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If you have been using social media for any length of time, it is quite possible that you have heard (or used) the term, ‘Cancel Culture’. Like ‘misogyny’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘feminism’, ‘human rights’, this phrase is one of the buzz words of this generation that gets thrown around when heated socio-cultural issues are being debated – or fought over – on social media. It has become so predominant that many dictionaries now carry a definition for the phrase.
So, what is cancel culture? Dictionary.com has one of the more encompassing definitions.
[ kan-suhl kuhl-cher ]
“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”
I like this definition of the term more than the one on Urban Dictionary. This one just explains the term as it has been used in conversation, without any of the sensationalism in the one written by Urban Dictionary. I mean, what is the use of calling the people who are part of any cancel culture, narcissists? Why couldn’t they have stuck with the definition of the word? If not because I may need to use the dictionary sometime soon, I would encourage people to stop using the dictionary.
See what I did there? It is the classic route taken to cancel an individual and/or organization. I read their definition, didn’t agree with the statement, proceeded to take offense, expressed said offense and invited people to join in my discontent. Again, if you have been on social media long enough, you would most likely have seen this expressed over and over, with millions of people chiming into the conversation and running with the herd.
But have you seen this replicated in everyday life? I mean, not just on social media?
I think cancel culture, like other things expressed on social media, reflects how we act in our communities. The idea that social media is the reason why this happens is at best, ludicrous.
I remember when I was maybe ten or eleven years old. This was around 1999/2000. We lived in a community in Kaduna State, Nigeria. The predominant culture was: husbands went out to work, wives took care of the house and their well-behaved children. Wives were seen but rarely heard unless they were in the market with other women. They dressed and acted ‘responsibly’ as was expected of married women. Husbands ruled their homes and were accorded the respect of mini-gods. Almost every home was a variation of this model.
One home didn’t fit in though. The husband had died, and the wife was the sole provider and caregiver to her three children. She barely had any education or any necessary workplace skillset beyond being a full-time housewife. But she had to survive. And her children had to survive. So, she bought a grinding machine and soon realized the money she was making was barely enough to cater to their basic needs. After some years of really going through it, she took up sex work to augment the money she was making. This was a direct response to the men in the neighborhood who had been propositioning her and offering to cater to her (and her children) if she had sex with them.
As the number of men visiting her began to increase, husbands warned their wives to stay away from her; no doubt wanting their wives to remain sexually unaware in comparison to her. The women decided to cut her off because they didn’t want to ‘lose’ their husbands to someone they deemed ‘wanton’ and ‘irresponsible’. But it didn’t end there. They placed an embargo on the widow’s kids too. Well behaved children had no reason to interact with the children of a ‘prostitute’.
For years, this woman was a pariah in that community. It did not ease up when she up and left her children – teenagers at this time – to fend for themselves. The children inherited the hate their mother had taken for years and at that young age, had to find work for themselves. Only one family went over and beyond to provide any succor to the children; food, soap and friendship. It was not surprising that the only woman who welcomed them into her warmth also didn’t have her husband around and was going through hell raising five kids. She, more than any of the other wives, knew the great hardship that came with being a ‘single’ mother in a community where women were expected to be dependent on their husbands; no matter what the reality was.
I remember how many times I was flogged for being friends with the kids. I had to hide my friendship with them for the longest time and it was my first introduction to cancel culture, even though I didn’t even know the phrase existed then.
Many have seen this type of cancellation at one point or the other in their lives. In fact, most of the times we have seen this, it is usually with people or organizations that are not popular or prominent in the real sense of the word. Sometimes, what confers popularity or prominence on these individuals is the agreement that propels people to stop supporting them.
Let us look at cancel culture in present day as seen on our social media platforms. The only noticeable difference is that are they fed to a seemingly larger audience; what with the internet connecting us to the global community and what not. What we may not have been able to express to a large audience in the past can now be done with the click of a button.
How has this caused this culture to evolve?
We are now able to call out people and organizations for human rights abuses, racism, cultural appropriation, and other areas demanding accountability. But it doesn’t end at having these people called out. In many instances, cancel culture has helped us stop these people or organizations from making money as they continue to abuse people’s rights, show racist behavior, appropriate culture or show a complete lack of understanding of the suffering of people. By refusing to patronize people or organizations who do not respect the wholeness and dignity of each human, we hit them where it hurts the most; their money.
Consequently, we are also getting cancelled; because it is of course, a two-way street. By we, I mean feminists and proponents of human rights. People who think feminism is disrupting the accepted way of life have also formed an alliance to cancel us from their spaces and where possible, withdraw support so it hits us where it would hurt the most; our money…and sometimes, safety.
