by Mary Harrington
Monday, 15
March 2021

Woke or conservative, cancel culture will always exist

The phenomenon is not solely a function of the illiberal Left
by Mary Harrington
Bombay Begums has been pulled for portraying minors engaging in casual sex and drug use. Credit: Netflix

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.

Join the discussion

  • True and important point. This is the way a society polices its norms, and any society will have things that are accepted without trouble, things that are controversial and may be limited to marginal outlets, and things that can see you banished from polite society and maybe fired. There can be only one overall norm, and groups with different attitudes will always fight over what it should be. We should keep that in mind to maintain some persepctive.
    The woke are particularly intolerant of dissenting opinions. But the big point is that we allow a small, loud minority of unelected activists to impose fast and radical changes in the norms we are all supposed to live by.

  • Cancel culture in the west is a liberal/progressive/woke (not liberal in the classical sense) phenomenon. Not a conservative one.

  • I agree with you. In the US, left wing media and politicians specifically try to shut down any view that opposes their own. They not only do not want to hear it themselves (which is fine) , they don’t want anyone else to hear it either. Even the US military recently tried to cancel a right wing talk show host for opposing a military focus on combat uniforms for pregnant women and hairstyle regulations, rather than military readiness. Whether you agree with that view or not, there is nothing about it that should mean that no one may hear it. Since when does the US military spout political views?

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