Cancel culture: Modern form of ostracism debuts

Tuesday, April 13th, 2021 00:00 |
Cancel culture.

Blacklisting, boycotting and censorship of public figures for conveying opinions, which are questionable or inappropriate from a public perspective instills a sense of right and wrong. However, experts argue it comes at a price.  

Harriet James @harriet86jim

Globally, used as a tool to police societal wrongs often perpetrated on marginalised groups who otherwise would not have a legitimate platform to have their issues addressed, cancel culture is fast taking root locally as a quick way to issue instance justice.

This follows a familiar pattern — A celebrity or public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fuelled by social media, ensues.

Then come the calls to end their career or revoke their status, whether through boycotts of their work, products and services, or disciplinary action from an employer.

Perhaps the first of its kind, on a large scale, recently happened in Kenya when three radio personalities were fired from their jobs after they victim shamed a woman who was pushed out of a 12th floor window by a man after she refused to have sex with him on their first date.

This was followed by public outcry on social media and major corporates such as East African Breweries withdrew advertising support from the radio station while the Communication Authority of Kenya fined the station Sh1 million among other hordes of punishments for the derogatory comments. The show was suspended for six months. defines cancel culture as the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.

Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.

“Simply put cancel culture is the ostracisation or rejection of someone’s standpoint. One can safely liken it to mob justice.

It is a culture that doesn’t afford an opportunity to learn or apologise from certain perceived wrongs,” explains Richard Magoma, a Human Resources Strategist.

It usually ranges on a wide range of issues often linked to racism, sexism, homophobia or even abuse.

Cancel culture exists in different forms, but its variants are similar in character and effect.

Some variations of the culture include: blacklisting, boycotting, censorship, silencing, damage control among others. 

How it’s done depends on the kind of power dynamics involved. In the US for example, various celebrities have experienced cancel culture. For instance, Harry Potter author JK Rawlings, was accused of being transphobic on Twitter.

Ellen De Generes was the biggest receiver of this culture as many accused her of being a different person behind the lens and that her working environment was toxic. Since then, her show has lost over a million views and endorsements. 

Not a new phenomena

“This is the first time we’re seeing swift and public action here in the country. We saw corporate brands denouncing it, the radio station taking action and also the authorities,” said Renee Ngamau, chairperson of Amnesty International Kenya and herself a former prime-time radio host. 

She added: “These are hopeful signs in a terrible situation. I’m cautiously optimistic this can be a catalyst for change in moving away from this ‘locker room banter’ on the airwaves to having more responsible, sensitive conversations.”

According to Dr Anthony Ireri, cancel culture hasn’t began recently in the country. “Its traditional versions exist in most of our communities.

For instance, some offensive acts would lead someone to lose privileges, to be banished from his/her society, disowned by his/her people, disallowed to marry/be married in their communities among others. 

Actually most of our cultural sanctions and “curses” are forms of cancel culture. Only that these don’t get the benefits of social media coverage that the modern version gets,” he explains. 

Cancel culture has proven to be an effective method when it comes to rectifying mistakes that corporations, brands or celebrities make.

“As a form of punishment, cancel culture instills a sense of right and wrong. It has a short-term benefit of suppressing the offensive behaviour.

Thus it may appear quick and effective at reducing hate speech, violence, biased or unhealthy content, stereotypical discourse, and misrepresentations. It can also protect some human rights,” notes Dr Ireri. 

The downsides

But on the flip side, many have criticised it as it brings an interesting dilemma of whether or not it is an infringement on freedom of speech.

Some celebrities are afraid to air views that will attract criticism, some opting to keep quiet for fear that their speech will affect their brand. 

Experts say cancellation prevents open debate, which has long been the foundation of democracy.

After all, the ability to entertain different ideas and perspectives creates the conditions for social progress.

Some of the greatest breakthroughs in human history have occurred when cultures have shared and exchanged contrary ideas.

“Future career prospects of those cancelled may also suffer. It may also reduce balanced coverage of issues in public. Speakers may shy off from presenting ‘the controversial side of the coin.’ Ruined reputations are also an expensive cost of cancel culture,” says Dr Ireri.

“There ought to be a delicate balance in defending the right of freedom of speech and holding individuals accountable for their actions,” says Richard.

He feels that on the flip side, cancel culture can become a tool to bully others into silence. 

Cancel culture borders on anarchism. “We should all learn in engaging in rational discourse without drawing each other in a cacophonous environment. Conversation, is the hallmark of civilisation,” he says.

Richard argues that for effective transformation, a society needs more than cancel culture to thrive.

“We need excellent justice system, which doesn’t entertain sexism and will encourage critical thinking or due diligence.

Social evils can be amended through an efficient and effective justice philosophy. Education, too is a powerful weapon in positively transforming society,” he says.

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