Panic over cancel culture really about the perceived loss of power

These days we hear a lot about ‘cancel culture’ and the problem of a ‘woke’ minority ruining the fun for everyone else.

In truth, the panic over ‘woke cancel culture’ is really about losing assumed and real power. It challenges the assumption of usually powerful people that their views, entitlements and sensibilities are critical to how society is organised. The loss of power is still marginal, but it appears significant to the historically powerful because their power and status used to be absolute.

The panic over ‘woke cancel culture’ is really about losing assumed and real power.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and academic, tells a story that illustrates how power relationships can shape what becomes accepted as “truths”. He narrates a story of “a short-sighted colonial farmer who on Sunday mornings would stand on the prostrate bodies of his gardeners to look through the window and enjoy the sight of the vast tea plantation that spread out from the manorial house. ‘What a beautiful day, so peaceful’, he would murmur, genuinely moved by the apparent stability all around.” Absorbed by the peace, the farmer “could not hear the rumblings of his servants’ tummies or their silent groans of discontent”. Turning to these servants he would ask, “‘a peaceful country, don’t you think’, and the servants chorus back: ‘Yes master, peace.’”

Wa Thiong’o wrote for a different time, but the story is still precise in its representation of power and how power influences and often determines a viewpoint – and not just of the beholder. The story illustrates another point, the acceptance by the less powerful to perform the role imposed on them.

In the case of those protesting against ‘cancel culture’ , the rejection by the less powerful to perform their assigned roles is the real source of tension. This is because such a rejection disrupts the reality historically composed, and then imposed, by the usually powerful, who now must come up with a new justification for maintaining the status quo. Political correctness, snowflakes, and ‘woke cancel culture’ are the new justifications to reinstate the dominant viewpoint.

When, as comedian Hannah Gadsby said, “the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you”, it comes as a shock to discover that the myths you created around your right to that power, your perceived generosity or claimed good intentions, were never bought by those upon whom you exercised your power.

The uninvited sexual advances were never complimentary, even though women bought their jobs with their silence.Credit:Nic Walker

Those racists jokes were never funny, even when people laughed to allow you to enjoy your power without consequence. The uninvited sexual advances were never complimentary, even though women bought their jobs with their silence. The peace and tranquillity you assumed was enjoyed equally was a true measure of your power to dominate others’ perspectives and lives, not a measure of the power of your truth. Your world was only ever real for you.

It was never mine. Your free speech was often my hate speech. Your equality before the law existed alongside my discrimination, and even criminalisation. And so, you may still hold power, but cannot pretend not to know my perspective any more, for the reply this time will not be, ‘Yes master, peace’, it will be, no, it is not peaceful from this angle, it never was.

Most debates about cancel culture are often battles over the usually powerless fighting for the right to self-definition and the push-back from the usually powerful to keep them in their place. You do not have to put someone in their place, if they accept their place. However, a person who questions their place reshapes the nature of the relationship. Many groups are now challenging homophobia, sexism and racism. By employing terms like ‘snowflake’, the anti-woke protesters seek to dismiss these fights by characterising them as close to nonsensical, or a threat to traditional values, and reinstating the perspectives of the usually powerful as closer to the truth.

To them there is nothing wrong with what they say, they are just stating the facts. The problem is that people have become too soft and politically correct and what we need is to go back to the way things were. But the argument that anyone should toughen up so you may land a rhetorical punch about their sexuality or race is not persuasive. People do have a right to free speech but they do not have a right to be protected from the consequences of their speech. Especially, there is no obligation on the target of such speech to assist the speaker to feel good about themselves by denying how they feel. As shown by the recent women’s protests across the country, we witness what happens when the usually powerless refuse to remain silent and insist on telling their own stories.

These changes should not necessarily be frightening. The fear that with more people at the table your voice may no longer be dominant or relevant, or even needed, is not automatically oppressive. Perhaps this comes more easily to me as a minority who has never occupied the centre, let alone had the power to define others’ lives. I think when it comes to matters that impact others, is entirely reasonable to leave the table, even with all the good intentions.

Nyadol Nyuon is a lawyer and activist.

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