Uncancelled Conversations

If on social media you don’t fall in line with the popular notion held by a group, in all likelihood, you will be cancelled! Why has it become easier to tear people down than to engage them?

Someone has said, “A lot of problems in the world would disappear if we talked to each other instead of about each other.” With the eruption of social media, many were hopeful that we were finally inching closer to this ideal. I mean, imagine 18.8 million Indian Twitterati conversing on all topics—from Bollywood to politics, and from food to sports. Some political pundits rightly saw these as signs of a day when finally, the Berlin walls of race, caste, religion, nationalities and all other sorts of differences would come crumbling down. Time has proven them only half-right.

The part where they have been proven wrong is that social media has also encouraged formation of new groups that indulge in back-patting and ‘virtue signalling’ by isolating and shaming those who dissent from their notions of right and wrong. Contrary to our expectations that more voices would result in disintegration of old allegiances and uphold new norms of equality, social media has driven us back into the age-old social denominator of shame and honour. Here individuals are forced to fall in line with popular notions of right and wrong upheld by a group, at the cost of their right to critical thinking and decision-making, which is crucial to human flourishing. This is what has come to be known as ‘cancel culture’. Ironic that the generation that takes pride in its scepticism also zealously fights to keep the ideas, dearly held by its herd, immune to the same scepticism.

Someone has said, “A lot of problems in the world would disappear if we talked to each other instead of about each other.” With the eruption of social media, many were hopeful that we were finally inching closer to this ideal. I mean, imagine 18.8 million Indian Twitterati conversing on all topics—from Bollywood to politics, and from food to sports. Some political pundits rightly saw these as signs of a day when finally, the Berlin walls of race, caste, religion, nationalities and all other sorts of differences would come crumbling down. Time has proven them only half-right.

The part where they have been proven wrong is that social media has also encouraged formation of new groups that indulge in back-patting and ‘virtue signalling’ by isolating and shaming those who dissent from their notions of right and wrong. Contrary to our expectations that more voices would result in disintegration of old allegiances and uphold new norms of equality, social media has driven us back into the age-old social denominator of shame and honour. Here individuals are forced to fall in line with popular notions of right and wrong upheld by a group, at the cost of their right to critical thinking and decision-making, which is crucial to human flourishing. This is what has come to be known as ‘cancel culture’. Ironic that the generation that takes pride in its scepticism also zealously fights to keep the ideas, dearly held by its herd, immune to the same scepticism.

But could it be that calling-out someone on social media is itself a part of resistance of the powerless? I mean could it not work as a device that prevents an influential individual from tweeting something irresponsible and abusive and get away with it? If ‘cancel culture’ is harmful to healthy conversations, are not cynical, but influential, individuals equally pernicious?

These deliberations and the imaginary conversation above highlight our dilemma—we try to do what we constantly fail to do in practice, that is we constantly claim to give platform to every voice while simultaneously drowning out voices and shaming them at our will. Unfortunately, for many social pariahs it becomes a question of their livelihood and their very existence.

Social media platforms such as Twitter are aware of these difficult questions. They, therefore, realise that every voice, especially the ones that are constantly abusive and promote violence cannot be allowed equal space. They encourage reporting and blocking certain voices. This is harder done than said, though.

But could it be that this attitude is a result of our post-Christian world? With the rooting out of God from our societies, we have also got rid of the idea that human beings are ‘made in the image of God’, a device that regulated our conversations with others and barricaded them from degenerating into name-calling and bad-mouthing. We have now instantly come to believe that an individual is essentially nothing more than political views s/he holds or groups that s/he adheres to. This, for one, means that ideas and people have become so indistinguishable that it has become rather impossible to critique someone’s views without attacking him personally. This explains why it is easier than ever before to tear the other down rather than engage. Faceless platforms only bring out this evil human trait in the worst forms possible. In fact, as in the real world, shaming someone may offer one a seat in the popular ranks, and therefore, is not just normal, but even desirable.

