Group-shaming, cancel culture and self-censorship – a case for a truly open dialogue

In a democracy, we protect the rights of individuals to dissent, speak up and share their ideas. However in today’s world, social media has made it very easy for people to make quick and harsh judgments about someone that can have lasting ramifications. Are you noticing like I am that there are more and more instances of someone asking a question or sharing an unpopular opinion getting ostracized, shamed or Fired? How can we get to the root cause of problems or come up with solutions if people are afraid to share their views and are working off assumptions? Recently, I have noticed that we are in a “cancel culture” or “group-shaming” environment that is forcing government and companies to take actions against reasonable people who share an unpopular view, which is leading to self-censorship from many individuals who would like to be part of the solution.

Taking things out of context
Recently, Steven Pinker, an acclaimed cognitive psychologist, linguist, popular science author, and professor of psychology at Harvard, was the latest to come under attack, whom through his writing, has tried to answer complex questions relating to violence with data, along with sharing works of researchers on Twitter years ago, which is now being taken out of context. Individuals are accusing him of racism through his various works and is requesting that he be stripped of his academic standing (Link to letter of complaint , Link to analysis of complaint).

Does fear of being cancelled or shamed stifle open dialogue?
Other such examples are: Individuals are being fired for simply stating all lives matter, companies are being shamed to change terminology, brand names, or label individual’s post as truth or not etc. If you care about justice, and you absolutely should, then you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Free speech is the mechanism to keep our society working. However, our sense of justice come from those who claim to be the most offended by the conversation itself. There has been an open letter circulating with over 150 signatories that highlights how individuals are being ostracized for speaking up and offering a counter view(Link) . Additionally, an individual who has signed the letter is being shamed or attacked – I am not quite sure – by a colleague saying they feel “unsafe” because he signed his name with other individuals that may have views on other issues not related to the letter (Refer to Appendix ).

Emotional vs. rational approach
We, as humans have biases, we are irrational and we simply do not understand our own emotions. Our primal selves are hard-wired by experiences and hot emotion, which distorts and limits our view of things, sometimes magnifying threats and opportunities. We often like to think we are rational and we are operating from facts and logic, however we fall short of that. I believe we are all entitled to our opinions, and we should be able to express that in a way that is respectful – by both parties free from labels and judgement. A beautiful example of this is, Sam Harris (atheist) and a pastor having a conversation in front of a church congregation (Link ). The respectful manner this was conducted was absolutely beautiful.  We should aim to understand and change minds versus the current trend I’m noticing of labeling someone and seeking them to be cancelled or shamed. We all have very different lived experiences and through those we have formed an opinion. It may be wrong or right. However, it is your truth, which may not be aligned to current scientific research, data, or biology.

Humans are flawed, history shows this in many ways by the various atrocities. However, we can learn from our mistakes and be better. But, we first need to collectively understand (3) things:

  1. First, we need to be aware that we are forming an opinion or world view from a place of personal lived experiences and unconscious bias.
  2. Second, take a step back and really assess what we are saying and our expectation for change – Sometimes we can go too far in calling out oppressive behavior and we can end up committing oppressive behavior ourselves.
  3. Third, be open to changing your mind. Butter and Cannabis used to be controversial and demonized for reasons that can lead to bad outcomes, but now the thinking has changed.

Expanding my perspective by learning from other experiences
I am a person of color. Born in Suriname and grown up in Guyana, I slept on the floor, I used a Coco-Cola crate as a chair, ate onions or milk with rice. I mention this because this plays a role in how I view the world, along with my religion – I was born in a Hindu household, later converted to Christianity. I am aware that my lived experience is very different than others, so I constantly read and try to understand rather than cast my views, based solely on my experience. I want to be informed and approach solutions with lasting change.  Many of my stance contradicts with my religion and/or views, simply because it is the right thing to do. However lately, I find myself hesitant to speak-up or ask questions on some events out of fear that I might be group-shamed or cancelled. The writing of this article may rub some the wrong way, but that is not my intention as I’m not leaning a certain way on a particular issue. I would like us to find a better mode of open dialogue rather than the use of social media.


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