Photo courtesy of PennLive

A brilliant friend of mine at university was upset one day because someone had vandalized her final exam results on the printout the University had pinned up on the board. She had come first in her year, so she was surprised to see someone had covered up her results so they were impossible to see. That was long before cancel culture came into being but it was an early indication of the attitudes that underly it.

What motivates people to want to silence others, diminish or erase their achievements and destroy their reputation and public identity?

It’s a modern manifestation of ancient tribal practices – shunning, scapegoating and ritual killing – that have been used for millennia as weapons of social retribution. Seamus Heaney‘s poem ‘Punishment’ identifies it as a practice familiar to prehistoric humankind. The poem focuses on the body of a young person who has been ritually killed and buried in a peat bog over 2,000 years ago, punitive recompense for an act of social transgression.

Heaney identifies the complicity of the person who witnesses such punitive humiliation and does not act to prevent or challenge it.

In  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ we see a woman charged with adultery permitted to live but forced to wear distinctive clothing to identify her as a culprit of a social crime. People avoid her, cut off social contact and treat her like a leper. In highly religious communities, formal decisions are taken to exclude and ostracize someone who has transgressed social rules and is thus prevented from sharing in community. Professional doctors and lawyers can be deregistered and forbidden to practice. People in religious communities can be excommunicated.

The crimes for which exclusion and social cancellation are a punishment vary. In ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ the cruel Madame de Merteuil cynically manipulates people for her own entertainment and to prove her social power. Her lover Valmont destroys her social standing by exposing her character via letters written between them, circulated after his death, showing the character hidden by her social facade. In the last scene of the film, she appears at the opera and is socially shunned. People are silent when she appears, and then start to mock her and express their derision verbally. She is forced to leave and return home. As she takes her heavy face makeup off we see that she can never return to her former life again. Her social status has been permanently destroyed.

This scene is replicated in ‘Cruel Intentions’, the contemporary sequel that was set in an elite American high school where the young student body president, Catherine, is exposed as a drug-using, conniving weapon of mass destruction. The student body walks out of her oration. Her words fall not on deaf ears but in an emptying arena.

Cancel culture is a natural intensifying of political correctness – enforced silencing of conduct deemed unjust – which has turned into shaming and decrying those who are regarded as fascists. Yet those in opposition to fascists – those identifying as Anti-Fa – are often equally or more violent than the people they protest against. They feel their violence in protest is justified. The victimhood they and their communities have experienced in living memory licenses them to express themselves in violent words and actions. Their moral self justification acts as impervious metaphoric armour, protecting them from any sense of deserving retribution.

Cancel culture is characterized by mobilization of bias and weaponisation of opinion. The wars are waged in cyberspace and the weapons are words. Assumptions are made of others that are reductive and offensive but useful in manipulating them in arguments. Reduce them to a stereotype and then dismiss them. Like crumpling up a piece of paper so it takes up less space before discarding it.

Observing Twitter wars, we can identify language techniques of coercion, silencing and shaming, ultimatums, bullying, histrionics and skewed values. We see group think being evoked and prompted. It’s ultra performative, and structured in a binary way.

It can be noted that many of the active participants in cancel culture are formed by a heavily virtual world. They study and interact online, and in their formative years spent hours playing video games, with a heavy focus on combat and war set in fantasy worlds where violence had no consequences in the real world and the damage inflicted carried no moral or legal accountability.

There’s an intensely oppositional and confrontational attitude prevalent. Short fuses and little anger management. More than a whiff of my way or the highway. Us or them. With us or against us. Pro or anti. Black or white. Privileged or oppressed. Gender normative or gender divergent. Nail your identity markers to your profiles. Signal your virtues and your biases. What is self declared can become a banner in the identity wars. I date the emergence and proliferation of this from the time the word ‘unapologetic’ became widely used. And the people protesting use the injustices as fuel to push back violently against the oppressors. Often with more violence than strictly necessary. Value added.

Like the mobs in Paris in the late 18th century or in Colombo or Peradeniya during the 70s and 80s. Like the screeching, jeering mobs in Kings Landing in ‘Game Of Thrones’ or the white robed, hooded KKK thugs in the USA, lynching black men who offended their sense of superiority by being ‘uppity’ and daring to think and act as if they had equal rights. Any excuse will do, apparently.

If you don’t like something, you can diminish its presence in your own life. Block, shun, avoid. But in cancel culture you can go further. You can actually try to eliminate who offends you, marginalize them and wipe them and their deeds off the face of the earth.  If they have done anything good, discredit and devalue it. It’s slash and burn ground clearing so you and your ideology can then occupy the contested territory and bully and terrorize those who oppose you in turn.

I heard about a journalist who decided to take down a famous European writer living in Sri Lanka whose works were on the local school literature syllabus. He wrote an article accusing the writer of elitism, adversely influencing the minds of young people who were forced to study her work and of looking down on ordinary Sri Lankans in her work. An easy card to play in a post-colonial country with its readymade, easily triggered nationalism, socio-economic frustration and class hatred. The writer threatened to sue him and the newspaper he wrote for. The journalist’s editor hastily wrote articles in response, defending the writer who he had originally encouraged the journalist to attack. The journalist resigned.

Cancel culture is a displacement of one form of fascism with another. It’s hot headed reaction, not considered response. And it’s fuelled and weaponized by mass technology, trigger happy social media platforms and the seemingly never ending human desire for erasure of what threatens their own dominance.