In October last year, Interstellar star Matthew McConaughey appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast hosted by Joe Rogan. Among the myriad issues the actor talked about was ‘cancel culture’. “We’re making people persona non grata because of something they do that is right now deemed wrong or it’s the hot point in a hot topic right now,” he said. “You can’t erase someone’s existence. Where does some forgiveness go?”
McConaughey was talking about a phenomenon that has gathered steam over the past few years, irreparably damaging people’s careers. Cancel culture can be defined as a sort of ostracism through which someone is ‘cancelled’, or exiled, from social and professional spheres. Why? Because they said or did something that was seemingly objectionable. For some, it constitutes trolling and harassment. For others, it is an effective way to hold people accountable for their words and actions. From affecting public figures and celebrities to even brands, books and films, cancel culture can take the form of group shaming or even public denouncement.
Take, for instance, the incident involving Bloomsbury India last year. The publishing house was all set to publish a controversial book on the 2020 Delhi riots, but chose not to after there was massive outcry over the book’s promotional event. The decision to withdraw it at the last minute, however, led to further uproar, with writers of all ideological persuasions criticising the publishing house for stifling the voice of authors it didn’t agree with. “I have not read the book in question and have no idea if it is good or bad. However, this is obviously not a quality control problem but about censorship. I commit to never publish a book with @BloomsburyIndia,” tweeted principal economic advisor Sanjeev Sanyal.
Economist Jayati Ghosh’s tweet said, “I’m now ashamed at having contributed to a chapter in a @BloomsburyIndia book. When the history of our times is written, the role of publishers who colluded and published falsehoods to serve current powers will also be noted. Shame on you. You’re no longer a credible publisher.”
Critics of cancel culture view the movement as a modern form of mob rule, while its supporters view it as an important tool to achieve social justice. Recently, e-commerce website Myntra changed its logo after a Mumbai-based activist lodged a complaint with the state cyber police, alleging that the signage was “insulting and offensive” to women. Following the controversy, Myntra decided to change the logo on its website, app and packaging material.
One thing is clear: you may support it or abhor it, but there’s no way you can ignore it. Cancel culture is both a sort of mob mentality and a way of speaking truth to power. But could it also change contemporary culture?
In October last year, online provocateurs attempted to cancel Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt, labelling him a Trump supporter despite him being largely apolitical. Pratt’s co-stars, including Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo, came to his defence, calling him “as solid a man there is”.
Actor Roseanne Barr wasn’t so lucky though. The American comedian lost her hit TV show after a racist tweet. Some other celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey — who have allegations of rape and sexual assault against them — have been cancelled too. There was even a call to cancel JK Rowling for her views on transgenders. Later, Rowling joined 150 other authors and academics in denouncing the cancel culture trend.
Critics argue that free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is becoming more and more constricted today, and that cancel culture is an unhealthy and toxic practice. “For long, ideas, books and art have influenced public opinion in more ways than tangible. It was for this reason that totalitarian governments banned books and exiled writers or other influencers they believed could change public perception. The cancel culture movement is, however, inherently different. People pile onto, call out opinions by celebrities and others in a vastly negative manner,” says Delhi-based danseuse and culture multiplier (someone who uses their intelligence and position to amplify the capabilities and talent of the people around them) Prathibha Prahlad, who was the founder-director of annual arts festival, Delhi International Arts Festival. “While they may be holding them accountable to what they said or did, which is vastly unpopular with accepted notions of speech and behaviour, it can be very toxic and contrary to democratic principles of free speech. Accountability has to be for all across the board,” she adds.
Prahlad believes social media can be easily manipulated. “The worrisome part is that the internet is not the space for debate or dialogue and is no space for alternative opinion. Therefore, a social media upbeat government, which while on the surface upholds democratic values, but wants to control public opinion, can manipulate the social media space. Anyone can fall victim to this mass hate movement and all the fabulous work done over decades can be cancelled in no time,” she says, adding, “Social media users must be made accountable and held to question by the laws of the land, as Twitter and Instagram can’t be allowed to hold to ransom peoples and cultures.”
Recounting an incident from 2017, Prahlad says, “We had invited a Pakistani theatre group to perform and the overzealous director gave an interview and announced their performance in the festival, while speaking about India-Pak relations, etc. The auditorium and the partners cancelled our booking and refused to have them stage their play. Finally, with a platoon of policemen, we had them perform late in the night because as festival organisers we were bound to have them perform,” she says.
Delhi-based feminist writer, author and columnist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu feels cancel culture is an emblem for social spinelessness and moral corruption. “It is the ultimate act of hypocrisy on the part of large and powerful multinational corporations, especially those that tom tom about diversity, inclusion and gender equality, but lack the grit and determination to stand by with conviction on their messaging, branding and content,” says Kundu. “Also, why are we so scared of social media-why have and when did a bunch of faceless trolls become the bane of our sanity? Why do we attach so much power to social media-so much so that we cave into the slightest pressure, apologise, swallow our words and bow down our heads… to me, this is the toxic and direct side effect of populism and consumerism,” she asserts.
Over the years, books, ads and films have helped contemporary culture evolve. “Pop culture has always influenced change and continues to be a catalyst for evolution,” says Mumbai-based Anuja Deora, founder and CEO, Filter Coffee Co, a digital agency that has catered to brands like L’Occitane India, Estee Lauder, Forest Essentials, Kiehl’s, etc. “A lot of artists and filmmakers have been coming up with more and more work pieces without losing that original shine on their respective content in trying to fit in this era of modern democracies,” adds Deora, who has worked on films like Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, which was inspired by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. “It went on to become a cult favourite. The film spoke about larger issues and how sentiment can impact a situation. The core message, though, was how it is every individual’s responsibility to ensure and uphold their rights and freedom,” she adds.
Kundu believes that the number of public intellectuals, student leaders and independent artists arrested for speaking their minds have no freedom of speech in a country that brands dissenters as ‘urban Naxals’ and stifles independent thought as dangerous or political conspiracy. “As a single woman, I am not afraid of being trolled, rape threats… that is a common medium to silence a powerful woman’s voice. I have lost friends and have rejected many populist things like awards and litfests… but my only consolation is I stand for myself. And I need no external validation but the truth to prove my views or my point,” she says. Creativity is something that can be criticised, but can never be targeted, she believes. “An artist is unafraid and free,” Kundu asserts.
Calling cancel culture a form of “cultural boycott”, Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan professor of media studies, says it’s the “ultimate expression of agency”, which is “born of a desire for control as people have limited power over what is presented to them on social media” and a need for ‘accountability which is not centralised’.
Take, for instance, a March 2020 KFC ad in the UK, which featured its catchphrase ‘It’s finger-lickin good’ and showed friends licking their fingers after eating chicken. After social media users criticised KFC for promoting behaviour that could result in the spread of Covid-19, it temporarily suspended its slogan.
Closer home, Tanishq withdrew an advertisement featuring an interfaith couple after backlash on social media. The ad showed a baby shower being organised for a Hindu mother-to-be by her Muslim in-laws.After being trolled, Tanishq removed the ad, even as Twitter users expressed disappointment at how bigotry and cancel culture led to an ad with a beautiful message being withdrawn. In 2019, a Surf Excel advertisement had also received backlash after it sought to promote its brand showing Hindu-Muslim harmony.
“Human beings are emotional beings and the kind of backlash brands have been receiving from consumers is on an emotional viewpoint. Emotions change and evolve and so do the sentiments about and around things,” believes Deora. According to her, creativity evolves over time and always finds a way to get the message across. “Your ideas might not work the first time, but could become a revolution in the near future,” she offers.