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Cancel culture and public space in India

opinionColumnistsCancel culture and public space in India

The huge uproar over a film and the politics of the ban in India is extremely unfortunate. Such is valid for the content of the national curriculum framework. The same textbooks were revised in 2006, yet no protests occurred. Those who represent the hegemonic narrative before 2014 believe they are ordained with the divine right to write the last word on history, and nothing could follow their final word. Any dissenting opinion or fact is branded misnomer or trolled endlessly. Through a well-coordinated ecosystem, the hegemonic Left vilifies anyone who disagrees with such curated narratives. This brings about the vital issue of freedom of speech and creative expression in the country, portending the absence of diversity with a preference for hegemony and exclusivism in intellectual and public spaces within and outside India. One sees this in the treatment of Karan Kataria at LSE. Had Karan not been a Hindu, would his case have been treated as it was? Such are the issues worth debates and discussions.
India’s democracy is back after the Congress won in Karnataka and EVMs are reliable. Otherwise the same ecosystem cried that Indian democracy and diversity were in danger. This was being said in India and abroad by supporters like George Soros. Democracy and diversity are not determined by electoral victories and defeat. Indian democracy is very strong rooted and as old as our civilization.
The advent of social media has been celebrated as a public good. However, the flip side of social media still needs to be understood through serious research within the academic discourse. Social media is blamed for promoting and sometimes perpetuating cancel culture. However, social media should be understood as a medium rather than the initiator of such ill practices. The cancel culture stands as an excellent example of failure to understand the risks associated with social media.
Cancel culture is loosely defined as a contemporary phenomenon in which individuals or groups seek to publicly ostracize or punish individuals for their actual or perceived transgressions against certain social norms or values. Individuals or organizations are presumed guilty without due process, leading to loss of employment, reputational damage, psychological distress and even legal actions. Given the visibility and speed of social media, cancel culture relies on social media campaigns that quickly escalate and become viral, resulting in swift and severe (and sometimes unfair) consequences for the targeted individual or organization. However, the fascinating thing about these norms and values that cancel culture promotes is how they change with settings and individuals. Simply put, the same rules do not apply to everyone.
Cancel culture is an extreme example of perverting the benefits of social pressure. It is commonly used to dismiss or target anyone with a slightly different opinion. Hate speeches are unacceptable, but social reprobation is still a necessary component of free speech. One can freely speak their mind, but one should be aware of its consequences. As is often said, “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.” In his recent book, Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture, a human rights lawyer and free speech advocate, Dan Kovalik, argues for the necessity of free speech in public spaces. He remarks, “speech that offends but does not interfere with another’s right of participation, should not be banned or otherwise suppressed. Rather, such speech … should be met with speech; with argument and dialogue, as a means to advance both free speech and hopefully equality.”
A herd mentality traverses cancel culture where any discomfort or disagreement is not an instigation of self-reflection or recourse to checking facts. Instead, it becomes a cue to cancel the person or the idea. The most significant pathology of cancel culture is an ever-changing goal post where the behaviour is condemned regardless of its reasons, simply because you feel offended. Another pathology of cancel culture that increasingly occurs is “selectivity”. Some issues, content, or ideas are acceptable in one setting or when endorsed by like-minded individuals. Meanwhile, when someone else takes up the problems, they are condemned as insensitive, ill-informed, or accused of politicizing the issue.
Besides negating facts and being selective, cancel culture is guilty of promoting the mob mentality that ultimately causes the death of reason, independent thinking, and, most importantly, due process. Some hateful actions or ideas, like Nazism, deserve to be curtailed and banished. Yet, criticism of Nazism is not based on a convenient alignment of interests but on facts and informed knowledge of the abhorrent Nazi ideas. Moreover, the lack of due process results in most victims being undeservedly besmirched. Cancel culture also causes great rifts in a society where even the dead are not safe, and such culture readily becomes a witch hunt.
In the Indian case, before the film The Kerala Story could reach the theatres, a vicious campaign began that, in a Goebbelsian way, articulated falsehoods and double standards as the truth. Had it been a critique of Hindus, it would be labeled secular. Its release would have been linked with saving democracy in India. But since the role was reversed this time, the intolerant fringe refused to accept the reality and facts and tried to shoot down the messenger. Such an issue should have been championed by the so-called women’s studies centers in universities, who have turned a blind eye since it does not align with their agenda.
The worrying issue with cancel culture is the convenience of labeling that comes with it. The labels are created and imposed through the lightning speed of social media. These labels cut short the room for context, nuances, or fact-checking. The result is before the issue or an idea appears in the public domain, the judgments are ready on how to receive them. One sees this in the case of Karan Kataria, whose Hindu identity automatically meant that he was an Islamophobe. Similarly, the appreciation or even acceptance of the film The Kerala Story meant that the individual was an Islamophobe. In both cases, labels were imposed, the merits of the cases were sidelined, while the evidence for such labeling was never provided.
Another sad reality that cancel culture raises is the growing deniability and aversion to facts, no matter how widespread they might be. Despite the numerous real-life instances that The Kerala Story builds upon, there were not even attempts at reviewing the incidence of the concern that the film raises. Other vocal examples, like statements by the former Chief Minister of Kerala, V.S. Achuthanandan, who noted in 2010, “They (the ruling party) want to turn Kerala into a Muslim-majority state in 20 years. They are using money and other inducements to convert people to Islam. They even marry women from outside their community in order to increase the Muslim population,” are also conveniently left out in the dominant narratives.
What should be concerning about the growing trend of cancel culture is that issues and ideas that it prevents reaching the audience might be something that the public should hear, even though it may not be convenient. Here emerges another pathology of the cancel culture: political correctness, which the cancel culture seeks to promote and champion. We must ask: what happens when one bows down to the cancel culture and stops the exposition of the truth? The answer is, fateful incidents like the “Rochdale child sex abuse” in the UK’s Great Manchester. This horrible episode involved abuse and sexual exploitation of underage girls in Great Manchester over several years. What is chilling about this horrendous episode was the failure of the system to address the issue because of political correctness since most of the offenders were Pakistani British. For such reasons, the insistence on free speech in public spaces is needed to see uncomfortable facts to address such problems instead of cancelling them because they do not align with one’s narratives and agendas.
Finally, it must be asked why public spaces are being taken over by these cancel culture supporters in a vibrant democracy like India that will hold the largest elections in the history of mankind next year. The smear campaigns and perverse system of labeling individuals and organizations and conveniently refusing to listen to them have long-term consequences for individual development and society at large. It must be remembered that cancel culture breeds an environment of fear and self-censorship, where individuals are afraid to express themselves for fear of being “cancelled”. Nowadays, as societies become more polarized, it is essential to listen to people who are different and unlike us. Allowing them space would foster a harmonious society and lead to a better understanding of each other.
Prof Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit is Vice Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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