First, NO POLITICS!!!! Which is going to be hard, because basically all social media campaigns in India are supported by paid political agents. That’s not me being paranoid, that is a fact, and it is why no intelligent person should treat social media opinions on Indian issues seriously. Make up your own mind without regard to what social media is saying. But I am going to frame this discussion in a more general way, which allows for a bigger debate beyond politics. Mostly. (oh, and thank you Courtney for the idea!)
“Cancel Culture” in the US refers to a particular cycle driven by social media which has become more and more common lately. Something comes out about some public figure, s/he said something racist 5 years ago, or a woman comes forward and says they had an uncomfortable interaction with them once, it becomes a big push on social media, and then the corporate overlords that control them “cancel” their products.
What’s interesting about this to me is the final step, the “cancel” part of it. That is so fast! And so simple! Most entertainment/public figures in the US only have one main product they are remembered for. You just have to convince whoever owns the rights to that product to cancel it, and your job is done. The power is with the corporations, not the artists, the corporations can actually “cancel” a whole person.
The other part of this is how little it matters to most corporations if they need to “cancel” a person. Roseanne Barr, for example, a brilliant artist and extremely difficult to work with. It was time for her to leave the show that was named after her, so she left, the show was renamed, the world kept spinning. Heck, even if the show itself dropped in the ratings, the corporation behind it had more than enough money to keep plugging along, they didn’t care. One woman had no effect on their bottomline, cut her loose and move on.
This can be a good thing, this can be a bad thing. In the past, terrible behavior on the part of artists was tolerated because they were so necessary. I mean, Roseanne was hardly a bed of roses in years past, but her show was so successful, everyone just put up with it. Along those same lines, social media can act as a giant megaphone to make people see the terrible behavior that previously was only experienced by those close to it. So, good! Bad people are being called out for their bad behavior, and they no longer have the power needed to survive it.
But then there is the flip side. Artistic freedom and power is increasingly eroded as individual artists are constantly replaced. And corporations escape scrutiny by pushing artists and other public figures forward, making the conversation about them instead of about larger social injustices that benefit the corporations.
It’s good, it’s bad, it is reality now in the west. I am sure there is an easy algorithm someone has written for when it becomes cost effective to bow to public pressure and “cancel” a person, and corporations are using it all the time. And people know that, even if you don’t say it outloud, when you join (or organize) a social media campaign, you know that if you push hard enough you can tip the scales, and “win” once the person is canceled. If they are more famous, you have to push harder.
But how does this work in India’s far more defuse media climate? Not well! The thing is, there is no end to it. Artists are like water, they flow from one media to another, no one can really be fully “canceled”. So the campaigns against them just continue, into infinity, fighting the war on new fronts with new battles again and again.
“Cancel culture” can be very damaging, but I think “boycott” culture creates for more longterm damage, mostly because of the collateral damage. If you fire one person from their TV show, using your All Power as a corporation, that one person’s life is ruined. But everyone else on the show still has work. If you boycott a TV show because of the actions of one person on it, then everyone on the show is out of work. Worse than that, everyone on the show ends up being painted with the same brush and will have a hard time getting work in future because of the controversy attached to them. The Art itself is put on trial, not the creator.
Art should be put on trial, of course, artistic objects can do bad things and have bad messages. But if the issue is that one artist involved in his personal life did something bad, that should not effect the eventual product which involved many many people. “Boycott” means it does.
Let’s look at Gunjan Saxena for an example. It stars an actress that people do not like. Okay, fine. But there is no one major corporate power that you can appeal to in order to “cancel” her. And there is no clear cost-benefit analysis to cover the cost of removing her. So “cancel” is off the table, instead you are left with “boycott” in some sort of ill-defined battle with no goal. But if you boycott the movie Gunjan Saxena, you are deeply damaging the careers of so many other artists! Who had nothing to do with casting the particular actress you don’t like!
In a larger way, boycotting movies hurts movies. “Movies” meaning the larger art form/cultural concept. The effects spread out in all directions. Cancel culture hurts art too of course, removing workers from the world, but it is an attack on individuals, while a boycott is an attack on a whole community. I guess it is the difference between shooting a single person, and setting fire to the building where that person is living and driving them and their neighbors onto the street. In the first, you kill a person, but at least it is quick and easy and contained. In the second, that person is still alive but with less places to hide. To keep this going a little further, if you set one building on fire to drive them out into the open, if they find another building to hide in, you have to set another fire. It’s never ending, until there are no buildings left and thousands of people wander the streets in collateral damage.
But does this mean boycott culture is less or more effective than Cancel culture? If you accept that an entire system is corrupt, than a series of boycott battles will eventually kill the whole system, while Cancel culture will let the system flourish as a series of small tumors are removed, and then replaced by new ones. Neither of them will have the result of a new clean pure healthy system, but I honestly don’t know if that is even possible. Structural change is really really hard.
That’s what I got! The main original thought is to suggest we should use the phrase “boycott culture” for Indian social media pop culture campaigns, versus “cancel culture” in the West. And then I jumped off to considering the different causes, and different effects, of the two.
UPDATE: Courtney in the comments just posted an excellent thoughtful well-researched article on how the platforms themselves encourage “cancel culture” and meaningless debate, along with a quick note that “cancel culture” only works thanks to an economy with no employment security. It’s long, which makes it even better of course. Oh boy! Go read a long in depth thought provoking piece of writing with no easy answers! It’s The Best Thing!