Don’t Decry Cancel Culture—Decry Cultural Rigidity

Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, and others favor a rigid status quo over change.

Posted Feb 07, 2021

 frender/Adobe Stock, licensed by Ravi Chandra
Source: frender/Adobe Stock, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Decrying "cancel culture" has become a propagandistic conservative talking point, from Fox News to Senator Josh Hawley and Representative Jim Jordan. Self-proclaimed liberals in academia and letters have likewise taken up the meme of defending against this supposed threat to free speech—but which is in fact an attempt to silence those less powerful and defend the status quo. What seems to unite these factions is the underlying moral that we must remain objective and emotionless. We must maintain “decorum.” And we must always debate on some lofty platform of ideas. 

Except for the facts that:

  1.  No one is purely “objective.”
  2. Devaluing the emotions of people you disagree with and don’t understand is ridiculous and dehumanizing.
  3. Decorum is wonderful—but we are dealing with unspeakably cruel and sociopathic cultural forces, including racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious imperialism. Feigning shock about anger expressed against these forces perpetuates abuse.
  4. The “lofty platform of ideas” has always been tilted towards those with wealth, power, and privilege.

Hawley and others declare, “We must resist conformity. We must resist anyone asking us to conform to their rules. To submit would be un-American!”

They are blind to the conformity and misshapen rules which bind them and society. They are blind to the underlying emotional and cultural forces which are pressing for change. They have lacked full receptive and collaborative capacity to understand the interdependent reality that is emerging all around us. Instead, they defend against it, to the point of nihilism. They fear their "cancellation"—but this supposed cancellation would be precluded by adopting an inclusive vision. Why is that so hard for Hawley, Jordan, and others?

 Public tweet by Ravi Chandra, February 5, 2021
Source: Public tweet by Ravi Chandra, February 5, 2021

Only compassion and relationship resolve anger, and as a nation, we are still very much a work in progress.

Clearly, Hawley and others weaponize their defensive complaints to strike back at a population that is growing, changing, and evolving past their limited, exclusive, narrow viewpoints and mechanisms of control. In a time of increasingly visible threats to mental and physical well-being of marginalized peoples, and threats to democracy itself, activists are raising their voices to claim some power and question the platforms of people who they see as perpetrating harm.

Sure, public shaming, ostracism, shunning, and the loss of livelihood are all horrible social consequences, often meted out mercilessly and without anything like a due process. Welcome to the world that those of us who are not in the heretofore protected categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion have inhabited for all our lives in America. 

One congressman got on his back foot recently and declared that conservatives were being “digitally disappeared” by being banned on Twitter. A remarkable turn-of-phrase when considering the actual “disappeared” in Argentina, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. Senator Lindsey Graham famously said during the Kavanaugh hearing, “I know I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up, if that’s OK. Because I got here the same way anyone else did.”

What, suddenly Powerful White Men and Their Allies Behaving Badly are somewhat more suspect, their status online and elsewhere more precarious? Excuse us for not weeping over your newfound vulnerability. Perhaps you could consider using vulnerability as an insight, and then growing in compassion and relatedness to the America that exists, as opposed to living in your paranoid, ungrounded, existential fears of annihilation. Perhaps you could start by not denying us our "unalienable rights" through your unrestrained use and abuse of power.

It is easy to understand why many want to "cancel" those who have proven themselves untrustworthy and irresponsible to the needs of society.

Some white academics completely overlook the systemic erasure of BIPOC, queer, and other marginalized voices when they put together their syllabi and supporting material. When it’s been suggested that their favorite materials are not representative and inclusive, and therefore might perpetuate marginalization, they spring into automatic defense of whatever canons they have put on their pedestals. Some universities, department chairs, and organizational leaders balk when the rubber meets the road in hiring practices and hearing the concerns of their colleagues from minority groups. Sometimes, the best they can manage is an institutional mission statement.

No one likes it when their words and actions are taken out of context. No one enjoys it when an online Twitter-mob jumps down their throat. Yes, there are dangers in reactivity. Language policing is particularly annoying. An excessive focus on “the right words” and asserting performative rules of engagement can undervalue the substance of actual relationship, and negate real-life give-and-take, substituting intolerance and a new form of power politics. But if those bemoaning cancel culture are in fact so concerned about their reputations, statuses, and principles, then perhaps they should spend some time listening to the concerns of those they too easily dismiss. 

My sense is that “cancel culture” is simply a stage in the development of the broader culture, and a stage of social media engagement. Pent-up anger is finally being heard, and having some effect. Culture is a dynamic, engaged process. We are all being called out and called in to do better by one another.

We must set hard lines against deadly, historically marginalizing forces and actual abuse of power—not bemoan the supposed “cancel culture” that springs as a reaction against such abuse. 

One great test will be the upcoming second impeachment trial of former President Trump. All eyes will be on this Senate. What will it make of President Trump’s words and actions on Jan. 6, and the subsequent assault on our democracy?

Senator Hawley, Representative Jordan—back to you.

(c) 2021 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.