practice, however, the reactionist nature of cancellation often leaves no room for reconciliation, growth and learning.

"To be engraved as ‘ignorant and bigoted’ is something from which you never recover."

How effective is Cancel Culture? Not very. Despite its unforgiving and unrelenting nature, Cancel Culture continues to fail to curb and stem problematic individuals from exercising their rights to consume and disseminate media. For example, Shane Dawson, Jeffrey Star, Nikita Dragun, have all been cancelled umpteen times for reasons spanning sexual misconduct to racial insensitivity. Yet they continue to live in massive, high-end mansions and live blissfully above the very people who have tried via ‘cancellation’ to derail their careers and remove them from their platform. Apart from calling into sharper focus the values or lack thereof that these social media personalities represent, the tedious social media-driven process of cancellation merely polarises the audience and illustrates the divisive nature of online discourse.

In an intolerant environment fuelled primarily by radical, extremist left ideology, transgressions against the arbitrary ‘communal moral compass’ exist in a binary of cancelled or not cancelled. In the same way that it creates a ‘community’ of like-minded individuals, cancellation stratifies and alienates groups of people who think differently – ensnaring them in an ironic and contemptuous binary of ‘you’re either with us or against us.’. The consequence is simple: Cancel Culture fosters an inherently hypocritical social milieu that rejects and condemns narrow-mindedness but advocates vehemently for a singular, homogenous canon of thought.

‘In cancel culture, people attempt to expunge anyone with whom they do not perfectly agree, rather than remain focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice.’ - Loretta Ross

Instead, Cancel Culture acts as communal fodder that legitimises the actions of extremist social justice warriors. Practitioners of Cancel Culture contribute to a singular intolerant rhetoric and more often than not, revel in their status as ‘self-appointed guardians of political purity’; ironically, the lexical adoption characteristic of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) may eventually do more good than harm in the long-term fight for social equity.

If brought to the logical limit, the goal of ‘cancelling’ is akin to the death penalty. In both cases, we principally concern ourselves with the deterrence of destructive behaviour by the threat of a permanent sanction.

In the age of information, ignorance is a choice, and to be engraved as ‘ignorant and bigoted’ is not something you ever recover from – unless of course, you’re already rich and living comfortably! So at the end of the day, Cancel Culture seems only effective on the very disenfranchised people whom it is supposed to champion and protect – if these people make a mistake, the social castigation is forever and there is zero compassion.

In the final analysis, Cancel Culture achieves only two things: first, the creation of a toxic social environment where ad hominem attacks are the hallmark of ‘social discourse’ and, second, the erasure of introspection. It legitimises or delegitimises people’s thoughts without first reflecting on why they think the way they do. Cancel Culture fosters a collective hive mindset that glorifies solidarity so much that it undermines individual thought and diminishes the ability to analyse our internalised moral compass.

When someone has done something inexcusably egregious and heinous – rape or murder – the case to ‘cancel’ is crystal clear. However, in instances where behaviour may be more questionable than seriously problematic – for example, an 18-year-old dating a 15-year-old - the one-size-fits-all sweeping approach leaves no room for deeper thinking and consideration. The blanketing, narrativised reaction is to say ‘That can’t be love, he's underaged and cannot consent. This is disgusting!’ Twitter would see to it that the 18-year-old is ‘cancelled’ and accused of ‘grooming’, paedophilia and sexual predation, even if both parties visibly respect each other’s boundaries. This cannot be intellectual discourse.

In the end, Cancel Culture is toxic, intolerant, and devoid of grace. It rejects the notion of personal agency and growth. It rejects freedom of expression and institutes a totalitarian system of morality. It is a culture that tolerates, legitimises and encourages a flippant one-size-fits-all approach to any contentious issue and demonstrates a lack of ability to engage in dialogue with intellectual honesty.

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