In recent times, the rise of cancel culture has revolutionized our mundane interactions with each other. With the constant threat of facing the consequences of anything uttered out of line, cancel culture as a form of social control cannot be negated. Yet, can what appears to be so “pro-social” cause latent harm as well? What if in our advocacy efforts, we end up contributing to and perpetuating the marginalisation of certain groups in society counter-intuitively? Attenuating social injustice comes with its risks after all, no?
“Harmful” behaviours speared, online cries for perpetrators’ blood. We’ve seen it in the backlash against Xiaxue, Dee Kosh, and Ivan Lim. The crusades against old tweets, controversial opinions, and crimes have begun… Let’s talk Cancel Culture.
Oh, Cancel Culture?
“Cancelling” someone means ceasing support for and boycotting them in response to their “harmful” actions. While social regression to some, others are fervent supporters. Love it or hate it, we cannot deny its prominent function in collective social life.
A Form of Social Control?
Societies safeguard norms and values through social control – methods teaching, persuading, or forcing conformation. Cancel culture condemns perpetrators of “wrong, oppressive or inappropriate” behaviours with the negative social sanction of tarnishing one’s job, reputation, and social networks. The fear it instills then compels the self-policing of controversial opinions – social control at work.
The Science behind Cancel Culture
Cancelling is said to be “a short-term release of cathartic anger”: Catharsis is the purging of negative emotions (Scheff, 1979), while anger’s justice-seeking nature (Haidt, 2003; Fiddick, 2004) motivates us to correct life’s injustices. Hence, when witnessing social injustice, anger appropriately arises. To simultaneously release it and correct transgressions, we call out and boycott transgressors.
Societal values have evolved such that behaviours once easily-dismissed are now anger-inducing, unacceptable, and sanctions-warranting… Or perhaps, they offend the groups they concern all along, but only recently had collective society started paying attention.
Some might call it a “weapon of the weak” (Scott, 1985) - society subverting power from elites that have long-dictated our norms, redefining for ourselves who is in and out.
Political Correctness and the Labelling Theory
How, then, have values and norms evolved, and what incites fire within us?
On one hand, injustice is no longer tolerated in society. Any “dehumanising”, “polarising” sentiment against another societal group, especially already-vulnerable ones (Eg. Ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, etc.), will be condemned. This signals the positive construction of progressive norms aiming at inclusivity and acceptance – once-shunned “deviant behaviours” now increasingly-normalised, embraced.
On the other, it involves societal labels. With the paradigm shift of social norms, terms like “transphobe”, “misogynist”, “racist”, can now be wielded as weapons to unleash backlash against someone. Often, such labels are rooted in notions of political correctness – the avoidance of offensive, disadvantageous actions towards other societal groups (Herbert, 1992). “Politically incorrect” behaviours invite negative labels, regardless of intention or context.
So, who draws the boundaries of political correctness? When we boycott based on such standards, are we also marginalising anyone?
You’re in America, speak English!!
No, I’m not talking about cancelling (alleged) criminals like Amber Heard. I’m talking about Professor Greg Patton, who was suspended for teaching Mandarin term “那个” (nà gè) – given its similar pronunciation to a racial slur. Allegedly affecting students’ mental health, one wonders if English is the only language in the world. If Mandarin, with its clauses and pronunciations, offends when judged with English linguistic standards, perhaps we should suspend America’s Mandarin-speakers.
Retrieved from http://blogs.dunyanews.tv/18938/
Back home, “True Love Is”, an organisation providing resources on Christian LGBTQ+-related issues locally, came under fire for “Conversion Therapy” (a psychological “therapy” to “de-gay” someone -_-“). Whilst the organisation denied this, it struggled to clear its name. With individuals within it, however, the narrative changes. Many shared that after turning to True Love Is, they still experience same-sex attraction (SSA) (debunking myths of being “converted” out of it), but no longer desire to act upon it… something they wanted to begin with – since having SSA was not a personally-desired trait (O_O).
These individuals were condemned for calling their own SSA “unwanted” (to themselves). The crux of the matter is this: Anyone experiencing SSA belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, even if one leans towards “not wanting” their SSA. However, these individuals lack safe spaces to speak due to the socially-constructed ideal and expectation towards LGBTQ+ members to embrace their gender identities and sexual orientations. In condemning them, have we made the statement that in our advocacy, only some LGBTQ+ members – those who meet expectations – matter, and not others? Ironically, we may have once again, labelled individuals of the LGBTQ+ community “deviants”, deserving boycotts like the homophobes.
Their stories undoubtedly raise questions on why they repudiate their SSA. However, should it stem from guilt or emotional manipulation, condemnation isn’t helping them either.
At the Heart of Sociology…
Is the advocacy for change through deconstructing potentially-problematic institutions and constructing new, progressive ones. Yet, we must be careful not to repeat the misgivings of our predecessors and end up causing harm to those who deserve protection.
Cancel culture remains elusive. When internalised, it might be pro-social in preventing transgressions. Conversely, instead of changing collective minds[i], it might also be a source for further discrimination, preventing valid (albeit unpopular) concerns from being voiced. This article, hopefully, nuances these arguments through the sociological lens.
Michel Foucault posits that discourse happens when we gather and perceive information. This potentially entails information asymmetry due to our varying abilities to obtain said information, hence implying a power imbalance.
How can we better manage social control better in a world where cancel culture typically takes place when there is an imbalance of power between the mobs and the victim?
How can we develop informed perspectives to shape our discourse in our society? Is agreeing to disagree a solution to this, or simply novelty in this day and age?
By Ong Yu Jie, Year 2, Sociology Major
Fiddick, L. (2004). Domains of deontic reasoning: Resolving the discrepancy between the cognitive and moral reasoning literatures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A, 57(3), 447-474.
Foucault, M. (1981). The order of discourse. Untying the text: A post-structuralist reader, 51, 78.
Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. Handbook of affective sciences, 11(2003), 852-870.
Kohl, H. (1992). Uncommon differences: on political correctness, core curriculum and democracy in education. The Lion and the Unicorn, 16(1), 1-16.
Scheff, T. J. (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Univ of California Press.
Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. yale university Press.
[i] Linked article in French