Our Government, the O.G. Canceller?

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It was interesting to watch the fallout from Dana Teoh’s opinion piece. The NUS undergraduate decried “woke” people and “cancel culture,” asking for more civility in discourse. She zeroed in on transgender issues to argue her case. 

Responses were sharply divided. Many voiced support for her critique of wokeness and cancel culture. Dissenters had more to say. Some said it was an ill-defined, poorly-worded, unresearched opinion that used or oppressed a vulnerable group to make a point. Others accused her of transphobia. They further criticised her description of woke people (specifically “Mr Hella Woke”) as antagonistic and dangerous.

The boring stuff

Some reactions were banal and plain rude. The calls for Dana to simply shut up ironically confirmed her arguments that a segment of illiberal liberals were out to shut down dialogue. Accusations of transphobia were also an expected response to her politically incorrect confession that she felt “weirded out” by post-op trans bodies. Her teacher, veteran journalist Bertha Henson, apologised for not editing out that “insensitive remark”. But that line has proved to be a distraction; Dana’s defence of JK Rowling’s right to speak was also labelled transphobic, and removing the “weirded out” comment would not have made the article any more acceptable to some. 

These unsurprising remarks prove how the space for socially acceptable speech has narrowed drastically. Sudhir Vadaketh said Dana’s opinion was “dangerous” because it used “dehumanising language” to describe a vulnerable group (transgenders), and that it was a “long and discernible line” to hate speech. He reasoned that Dana feeling “weirded out” by post-op bodies could easily morph into calling such bodies “disgusting”. 

Such reasoning ignores meaningful differences between words and suggests that any “dangerous” (read: disagreeable) utterances should be sanctioned. His very description of a “long line” implies distance, and thus less danger than “hate speech”.

An anonymous commenter chided Dana’s lack of empathy and discretion, and lamented the state of education in Singapore that presumably enabled her folly. The commenter wrote that while Dana’s feelings might have been true, they should not have been made public. Yet, there was no similar moralistic scolding directed at the bullying and silencing that Dana highlighted and experienced, or at internet culture in general where people tend to be more callous and tribal than they would be face to face. 

Alas, Dana was the only one who should have stayed silent.

Image: Raj Nadarajan / TODAY

The interesting stuff

We found the entire incident quite the circus – both the kind filled with clowns and the kind with gladiators. On one hand, it has been replete with silliness, sound and fury with little discernible outcome. On the other hand, it is clearly a fight on the social media stage with countless spectators baying for blood.

Dana’s piece has become fodder for commentators to talk about their own pet topics, whether they be transgender rights, freedom of speech, or government censorship. Civil society activists and academics like Kirsten Han and Cherian George, who had defended their own right to speak in the past, ironically use the article to now argue against “dangerous” speech. They go on to compare cancel culture with political censorship, complaining that the PAP and its supporters, who have often sought to limit or even censor alternative civil society views, are now extolling the virtues of free speech.

Since the government takes the view that social harmony and other principles trump Western-style free speech, are they the OG canceller? Is it then hypocritical for government institutions, state-funded universities, PAP politicians or pro-government citizens to stand against cancel culture?

“The government is the OG canceller”

It seems that two different things are being conflated in these arguments.

There is the relatively traditional political censorship of alternative views and activists by ruling parties and governments, which may or may not involve significant buy-in from the electorate, and is often backed by coercive power such as lawsuits, fines or prison sentences. 

Then, there is the newer cancel culture, a phenomenon with digital and grassroots characteristics, with online mobs who may pile-on, dox, and pour vitriol on alternative views and those who hold them. Cancel culture may or may not lead to successful cancellation, which could look like the limiting or loss of one’s social media platforms and sanctions by friends or employers. If the views expressed or actions taken by the cancelled fall afoul of the law, cancellation may also be successful when online mobs alert the authorities of such transgressions, leading to formal sanctions.

Civil society activists say that since political censorship exists, cancel culture is nothing new to be worried about. Cherian George downplays cancel culture as different from political censorship because it is “powerless,” and lacks the kind of coercive power available to governments.

Apart from the differences already articulated, political censorship in Singapore operates on sets of rules made known to the public. Individuals or groups may decide to observe or break these rules, and there is often a formal arbiter of competing claims of acceptability, whether it be the executive or the judiciary. Even the arrest of protestors in Singapore is the result of flouting a well-known law, the merits of which are nonetheless up for debate

Indeed, the Singaporean electorate weighs the acceptability of political censorship, and votes accordingly. Political incumbents are likely all too aware of this. Arrests or investigations may also strengthen a discrimination or victimhood narrative, building support for the subject of formal inquiry. The #istandwithraeesah movement in support of the opposition politician investigated for statements on race is an example of both the electorate responding to what they saw as overreach, and state retaliation increasing material support for an individual. Khan was ultimately elected as an MP for Sengkang GRC.

The discussion on political censorship may involve other exercises of soft political power such as alleged “blacklists,” which fall outside of institutional censorship. They will be addressed later in the essay.

