Toxic cancel culture is bad for democracy


John Tria John Tria

We have heard the phrase “cancel culture” over the past few years. The Collins dictionary defines it as “a social climate where a person or organization is likely to be ostracized in response to a perceived wrongdoing.”

In the early 2000s it began as calls for accountability for unacceptable behavior or actions confined among early online communities, chat groups and forums, and the comment sections of web logs, or “blogs” as we call them today. This is where the shared behavior, or “culture” began.

As the years progressed, algorithm-driven search engines began curating how we saw the online world, and social media empowered us to respond with the ability to amplify our messages, making us masters of our own walls, liking and sharing the narratives we chose.

The smartphone explosion starting in the late 2000s democratized access to these tools of expression even further, taking the culture from community level shared opinion to, in extreme cases, toxic online bullying of anyone by or against anyone who had a social media account.

A watershed moment in the development of cancel culture was the raging debate on same sex marriage in the United States in 2013, and the campaigns for or against the Reproductive Health bill in the country. This galvanized the culture further, prompting some netizens to go beyond their narratives and opinions, to deny other ideas their place in the sun, even canceling out friends who were sympathetic to positions they did not share.

Today, I am sad to see how cancel culture has morphed into one where thoughts seem to be policed by others, creating self-censorship that subjects our opinions to a prevailing ideology. Sometimes, it means the need to show one’s sympathy for the cancelling of others, forming a virtual lynch mob against others who differ. The shared behavior, or culture, is fortified. If in the past people got cancelled for the wrong things they did, nowadays they get cancelled for what they think and say, or not say.

What has been the effect? For one, there is a fear to speak up even on a valid idea or suggestion, fearing that it will be labeled and the person positing such an idea, “bashed.” Cancelling, or the fear of being cancelled, imposes control against other opinions, and curtails our ability to participate in valid discussions. Would it not be better for us to listen and understand?

Cancel culture is thus bad for democracy because it diminishes the free exchange of ideas, and reduces respect for minority thought, which both are elements vital for democratic systems to flourish.

As we face global realities of sustained inflation, heat waves in the west and pandemic waves in many places-all weakening our local economies, and our already frayed social bonds, ideas to help us adapt, recover and overcome need to be freely discussed- without the fear of the thought police canceling you.

Tony Ajero
A titan of Mindanao media, the late Antonio M. Ajero was a unique person, since he was not only a publisher, event host and radio station manager, but a well-loved mentor to Davao’s journos. He was an intelligent, wide reading civic leader, serving with me as trustee of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and other organizations. In many conversations, we shared the idea that Mindanao’s narrative of diversity and abundance is a story worth telling, and that articles need to be written well to record the context of our times for future readers. Godspeed, Tony.