Cancel culture has been bugging me for several weeks as racial tensions ramped up in the middle of an election season. Tweets and Facebook posts from as far back as 2011 were dug up, nasty comments were exchanged on social media, and police reports were made. In Singapore, law enforcement is obliged to investigate every police report filed. You probably can guess how problematic and toxic the situation has become with the police involved.
I am not here to debate who is right or wrong because that is one drama I am not foolish enough to wade into. It could have been a much-needed civilized discourse on race, but the situation has devolved into petty name-calling. Social media users are boycotting brands unless they agree to drop the influencer at the center of this firestorm, Wendy Cheng (otherwise known as Xiaxue).
Cancel culture and blogger Xiaxue
To explain what happened in as few words as possible: an opposition candidate of minority descent made racially insensitive remarks on Facebook, got called out on it months later when an anonymous citizen filed a police report, apologized, and was criticized by Wendy Cheng. In a surprising turn of events, Wendy’s tweets from 2011 that mentioned the ’N’ word were pulled up, and police reports were made, again. Instead of owning up to any wrongdoing, Wendy drafts a blog post in staunch defense of her words.
In all the years that I have followed Wendy, she has always stood by her words in an unabashedly unapologetic manner. On Instagram, she hits back at her critics with the following:
“Facts are sometimes not nice, but someone has to say it. If it has to be me, so be it. You hateful people don’t matter. My supporters that have been here for years and years matter.”
Although I will not comment on the details of the case, I will add that the meanspirited attacks on both sides do not serve any purpose. I am one of those “supporters that have been here for years and years,” and Wendy’s response makes me uneasy. Instead of focusing on race issues, this feud shifts the spotlight away from it.
Singapore is a multi-ethnic country, and we may celebrate racial harmony day in schools and workplaces annually. However, the truth is that racism persists in my society, albeit in a muted and less violent manner compared to what minority races elsewhere experience. We are not beyond judging someone by the color of their skin.
My formative years were spent in a Chinese school, and I have devoted much effort to understanding and dispelling my prejudices against other races. Sometimes, I am unaware that something is offensive until someone tells me that it is. If everyone invokes cancel culture over every comment, opportunities for growth and understanding are invariably shoved aside. Therefore, I do not condone the abrasive nature of cancel culture as the first resort to anything.
What is ‘cancel culture’?
When we say a public figure is canceled, we mean that they have done something to trigger a mob of angry people to “end their career.” Ending their career usually entails swarms of people who publicly critique and demand brand boycotts.
Even though some of the targets of cancel culture have done outrageous things, the scale of the backlash transcends national boundaries and is often disproportionate. Imagine millions of angry netizens raising pitchforks at an individual. Under such circumstances, fans who would have supported the celebrity will usually express support privately out of fear of the mob.
Unfortunately, the echo chamber effect of cancel culture is so strong that other views are drowned out and similarly canceled. As Holly Jahangiri writes in an earlier article “you can’t win an argument if you are too stubborn to see that there is one.”
I find it liberating when people bravely state their opinions on issues. However, it worries me when we become overly self-righteous and refuse to hear arguments from the other side. Sometimes, it is not about winning an argument, but coming to a consensus at a middle ground.
Other examples of cancel culture
To put things in perspective, the following is a recap of some of the biggest cancel culture drama in recent years.
James Charles and Tati Westbrook (April 2019)
Beauty YouTubers James Charles and Tati Westbrook were close friends until James began promoting a brand that was Tati’s competitor. Tati called James out on it and James found himself under fire from his fans. The feud was barely a week old when James lost three million subscribers while Tati gained four million subscribers.
The feud continues in this video below, and I have given up on trying to understand what is going on:
Kevin Hart’s Oscar controversy (January 2019)
Kevin Hart was set to host the Oscars in 2019 when his homophobic and racist tweets from 2009 to 2011 were unearthed. Multiple interviews over the years where Hart made incendiary remarks and jokes were also brought up in the controversy. The Oscars eventually caved to public pressure, and they moved to drop Kevin Hart. The award show proceeded without a host.
Kevin Spacey (October 2017)
Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual harassment by thirty individuals. One of them was actor Anthony Rapp who was fourteen when Spacey allegedly harassed him. In response, Spacey came out as gay, sparking an outrage that eventually led to his removal from Netflix’s House of Cards. Spacey was charged with sexual assault in 2018 and the prosecutors dropped the case in 2019.
Are we all hypocrites?
Wendy was quick to criticize a racist when she saw one. When the tables were turned, Wendy refused to back down from her earlier tweets. Granted, attacking someone for tweets they wrote in 2011 seems a bit much, but that is the Internet for you. Is it possible that any of Wendy’s critics are hypocrites? Have they never harbored a racist thought?
As I researched for this essay, I came across this quote from A. Khaled:
“That we get to judge past actions harshly — while we disregard our own troubled history since it was occluded from public view — is a lob-sided interpretation of personal reform, and dare I say even hypocritical.”
Even as we judge the past actions of others, are we equally critical of our past actions?
Our cultural upbringing blindsides us in many ways. We may not always know when something we say is offensive unless we are told that it is. The challenge is whether we dare to admit our ignorance and commit to a change. Cancel culture takes that away from us, forces us into a corner, and snuffs out any chance at reform.
Jenna Marbles and the Dark Side of Cancel Culture
What happens when good intentions result in catastrophic outcomes.
Or perhaps, Katy Velvet’s words can be leveled at everyone — not just companies and brands — who participates in cancel culture, “Don’t worry, we’ll see your true colors soon.”
When is it permissible to ‘cancel’?
While I do not condone cancel culture in most situations, there are straightforward cases that warrant a ‘cancellation.’ For instance, sexual misconduct can never be defensible. I would wield a pitchfork and join the fight if it comes down to that.
The dilemma comes when the lines are blurred. When Facebook decided not to fact-check politicians in the name of free speech, advertisers ‘canceled’ Facebook and pulled ads from the platform. Of course, some of these advertisers are doing it as a temporary show of solidarity. With over 2.6 billion monthly active users, it is hard to imagine that all of these advertisers will resist Facebook for long.
However, are these businesses right to boycott Facebook? Free speech is a convincing argument not to police hate speech on Facebook for 65% of Americans. Even as I nod my head and agree to their boycott of Facebook, I cannot deny that I have still been checking writing groups on Facebook. Am I a hypocrite now?
It is complicated.
Cancel culture is divisive, toxic, and unnecessary in most cases. It is unforgiving and it makes ordinary folks fear that a misstep will return to haunt them many years down the line. Hurriya Burney asks some of the most pointed questions:
Why do we put so much pressure on others to express themselves in just the right way, delicately, and inoffensively? Why isn’t there any margin of error?
Social media supposedly democratizes information and symbolizes the epitome of free speech. What happens when the fear of being ‘canceled’ drives individuals to self-censorship?
If only we could all get along and talk things through without threatening to end each other’s career. Perhaps, Mark Zuckerberg is the real winner here since the angry mob will ‘cancel’ anyone faster than his human moderators can get to them.
Ming Qian is a freelance writer and an undergrad blogger who is currently pursuing a degree in Economics. Outside of Medium, he writes about blogging and life as an undergrad.