Opinion: More diversity, or cancel culture? | Opinion | DW | 02.01.2021

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Opinion: More diversity, or cancel culture?

Some people say a "cancel culture" doesn't exist; for others, it is there and heralding the demise of free opinion. But DW's Ines Eisele feels that both sides should calm down a bit.

Lisa Eckhart

Is one allowed to make jokes about Jews? Austrian cabaret artist Lisa Eckhardt has polarized audiences

Imagine you are at a party thrown by friends and someone says something you completely don't agree with. Do you keep away from that particular guest for the rest of the evening? Do you draw the person aside and take him or her to task for the comments? Or do you admonish them loudly and request them to leave the party?

That last option would probably come in the category of what is increasingly called "cancel culture." This term denotes the tendency to overreact to insults, discriminatory remarks or faux pas. Such exaggerated responses include ostracism, a storm of indignation or calls for boycotts.

Disproportionate reactions

One example is the case of David Shor. This white US man summarized a study by a Black political scientist on Twitter showing that protests against social injustice were more effective when they were peaceful. A week later, Shor, a data analyst, had lost his job. Activists had adjudged Shor's tweet to be critical of the "Black Lives Matter" movement and mobilized public sentiment against him.

In the German-speaking world, there was a big stir in summer when Lisa Eckhart, an Austrian cabaret artist and author, had her invitation to a literature festival in Hamburg canceled. Eckhart, who has faced criticism for making use of racist and anti-Semitic cliches in her cabaret programs, was slated for an appearance at the festival after her debut novel was nominated for a prize.

However, after two other authors refused to stand on the same stage as Eckhart and there were alleged threats from the far-left scene, the directors of the festival asked her not to come after all.

The whole affair was a major embarrassment for the festival — and also a cause for more general concern. Eckhart's cabaret programs certainly may not be to everyone's taste, but that is not really enough of a reason to stop her appearing in public as a book author, especially seeing as cabaret is, after all, meant to be satire. Those people who loudly defended artistic freedoms in the case of German satirist Jan Böhmermann's "smear poem" directed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should not employ a double standard here.

Left vs. right

As happened in the cases of Shor and Eckhart, the accusation of "canceling" is often laid at the door of the left. A meta-debate has now long been ongoing about whether there is such a thing as cancel culture or whether the term is just one employed by conservatives and right-wingers to write off justified criticism for racism, sexism and discrimination as exaggerated.

Ines Eisele

DW's Ines Eisele

For example, in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been trying to integrate the term into the party's well-worn narrative about the left's iron-fisted repression of opinions it does not like. And Donald Trump, who himself is one of the loudest voices blustering on Twitter, has also used the designation.

So one should be careful of the company one keeps when criticizing cancel culture. Nonetheless, the examples cited above show that something like a cancel culture has indeed come into being, at least here and there. Even without indulging in alarmism and apocalyptic fantasies, it is clear that it is becoming rarer for a constructive approach to be taken toward other people's opinions, and that people are often quickly and mercilessly torn apart for an unfortunate choice of words or actions.

Exaggerated public outrage

Another example of exaggerated public outrage in Germany was the reaction to a satirical video made by the children's choir at public broadcaster WDR about a year ago. In it, the children sing about an SUV-driving grandma as an "old environmental pig." There were people who saw this as being such an impudent insult to the older generation that there were death threats made — no, I am not joking: death threats.

This example shows that "canceling" is not just something that comes from the left. Tribal thinking along the lines of "minorities vs. elites" or "left vs. right" is not enough to explain this phenomenon. A kind of inflated sensitivity has increased on all sides.

Case-by-case approach

So instead of getting het up about the term "cancel culture," it is worth looking at each individual case. There are insults and cases of discrimination where no one should escape censure. But in other cases, something is blown up out of proportion that in the broad light of day is seen to have really not been worth all the fuss.

Of course, it is good that more people, and particularly groups that have been historically disadvantaged, are more easily able to make themselves heard nowadays. But it is not good when the fear of ostracism prevents people from voicing what could be unpopular opinions or posing uncomfortable questions, and when debates thus become less diverse. Because that should be the real objective: achieving more diversity.

This article has been adapted from German