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  • Writer's pictureFelicity Neeson

Don’t let the fear of being “cancelled” stop you from engaging

There is a lot to process in the world at the moment. Should we post a black square? Shouldn’t we post a black square? What are the ethics of marching during a pandemic? Is it better to speak out or step back and listen? The fear of doing the wrong thing can be paralysing, particularly when there are daily examples of people being criticised for their choice of response.

“Cancel culture” is a growing phenomenon where people (often celebrities) get publicly shamed and boycotted for sharing a controversial opinion. Due to this, sometimes it can feel safer to just say nothing. I strongly value honest and open communication and am concerned by how the deterrent of “cancel culture” can encourage apathy over action.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
Elie Wiesel

When reflecting on this quandary, my privilege becomes uncomfortably apparent. The fact that I can sit back and consider my approach, shows my distance from the “front lines” of this issue. As a cis white woman, I have never experienced racism, never feared unfair treatment from the police, never been removed from my family or discriminated against because of my skin colour or sexuality. I can choose to think about something else, and convince myself that “it’s not my place” to act, ignoring the fact that equality affects everyone.

"What lessens one of us lessens all of us"
Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

A few years ago, I helped organise a social justice "advocacy through art” competition with First Australians as the theme. The organising committee were so anxious to ensure that we were respectful and inclusive in our approach (and nervous of the negative reaction if we didn’t hit the mark), that we considered more than once whether we should just go with a different "safer" theme. As part of our preparation we met with Indigenous elders from across Victoria. I will always remember the words of our walking tour leader at the Koorie Heritage Trust. She said that it is the responsibility of all Australians to value and share the rich history of Indigenous Australians. In order for that to be possible, we need to foster a culture of humility where we aren’t afraid to ask questions and engage beyond polite reverence.

Being polite is not an inherently bad thing. Politeness is for strangers and acquaintances. Politeness is ‘safe’ and distant. A problem with politeness is that it keeps people at arm's reach. We aren’t polite with our close friends and family. We’ve taken the time to get to know them, to ask questions without fear of looking stupid. To overcome the “polite barrier” is to meaningfully engage. I honestly believe the best education anyone could have is to surround themselves with people vastly different from themselves, respectfully ask questions, and listen listen listen.

I want to make this very clear; I am not advocating for non Non BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Colour) to loudly share ignorant and damaging views on public platforms. As I wrote in my last blog post, I believe that dangerous ideas must be challenged, and that freedom of speech should not equal freedom of reach. This is an invitation to ask questions with curiosity, humility and openness. It is my hope that attempts to learn and grow are recognised as such, and not met with scorn and dismissal. I’ve been swept up in “cancel culture” before. The rush of righteous indignation can be intoxicating. It’s like sitting with the popular girls at primary school while they’re gossiping about the other dorky students. The delight at being included can overpower the need to know the full story. That’s a dangerous space to be in. In the words of Barack Obama:

This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities... That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.

When I start to feel helpless and lost with what to do, I look to those who are wiser, more experienced and eloquent than myself. Here are some action ideas I have seen promoted over the last few weeks. If you have further resources and ideas to share, please let me know in the comments.

Read, watch and learn:

Write to your MP

Be compassionate

Avoid sharing traumatic content

Follow experts on social media

What you do makes a difference. And you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
Jane Goodall

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Cover Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

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