- Kumar Harsh and Shreya Shukla
What College Thinks? Cancel Culture
The woke impulses of the illiberal left ensure that the views of those they deem ‘problematic’ at the onslaught of a deluge of “phobias” and “isms” do not see the light of day again. The right-wing populists are not far behind when they get on the streets to teach “dissenters” and “anti-nationals” lessons to get them on the ‘right’ track.
Cancellation in colleges follows a similar pattern on every occasion. A professor or a student says or writes something that gets shot to popularity in the microcosm of society that is the university or college. Claiming that the system is rigged against them, some people take to social media to aggressively type their concerns to spread the word of the professor or the student’s crimes, demanding punitive action and inflicting damage along the way to uphold equality and social justice at the cost of freedom. After this, it can go either of the two ways. The administration appeases the mob by taking punitive action against the “-ist,” or the issue remains under the radar but as the “culprit” has been socially ostracised in the microcosm that should’ve been receptive to different opinions and views, the damage is done and almost irreversible. The cancelled students' professional prospects may well be harmed before they even begin. Those who are thus cancelled either disappear or join fellow “cancellees” in the professional and academic world's fringes.
In light of the recent events which transpired at Hindu College, we decided to conduct a college-wide survey and interview people to glean what they think about the rise in ideological polarisation, intolerance, trigger warnings, academic discussions and accountability. The first half consists of interviews and top comments from the survey. The second part captures the findings from the survey. We would also like to hear what you think and constructive critique are most welcome. (Email us at email@example.com)
I strongly believe that hardly anything can be perceived in ‘black and white.’ If there are certain pros, there must be certain cons as well. Before making any kind of judgement, it’s important for us to critically analyze both sides of the coin. Similarly, cancel culture also has its merits as well as demerits. Cancel Culture has its roots in medieval and ancient history but its form has changed with time. The birth of the Internet in 1983 was pivotal in revamping the practice of Cancel Culture. Just after a decade of the inception of the Internet, a new phrase slipped into the Chinese slang: renrou sousuo, literally translated as “human flesh search.” In layman’s terms it means that someone is trying to find (search) every last bit of information on the internet about a specific person or a group whom they intend to ‘cancel.’ It started as a fandom but eventually it took an inhumane form as people started to use that ‘information’ to ostracize them on the basis of their perception of good and bad. So, coming back to your question, Cancel Culture does take our liberty and the right to present our opinions. People with contrary views are hesitant to express themselves as they are judged within the framework of prevalent norms set by the society. This by and large is undeniable but at the same time we also need to talk about how it is not an alien concept. I believe that Cancel Culture is a derivative of the nature of today’s culture. The society will always play the role of a watchdog and scrutinize the acts of its members. We can continue to believe in a utopian conception of society where no one cares about what you do or say but that’s not how the world works. The ‘Public Perception’ is an indispensable part of human life since it constitutes the core idea of human nature. It might be difficult for me to know the actual intention behind your statements but at the same time I just can’t give you the benefit of doubt since the remarks made by you testify that social problems exist in our society. And, in order to eradicate these problems we need social movements. The movement may not be perfect but it will help in sensitising the general populace. For instance, the MeToo movement has its fallouts but we can not deny that it provided a much needed push and platform to numerous women across the world to speak against patriarchy and exploitation. Similarly, any kind of movement can not be perfect. The final burden lies on the shoulder of administrative machinery to ensure that the “due process of law” is never violated.
People often ask me whether ‘Cancel Culture’ is justified and I more often than not think that it is an uninformed question. Cancel Culture is such a pertinent and nuanced issue that a binary response can’t be imposed on it. As it happens, we might not be able to get a black and white picture and it will always remain under the ‘grey area.’ For example, I believe that the practice of ‘calling out’ is an indispensable part of Cancel Culture but at the same time, I am of the view that ‘calling out’ and ‘cancelling’ someone are not synonymous to each other. Metaphorically speaking, if I were to explain the above mentioned scenario by an analogy, ‘ignoring’ the issue and ‘cancelling’ someone would be the extreme ends of a pendulum and ‘calling out’ might be the middle path. As history has taught us, sometimes calling out is necessary to hold a person in power accountable. This in no way gives us the liberty to ignore the rights of the “accused.” We can not just ignore or ostracize someone solely based on the statements or acts (not crimes) committed by them. In such a situation, calling out can be an alternative to the cancel culture since the latter does not solve the real problem. We live in an era where social media has become the ‘court of justice’ and everyone acts as a judge. While we cannot ignore reality, we need to be careful about what we do and say.
