Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience
Cancel culture is a form of boycott in which a person is expelled from one or more of their social or professional circles. This happens in real and virtual arenas.
A friend called. “I texted you a couple of hours back and you haven’t responded. I just wanted to make sure we are good….” Her voice trailed off. She did not need to complete her sentence. I understood her predicament. Having become used to my quick responses, the delay had seemed abnormal to my friend. The message to which I had failed to respond was one in which she had declined to participate in a group project. Afraid that I had taken offense, she was worried that I was “cancelling” her.
The ubiquity of instant communication has primed us to expect quick, albeit short, responses. When such responses fail to appear, our minds fly to catastrophe. At the same time, the geographically dispersed manner in which many of us live, and the non-overlapping nature of the communities in which we participate, has made it easy to sever ties with seemingly little collateral damage. It is therefore tempting to think that “cancel culture” is a bane of present-day society and that it did not occur in the “good old days.” However, this is far from the reality.
The event that gives the Ramayan its momentum is the banishment of Ram to a fourteen years-long exile. His stepmother Kaikeyi demanded this because she wanted her son Bharat to inherit the throne. She knew that the mere presence of this beloved prince (and rightful heir to the throne according to the laws of the time) would be an unceasing reminder of the underhanded way in which she secured the throne for her son. And so, Ram, together with wife Sita and younger brother Laxman, removed himself from the kingdom. In effect, Ram was cancelled.
The Ramayan has another more heartbreaking episode in the same vein. At the end of the war with Ravan, Ram and Sita returned to Ayodhya and Ram ascended to the throne. Some subjects of the kingdom rejected Sita’s “normalization” because they believed her to be impure as a result of having been in the custody of a man other than her husband. When Sita heard about this, she took it upon herself to leave the kingdom. She did not want her presence to compromise her husband’s honor among his subjects. Ram did not try to stop her. In effect, he prioritized his own reputation over standing up for Sita. In effect, Sita was cancelled because of a remark uttered by one judgmental person.
The contrast is stark. The wife shared her husband’s burden and stood by his side when he was exiled. But, the husband did not hesitate to let his wife cancel herself at the mere suggestion of scandal. Too often, those who have less power and less protection are held to a more exacting standard and a bigger price is extracted from them.
The Mahabharat has its own instances of excommunication. After the Pandavas lost their kingdom to their cousins, the Kauravas, in the game of chess, they were banished from the kingdom. Wanting to completely erase them, Duryodhan, the oldest of the Kauravas, had a palace built for his cousins. Lac (wax) was the building material used, the better to burn without leaving any traces of arson. Fortunately, the Pandavas managed to escape unhurt. But, the facts of the two attempted cancellations remain.
As the philosopher Kant proclaimed, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” In other words, humans are imperfect and, like Duryodhan and even Ram, are capable of dishonorable actions out of malice or cowardice. In such situations, it is human nature to seek restitution and justice. Unfortunately, too often this urge manifests itself as an unwillingness to compromise, to forgive, or to make a fresh start. So, the challenge is to devise strategies to respond to infractions in a measured and rational way.
From time immemorial, societies have had only a few ways to encourage preferred (“good”) behavior and discourage “bad” behavior. Religions promise reward and punishment in the afterlife. In the present, the threat of religious excommunication is used to keep individuals on the straight and narrow. Social customs and traditions use the mechanisms of public honor or shaming. In modern developed societies, civic fines and taxes do the work. When all else fails, a person who offends the norms of a society is jailed.
Amazingly, a way to temper the impulse to cancel an offender and deploy a more thoughtful and measured response is also found in the Mahabharat.
The conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas ended up with both sides locked in a fight-to-the-death battle. Arjun, the Pandava brother who was also the most skilled warrior, felt deeply conflicted. Was it moral to seek to kill his cousins, who were after all, his own flesh and blood? What was the righteous option given the fact that his cousins had cheated and had even tried to kill him and his brothers? Even though Arjun sought restitution, protection against continued threats, and yes, maybe even revenge, he struggled to convince himself that war and annihilation were an honorable way to achieve those ends.
Arjun’s charioteer was Krishna. Cousin to both sides, he was unaffected by their rivalry. With no skin in the game, (and maybe thanks to his divine wisdom) he was able to be principled, deliberative, and detached. He told Arjun that his duty was to fight injustice. But the right way to execute this righteous duty was to act without hatred or the expectation of a reward or a desire for personal glory.
Ironically, the words in President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address echo the same sentiments. “With malice toward none and charity for all…” Further irony is that these words too were uttered at the end of the bloody and devastating Civil War in which brother fought against brother and families split over their positions on slavery.
Indeed, it was by putting this principle of generous grace into action that the victorious United States helped rebuild the societies and economies of its erstwhile enemies, Germany and Japan. I am referring, of course, to the Marshall Plan.
My personal Marshall Plan works like this: If I feel hurt or offended by a friend, I don’t react in the moment. If the infraction is not too severe, I file it away and carry on as graciously as possible. If it is, I convey my thoughts using forthright and compassionate words.
Sometimes, the differences are irreconcilable. In that case, I also state what needs to happen for the relationship to be repaired. In this way, at the very least, the person knows exactly why there is conflict and they know how they can fix the issue through compromise, communication, or some other form of healing. Agree to disagree, but do so agreeably.
Finally, it is helpful to remind myself that I may have unknowingly hurt a friend. So, a consistent practice of open dialogue has the potential to empower my friend to express her views and seek wholeness.
As for my friend who had worried that I was miffed at her, I reassured her that my response had been delayed for no other reason than that I had become caught up in other tasks. In addition, I told her I appreciated her reaching out because I would not want her to feel anxious. Lastly, I told her that, in the event of conflict, I would not resort to cancelling without having at least one conversation to clear the clog in our friendship. The antidote to the impulse to cancel or “ghost” a person, at least on the personal level, is to always keep the door of honest and compassionate communication open.
My new mantra is “I will not cancel Us.”
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and cofounder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.