This is very different from how the God of the Bible engages with humans in conversations. He often calls dissenters—individuals and communities—to ‘reason’ with him (Isaiah 1:18). As the Word of God, Jesus takes initiative to converse with us. And in becoming human, he takes a level ground with us, not shaming us for our beliefs, but graciously engaging with us, with the questions that arise from our innermost being. Through his own conversations, with Nicodemus in John 3 or with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus shows us what it means to let our “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). What also stands out is that God’s concern for our restoration to the ‘fullness of life’ undergirds his conversations with us. Even the very motif underlying the principles of church-discipline (Matt 18:15–18) is restoration and redemption of human beings, poles apart from the ‘cancel culture’ of our times that revels in tearing the other down.

The need of the hour, perhaps then, is not just ‘more conversations’ which social media facilitates anyway, but also healthy conversations that can flourish by acknowledging biblical principles of recognizing God’s image in the other and are aimed at the restoration of the participants engaged in the conversation. If our conversations are seen as a journey towards this restoration and the other as one who, by virtue of being made in the image of God, can spur us onward in this journey, we become more receptive in listening to him/her. 

A Christian, then, is not just interested in having conversations, but is also committed to the very process of restoring this timeless framework as rudimentary to our understanding of conversations. When that is achieved, we will have no need to cancel conversations, and perhaps then a lot of problems in the world will indeed disappear.

But could it be that calling-out someone on social media is itself a part of resistance of the powerless? I mean could it not work as a device that prevents an influential individual from tweeting something irresponsible and abusive and get away with it? If ‘cancel culture’ is harmful to healthy conversations, are not cynical, but influential, individuals equally pernicious?

These deliberations and the imaginary conversation above highlight our dilemma—we try to do what we constantly fail to do in practice, that is we constantly claim to give platform to every voice while simultaneously drowning out voices and shaming them at our will. Unfortunately, for many social pariahs it becomes a question of their livelihood and their very existence.

Social media platforms such as Twitter are aware of these difficult questions. They, therefore, realise that every voice, especially the ones that are constantly abusive and promote violence cannot be allowed equal space. They encourage reporting and blocking certain voices. This is harder done than said, though.

But could it be that this attitude is a result of our post-Christian world? With the rooting out of God from our societies, we have also got rid of the idea that human beings are ‘made in the image of God’, a device that regulated our conversations with others and barricaded them from degenerating into name-calling and bad-mouthing. We have now instantly come to believe that an individual is essentially nothing more than political views s/he holds or groups that s/he adheres to. This, for one, means that ideas and people have become so indistinguishable that it has become rather impossible to critique someone’s views without attacking him personally. This explains why it is easier than ever before to tear the other down rather than engage. Faceless platforms only bring out this evil human trait in the worst forms possible. In fact, as in the real world, shaming someone may offer one a seat in the popular ranks, and therefore, is not just normal, but even desirable.

Ironic that the generation that takes pride in its scepticism also zealously fights to keep the ideas, dearly held by its herd, immune to the same scepticism

This is very different from how the God of the Bible engages with humans in conversations. He often calls dissenters—individuals and communities—to ‘reason’ with him (Isaiah 1:18). As the Word of God, Jesus takes initiative to converse with us. And in becoming human, he takes a level ground with us, not shaming us for our beliefs, but graciously engaging with us, with the questions that arise from our innermost being. Through his own conversations, with Nicodemus in John 3 or with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus shows us what it means to let our “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). What also stands out is that God’s concern for our restoration to the ‘fullness of life’ undergirds his conversations with us. Even the very motif underlying the principles of church-discipline (Matt 18:15–18) is restoration and redemption of human beings, poles apart from the ‘cancel culture’ of our times that revels in tearing the other down.

The need of the hour, perhaps then, is not just ‘more conversations’ which social media facilitates anyway, but also healthy conversations that can flourish by acknowledging biblical principles of recognizing God’s image in the other and are aimed at the restoration of the participants engaged in the conversation. If our conversations are seen as a journey towards this restoration and the other as one who, by virtue of being made in the image of God, can spur us onward in this journey, we become more receptive in listening to him/her. 

A Christian, then, is not just interested in having conversations, but is also committed to the very process of restoring this timeless framework as rudimentary to our understanding of conversations. When that is achieved, we will have no need to cancel conversations, and perhaps then a lot of problems in the world will indeed disappear.

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