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Opinion | Trying to cancel who I became in a cancel culture

While we need a culture that leaves us room for mistakes, we also need one that encourages genuine interrogation of our own privilege

Writer J.K. Rowling recently faced the wrath of the cancel culture owing to her unpopular views on transgender rights. Getty Images
Writer J.K. Rowling recently faced the wrath of the cancel culture owing to her unpopular views on transgender rights. Getty Images

There is a peculiar pleasure in flouncing out of a WhatsApp group. And I have done my share of flouncing. The latest instance was from a group that was not particularly egregious, and mostly free from the usual hormonal teenage jokes and casual misogyny that passes as nostalgia for the good old college days. Yet I found myself being drawn into increasingly acrimonious political arguments in the group. And after a particularly testy exchange, I abruptly exited it.

I left not because I was right but because I realized I had become far too invested in being right. Having the last word had become more important than any principle at stake. I left because I didn’t like the person I had become. In a sense, I wanted to “cancel" that person.

I didn’t know much about “cancel culture" until I read a New York Times (NYT) op-ed by an old friend, Loretta Ross. The formidable civil rights activist and I had worked together briefly as board members of a human rights group. Her history as a grass-roots organizer from the American South made me—an Indian software engineer in Silicon Valley—feel puny and shallow. Also, I felt fearful that my “privilege" would express itself as ignorance of civil rights history, black identity or intersectionality.

Ross, however, was nothing but warm, and that same generosity shone through in her NYT column. She writes about how she worked with women whose partners were in the Ku Klux Klan and didn’t react with high dudgeon when they called her a “well-spoken coloured girl", instead telling them how it felt the first time she heard the n-word as an eight-year-old. The women and she made progress. Looking back on her experience as a young black feminist activist in the 1970s—a time when she would often sharply criticize white women for not recognizing intersectionality—she writes: “I rarely questioned whether the way I addressed their white privilege was actually counterproductive. They barely understood what it meant to be white women in the system of white supremacy. Was it realistic to expect them to comprehend the experiences of black women?"

That word “counterproductive" stopped me short and raised an uncomfortable question: When I call out someone for their prejudices, am I pushing for change or advertising my woke self? There’s a form of virtue signalling that deploys wokeness as a bludgeon to shame and silence others. We often don’t even know that we are indulging in it. Sometimes we are caught up in too much glee when we think we have found that gotcha moment.

Worse, just the prospect of being shamed can shut someone up in advance. A few years ago, at a South Asian LGBTQ+ conference in California, a Canadian doctoral student was talking about the privilege of cis-gay men. At some point, the young Indian man next to me—who had recently come out to family and friends—leaned over and nervously whispered, “What is cis? How do you spell it?" He knew that asking the question out loud would have evoked laughter or, worse, derision.

The same LGBTQ+ group had a discussion about sending representatives to the local Asian lesbian banquet. It was always the women who were expected to attend it. Then one day a woman said, “Why is it always the women’s job to go to a women’s fund-raiser? The men can also go to show their support." It was a wake-up moment. The men were called out but in a way that was “productive". Ross has a word for this I really like. She describes this as “calling-in": “Calling-in is simply a call-out done with love. It is not tone policing, protecting white fragility or covering up abuse. It helps avoid the weaponization of suffering that prevents constructive healing."

We, however, are caught in a spiral of “calling out" each other. That’s exactly what happened when the who’s who of the literary and intellectual world published a letter in Harper’s Magazinein early July calling out the “cancel culture". Signed by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling, the letter complained that the resistance to right-wing bigotry had itself turned into an “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism". Bad ideas have to be defeated by “exposure, argument and persuasion", not by trying to silence the speaker. Or cancelling them.

But the letter itself displayed many of the “sins" it sought to flag. The extreme privilege enjoyed by its signatories made its attempt to claim higher moral ground all the more tone deaf and sanctimonious. Mary McNamara writes in the Los Angeles Times: “Should we all be respectful of one another? Sure, but too often that respect has been by its very definition one-sided. Those in power not only demand respect but they also write and rewrite its very definition." We are all racing up the mountain of self-regard to claim loftier moral ground. Or, as the newsletter pithily summed it up, “Self-righteousness begets self-righteousness etc. etc."

Yes, we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking, even mistakes. But we also need a culture that encourages genuine interrogation of our own privilege. As Yashica Dutt, author of Coming Out As Dalit, once pointed out to me, only the upper caste have the privilege of ignoring caste. “It shows they never had someone come up to them and discriminate against them because of what caste they were," she said. “It is a huge signifier of privilege, more than anything else, that you can even choose to not know what caste you are." Dutt, displaying infinite grace, made her point without making me feel like a clueless savarna jerk.

But such grace must be earned by self-introspection, not a privileged establishment bent on making a virtue of its shortcomings. When New York Review Of Books editor Ian Buruma was rightfully criticized for publishing a piece by Jian Ghomeshi—a man accused of sexual assault by over 20 women—he complained about being “convicted on Twitter without any due process". Buruma could have taken a moment to question his choices or think about what it meant for the women who felt their voices did not matter. He instead recast his blithe white self-regard as the unjust victimization of a principled advocate of free speech.

The pandemic has been brutal on all of us—especially those with little privilege. I had hoped that the relentless and daily images of suffering would make us a little less self-absorbed, a little less eager to rush to claim the “victim" card. And yet, more than ever, smugness reigns. My timeline is flooded with people shaming their peers for sharing their cooking experiments on social media, though we have no idea what demons they might be fighting in their lives. Others issue diktats, asking people who disagree with them on some issue to unfriend themselves. Someone tears into someone lamenting the destruction of old book stores in Kolkata during May’s cyclone Amphan for elitist nostalgia because she didn’t show as much visible sorrow for battered villages far away from the city. Sometimes it feels as if we want to cancel everyone before anyone cancels us.

The irony is that these cancellations come at a time when normal life itself has been cancelled, perhaps indefinitely, by a virus. But it makes me wonder, if self-righteousness begets self-righteousness, could some grace not beget grace?

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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