In essence, anyone and everyone can be cancelled if there are enough people who are incensed enough to support the cause. The degree to which this affects the person or organization is dependent on how prominent they are.
Which brings me to this: is cancel culture always justified? I think the feeling more than the act may be justified. If someone calls me a monkey and refuses to serve me when I go to their restaurant because I am black, I have a right to be incensed. If I am able to talk about this online and get people to boycott the restaurant, which in turn runs them out of business, then of course, I will feel like some justice has been served. Similarly, if a celebrity is found out to be a serial rapist and joining a mass of people to cancel him leads to him losing gigs and being arrested and tried, again…it would be a cause of celebration; a sense of justice for the people he may have raped and a hope that no one gets to be raped by him in the future again.
This is the ideal. But cancel culture, like most types of outrage, is not always ideal.
Because any (and every) one can be incensed by any and everything, cancel culture can do more bad than good. An example can be seen with organizations that provide sexual and reproductive health information and services. Due to the fact that they are seen as pro-abortion, many religious and cultural communities cancel their services, preventing many women and girls from receiving much needed services in the broad spectrum that is sexual and reproductive health. One of the direct results of this is that maternal and child mortality is high in many African countries, with Nigeria having the highest mortalities; 1 in every 8 Nigerian children does not survive to their fifth birthday and the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) for Nigeria is 512 deaths per 100,000 live births according to the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) published in 2018.
Another thing is that, if a person was accused falsely of something and they are ‘cancelled’, their lives (and reputations) may be ruined before they have a chance to defend themselves and prove their innocence. Take, for example, when Tiwa Savage – the Nigerian singer – was accused by her ex-husband of promiscuity, after which he attempted to commit suicide. Even after denying his accusation, her reputation remains ruined as far as some people are concerned. We can chuck this to the predominant patriarchal and misogynistic culture of Nigeria but cancelling her on the basis of what turned out to be false allegations affected her life and art for a while.
But by far, the biggest problem I see with cancel culture is the opportunity to perpetuate hate disguised as righteous anger. It can seen with Black Americans who cancel any and everyone who do not fit into their idea of ‘blackness’ or whom they think is appropriating their culture.
When I write about cultural appropriation, I will discuss this at length and highlight how Black Americans appropriate African culture in a classic case of pot-calling-the-kettle-black. But let me stay on course. Some religious communities also display this type of well disguised hate. We have seen where, in a bid to stop feminists from speaking about equality and questioning harmful religious and cultural practices in Northern Nigeria, religious adherents have pronounced edicts that threaten the lives of these activists.
Should we then not cancel people whom we perceive have done wrong? I have a two-pronged answer.
As I explore humanism in my journey to making it my predominant ideology, I am more open to giving people chances to find their paths; to learn, relearn, unlearn and evolve. What would have happened if the community contributed to help the widow instead of cancelling her? Would her life have taken a much different turn than what it did? Could her children have learned about united communities instead of the mental health dump that they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives? I think when people and organizations make mistakes – where these mistakes do not infringe on the rights of others – they should be corrected and allowed to learn from it. Should they be punished for their wrong? If it is according to the law. But the punishment should be more correctional than a need to exact revenge. So, let us say a white student – who goes on to become president – had black face on when he was a teenager. Or a student physically abuses a woman when he was a young adult. Should we cancel them because they made poor choices maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago? I think that should be determined by their behavior now. Was it a one-time thing? Has there been growth from that time? Do they respect people now? Have they apologized for their overt racism or abuse or whatever wrong they committed? Are they working to make amends? If the answers to all these are positive, should their entire existence be cancelled because of something they have grown from?
On the other hand, when the individual or organization has shown repeated disregard for human rights and dignity, I think they should be cancelled with no apology offered. People like R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and organizations like Fox News are people I am unashamed of for cancelling. They have shown a repeated disregard for women and black people (respectively) that is bullish in its persistence. These types of people should be cancelled as we work to make our communities saner.
We must however remember that cancelling an individual or organization should not be our first response to what we perceive as offensive; no matter how righteous our anger. Let us look for opportunities to educate if we think the person/organization does not know or correct if we think they open to learning. This doesn’t mean that their words and actions do not or won’t hurt us. It just means that we are willing to give people the benefit of doubt and not assume that they deliberately set out to hurt us. Let the onus of proving us wrong be on them.
If – and only if – they show beyond reasonable doubt that they are disgusting pieces of shit, then we should be more than eager to cancel them.