The phenomenon is not solely a function of the illiberal Left
Netflix in India has been ordered to take down Bombay Begums, a series exploring the lives of five Indian women. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, an Indian statutory body, condemned the ‘inappropriate portrayal’ of minors in the series as engaging in casual sex and drug-taking, arguing that it could ‘pollute young minds’.
The takedown contrasts with the furore in Britain and America last year over Netflix’s marketing of the film Cuties, which depicts the sexualisation of young urban French girls in terms that prompted widespread debate. In the case of Cuties, the film stayed available but the marketing was toned down; in the case of Bombay Begums the series was taken down.
The difference between the two stories is a function of how socially acceptable sexual licence is in the West as compared to India. Whereas in the West there’s only enough of a moral consensus against blatantly glamorising underage sexualisation to force cosmetic changes to marketing imagery, the situation is evidently different in India. Here, a major statutory body has intervened to clamp down on media depictions of underage sex.
The recurring protests among Indian women over sexual harassment and rape suggest that it is far from rosy outside the West in terms of sexual culture — but arguments over media representation are contests over what should be, rather than what is. There is a clear difference between the two cultures in terms of what the majority agrees should be the norm regarding sexual behaviour.
It’s become common to think of ‘cancel culture’ as a feature of ‘woke’ moral principles — that is, of the identitarian value system that forms the basis of most instances of ‘cancel culture’ in the West today. Given that passionate moral conviction is far more often a feature of the ‘woke’ today, this is perhaps an easy mistake to make.
But in reality, what gets decried as ‘cancel culture’ is not a noxious feature solely of Left-wing identity politics. Social shaming, mob condemnation, or — as in the case of Bombay Begums — a mix of these things plus the power of institutions, are really the mechanisms whereby most societies police their moral norms.
What’s new is the fickle and ferocious new form this policing is taking, enabled by new digital technology. Anyone opposed to the effect ‘cancel culture’ is having on us should direct their ire not at the illiberal Left — any more than India’s guardians of sexual propriety — but at the power of the internet.