Cancel Culture and the limits of Identity Politics with Bayo Akomolafe

In the midst of Black Lives Matter, there is both a renewed urgency to protect marginalised groups and a simultaneous backlash against it. Is this because of ignorance or is there a valid concern?

In the midst of Black Lives Matter, there is both a renewed urgency to protect marginalised groups and a simultaneous backlash against it. Is this because of ignorance or is there a valid concern? 

Friendly critics draw a distinction between the goals and methods of social justice activism. While the intentions are good, the dominant display of social justice activism is contributing to a political culture that strips complex issues of nuanced discussion. There are no two sides to the debate, not even multiple perspectives on a complex issue, but instead a subtle but powerful moral pressure to conform to the prevailing social justice orthodoxy, for fear of being labeled racist or oppressive. Think moral outrage, cancel culture, middle class women being derogatorily referred to as Karens, or the dilemma for people who resonate with JK Rowling’s opinions on biological sex, but in no way want to be transphobic. Even if activists are completely right on these issues, this isn’t a good strategy to get the rest of the world on board. 

We are in a paradoxical landscape where unacknowledged trauma shapes all sides, and the dominated become the dominators, balkanising into smaller tribes that speak largely to their in-group. This highly polarising activism plays into the hands of the far right who capitalise on an increasing allergy to ‘woke’ activism. It’s Trump’s trump card in the 2020 US presidential election. 

Our intuition is that these polarising tendencies have psychological roots that need to be understood and integrated. The promise is a mature form of activism that can vigorously stand with those who are oppressed, whilst finding a language and form that inspires the majority to stand with us. Not from a place of fear or silent coercion, but empathy and integrity.