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Read advanced books in primary school and now I'm sad all the time

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Attention and Empathy: A Defence of Cancel Culture

March 14, 2020

The boys in our block told us that Ocean was the best club in Nottingham. They were wrong. The general aesthetic of the place was that of a bowling alley without the lanes, and the queues for the bathroom induced me to reach into the very deepest reserves of my patience and politeness. I prayed three times during that forty-five minute wait; once in English, once in Greek, and once in Ancient Greek (probably to prove to Greek Orthodox God that I had been paying attention in church).
But no matter. We were the U Block girls. Our friendship was forged in the crucible of dancing in mediocre clubs to noughties' jams, and we were nothing if not adaptable. 

But it was difficult, logistically, to stand stock still on the dancefloor amidst hundreds of sweaty freshers in protest of Yeah x3 (real title) by Chris Brown playing overhead. Buoyed this way and that by a slew of bodies, packed together so tightly that we all must have looked like a giant tin of glittery sardines, I stayed firm. I would not dance. 

As the night wore on, and more songs played that were not by Chris Brown (although he did pop back again at around one in the morning and I resolved to repeat the whole experience), I found that my mind had drifted away from the revelry. What did this physical manifestation of my outrage towards a notoriously violent man achieve? Did the whole thing render me a bit ridiculous, or did I have every right, as a young woman living, as most young women do, with the ever-present peripheral fear of male violence, to show my anger, not as an act of outward performance, but as a personal assertion that I would not, under any circumstances, absolve Chris Brown of his actions against women? Why was this all so hard?

When artists gain enough traction to be considered celebrities, they implicitly enter into a 'social contract' with consumers; they give us stuff, and we say 'thank you for making this stuff.' This 'stuff' is manifested in two ways. Singers give us songs to listen to, actors give us films to watch them in, and so on. But this 'stuff' is also in the form of other media; famous people have social media accounts across many platforms, they appear on talk shows and give interviews and get filmed and photographed everywhere they go. They become people to aspire to, whether they should be or not. The image that they present to us in their 'career medium' must be extended across other social media in order to appeal to consumers. There image, and therefore, their opinions, are plastered all over the world for all to see. In return, we give them adoration, privilege and, of course, money. 

But how do we negotiate this contract in the wake of revelations that range from the disappointing to the outright harmful, so diametrically opposed to the winning image that they have presented to us? 

We cancel our contract. 

'Cancel culture', as it has been dubbed, manifests itself in a number of ways, and we often find that we don't know how best to manoeuvre the pitfalls of celebrity sins when there are more ways than ever for those same celebrities to permeate all aspects of pop culture. 

The first thing to note is that, according to John McDermott of the New York Times, 'there are varying degrees of cancellation.'  When it comes to 'lesser crimes' (read: generally verbal/online offensive behaviour, manifesting itself usually in the form of racist, sexist, homophobic opinions/tweets, as opposed to physical violence and violence in other forms), many argue that cancelling is a form of public humiliation, leading to a general culture of toxicity and a refusal to see people as nuanced, complex individuals that can outgrow their harmful ideas. It's also argued that this 'take no prisoners' style of holding the powerful accountable is 'political correctness gone mad'.

The problem is that by constantly giving those in power the benefit of the doubt, excusing their actions because we like them, it always, without fail, comes at the expense of marginalised people. ​Women are mistreated, minorities harmed and ridiculed, LGBT+ people bullied, and the onus is on them to always be the bigger person, on top of them already trying to survive the trauma dealt to them in the first place. A legacy can be tainted forever by the revelation of actions that could range from the callous and offensive to the downright violent, and that's a good thing. Let the wealthy be scared. Let people hold themselves accountable, and want to do better. Professor Lisa Nakamura, of the University of Michigan, sees cancel culture as an opportunity to educate. By employing a 'cultural boycott' on celebrities, we 'deprive them of attention' and thus, we 'deprive them of a livelihood. Cancellation creates “a culture of accountability which is not centralized and is haphazard, but needed to come into being.'

Furthermore, if we allow 'lesser' actions to slip through the net, we open the gateway to more aggressive behaviour because we excused them in the first place. If famous people do it, their fans inevitably follow their example. By cancelling a celebrity after they breach the contract, we announce to the world that no such actions will be tolerated, forcing people to evaluate their behaviour. 
It's not as if cancelling comes from an almighty faceless being in a penthouse office, standing in moral judgement over all; it comes from people of the communities affected who are rightfully angry that those with such large platforms fail them. By belittling cancel culture, we belittle the voices of those who have every right to demand better.

We're long overdue a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to problematic behaviour. Structural change begins at the top, so it's time for the powerful to step up to the plate. Here's to being better. Here's to never hearing Chris Brown ever again.
Nakamura, Lisa (15 December 2015). "The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call Out Culture As Venture Community Management". New Formations


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  • March 14, 2020 - 9:00am (Now Viewing)

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  • Amalia

    @asta thank you so much! Glad you like it, I agree 100% with what you said about how people often reveal their true colours when they are held accountable for their actions; there are those who want to make amends and improve their behaviour and those who don't. Thanks so much again!

    10 months ago
  • asta

    you've put everything i felt into words! cancel culture is facing a backlash, and i've never understood why. people say that we have to give them space to grow, let them learn from their mistakes, but i'm not stopping them from learning, from growing. if they don't learn just because i wasn't polite in my condemnation, then it says more about their toxicity than mine.

    sorry about the rant, i just have very strong feelings about this lol. either way, this piece was wonderfully written. it's as good as any piece i've seen published in the papers. great job!

    10 months ago
  • Amalia

    @Wicked! thank youuu glad to know it's not just me lol

    10 months ago
  • Amalia

    @Anha I always love reading your feedback, thanks for letting me know abt the formatting stuff, I'm on it!

    10 months ago
  • Amalia

    @Jun Lei thanks for encouraging me to write it!

    10 months ago
  • Wicked!

    Oh man, I can't even tell you just how many times I've felt ridiculous protesting against sexist songs by refusing to dance to them. But then again, I like to believe that it does force people to evaluate their behaviour, like you said.

    10 months ago
  • Anha

    this is maybe the only op-ed i've been able to read the whole way through without growing bored. your nuanced narrative style flowing into a strong, structured argument kept me engaged for far longer than i would've been if i had been reading something in the newspaper. there's a few formatting issues - paragraphs, a quotation left open-ended ("deprive them of a livelihood") - but apart from that, i can find no fault in this. this is a powerful message, and if they don't mention you, they're complicit.

    11 months ago
  • jun lei

    ayyyy you did the op-ed you told me about! very well done, i think.

    11 months ago