Forefront by TSMP: In The Name of Good

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Forefront by TSMP

5 October 2022

In The Name of Good

Wokeness has morphed from being an empowering voice for the disenfranchised into a silencing force on social and civil discourse.

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

Cover photo credit: Markus Winkler / Unsplash

This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff – you should get over that quickly.” – Barack Obama

He clinched Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, setting the world record for 100-metre butterfly at the 2016 Games. Joseph Schooling became a national hero, feted with privileges that spanned from a rare deferment from National Service to pursue his sport, to a gift of a million frequent flyer miles and elite status from Singapore Airlines.

In August, he shockingly confessed that he had taken cannabis overseas while training and participating at a competition. A public outcry ensued. His short-term disruptions from the army were rescinded, and SEA Games prize money withheld. The former action leaves him with no chance to take time off to train and compete, possibly spelling the end of his athletic career.

For Hong Kong-Canadian singer-actress Carina Lau, her own moment of “cancellation” came when she uploaded a seemingly innocuous Instagram tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II, who had passed after 70 years on the throne early last month.

Netizens bayed for Lau’s blood, reminding her of the centuries-ago opium war that ceded Hong Kong to Britain and warning her never to return to China.

What is cancel culture?

Cancel Culture is the phenomenon when a large number of people, sharing similar beliefs but otherwise generally unorganised (usually corralled by social media posts gone viral), simultaneously and spontaneously heap criticism on behaviour or attitudes they consider unacceptable, to hold the relevant person accountable. This has, in severe instances, resulted in loss of employment or emotional trauma. It’s not just individuals; companies and religious organisations can be cancelled too.

It has its roots in the Call-out Culture of the 2010s, a period notable for its #MeToo and BlackLivesMatter social movements. Women who had been sexually abused by powerful men, including celebrities and CEOs, but felt voiceless in male-dominated circles, found an outlet in #MeToo, building solidarity and strength in numbers on social media and at street protests.

The #MeToo movement outed hundreds of high-profile men for their misbehaviour, often causing them to lose their jobs. Most prominent among them, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was convicted in 2020 for criminal sexual acts. Various women had alleged that he had sexually abused them as far back as the 1970s, but none of the accusations stuck and he had suffered no meaningful repercussions. It was only after more than 80 women spoke out against him in 2017 and 2018, publicised through the #MeToo movement, that he was fired, arrested and jailed.

Following these high profile movements, even those not directly affected have been encouraged to stay “woke”, current nomenclature for being alert to social issues, ranging from gender inequality to racial discrimination, and being on the right side of morality.

Can you be too “woke”?

The original cause was thus seemingly noble, built on the belief that people had the right and obligation to speak truth to power and also to mete out sanctions on those whom they believe had, protected by privilege, avoided the justice system.

However, while the spirit of wokeness was an excellent tool for advancing a previously suppressed perspective, it has since morphed, all too swiftly, from an instrument for good to a tool of oppression. When mob mentality takes over, wokeness becomes binary; you are “with me or against me”. Dissension is punished with clarion calls for banishment. Even reasonable views, if not 100 per cent in line with the popular woke position, are now silenced by woke extremism.

In a study published in January by American non-profit civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 47 per cent of the 2,500 surveyed admit that they are afraid to say what they believe in because of potential consequences. One in four reveal that they feel pressured to say things they do not believe in, in order to fit in.

Even businesses are not spared from the climate of fear. A report published in August by British AI-powered marketing content platform Phrasee showed that 92 per cent of marketers are “playing it safe” with their content marketing language for fear of getting it wrong or being cancelled.

More insidiously, Cancel Culture, at least in the US, operates outside the bounds of the law. Oftentimes its proponents feel they have the right to be judge, jury and executioner, the penalty being public or economic exile.

The observation lines up with the results of a study published last May by nonpartisan American think tank Pew Research Center, which found that while the majority – 58 per cent – of the 10,000 US residents polled agree in general that calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, a very significant 38 per cent say it is more likely to punish people who do not deserve it.

Cancel Culture is dangerous for Singapore

Under Cancel Culture, polarisation – in a world already fraught with deep divisions – has been encouraged to fester. Whether one is for or against an issue, people are less prepared to discuss the matter, much less engage in healthy debate on it. In effect, Cancel Culture is eroding the space for frank conversations to take place, which is dangerous for civil society, especially in densely populated and multi-ethnic Singapore.

The Internet has also amplified the impact by orders of magnitude. A Singapore citizen (by marriage) behaves badly towards a security guard over a visitor-parking dispute on Deepavali. The video goes viral. Netizens dox him, and post threatening or racist comments online. The narrative rapidly descends into an invective on expatriates from his sub-continent taking Singaporean jobs and displacing our citizens in our economy, with the corporates perceived to have a large proportion of such foreign employees being taken to task in cyberspace.  

Now that the Singapore government has announced the intention to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises male gay sex, right wing factions are up in arms. Not because they want homosexuals to be thrown into jail for their bedroom activities, but because parents fear that this is the start of a slippery slope, and Cancel Culture will leave them unable to teach their children their personal values. The end result is discord over the repeal of an outdated and unfair law when the real issue is about what constitutes family values, because it is easier to reject a change in legal status quo than to debate a more sensitive topic.

Whether in court or over the negotiating table, law is a profession that thrives on advocating contrary viewpoints to come up with the best solutions. Civil society is the same. A strong community needs more than consensus and compromise; respectful arguments lead to the deepest, most nuanced, truths being revealed.

If Singapore is to build a resilient and inclusive society, we need to be open to engaging in honest and respectful discussions on even the most highly charged issues. We may start out believing that we have a monopoly on the truth, but being able to view that in a larger context leads to understanding of the world we live in and acceptance of the people we live with.

If there is a silver lining to the Schooling incident, it is the voices – from sympathetic netizens to Law Minister K Shanmugam – that have emerged to lend him support due to his confession, contrition and circumstances; his father, who had been a strong supporting figure, had just passed last November after losing the battle to cancer. At least two of his commercial sponsors ­– Hugo Boss and Singapore Airlines ­– have stood by him. This, despite drug consumption being taboo in Singapore, brings hope that our nation has not been lost to the grip of woke extremism yet. But there remains plenty of work to be done to prevent bigger fissures in our society, and to repair the cracks that already exist.