Cancel culture may involve political censorship and vice versa. But it certainly exhibits features distinct from it as well: its online and grassroots nature, as well as its tendency to involve passionate and sometimes abusive comments. Substantive conversations are needed to distinguish between the two, and to fruitfully articulate any overlaps and connections.

“People who largely support censorship cannot now support free speech”

As mentioned, one of the most significant differences between the two issues comes down to procedure. On one hand, political censorship, especially that which purports to be in the public interest, should be accomplished with well-defined rules, enforced and arbitrated fairly. This allows for space for restitution to be made, forgiveness to be extended, and the wrongdoer to be restored to the community. These processes are present in Singapore’s religious harmony laws where offenders are given the chance to redeem themselves, such as through participating in the offended group’s activities. There are also non-legislated modes of affirming inter-religious harmony after any breaches. 

On the other hand, mob “justice” (of which cancel culture in many cases is a part), attempts to deal precisely with the perceived gaps in state or institutional rules, to bring redress to issues for which there is no formal mechanism for recourse.

Playing the devil’s advocate, perhaps “dangerous” language should be considered hate speech. Perhaps the state has overlooked a case of somebody actually using hate speech against racial or religious communities. Or perhaps someone was just being a jerk online, and will never be legally liable but could be socially shamed. However, there are no clear rules when it comes to mob “justice”, which makes it hard for the cancelled to redeem themselves.

Raising the stakes further, when the timeless nature of the internet is wielded unforgivingly, people can be cancelled for historical views they no longer hold, even after they’ve apologised for such views. But when the aim is nothing but vengeful, total social oblivion, such processes may not be necessary anyway.

In truth, there is in fact no justice in this. Only a disproportionate condemnation for a persona non grata by a mob that sees only red.

Perhaps those who say that at least some forms of political censorship are legitimate—but most forms of cancel culture are not—believe that there are better and worse ways of determining the proper bounds of communication and discourse in society. They may find institutional oversight of such bounds fairer than the proverbial mob.

Two arguments are usually advanced when critiquing cancel culture.

  1. Cancel Culture stifles thought diversity by enabling mob justice – which is no justice at all. This is a strong and legitimate critique.
  2. Cancel Culture goes against the rights to free speech. This requires examination.

An American or European conception of freedom of speech may work in their respective countries, but should not be applied uncritically to Singapore’s situation where speech does not operate unfettered for reasons of social harmony. This point should be noted by those who might argue against cancel culture on the basis of free speech. Could it be that the very permissiveness of Western free speech models, and the aggression that flows from it, has led to a cultural desire to moderate free speech by resorting to PC and cancel culture? In other words, are political correctness and cancel culture, ironically the unintended consequence of the First Amendment?

It therefore seems that the arbitrary, largely anonymous and often uncivil nature of cancel culture is the key distinction between it and political censorship, as well as a genuine objection to it. Thus Singaporean critics of cancel culture, to the extent that they use American pro-free-speech arguments, may be shooting themselves in the foot by unwittingly birthing the very monster they’re fighting against.

Nevertheless, critics of cancel culture should not miss the chance to point out that many enthusiastic proponents of it demand freedom of speech for themselves.

In our view, it would be more persuasive to point out that cancel culture is the expected reaction to unfettered free speech. We should not have the freedom to cyberbully, or to do it anonymously. Numerous liberals in the US and UK have spoken out about a paradoxically illiberal strain of liberalism. Trapped in their overly permissive free speech paradigm, however, they can barely begin to take meaningful action against it. 

“Cancel culture is powerless”

In the 1990s, you might have been able to make the case that online harassment was powerless. In 2021, with the dominance of the digital giants, and the increasing interpenetration of online and offline worlds, such reasoning is plainly false. Political power has never resided solely in established or traditional institutions, and the internet has enabled new sources of power to rise up.

While attempts to intimidate and cyberbully may not always lead to institutional sanctions, the mental and emotional harm done is no less real. One can only hope that amidst the pro- and anti-Dana crowd, there are enough people who are actively looking out for her wellbeing or at least denouncing cyberbullying. 

There are also too many instances overseas of cancel culture successfully removing scholars and professors from employment to conclude that it never leads to material effects. What is needed is not blanket immunity for academics to say whatever they want, but for a transparent, fair and stable process to place reasonable curbs on expression. 

With that said, it is then also incumbent upon us to reject forms of political censorship that are arbitrary, opaque or abusive. To the extent that “blacklists” or “greylists” exist, and regardless of whether they are the result of top-down instruction or overzealous policing on the ground, we should also speak up against their use. Nonetheless, mere allegations of being blacklisted should not always be taken at face value. An activist may not be invited to a roundtable because their views are already widely known, amongst many other reasons.

The final word 

Perhaps the way forward is twofold. Even if cancel culture is somehow successfully outlawed in Singapore, there will always be legal speech made to hurt. As one critic told Bertha Henson, the only solution to that is “don’t dish it if you can’t take it”. We can fight our natural tribal tendencies and be generous with our critics, taking them at their highest, not their lowest, all the while trying to find common ground.

And if common ground doesn’t exist, we can still decide not to be part of any online mob, call out bullying, and disagree civilly. 

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