By Priya Mullassaril
The cure for a fallacious argument is a better one, not the suppression of ideas.
- Carl Sagan, astronomer
Rehabilitative justice, a methodology of justice used to reform offenders to prevent future criminal activity, is popular among the Left. The majority of left-leaning individuals will agree that a society which helps to prevent future crime by reforming its criminals is a better society than one which uses extreme punitive measures to incarcerate offenders. But through the emergence of a new phenomenon called “cancel culture”, these same left-leaning individuals have been resorting to extreme punitive measures to discipline those who speak insensitively about sociopolitical issues. So, why do so many liberal individuals “cancel” individuals who espouse uncomfortable or anti-liberal views, instead of engaging them in debate and discussion? Why can’t members of the Left apply their rehabilitative philosophy to both justice and culture?
Cancel culture, or the act of silencing an individual whose views run heterodox to liberal values, is a real and consequential phenomenon. Though celebrity figures who have been “cancelled” by the mainstream media are often able to find employment opportunities elsewhere (for example, Louis C.K Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Dave Chappelle), cancellation has the potential to limit opportunities for normal people who can’t afford the same luxuries and networking opportunities as celebrities.
In today’s age of cancel culture, the person being “canceled” can easily be denied scholarships, educational opportunities, and job opportunities. Because social media can easily be weaponized, the consequences of saying something insensitive on social media platforms can be life-altering. For example, a prominent university decided not to consider a student’s admission after a video of her saying a slur as a 15-year old was circulated on the internet. What’s more, a data analyst was fired from their job after posting a scientific study on Twitter which showed that peaceful protest was more effective than violent protests, and the publishing house Harper Collins stopped working with English author Gillian Philip after Philip tweeted on Twitter that she “stood with JK Rowling”, an author notorious for anti-trans comments. This thread of incidents points to a highly unforgiving culture, in which moments of ignorance and insensitivity can permanently alter the course of a person’s life. There is no margin for error, no room for growth, and no ability to redeem oneself within the rigid system of cancel culture.
Supporters of cancel culture often say that accountability and reprimand for insensitive behavior is a necessity for creating a more just society. But for this reasoning to hold, the punishment should fit the crime: normal, working-class people shouldn’t have the ground pulled out from under them for voicing opinions that may be insensitive to the current political climate. A disproportionately severe punishment for an offense is unjust, and unlikely to inspire meaningful change in the long run.
A possibility to remediate the effects of cancel culture may be to reduce its punishment, and instead increase the system’s comprehensiveness. Insensitive behavior on social media or in a social setting should always be addressed, but it should be addressed in a way in which the offender does not risk losing their employment or future opportunities. A culture of debate and civil discussion would help to lessen ignorance and promote a shame-free method of social rehabilitation. This way, people can be held accountable for their actions, either ongoing or past, without fear of their lives being permanently ruined.