So wokeness of this age has ushered in the ‘cancel culture’, a term that is used to describe online shaming of individuals who cause offence in their comments. Last month Harry Potter author J K Rowling was the target of online mobsters of cancel culture, criticizing her for expressing her opinion on transgender people and women’s rights (which we addressed in an earlier editorial titled ‘The right to be heard’). The onslaught was brutal; woke individuals rode high on the shaming bandwagon, giving their two cents; from Harry Potter movie stars to authors who wanted to withdraw from any association with Rowling. The intolerance to free speech was unbearable. But, Rowling, fortunately, had her career and dignity spared, when 150 writers and academics came together to condemn the damage that the new cancel culture was doing to liberal society and its ability for free expression.
This debate is not just relevant to that part of the world. It is very relevant to Sri Lanka as well, because albeit the inclination to be liberal or conservative, it’s about being fair and tolerant to differing opinions and allowing every individual the right to share space with their different worldviews.
Cancel culture has become the order for cyberbullying, a malaise that is blighting a lot of people active on cyberspace. It has become one of the most active abuses of today, with perpetrators being allowed a free hand. But why is this relevant to us today? Sri Lanka is in the cusp of seeking the people’s mandate to elect representatives to parliament. The last parliament had only 12 women out of 225 representatives, which was pitiful. But it is encouraging to see many newcomers joining the fray this time. Visibility in cyberspace has become the new campaign strategy; the flipside of this approach is the freedom to navigate one’s thoughts even to the detriment of free expression. Considering what some of these women candidates have said about cyberbullying, seems women have it at full throttle; from the most heinous and hideous claims of character defilement to the most sordid descriptions and insults, women have been the victims in the cyber battleground, where conflicts between individuals and groups and political parties are played out in the most shocking manner. There is no virtue in the onslaught; it is plain nastiness and misogyny. I describe it as flagrant passive violence played out in the form of intimidation. In fact, cyberspace has become a billboard for the display of narcissistic behaviour, pride and self-importance and a battlefield where women are hounded mercilessly. The attack, on a woman is unrestrained and unchecked. The court of public opinion is quick to write-off a woman who is vocal, an activist or an individual in the political field, they become the face of memes and objects of ridicule. The bullying is framed within the trajectory of the ascribed ‘fragility’ associated with a woman, a social ascription that is used to shame and silence her. In our culture a woman’s character is costly, therein lies her vulnerability to be fragile at the hands of men and even women, who use cyberspace to accuse women in politics, and political activists and aspirants of baseless deeds, smearing them as women of loose character, which if left unchecked could lead to more dangerous intimidations such as death threats and physical violence; and the bullies know the impact.
But, this mob movement of taking on people has polarised Sri Lankan society just like many others. The trend is frightening, especially when leaders with a record of being corrupt and autocratic and violent have not been cancelled, but, rather propelled by a counter response that bullies activists who call out the bluff and the parody.
What seems to be lacking in today’s online space is equality and accountability. Those in power, as we have witnessed, not only use social media, but also traditional media to malign opponents and abuse the less powerful. Society’s response is also worrying, a numbness to law-breaking, which has resulted in big numbers throwing their weight behind certain individuals with an unhealthy track record. When there is blind adulation, absolute rule reigns with impunity, and with a crowd that is willing to believe anything that is propagated there will be a lack of accountability. This lack of accountability is displayed by individuals with real or perceived power in cyberspace who accelerate attacks on opponents, promote conspiracies and create paranoia, marginalise the minorities and spread a sense of fear of the ‘other’ that translates into absolute trust in despotic leadership. This kind of posturing in cyberspace constructs a character that people deem as their protector; but there is a real problem – an absence of being held to account. Cancel culture does nothing to hurt the powerful; those in power manipulate the narrative through cyberspace to become stronger, almost with an air of impunity, while those that seek accountability are transformed into conspirators.
It would rather be enriching if the online culture becomes more a learning space, than one of trying to cancel people you don’t agree with. It should become a space for healthy debate that negates the need to cyberbully specific individuals, after all, cyberspace is the only place where everyone has a voice, which should be heeded and not brutally cancelled. And women definitely need their voices to be heard. Let not cyberspace be another place where the advantage of dominance rests with one group, if so one can be sure that inequality will mark every interaction. Let’s cancel the ‘trash’ dished out on someone becoming another’s ‘come-up’.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane