Traversing Cancel Culture: What You Need to Know

by Helmy Sa'at

As global Muslims living in today’s digital space, we are always part of the evolving multitude of conversations touching on diverse issues. With such infinite opportunities to be heard and be vocal, at times we may find ourselves trapped in an abyss of virtual hate which could easily manifest in online communities beyond our immediate network of family and friends. Such amplifications could potentially snowball into participating in an online bandwagon that spews and even encourages (targeted) hate, with real repercussions beyond the virtual dimensions.

Delivering Hate With A Swift Click

EDIT woman checking phone Traversing Cancel Culture: What You Need to Know

Have we ever been part of an online hate campaign to cancel someone? It takes more than just unfollowing someone on their social media accounts. Or, blocking their accounts. Perhaps, we have unconsciously participated by trolling, for instance, repeatedly leaving mean comments in response to a post we found disagreeable. It might even feel especially easy when it is someone we have never met or talked to, such as a celebrity so far removed from our daily realities. Deplatforming anyone seems harmless; out of mind, out of sight it seems.

Since we are the arbiters of such values and judgments, are we infallible and not flawed?

The situation is made worse when instantaneous, unfettered opinions that contribute to an information overload hijacks the online narrative. It leads to reducing an individual to a single post or incident. As easy as it is to troll in calling someone out, have we taken the necessary, yet often overlooked or underestimated, step to get the right context before jumping on someone’s throat online?

Distorted context is a dangerous road to travel on. With the act of cancelling being performative on our part, have we taken the time to reflect on what it might do to the individual being targeted?

And, when an online apology is issued by the said individual as it is instinctual to do so when facing backlash, do we readily accept it; more so as a form of instant gratification to satiate our thirst to be seen as ‘right’?

Careful What You Wish For

The irony of it all.

Take a moment to reflect the following: Aren’t we ‘cancelling’ ourselves when we do any of the above?

‘How do you mean?’ you might ask.

Essentially, we choose, whether consciously or subconsciously, to shut down conversations, engagement of minds through discussions, and the peeling of layers of ideas through debates on points of disagreement. By participating in cancel culture, we choose to not only remove the opportunity of the targeted individuals to defend themselves, much less share their voices; we are effectively taking away chances for us to grow and check our own biases in life.

Words are powerful. Words are akin to bullets that could hurt someone else. When an individual deliberately engages in controversy, it is expected to be faced with backlash and criticisms. However, do we opt to ‘punish’ the alleged errant here and now? Do we immediately indulge in cancelling the individual by shutting down debates — at best a meaningless act as it stigmatises conversations and discussions in the long term?

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Be Brave Online And Offline

“Look me in the eye and say that to my face.” 

How many times have we thought that to ourselves after reading certain random comments dipped in lava of nastiness directed at us on our social media accounts? How do we feel when the tables are turned? 

Simple: It hurts. 

Since we perceive our online accounts as an extension of ourselves and being, we cannot help but be fixated on such negativity with aching discomfort. What are we doing to ourselves when we encourage and participate in cancel culture? We are just as complicit when we do nothing to help rectify the situation. We owe it to ourselves to choose to do the right thing online and offline.

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As we traverse and negotiate our way in the complex and unforgivable digital terrain, keep in mind the following:

إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَأْمُرُ بِٱلْعَدْلِ وَٱلْإِحْسَـٰنِ وَإِيتَآئِ ذِى ٱلْقُرْبَىٰ وَيَنْهَىٰ عَنِ ٱلْفَحْشَآءِ وَٱلْمُنكَرِ وَٱلْبَغْىِ ۚ يَعِظُكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ

Indeed, Allah commands justice, grace, as well as courtesy to close relatives. He forbids indecency, wickedness, and aggression. He instructs you so perhaps you will be mindful.

[Surah An-Nahl 16:90]