Zoomin' in on ... Cancel Culture

Or: Calling-out a questionable practice?

Have you ever been in the eye of a “shit storm”, or have witnessed or participated in one? If one of these was a yes: Welcome to the world of cancel culture, which we examined at our last “Zoomin’ In On…” on 19 May 2021.

We started off by defining “cancel culture” according to the Merriam Webster dictionary as:

the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.

Often “cancelling” here does not necessarily refer to an event, but can also mean withdrawing support and/or engaging in public shaming, particularly on social media. This can be done to celebrities, but also to non-celebrities.

During our discussion many parallels were drawn to previous and current practices of communal shaming such as public stoning, or putting people into the stocks. We agreed that in general public shaming is a very old practice that seems to be constitutive of society but which has increased in scale and severity through social media.

So the phenomenon is as much about “cancelling” as it is about “online communication” and is exacerbated by the logic of algorithms, which favour controversial content with lots of adversarial interaction. We also asked whether “online activism”, such as calling people out on social media, is equivalent to other kinds of activism and if it is actually productive. In addition, we questioned how much sense some of these incidents make when they are being played out on social media, such as twitter, which more often than not, does not provide any context. Context, however, as we all know, absolutely determines the meaning of something.

We discussed some famous incidents like the J.K. Rowling “row” over her alleged or real (that’s the thing – we often just do not know) trans-phobia and whether that should lead people to boycott the Harry Potter books. We also looked at other, historical, examples, such as the incredible misogyny of the German philosophers Kant and Schopenhauer (intelligent women lose their appeal as women (Kant), men stand for intellect and the individual, whereas women stand for the animalistic and the species, i.e. “Männer-Menschen” vs. “Weiber-Haustiere” (Schopenhauer)), which, interestingly does not really lead to a public questioning of their place in the canon of philosophy.

Also, we asked whether it makes sense to “silence” one’s political/ideological opponent? Does that not prevent constructive discussion and lead to even less informed filter bubbles, in which people only ever get into contact with their own opinions? And how does this relate to the issues of political correctness and free speech? And where does one draw the line between free speech and offensive or even legally sanctionable speech? Should this really be defined by laws only?

This, in turn, we agreed, ties in with the increasing tendency of many people on social media of being absolutely certain about one opinion while being convinced that the other side is wholly wrong and will not change its view. This fixed binary is often motivated by an individual’s feelings or beliefs rather than being based on factual knowledge about a situation/incident. An aporia which basically prevents any kind of discussion. There were also voices who saw this as a current youth phenomenon due to the peer pressure of having to appear “woke”. Which is summarized very well in this very short clip from a public appearance of Barack Obama, in which he calls out this tendency.

Further Reading & Sources:

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