Over the last week, old celebrity, comedian and social media influencer videos, interviews, and tweets have resurfaced on Twitter and other social media platforms, causing a stir. Stars were chastised for their tweets, jokes, and use of casteist slurs. The cause of the uproar was the content, which was openly casteist and sexist.
The uproar began when comedian Neville Shah was called out for making fun of doctors from lower castes. Soon after, a slew of other celebrities was accused on similar grounds. Yuvraj Singh, Salman Khan, Randeep Hooda, Munmun Dutta, Yuvika Chowdhury, Atul Khatri, and others were among those who were chastised for making casteist remarks.
The list of celebrities, particularly comedians, who have not made casteist remarks is likely to be shorter than that of those who have.
Over the last week, old celebrity videos, interviews, and tweets have resurfaced online, causing a stir. Stars were chastised for their tweets, jokes, and use of casteist slurs. The cause of the uproar was the content, which was openly casteist and sexist.
While the comedians' content, jokes, and punchlines varied, one thing they all had in common was a pattern of punching down on lower castes. The topics ranged from mocking constitutional reservations to mocking lower-caste occupations. Abusing Mayawati, the BSP supremo and four-time Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, was one of the running gags.
"BMC getting machines which lures mosquitos & kills. Next have tents with Sunny Leone outside, lure rapists & inside unleash Mayawati on them", Atul Khatri said in one of his old tweets.
Similarly, another comedian Abish Mathew also tweeted "Mayawati is so ugly, only thing she can erect are statues"
What is punching down?
While comedians and social media influencer used the excuse that their remarks were old, they failed to recognise that jokes about Mayawati or Dalits should never have been made in the first place.
When a comedian crosses a line, you might hear someone argue that jokes should only "punch up, not down." They mean to say that you should only mock or imitate people who are considered powerful.
When we make jokes about politicians' corruption or immorality, we are "punching up." Someone more powerful than us is the target of our satire. In a world where the scales are always tipped in favour of the one percent, comedy routines like this one help to restore balance in our culture. They are also a powerful tool for holding our leaders accountable.
The Problem with punching down
People who make casteist, sexist, or Islamophobic jokes, on the other hand, are "punching down." The subjects of these jokes may be incompetent in their own way, whether they are politicians who exploit their popularity, doctors who appear incompetent, or religious fanatics who use dogma to incite violence.
The issue with punching down arises when their incompetence is linked to their larger social identities as members of historically marginalised groups. In isolation, men joking about their wife's driving may appear amusing. However, if this premise is linked to their spouse's gender and becomes a generalisation about all-female drivers, it serves as the foundation for every misogynistic WhatsApp forward.
Reservation and quota jokes may appear innocuous to upper-caste comedians, but to Dalits, they are a constant reminder of the abuse and harassment they face every day.
Most celebrities, on the other hand, complained about being victims of cancel culture. What they failed to recognise and understand was their position of privilege. The majority of comics are men, and almost all are upper-caste. This reveals a significant lack of minority perspectives in Indian comedy.
Should we hold comedians accountable?
It is critical to discuss how, even if comedians do not intend to offend anyone, what they say is still inherently offensive. Comedians are constantly excused for such behaviour because they claim it was "just a joke." When a joke is made at the expense of a human being, it is not funny. Those remarks would not be acceptable in any other situation.
Comedians use people as punchlines in their acts with no regard for how it affects the people they are joking about. Although this "comedy" is intended to be harmless, they contribute to and reinforce stereotypes that are already prevalent in our society.
They are harmful because they harm the people who are targeted, both individually and collectively. They promote and reinforce stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination.
Victims of this type of humour are frequently blamed for being "too sensitive" and unable to take a joke. Comedians get away with far too much impunity.
They continue to make problematic jokes despite half-hearted apologies that are full of excuses. Too much emphasis is placed on the comedians' intentions, while not enough emphasis is placed on the actual people they dehumanise. The victims of the jokes are frequently ignored.
