Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I want to write a few words about cancel culture. That hackneyed term is ubiquitous now. There are several high profile examples bringing it into focus, not least the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident at the Oscars.

Frankly, enough was written about that and I’ve no desire to jump on the bandwagon. What interests me is what it (and things like it) say about cancel culture. Obviously, a world where a comedian telling jokes is susceptible to intervention is problematic. Equally worrying, though, is our overreaction to relatively minor indiscretions, blowing such incidents out of all proportion.

Cancel culture is an interesting phenomenon. In the modern rush to silence people and, well, cancel, we’ve lost the run of ourselves. The insidious thing about cancel culture is the way it shuts down debate. Perceived wrongdoers are arbitrarily silenced, often permanently. It’s the ultimate moral sanction, where public (usually online) critics are judge, jury and executioners.

There’s nothing new here, but the sheer scale of the problem is magnified by social media and the instantaneous reactions it provokes. Any transgression (either real or imagined) is dealt with in an immediate, often irreversible fashion.

And there’s logic to it. Bad decisions and mistakes should have consequences, right? Of course, but who in the online mob decides the scale and severity of the punishment? Who decides those that face and those that evade sanction? And where is the scope for forgiveness, rehabilitation and redemption?

Conventional justice systems allow for this, but the online mob not so much. Part of the trouble with this is the way in which it curtails free speech. Cancel culture stops people expressing sincerely held opinions, within the law, because those views may offend certain sensibilities. That is obviously supremely dangerous in a democracy.

Well meaning as much of this is, it is also profoundly unnecessary. In many ways, cancel culture seeks to influence something that largely regulates itself. In days gone by, we knew where the line was with free speech and hardly ever went over it. And on the rare occasions we did, there were certainly consequences, but the breaches were nothing that couldn’t be atoned for. It was a good system. But that’s not deemed good enough in the modern world.

We are increasingly unforgiving. These days, we don’t want solutions but want to apportion blame instead. That might be cleansing, satisfying even, but doesn’t solve any problem. And it absolves us of the responsibility for making things better. Human beings will always transgress, but we must allow for rectification. Otherwise, the law of the jungle applies. It’s mob rule.

Back to the Oscars. When a comedian gets interrupted for doing their job, the whole world loses its mind overreacting to the incident, and everyone involved is threatened by some form of cancellation (even if temporary), there must be a better way of doing things.