Legend has it that an apple once fell on Isaac Newton’s head and changed scientific thinking. It also says to each their own. Centuries later, ‘Cancel Culture’- an extreme means of boycott, fell into the lap of a majoritarian India who made their own discovery -- of how to cancel a peoples’ faith, the cricket captain for supporting another player’s faith, a son because they felt he was more his father’s than his mother’s faith and inclusive advertisements because these days, we have little faith.
Cancel Culture is a fairly recent phenomenon that originated in the West, but we are what the West was and today, our support for it puts even IPL cheerleaders to shame. It all began as a medium to call-out people- whether celebrities or students in school corridors — to show dislike and also somewhere tilt- perceived or real- the winds of social injustice. Some say, it has also been intrinsic to the #MeToo movement.
But instead, powered by social media it became a means to shun people quicker than you could say woke and gave a free rein to online mobs- who in India are in a close finish with offline mobs- to ruin careers and send children to a therapist’s chair.
Globally, the backlash against this instant ostracism that cuts off people like even writer J K Rowling from the social milieu has made leaders including Obama and Trump speak out against how the ethos has been lost. Back home, it is flourishing by playing on a society’s deep polarisation.
Paid trolls on social media
Today not just a Covid variant, cancel culture has also mutated into its own and is ubiquitous by its presence or in Covid parlance, has entered the endemic stage. The convenience of dispensing bigotry was never so mainstream and the ease of doing this business - paid trolls on social media will soon put even influencers out of business- means choice is just as dispensable as truth.
Cancel culture or the guise that it comes in, is a hard knock for a society that has always been proud of its secular credentials, realigning kismet through the stars may be easier.
Corporates are the new kids on the block facing a blackout. A snaking line of advertisements haven’t pleased the couch activists even though ironically these commercials showed inclusiveness. By withdrawing them after a social media outrage, corporates lost to intolerance and consumerism.
Dealing with a wrongdoing when the medium is all skewed is like believing a smog tower will solve Delhi’s pollution. The witch-hunt needs no broom to fly especially when hurting ‘sentiments’ is almost as convenient as the cancel culture itself. “We are living in an age of cancel creativity.
People find new reasons to cancel what was a left liberal kind of tactic in America and many other markets and societies and has moved self- consciously to the right here. Giving yourself a voice is lot easier now but what adds to the menace is that you have lot of rabble rousers on the sidelines waiting to pounce,” brand and image guru Dilip Cherian tells me.
Changed body politic
He agrees that things could get worse before they get better. “We haven’t seen the end of it, and we are some distance from the peak, and have to buckle in for a rough ride for a while more. Much like a virus will run its course through the body, this too will run its course through the body politic but the body politic may be changed forever.”
The biggest name to be cancelled - there has been no lack of trying to erase his very existence - has been the country’s first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. At his birth anniversary recently, no top ministers were present in the halls of Parliament where Nehru had historically promised, “when the world sleeps, India will awake to light and freedom.” Nehru would never have imagined the distance covered from building institutions like IIT to structuring hate.
Author Aravind Adiga in the book The White Tiger writes, “India is two countries in one. An India of Light and an India of Darkness.” His inference was different, but the outcome could not have been more real.
It is not just the tall identity of India’s first PM that makes people short, but also the dismissal of the zeitgeist of a period that he spearheaded and rebuilt so that we could partake in the ‘now’. A past viewed through the senseless blinkers of a present does not leave a future legacy, history is not just in the pages erased.
Even the independence struggle has been cancelled by an actress who hasn’t figured out the difference between speaking right and leaning right. “The loss of nuance is incredibly tragic for us as a society. We have repeatedly gone back to what kind of debates shaped India and there were such wonderful debates.
They brought us here and the reason we are still not a failed state or society is because those debates could happen. There was so much nuance, acceptability, diversity and intellectual rigour. Today we have lost that as a society. We can’t debate without triggering each other and to me that is the worse fallout of the cancel culture,” says Pragya Tiwari, Creative Director Oijo Media.
As Pragya also points out, if we cancelled baby Taimur at birth (Son of actors Saif and Kareena) for his name, then on this slippery slope the twists and tweaks to facts can put a ballerina’s moves to shame. People like actor Rhea Chakravarty are victims who in this parallel system of justice have no recourse.
Where ideology trumps blood
Family WhatsApp groups- that bastion of ‘good morning’ forwards also changed genre overnight. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie suddenly with sound where ideology trumped blood or rather almost drew blood. Fuelling the show has been a section of media that has been responsible for cancelling the profession itself.
Some would say though that we were always like this. Despite being called out again and again, our caste system has stood the test of time and we have been cancelling the Dalits for centuries. Ours is a country where #BlackLivesMatter will trend but not the lives of Dalits.
Women and girls have been cancelled in their subjugation by patriarchy, add faith into the mix, put in on social media and you have cancel culture 2.0 — a tool to name and shame, publicly. Unlike the West, in our ecosystem there is no real agenda except in the belief that freedom of expression is a my, way or highway kind of street. The pillars of democracy are now binary.
There is still one final piece of the puzzle. Those who spew and spread this culture need to look inward. Have they unknowingly only cancelled themselves?