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Philosophy

Cancel Culture – An Essay

Cancel Culture is everywhere. Not a day goes by where we don’t hear about some laughable news story where someone wants something cancelled because of some certain oppressed group. The film ‘Witches’ based on the book by Roald Dahl was attacked because the witches had three fingers and it was offensive to those who had a certain condition causing them to only have three fingers.[1] This example is silly, but what about things that are a bit more mainstream? Race, gender, sexuality are all hot topics in current societal debate and while we might laugh at the Witches example, it isn’t that different from laughing at stereotypes of race and gender.

            But what is Cancel Culture? I would claim it is a set of people who attack cultural items which they deem offensive because it doesn’t acknowledge their being. Those who attack the item don’t necessarily have to be a part of the group the item is targeting. White people can try and cancel racist jokes just as much as black people can. In a way, that would be even better, because then you would be ‘acknowledging your privilege.’ You can’t make fun or represent someone from a minority background as evil, dumb, clumsy, etc. because that would enforce a certain negative stereotype, making that group even more oppressed in the already oppressive society.

            So, cancelling things which seem sexist, racist and what not, seems like a noble goal. You’re contributing to lessening social problems in society. Go pat yourself on the back! But it’s a sham. You’re not doing anything by trying to cancel things, the only thing you create are crappier movies. By cancelling cultural items, you are trying to get the moral high ground over people. It’s the equivalent of vegans thinking they are better than anyone else because they don’t use animal products. If you believe that you’re a good person because you do one thing you deem right, then you most definitely aren’t one. You aren’t bad, but you’re not good either.

            The racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. still exist even if the movies aren’t like that anymore (even though we can debate if most movies are racist or sexist). The only thing you do is put a rug over the stain. It’s still there, you just can’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind; but still very much in reality. The issue with colonial statues come to mind here. Many people believe that we should take away the street names and statues of old colonialists. They did some unspeakable things and having a statue honoring them doesn’t seem good. But is a statue intrinsically something which honors something? Many artists make drawings of Donald Trump without honoring him. Our perception of the statue makes it something which is honoring or not. We fill in the meaning behind the statue, the statue doesn’t do that for us. If a statue is just a rock with a shape then it is just that: a rock.

            Trying to cancel things you don’t like is just enforcing your worldview upon others. We live in a democratic society where everyone has their own opinion about something. These opinions are as different as there are people. Just because a certain person or group doesn’t like something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it anymore. We say the world is round (because it is), but there are many people who would find that offensive if I would say that. Should we now cancel the Earth being round? I don’t think so. Cancelling things goes on in an endless circle, because if we search hard enough, there is always something which we could find offensive, even if it wasn’t the writer’s intention anyway. I don’t think that Roald Dahl meant to represent people with three fingers as evil witches. He just wanted to create some scary antagonists and three fingers are something out of the ordinary, so it fit.

            Cancel Culture is something which the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would call the ‘herd mentality.’ People aren’t moral because it is the good thing to do, but because they can be allowed into a certain group. He used this concept with Christianity, but it is highly applicable here. People say the same thing other people in their vicinity say because then they would be part of a group. Being part of that group allows one to see himself as moral, because that group sees itself as moral. The group doesn’t have to necessarily be moral, but thinking that it is, is enough.

Many people advocating Cancel Culture claim that they cancel things because these things are intolerant to the being of certain groups of people. But cancelling things because you find them offensive is being intolerant. So, by trying to cancel things which you find intolerant, you actually become intolerant to that which you find intolerant. Shouldn’t you then also be intolerant towards your intolerance? This raises the question of tolerance toward intolerance. Should we be tolerant towards intolerance? This is also known as the intolerance paradox by Karl Popper: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

So, it seems that the intolerant towards intolerance is doing us a favor. But then, when is something intolerant and who decides? If I am intolerant towards carrots and society does nothing about this, does this mean that mean that my intolerance of carrots destroys the tolerance of carrots? It doesn’t. I think we can agree that things like racism, sexism, etc. should not be tolerated towards some degree, but what is sexist or racist should be decided not by a certain group of people with political agendas, but by civil dialogue and discussion, which is not happening with Cancel Culture. That is just some hashtag on Twitter going viral.

The intolerance paradox shows us that we need to be at least a little bit intolerant towards intolerance, because otherwise tolerance itself will cease to exist. But where that line is, is hard to tell. For some we have already reached that line, while for others there is no line. Only by having civil conversations can we hope to solve this problem. We can still be tolerant while allowing intolerance to be. Just because a small group of people is intolerant of something, that doesn’t mean that society is as well.

Cancel Culture is just a weird phenomenon, which tries to give people an easy moral high ground. You don’t like racism? Well, me too! We’re such good people! Just because you’re against racism, doesn’t mean that you’re a good person. It just means you’re like 95% of the population. The people shouting to cancel cultural things are just a small minority of radical people and it is only because they get so much attention that it feels like they are everywhere. This is not something we should forget. Radicals are in small numbers, but they seem large because of the attention they get. But if we just continue to listen to what we want and watch what we deem fun, Cancel Culture will just cancel itself.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfDZ6x9KxYE

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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