Tuesday, 12 February 2019

'Cancel Culture' & Critical Thinking

For a few weeks now, I've been trying to find things to write about that really matter, but it's been fruitless. There are plenty of issues that I could discuss, definitely, but I never seem to be able to find the right argument, or indeed any argument at all. Most of the posts I have started are currently sitting in my 'Drafts' box, waiting to be finished, even though most of them never will be.

So instead, I'm just going to talk about something more general that has been bugging the hell out of me lately: 'cancel culture'.

In case you're unsure of what 'cancel culture' means, it's essentially the concept of condemning a person and calling for them to be made irrelevant because of something that they have done at any point in their lives. And when I say 'at any point in their lives', I really mean at any point. Told an edgy and offensive joke as a teenager? Boom, you're cancelled, even if you're now in your late twenties and have long since grown out of that behaviour. 'Cancel culture' represents this very dangerous and very wrong belief that people cannot grow and change, and cannot admit to their past failings to become better people. We live in a bizarre world where people are barely even given a chance to defend themselves after a blunder, and instead of being educated on what they said or did that was wrong, instead of being given the chance to explain or provide context, they are blocked, silenced and demonised.

But 'cancel culture' is not always a bad thing. It gives us a chance to start fighting back against people who truly deserve it: celebrities who have abused their power over the course of decades, people who are consistently discriminatory in the things they say or do, scammers who hide their greed for money and fame under an innocent fa├žade. In serious cases, 'cancel culture' can actually be beneficial, like the boycott against R. Kelly. It reminds us that we have the power to do good in the world when we actually put our hearts and minds into it, and when we start thinking rationally.

On the other hand, 'cancel culture' has become so toxic that people are now getting 'cancelled' left, right and centre for things that barely matter in the grand scheme of things. It's exhausting, and it makes being on the Internet an absolute drag. So, what's my solution to this?

Simple. Just use critical thinking.

I never thought that close reading would ever have a use in the real world, but now it seems that all that time I spent in secondary school reading Brighton Rock and making huge lists of notes about symbolism and subtext has actually paid off. It seems that most people nowadays have lost the ability to read between the lines, to close-read an article and pick up on the underlying mood and message, or have even lost the ability to read an article in full before commenting on the matter in hand. Most people seem to just read a headline, form an opinion based off nothing but clickbait and spectacle, and proceed to tweet something along the lines of '[insert name here] is trash and if you still support them after this, unfollow me'. It's incredibly frustrating, but it makes it very refreshing when somebody actually reads the article in full, picks up on all the little nuances in the text, and leaves an insightful comment underneath, talking things out like an adult.

Take the recent Liam Neeson drama as an example. Obviously, it caused outrage on Twitter when people simply saw headlines such as 'Liam Neeson: after a friend was raped, I wanted to kill a black man', which isn't even a line that appears in the original interview. It's a clickbait headline that lacks any of the nuance or subtext of the issue at hand, and were people to simply read that headline and not hear any other information on the matter, of course they're going to believe that Liam Neeson is a hideous racist. There's no mention of the fact that this event occurred decades ago, no mention of his obvious remorse for his actions, no mention of anything at all that might diminish the shock value of the situation. Read the article here, and I mean actually read it. There are so many little moments that add more dimension and context to the scenario. He keeps pausing and taking deep breaths. The journalist adds that his voice trembles at certain moments, like he knows how bad this is going to sound once it's out in the world. It reads like a confession from a man who understands his mistakes (although not entirely, since he glosses over the race and rape aspects of the story to simply focus on his own trauma and desire for revenge, which I feel is the REAL problem here), not a boastful or bold statement from someone who has racist views so deeply ingrained into his brain that he can't change his ways.

I might write a whole article about this situation one day because there's far too much information to go into just now in this piece. If anyone wants me to talk about it, then let me know, but until then, let's get back to 'cancel culture'.

