A week ago it felt like people were screaming “Cancel Culture” about everything – Dr Suess, the Muppets, Mr Potatohead, Pepe le Pew and then Piers Morgan who earned a well-deserved self-cancel – which i wrote about over here.
Then a viral incident happened where Adam Habib used the N-word in a Zoom meeting and received instant pushback on the call. He responded by suggesting that people where he is from [this was a call in London and so referring to South Africa] use it all the time [which was news to people where he was from]. Later he issued a tweet thread defending what he had done and i think sometime after that issued a more sincere apology saying that he had been educated and was learning and listening.
And then Helen Zille swooped in to defend his use of the N-word – or maybe more correctly to misdirect from his use of the N-word – by claiming that Adam Habib was a victim of ‘Cancel Culture’. To which i responded with this and really appreciated how my friend and birthday twin, Mahlatse Mashua got to the heart of it in his response:
Agreed. A cruel misdirection. If you can successfully label a process of accountability “cancel culture!”, you position yourself as the real victim. The irony is that is usually comes when you are being accused of cruelty towards others.
That seems to be exactly the strategy so often. Make yourself the victim through the outrageous scream of “Cancel Culture” [preferably made by someone else so it doesn’t feel like you are trying to get out of something] and all focus moves away from the incident or behaviour and you sneak away in the dust that has been raised.
We see it in America a lot with Fox News leading so much of the outrage on the so-called Cancel Culture when it is more often than not so far from the truth. “Dr Seuss has been cancelled” is the statement when a company producing Dr. Seuss books has chosen to stop producing just 6 of their titles for containing racist imagery and wording. “The Muppets have been cancelled” when a disclaimer has been added to the start of an episode warning that the episode contains problematic words, scenes or character depiction. The only one of the bunch that was actually cancelled was Pepe le Pew, a decision that was made because of the main attribute of his character in the cartoons being forcing his affections on a woman that kept in so many different ways saying no. So Pepe le Pew was actually not so much cancelled as the rape-culture promoting behaviour that he exhibited. And rightly so!
Cancel Culture vs Consequences
In the light of the quote above, i do think we can do a lot better at how we hold people accountable. The problem, too often, as with many things, is that we tend to have an Either/Or response that sends us to the extremes. So either we cancel someone problematic [See Harvey Weinstein] or we dismiss any kind of criticism against someone who has been problematic. Perhaps the better answer lies somewhere on the continuum?
This connects to the ‘Free Speech’ conversation as well. Which i am generally not a big fan of, because i’ve heard things people say. And i’ve seen the effects of what people have said. But i do get the idea that if we were to limit freedom of speech, that would be a very slippery slope because who would get to choose what is okay or not? And so where i tend to land on this, and what i feel should be included in the Cancel Culture debate is the idea of Consequences.
Sure, say what you want but know that it might lead you to not having a job because your company doesn’t want to have a racist misogynist bigot working for them.
Sure, do what you want, but know that it might lead you to spending time in jail because you hurt or destroyed or dehumanised or belittled.
i’m saying those too statements lightly in a sense as there are some very obvious things you should not be saying and some very obvious things you should not be doing and there are things which we should do everything to prevent [like murder], but the point of the statements is the awareness that there should be consequences for words, actions and behaviours that hurt and dehumanise.
Lack of Consequence is keeping the rainbow at bay
This really seems to be one of the major problems that South Africa faces. Although, having survived the Trump presidency just about, it is clearly not something that is unique to us. When those in leadership of the country are not held accountable, then the citizens of the country despair and start to follow that lead.
Stories of corruption and bailout and lack of prosection and more have played a huge role in keeping South Africa from becoming the Rainbow Nation Archbishop Desmond Tutu envisioned for us to be. And until we start doing better there – and it’s both the ruling power as well as the DA and the EFF and more which makes it super incredibly hard to even think of voting anyone else into power. The DA are the worst in terms of having committed various crimes during lockdown including the Strandfontein, Wingfield and Paint City camps and scores of illegal evictions during lockdown including Khayelitsha, Hangklip, Observatory to name a few and yet are so loud and insistent on pointing at the faults in the ANC instead of cleaning up their own house.
i think it is important to add that the consequences need to be within reason. i am not an advocate of ‘mob justice’ or where a consequence worked out on someone makes those involved as complicit as the original offender. The idea of using the death penalty on someone to teach them that killing people is wrong feels like a self-defeating statement. So the question becomes ‘What Consequences are appropriate?’ and i think losing reputation, work, opportunities and authority can be some that will hopefully help us get closer to the result we are looking for which ideally looks like the perpetrator learning and changing and being transformed and not perpetrating any more, as well as the oppressed or wounded or humiliated or dehumanised being freed from any more of that destructive presence. With the priority leaning towards protecting/assisting the oppressed i would say.
Be wary of the intentions behind the words
There are a number of terms like ‘Cancel Culture’ which seem to be used to misdirect and draw attention away from the real issue at hand. ‘Woke’ is another one that i have only ever seen used as an insult where the person throwing it out is the one at fault in the situation. ‘Snowflake’ is another. ‘SJW’ which stands for Social Justice Warriors has been turned into an insult by people seeking to defend racism and misogyny – as if seeking Justice was a negative thing.
So when you see a phrase like ‘Cancel Culture’ in the news, take some time to do a little bit of research and try to find the real story. More often than not, like with Dr. Seuss and the Muppets it might simply be about a decision to make something less harmful to people. At other times like with Adam Habib it might be about trying to avoid the consequences that shout be attached to hateful and ignorant speech. And every now and then, like with Harvey Weinstein, it might be about some messed up, disgusting and dehumanising behaviour that should have been shut down years and maybe even decades or centuries ago.
Let’s work together to create a better world for all.
Brett Fish is a lover of life, God, tbV [the beautiful Valerie] and owns the world's most famous stuffed dolphin, No_bob (who doesn't bob). He believes that we are all responsible for making the world a significantly better place for everyone.