Pratyusha Pramanik, a researcher in Humanistic studies, explores the impact of a desire to cancel out people from social media
Debates around the cancel culture escalated following Harper’s open letter which advocated justice and open debate. Signed by many dignitaries across academia, media and culture this letter critiqued “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”. But instead of being hailed for advocating free speech, this letter was criticised by most as a veiled attempt to save face by intelligentsia who had been taken to task by their critics.
At a time when public intellectuals are gradually being considered an extinct species, it is interesting to note how the internet itself is becoming a free space where netizens are taking it upon themselves to decide a more sanitised standard for public figures. Tables are turning, public intellectuals are no longer getting to decide how people think and instead it is the people who are deciding how they are spoken to, and who gets to speak to them. This vaguely reminds us of Gramsci, when he said — ‘All men are intellectuals’1, but we can no longer agree with him when he continues, ‘not all are intellectuals by social function’. The cancel culture bridges the gap that divided the ivory towers of the intellectuals from the common mass.
The cancel culture is largely identified as the ‘left-wing mob’, so in India where the liberals are mostly left-leaning, the question arises who is going to bear the brunt of these angry mobs. The liberals in India are in crisis; they may have accused the Prime Minister for having infantilised the public, but is not this accusation a way of avoiding responsibility for having failed the masses. The mainstream media have largely cancelled the Indian intelligentsia with tags such as anti-nationals and urban-Naxals. The binary of the ‘Brave Soldiers’ versus the evil anti-nationals has been an engaging narrative among netizens.
The failure to create a successful counter-narrative has left the intelligentsia cornered and at a loss. This primarily English speaking, elitist intelligentsia became gradually redundant as Hindi took centre stage with the Prime Minister himself being the ambassador. With the ongoing debates around — the political bias of Facebook in India, the Prashant Bhushan verdict, and the overwhelming posts on social media on the occasion of laying the foundation of the Rama temple in Ayodhya — a large number of liberals have either chosen to unfriend people who do not adhere to their views or have chosen to stay away from toxic social media platforms for fear of being ‘trolled’. The situation becomes doubly problematic: the masses have rejected their intellectuals, and the intellectuals too have relinquished the role of being the harbingers of changes.
While ridiculing, mocking, ignoring the intellectuals and questioning their loyalties have been a norm from the days of Socrates (469-399 B.C.), it is slightly unconventional to see the intellectuals themselves cancelling the culture that they are part of. This makes me wonder, what would Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) have done, had he been bullied online for his stands on sati and widow remarriage? Would he prefer to block his critics and to open himself for debate among the chosen few? Slander has never been easy to deal with– whether offline or online, the problem becomes worse when we find nameless and faceless hate messages flooding the inbox. The intellectuals rejecting their society at this moment of crisis highlight the divide that have always existed between the mass and the ivory towers. It reminds us that the allegation of their failure to create a counter-narrative is true.
The intelligentsia in the Congress regime had enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom to change the narratives and create for themselves a few pockets of change. The narratives around caste, class, gender, religion and family were rewritten, and there was a considerable amount of western influence in the changes that were imposed. However these narratives of change had not spread homogeneously across the country, and the intellectuals had not felt the necessity of taking the discourse beyond classrooms, conferences, and indexed journals to the drawing rooms, dinner tables and the kitchen sinks of the masses. These imported changes and western jargons not only baffled the masses but brought in an identity crisis which the intelligentsia never cared to address.
The mass felt the need for class mobility, gender fluidity or getting rid of caste-based discrimination, but the narrative was never Indianised enough to suit their needs. We can recollect how Tagore (1861-1941) had introduced Rakshabandhan to celebrate Hindu-Muslim brotherhood, or Tilak (1856-1920) had started the Ganpati festival or Shivaji festival to foster a sense of nationhood. The rising sentiments of religious nationalism catered to this very need for addressing the crisis of identity faced by the middle class. The intelligentsia by rejecting these sentiments have moved further away from society. By cancelling the thali*-clapping, the candle lighting and the Ayodhya Rama temple issue, intellectuals have further distanced themselves from the middle class, which is in dire need of their guidance. Had they been able to create a counter-narrative that highlights the plight of hospital facilities, the crumbling GDP and the rising unemployment during the pandemic, there would have been a light of hope; but all they managed to do was get distracted by the National Education Policy.
The great digital divide has also remained largely unaddressed by the liberals. The increasing number of webinars being arranged online every day seems to promote the divide. The webinars while have enabled many students from remote colleges to hear celebrity professors from the academia but they also have encouraged the tendency of students to hoard certificates and not gain wisdom per se.
This crisis itself has been reduced to a sabbatical which has led to heightened productivity; we have seen papers on the crisis of migrant labourers being published even before the labourers could reach their home. The pandemic and other crisis in 2020 have brought to our attention the growing apathy among the Indian intelligentsia. The intellectuals have reduced themselves to an elite class that feeds on the plight of the society to write their papers, get funds for their projects and to write woke social media post. Their posts may not be politically inappropriate like those cancelled by the cancel culture in the West, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt.
It is expected that this online movement will be as significant and as unbiased as it has been in the West. Being unbiased does not mean giving the intellectuals a free rein. The intellectuals accountability in the people’s court is perhaps also a way of bridging the gaps. As much as the government and the elected representatives are answerable to the people, the intellectuals too have accountability towards the people who have looked up to them and respected them.
The cancel culture is not to be seen as a threat to free speech and expression; it is instead to be acknowledged as the tool that sets a common standard for all. Romila Thapar2 speaking of intellectuals has pointed out that there is no dearth of people who can think intelligently and ask relevant questions, but recently there has been silence when there should have been voices, it is possible that people are afraid of the draconian laws imposed by the State. She insists on creating an independent space for critical thinking . This is particularly true when we see a large number of academics, students and experts are being charged with sedition.
But, I feel the academics have distanced themselves from the masses and in their bid to maintain a higher ground for themselves, they have chosen to stay aloof. Sundar Sarukkai3 observes that the ‘real essence of a public intellectual: someone who acts to create a public in which her role will become redundant and unnecessary’– it is this possibility of redundancy that gnaws the intellectuals.
*thali — Plate.
1Gramsci, Antonio. “Prison Notebooks The Intellectuals: Formation of the Intellectuals.” An Anthology Of Western Marxism, edited by Roger S. Gottlieb, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 113–119.
2Thapar, Romila. “To Question or Not To Question? That Is the Question.” The Public Intellectual in India, by Romila Thapar et al., Aleph in Association with the Book Review Literary Trust, 2015, pp. 1–40.
3Sarukkai, Sundar. “To Question And Not To Question: That Is The Answer.” The Public Intellectual in India, by Romila Thapar et al., Aleph in Association with the Book Review Literary Trust, 2015, pp. 41–61.
Pratyusha Pramanik is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Humanistic Studies, IIT (BHU) Varanasi. She is working on post-colonial social movements in Bengal, she is also interested in gender studies. She is a cinephile and is an amateur film critic. Few of her works have been published in Feminism in India. Her interest in the role of intellectuals stems from her desire to search for a life purpose.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the interviewee.