On July 7th 2020, Harper's Magazine published a piece titled, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. The letter, signed by literary giants like Malcolm Gladwell and J. K. Rowling, speaks out against public shaming and, as we call it, cancel culture.
This was published following the momentum of Rowling being 'cancelled' for her anti-trans beliefs. But aside from that — since I'm not here to talk about her — I thought long and hard upon reading this letter. It writes against the "intolerance of opposing views..."
"The democratic inclusion we want," it states early in the text, "can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."
We pause right here. As an active citizen of Twitter, I'm no stranger to this climate they speak of — and I can testify that cancel culture, albeit debated, is alive and well. 
But what is it? 

Cancel culture is the act of cancelling or boycotting an individual or institution that has acted or spoken in a controversial manner. Yesterday, a company called Goya Foods was 'cancelled' after its CEO was seen praising President Trump. Lea Michele and Ellen DeGeneres got cancelled after former co-stars and employees spoke out about their behaviour. 
In other words, the 'cancelled' are culturally blocked from their prominence, platform, or career. The pattern is: Someone does something offensive, there's a public backlash, then followed by a call for boycott, or disciplinary action.
When Amy Cooper was caught in that Central Park video, we 'cancelled' her, too, and she lost her job almost instantly. Then Christian Cooper, the man she wrongfully accused, had to speak out to stop people from sending her death threats. When Lea Michele wrote her apology, vowing to "learn and listen", Twitter still harshly criticised what her apology lacked. We are quick to indict, quick to label apologies as 'performative'.
At this point I thought, Is this progress?


Last year, I was sitting in a writing class as one of my electives. Our tutor, pacing in front of our desks, wants us to choose a topic for our final project. "Write something that is close to you," he said, "something you care about." He suggests writing about our identity, and as an example, walks to the person sitting next to me. 
The person, let's call her Alex (and I'm using 'her', which I'll get to later on), has pink, curly hair growing to the length of her ears. Had a nose piercing, a gentle voice, and dressed in baggy, colourful clothes. Between that, and other physical features I, myself, deemed as feminine, my brain had identified this person as female. 
We'll use this identification for now, just for the sake of illustrating my thought process.
You might know where this is going, but a few weeks prior to that class, Alex did say, in her very soft tone, that she prefers to be called a "he". 
I heard her say that. The whole class heard her say that. We nodded and understood. So that afternoon, my tutor suggested to Alex, "Maybe you could write about that!"
Okay, I thought, fully accepting this. On both instances, I reminded myself, Call her a he.
Notice here how I'm still saying "her", even when teaching myself to consciously switch to "he". Notice the connection my brain still hasn't made subconsciously. Notice how wrongful I am in not realising it sooner.
"What do you think, Joanne?" my tutor turns to me, inviting conversation. "Would you write about gender?" 
Don't be silly, I thought and smiled. "I think she would be more qualified to do that!" I said. Alex was probably more insightful than I on the issue.
It took me two seconds after I said it. Two seconds, after the she escaped my lips, to realise I've just misgendered a person for the first time in my life. 


Pronouns and gender fluidity was something new for, if not the world, then at least, for me to process. By this time, having been raised in Asian tight-knit religious communities, I had grown up 20 years without ever having to ask what pronoun a person used. 
Two seconds. He was looking down at his notebook, and I turned to him as quickly as I could. "I'm so sorry!" 
"It's okay", he quickly said, almost like he was used to it. He was silent, and gave me the cold shoulder I knew I deserved. The class moved on and didn't seem to notice my error. 
For the length of that period, I felt increasingly horrible, and my classmate looked like he could cry. I sat there, and the class's discussion gradually blurred in the distance. I wrote into my notebook the sincerest, most honest apology I could, tore the paper, and handed it to him. "Would it be okay for you to read this?" I asked gently. He did, while the class still continued. 
My failure in properly registering who Alex was into my understanding wasn't because I refused to — I was just not used to the process; the fundamental shift it would've taken for me to not say "she" by default. As a result, a minor slip of the tongue became the most hurtful thing I ever heard myself say.
Afterwards, he turned to me and softly said "Thank you," graciously accepting my apology. I reiterated, my cheeks still flushing red, "I'm so sorry– I'm just– I don't know what it was–"
"No, no," he replied, and now I felt like I could cry, "thank you for saying sorry. Most people don't apologise."
In the wake of cancel culture, I think back to this moment. Even though Alex and I became well acquainted afterwards, I couldn't help but think, What if somebody recorded that?
I do remember how, from the corner of my eye, I saw Alex typing angry Tweets into his laptop, rightfully so, before I handed the note. How I may or may not have become the villain in his Twitter account for at least that ten minutes, even if it wasn't malintent that caused this. And how I would still have deserved it, and that I would give him all the freedom to express the hurt I caused him in that moment.
But what if somebody did capture my honest mistake on tape and chose to publish it? Somebody less forgiving? What if Alex was less forgiving? 
Is the line not that thin? Would I still be here? Enrolled in this school? Would the villain narrative continue? I've only told one friend of this incident - and I've kept quiet out of fear that my error gets mistaken for prejudice. Which wouldn't have been true, but how loud would I have to shout for the world to believe me by then?
So what do I think of cancel culture? 
I celebrate the rise of accountability in our society. I celebrate a time in history where injustice or bigotry is exposed and reprimanded.
Cancel culture has its role. Especially during the #MeToo movement a couple years ago. I should also be clear that there are non-negotiable reasons to cancel a person, beyond just lack of virtue. If they have a job where their mistake or, worse yet, prejudice, can cost another human's life — like officers or medical teams — then yes, they should be 'cancelled' and lose their titles immediately.
But the reconciliation formed between Alex and I that semester didn't happen from someone calling me out — in fact, nobody in that class did. Reconciliation happened through the profound step that Alex took in forgiving me. Coupled with the unshackling of my pride; the step I took in apologising. But it was his forgiveness, not my change of perspective, that was revolutionary.
In the same way I had to take a long, hard, disapproving look at myself after that incident, I think a reckoning for our society is also in order. A self inventory of whether we're nurturing progress towards justice and equality, or letting people's actions bring out the most vindictive and unforgiving parts of ourselves.
And what is cancel culture if not unforgiveness? I certainly know how unforgiveness feels. The bitter taste on my tongue telling people I am liberated - while I feel the poison it is feeding me. How blame and punishment are the first two things my mind would race to - the two purest indicators of an unforgiving heart.
Kimberly Foster in her video, We Can't Cancel Everyone, spoke on this beautifully:

Anger itself is not inherently radical. It doesn't innately give us anything besides catharsis. So we have to think about where that anger is leading us - what is it prompting us to do? When we're angry, it's normal for us to want retribution, to seek out revenge [...] but punishment is not justice. I'm not looking for the pleasure of enacting pain.

As Kimberly also mentions in her video, cancel culture "does not undo harm". Hypothetically speaking, if I were caught and cancelled from that classroom, it wouldn't undo the hurt that Alex already felt, and it doesn't do much change in creating a world where that won't happen to him again.
The spirit of labeling people and disposing them from view, the us vs them mentality, is the very thing we try to fight against. Collectively, we need to provide what Kimberly calls reconciliation mechanisms: for those who want to do better, for those who admit fault. 
If the change we want is inclusive, we need to make room for redemption.
May I propose that we strive for a world that is not only just, but also educated and reconciled? May I propose that change and tolerance can, in fact, work hand in hand?


What do you think of cancel culture? Can we move forward without it?


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