There can be few phrases more abused – and weaponized – than “woke” and “cancel culture”. They are thrown around with abandon to denounce ideas, people and things one does not like, and it has become commonplace to see woke-ism and cancel culture presented as the major threat to free speech in the West.
“With woke-ism, aren’t we becoming too sensitive about what we can or cannot say? Aren’t we silencing opinions we don’t like,” a radio host asked me this week.
It struck me as a strange question: in a society such as ours with such deeply imbedded issues of race, gender and inequality, how can we be too sensitive about these issues? Surely a heightened awareness and responsiveness about these social justice concerns are a good thing?
Woke is an old word, with roots in the language of hip jazz musicians, meaning one is aware of hot issues such as race and gender. But the word has been weaponized to denounce people as obsessed with these issues, especially when they are uncomfortable and challenging.
Out of that flows cancel culture – the drive to ostracise those who do or say something considered unacceptable, such as expressing racism, misogyny or homophobia. In particular, it has increasingly been used against celebrities, calling them to account for doing or saying things which cross a line into the socially unacceptable.
But many of those who we are told are victims of cancel culture – one thinks of politician Helen Zille or author JK Rowling – are those with the loudest voices, the most unstoppable, those who have the platforms and the resources to ensure they are heard all over the place. If there is a problem with someone’s capacity to speak out and be heard, it is not these individuals.
For those who denounce cancel culture, it is mob rule by self-righteous guardians of what is acceptable. For those who embrace it, on the other hand, it is the only weapon they have to hold to account the powerful who express bigotry. All we are doing is boycotting the reprehensible, they would say – and we are entitled to do that.
There are instances where cancel culture appears to have got out of hand. One thinks of academic Adam Habib who ran into trouble for using a slur word in the context of saying why such words are not acceptable. That incident blew over and he wasn’t cancelled. Or New York Times writer Donald McNeill who was fired after 45 years at the paper for quoting someone else using the n-word in a discussion with students. He himself has since conceded his words had been inappropriate and his departure had been the result of “a series of disasters and blunders”.
In fact, many of the incidents often cited as the worst examples of cancel culture don’t stand up to scrutiny. They are used for political point-scoring, rather than pointing to real acts of silencing.
There is nothing wrong with calling out bigotry and ostracizing those who express it. Social opprobrium is one of the best antidotes. The problem arises when it is petty, and targets people for views which may be offensive or unpopular but not more than that. Or when it takes no account of context, such as the study of classic works of literature which use terms now considered offensive. This is particularly true on campuses, which should be havens of free discussion. Similarly, it is a problem when the action takes the form of a social media mob, and becomes harassing and threatening. It is important to distinguish between calling out the powerful, and using social media to threaten violence and spread hate. The former is part of open debate, the latter is inimical to it.
This issue detracts from one of much greater concern: the wave of book bannings at schools and libraries in some American States. PEN America reported that in the last year, they recorded 2 532 instances of book bannings, involving 1 648 titles and 1 260 authors. The vast majority of these, they showed, dealt with LGBTQ+ themes, sex education or issues of race and racism. It includes many informational books that deal with teen pregnancy, sexual assault, puberty or the history of slavery. This was no longer just the work of anxious parents, but it had become a “fully-fledged social and political movement, powered by local, state and national groups”.
Reports this week told of the town of Jamestown, Michigan, defunding its library because it was stocking such books. The extraordinary, award-winning graphic book about the Holocaust, Maus, was banned in some places for bad language and nudity. Gay teachers in Florida are not allowed to discuss their partners. It is a shocking proxy for the American cultural wars, a triumph of ignorance and intolerance over an open society, a frontline in the battle to save US democracy.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Wits.