The point I'm trying to make is that, after this interview surfaced, I saw so many tweets along the lines of 'Whoa, so Liam Neeson hates black people? Never watching his movies again,' which are so clearly from people who have not read the article and who have not understood the context. They are tweets from people who are prepared to disregard anybody who doesn't have a perfect track record. I'm far from praising Neeson for his confession (I've seen plenty of people on that side of the argument, and it makes me feel a bit ill to see people saying 'He should be APPLAUDED for this!') but there's no doubt that it was divisive enough for me to get a clearer idea of how 'cancel culture' really works. I don't have any answers here about how to deal with 'cancel culture' as a whole, but I do have some advice for those who always find themselves stuck in the middle with their views, seeing all sides and feeling unsure as to where they should stand.

  1. Firstly, I'd advise not getting involved in anything straight away. After a shocking story breaks, the Internet is usually full of extreme opinions and loud voices clamouring to be the first to say something. It's a very intimidating place to be, and I wouldn't recommend it. They're the first ones to 'cancel' someone without knowing the full story, and the first ones to blindly defend their heroes. No one ends up happy by diving into the issue immediately. Once several days have gone by, more information will have emerged (hopefully), and it'll be easier to form an opinion.
  2. Bear in mind that context always matters. If the issue at hand is important to you (and if it's a big divisive issue on the Internet, it's usually important to me), find out as much about it as you can before forming a very extreme opinion based on limited knowledge. 
  3. Learn to be critical, and learn how to read between the lines. Plenty of stories have more nuance to them than headlines and hashtags would suggest. Close reading is such an important skill to have when it comes to scandals, because it involves weighing up the good and the bad, working people out by paying attention to the words they use, the attitudes they portray, and of course, their actions.
  4. Each scandalous story is its own entity. Treat it as such. I'm not a fan of broad generalisations, and the idea that every scenario needs to be handled in the same way is ridiculous. Try not to grade on a curve or compare stories, because that will inevitably lead to a lot of context getting lost in the comparison.
  5. Ask yourself if it really matters. So many people are 'cancelled' every day over things that really don't matter in the real world. If it's not important to you, if it's not an issue that's close to your heart, if it's not outwardly hurting anybody or detrimental to society as a whole, then please just leave it. Don't bother yourself with pointless negativity. Hypocritical of me to say this since I constantly involve myself in issues that don't concern me (this article being Exhibit A), but hey, I never said I was good at taking my own advice. 
And I hasten to add, at the end of the day, it's totally your opinion as to whether or not someone should be 'cancelled'. If something they have said or done offends you and you don't wish to be a fan of theirs anymore, then that's fine. You do you, after all. It's your life, and you should be allowed to support people who you admire, as well as avoid those who you dislike or disagree with. It's a very personal decision. There will be people who will never again watch a movie starring Liam Neeson because of this confession. Longtime fans of his will turn their backs on him, and that's their choice. I'm not here to change anybody's minds; I'm just here to give my thoughts on the matter. 

I'd like to leave you with this. This is a quote from an article I wrote a while back about James Gunn being fired from Disney because of his history of offensive jokes:

'...I urge you to please consider what I have written about people changing and improving from their past behaviour the next time that somebody is condemned on any kind of social media. If it were you, you would be quick to defend yourself and try to convince the faceless mob of Twitter trolls that you have changed, and that your past behaviour does not represent you anymore. Please do not be so quick to lose faith in people before you understand their journey. They might just surprise you.'

And it's here that I would also like to bring up an opinion that has always stuck with me since the first moment I heard it: Eddie Izzard's opinion that we don't need as many as TEN commandments, and that if we all simply followed the one rule 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you', the world would be a much better place. I 100% agree, and I think that's what I'm trying to say to end this piece. Try a little bit of empathy, and put yourself in this person's shoes. If their intentions are pure or if they are trying to change their ways, why would you try to make out that they are a villain? If it were you, you wouldn't appreciate people spreading lies about you, claiming that you cannot change or grow or become a better version of yourself. Everybody has skeletons in their closet. Everybody. We can't keep 'cancelling' everybody who slips up or makes one little mistake, or even those who have controversial pasts but have changed their ways, because then we will have nobody left. If you're holding out for perfection in those you idolise, you'll never ever be satisfied. It's another one of those scenarios in which you need to pick your battles, and decide who is worthy of your support and time. Make your decisions, but be rational. That's all I'm saying.
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