Since you have asked me a direct question, I won’t beat around the bush. Yes, our college campus has become ideologically polarised. We have failed to give voice to ‘differing opinions.’ The ones who are in majority dominate the intellectual strata of our college and as it happens, they are the ones who judge the validity, correctness and intention of someone’s opinion. Whenever I witness any such incident, I think to myself “who has given them the authority to judge me?” I often try to muster up the courage to pose my concern to them but “fortunately”, I have never been able to do so. While I stand for the freedom of speech and expression, I need to make it clear that the freedom of speech does not give us the freedom to incite violence or propagate hate speech. There might just be a thin line of distinction between them but it’s not at all negligible. The online mode also shares the responsibility for polarisation. In offline mode, we used to interact with others on a much more personal level, we indulged in healthy debates as well as discussions but all this is extremely tedious to do through digital screens. We take pride in the democratic outlook of our college but due to the constraints posed by Covid, we could not even conduct our college elections. As I have made it pretty evident, I do not stand with ‘cancel culture’ at any cost but I believe that the merits of the practice of ‘calling out’ can’t be ignored either and to ensure that the merits of the same remain intact, the media has to play a proactive role. It has been given the responsibility to ensure that ‘unheard voices’ are heard. But, nowadays it has resorted to conducting media trials and issuing verdicts. For instance, the Supreme Court of India acquitted Miss Chakraborty but the entire nation had already convicted her of murder. I don’t mean to defend her, but the deplorable state of affairs shows that we have lost our faith in the process established by the law. In the end, everything boils down to our outlook towards society. I just hope to see the day when one would be able to speak their mind out without the fear of being “cancelled”.
I have a keen interest in political philosophy and one of its theories that particularly intrigues me is Postmodernism. Postmodernists reject any constant, definite and universal belief and instead, consider knowledge to be relative, local and fully influenced by special cultures and values. Any unilateral philosophy cannot claim autonomy over truth, as the idea of absolute truth or a perfect theory is unattainable. Similar ideas can be applied in our day to day life. We need to be completely free to realise our conception of ideal life. One should be allowed to shape their own opinions while being unbound from external influences. Meanwhile, it also needs to be ensured that our society allows us to stay true to our values. As per me, this is the core idea that dictates our understanding of freedom. Ultimately, we aim to create a space where no one is hesitant to express their opinions and no one is afraid to be ‘called out’ or get ‘cancelled.’ The ones who ‘differ’ also have the freedom to do so but they should not try to impose their differences upon others. In recent times, our college campus has become polarized and we have started to judge people on the basis of our sense of right and wrong. I am of the opinion that we should not rush to judge or label people with titles that we deem to be justified. A healthy discussion between both the parties is the only way ahead.
Recently, we concluded our department elections and the ambience of the elections reflected our love for democracy. I firmly believe that college campuses should have a democratic outlook. Dissent being the cornerstone of a democracy, be it a state or a college, it is unfeasible to envision a college campus without a platform to express dissent. Moreover, we need to build safe spaces to express ourselves. Due to the lack of safe spaces and appropriate platforms to express our views, we have started to judge people based on the norms set by the society. It might be tempting to accept the norms made by the society, since it makes our life easier, but we can not forget that ‘one size does not fit all.’ According to me, ‘cancelling’ someone is dreadful. Instead, we need to strive towards building intellectual spaces, exchanging ideas, unlearning and learning things and interacting with people who belong to different backgrounds. This again raises a pertinent question: Since ‘calling out’ is a part and parcel of ‘cancel culture,’ is it justified to consider the former bad just because of the latter? As per me, calling out can’t be ignored, since this would mean normalising things which are ‘outrightly wrong.’ This does not stop us from ensuring due diligence while making sure that someone’s freedom of expression is not violated but ‘calling out’ will always remain a part of human nature. Lastly, I would like to end with a quote by Ginetta Sagan, a human rights activist, “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor.”
I believe that our college campus is diverse and it does give a platform to everyone to disseminate their views irrespective of their identity, social background or political leaning. Although, in recent times, we have witnessed a surge in right-wing ideas, we have not become ideologically polarised. We stand in solidarity with our peers. In the offline mode we used to conduct rallies, like LGBTQ rallies, to show our support. We have not been able to do so due to the pandemic and owing to some recent happenings, it seems that we have judged people prematurely and as a result of that we have grown apart from each other. Privacy has become a myth and it has become really tough to know people’s intentions through their screens. But, I still believe that unison runs in the veins of Hindu College and something such as ‘cancel culture’ can not overshadow it.
Political correctness has always been there. The problem today is that it is primarily masked as compassion for the downtrodden, instead, it is more about eliciting resentment towards the people who are well off. Neither cancel culture makes a positive impact, sociologically or culturally nor does it help to remove the “evils” (what the cancel mob thinks it is aimed towards) that are prevalent. There is a wide range of things that people may find offensive depending upon their epistemological position, hence, nothing should be deemed as absolute. A particular ideology cannot account for all 'objective truths', hence it is bound to be narrow and further improvable. Thus, we should collectively aim towards developing a culture where freedom of speech and expression is celebrated. It is because only through unbridled communication that problems are solved and truth interpreted, otherwise we are just tribal groups aiming to establish our group members into power and punish those who are not. We are not just atomised units fighting the world so that we do what we want to, but also social animals with responsibility that we sustain an atmosphere that is positive for everyone.
Jeev Kumar Chittoria
Cancel culture has always been practiced in some way or another in societies and cultures across space and time. Hippasus, a Greek mathematician who proposed the idea of irrational numbers was drowned to death as punishment for the discovery. Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment by Catholic Church for suggesting the heliocentric model of the solar system. Cancel culture is certainly not new. It has always been a tool societies have used to censor people and ideas that were deemed inappropriate/uncomfortable. Is it an effective tool? Certainly not. Humans have been proven to be wrong on so many things, which when we look back retrospectively find stupid but fail to realise that those stupid ideas were once dogmas that were not challenged by anyone. In my view, in the marketplace of ideas, all ideas should be challenged on their merit irrespective of how uncomfortable they are, every worldview should be open to scrutiny, ridicule and criticism. It is erroneous to think that cancelling people and ideas will shut them forever, just that they will spread through vectors we are not aware of.
Cancel Culture has been positive in it's ideation and providing retributive justice but has not produced the societal change we expect it to. However, it is not the job of those on social media to bring high reaching changes in the society and educate people on sensitive issues. It is the government's. It is not surprising that cancel culture and the social media platforms have had a better impact in disclosing cases of sexual harassment and homophobia than the government. However, even nectar can turn into poison if taken in excess.
Cancel culture is good to a certain extent. It goes without saying that it holds people accountable for what they do. But sometimes it crosses a limit. When it goes into “hyper mode,” it can ruin everything. I know few people personally who think a certain way because they were taught that way, they grew up hearing that, so it is embedded in their mind and anything different is wrong to them. I feel like we should educate people who say something wrong rather than directly cancel them.
Sadly sometimes, intolerance towards the other’s opinion is the only thing that the opposing sides to an argument have in common. You can be intolerant irrespective of what your ideologies are. As someone who identifies as liberal, seeing this intolerance in my peers is often disassociating.
Abhishek Singh Chauhan
68% of participants think college is an increasingly ideologically polarised space. A whopping 84% consider this polarisation potentially harmful and dangerous on college campuses. About 29% believe cancel culture is a way of holding people in power accountable. Six in ten fail to see cancel culture addressing real problems (casteism, islamophobia, sexism, transphobia etc.). Three-fourths do not believe in de-platforming or no-platforming of controversial takes by other students. In an academic setting, 84% want no topic to be off-limits to discussions as long as it is factual and 61% believe facts should take precedence over feelings. 63% want lived experiences to be valued in the classroom. 92% say their views should be challenged by their peers and professors. The findings suggest that 61% of students reason that what one finds triggering is subjective, thus what is triggering should be decided keeping in mind "a reasonable person" rather than "the most sensitive one". 55% think the accused should be given the benefit of the doubt rather than the presumption of the intent behind their statement. And the same number thinks humour should not be checked based on the norms set by society on what should to be considered offensive.
Imagine that archetypal scene from your run-of-the-mill horror movie in which one of characters opens a creaky wardrobe with unoiled hinges and a skeleton falls right over their face, giving them a run for their life only to realise the skeleton has come all along clutching onto the feet of the runner as other characters behold the spectacle with dread, awaiting their turn.
Today one can be said to have a digital archive of every text message, post, tweet, image and life update sent out by them. As you leave behind a digital footprint, a trail of human life online, with only competition from footprints on the moon, you’d like scrutiny only in one of the cases. It doesn’t take great effort to scour through some posts over the course of young adulthood or even middle age of a person to in uncover some skeletons in the context of the different systems and their overlapping in several contexts that are in the past or recent past presently to judge someone as representative of a belief system that isn’t acceptable in the modern political discourse as they navigate through the world learning about the same systems directly or indirectly.
Everyone has skeletons in their closet as everyone makes mistakes. That's how we learn, unlearn and relearn throughout our lives. To rob people of this natural process, especially in the formative years of their life, can seriously impede their growth, trapping both the cancellers and cancellees in an impasse of perpetual retributive justice.