Accountability must be established for the offensive language and hateful rhetoric used by comedians for the sake of a punchline.
What is cancel culture?
The idea that a person can be "cancelled" — that is, culturally barred from having a prominent public platform or career — has become a polarising topic of debate in recent years. The rise of "cancel culture" and the concept of cancelling someone corresponds with a familiar pattern: a celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash ensues, which is often fueled by politically progressive social media. When it comes to cancel culture, political correctness is really important, especially at this time.
Then there are calls to cancel the person — to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through work boycotts or disciplinary action from an employer.
Accountability vs Cancel Culture
To many people, the process of publicly calling for accountability, and then boycotting if nothing else works, has become an important tool of social justice — a way of combating, through collective action, some of the enormous power imbalances and stereotype that frequently exist between public figures with broad platforms and audiences, and the people and communities whose words and actions they may harm with their offensive comments and 'humor' especially against the less privileged.
One of the reasons why the exact meaning of the term is still being determined is that it is relatively new and its scope is still evolving with evolving online behaviour. The most visible manifestations of cancel culture occur when a celebrity or public figure says or writes something or engages in an act that the public finds offensive and inappropriate.
It works as follows: when a large number of people on social media platforms collectively object to any action taken by a public figure, calls to ‘cancel' the person are made. This cancellation occurs by putting pressure on the individual's employer to fire them, putting pressure on brands to drop their association with the offending individual, threatening a boycott, or engaging in any other action that has an impact on the individual's reputation.
Does cancel culture work?
The debates surrounding cancel culture have also sparked debates about whether ‘cancelling' someone or something has any long-term consequences. In a broader sense, cancel culture is a form of collective punishment meted out to public figures and, increasingly, private individuals who have unexpectedly found themselves in the public eye due to their own words and actions.
Cancel culture is also about imposing some level of accountability on an individual, though there have been debates about whether this is justified, particularly from a legal standpoint. As an example, when reports surfaced of public figures engaging in inappropriate acts or acts of violence and abuse against women during the #MeToo movement, discussions ensued.
What are the repercussions of Cancel Culture?
One of the most visible examples of the use of cancel culture was when Affleck was sued for sexual harassment on the set of the mockumentary 'I'm Still Here' by two women. The actor settled both cases out of court, but these reports resurfaced during the 2017 Oscars when he was nominated for and won the award for ‘Best Actor for ‘Manchester By the Sea.' At the time, social media users attempted to ‘cancel' Affleck, holding him responsible for both incidents, and public opinion was strongly opposed to the actor being lauded and recognised by the Academy Awards.
Vox cites the case of American actor Kevin Hart, who did not appear to face any real consequences for his homophobic tweets and alleged jokes made in the past. Following the publication of these reports, Hart was forced to resign as host of the 2019 Academy Awards. Critics pointed out that Hart never truly apologised for his actions, and that he was unaffected financially or professionally as a result of his tweets and jokes.
When reports surfaced during the 2016 elections of Trump speaking about women in an offensive and degrading manner, it did not have a significant impact on his business interests, and he went on to occupy the highest public office in the United States.
According to Kimberly Foster, the founder of the website For Harreit, who has written about cancel culture, the term is used to describe a variety of actions. "Cancel culture can include everything from people with the most money and privilege in our society getting push back for saying things others found distasteful to regular everyday people losing their jobs for relatively minor infractions."
Thoughts on Cancel Culture
However, as cancelling became more popular on social media, it evolved into a way to rally others to reject a person or business. This can happen when the target violates social norms, such as making sexist remarks, but it has also happened when people express their views on politics, business, and even pop culture.
When an ordinary person is a target, the options for apologising or resolving a problem are even more limited. This may imply that the financial consequences will be more severe. "It's important to remember that someone is paying that price," says Alexis Odesser, a Bliss Integrated crisis public relations expert. She adds that brands targeted by cancel culture can often find ways to move on from an incident, whereas individuals can face very costly consequences.