The first classic novel I read cover-to-cover was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). It served as a catalyst for my love of language and literature. The story reads like a gothic version of the myth of Narcissus. Dorian has a portrait painted of him. Dorian loves his beauty so much that he sells his soul to the devil to stay youthful while his portrait ages. He embarks on a life of indulgence and hedonism, and the portrait begins to exhibit his moral corruption.
Oscar Wilde’s magnum opus, while appreciated today, was scorned by the Victorian British audience. They accused the novel of offending the public morality with its homoerotic undertones. Wilde was later imprisoned under the charge of sodomy. The criminal case against him was supplemented by excerpts of his written works.
Wilde was, in a way, a victim of a cancel culture. He had offended public morality, and suffered the consequences of alienation and imprisonment. The sinister fact is that the British public no doubt thought themselves morally justified at the time for imprisoning Wilde. And yet had he lived in today’s society, his reception would be overwhelmingly positive.
Cancel culture, in Victorian England and in modern Australia, is a cancer. It smothers creativity with fear, and bullies people into conformity. Comedians, authors, politicians, artists and actors have all found themselves suddenly on ‘the wrong side of history’. The consequences for expressing an opinion can range from a contract not being renewed, to full blown public humiliation and losing your livelihood and dignity.
The standards of morality are ever changing. Australian feminist Germaine Greer went from being celebrated for her radical views on feminism, to being accussed of being a transphobe. Overnight she went from being perceived as a champion of female liberation to an agent of hate.
The anonymous mob gets to decide what is right and wrong. Social media has become a colosseum of pile-ons and insults for those who dare have an opinion. It is no wonder then, that young people have gained a reputation for being snowflakes – they have every right to be. We have inherited a world of walking on eggshells. Life has become a game of Survivor. Your livelihood falls into the hands of the tribal council, except the rules change every day and there is no opportunity for redemption.
You can only hope that anything you post today on social media, won’t be seen as offensive tomorrow. Cancel culture is the antithesis of a healthy liberal democracy, and it burns people from all sides of politics.
The problem is, cancel culture believes the worst in people instead of the best. It operates on the assumption that a person is deliberately causing offense. Therefore people are judged based upon the reception rather than the intent of their actions. In post-modern fashion, it doesn’t matter how someone meant it, it matters how you interpreted it.
What is the solution to this universal madness? My instinct is to crawl into myself and never utter a word again out of fear that one misstep will ruin my life. But this is not the cure, it just reinforces the toxic culture. And that is why I am writing this article.
I propose a two pronged solution: forgiveness and humility.
Cancel culture produces a society without grace, or a space for redemption. It must be exchanged with a culture of forgiveness. We must return to a public forum of tolerance and giving the benefit of the doubt. Even when something is carelessly said or posted, are they truly to be condemned for the rest of their lives and suffer such overwhelming consequences?
There is a famous story about Jesus where the Pharisees want to stone a woman for adultery. Jesus famously rebukes them, saying “He who has not sinned cast the first stone.” It is an ethos that should be adopted to counter cancel culture. He who has not uttered a careless word, or posted something unwise, can cast the first stone. Note that this story is not endorsing adultery, but it challenges the response of hypocrisy and outrage.
Humility is the second angle to attack cancel culture; humility that our society does not have all the answers, and that in all likelihood we will be judged just as harshly by our descendants as we have judged our ancestors. If each individual took a step back and considered that they might not actually be the supreme arbiter of morality, perhaps the public square wouldn’t be as awful a place as it is now.
If we can recapture forgiveness and humility, we can turn the tides on cancel culture. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put it aptly when they wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind, “If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.”
Apart from being a literary genius, Oscar Wilde was also a giver of good advice. “Always forgive your enemies” he said, “nothing annoys them so much.” It’s time to pull the plug on this merciless culture, and replace it with good faith and forbearance.
Julia Kokic is the President of the Sydney University Conservative Club.