Cancel vigilante culture in Singapore... and everywhere else

NOVEMBER 3 — I often say stupid things. Sometimes because I wasn’t thinking, sometimes I just lose my temper and sometimes it is because I was just ignorant of all the facts.

I would be amazed if you told me this never happened to you.

Are there people who live their lives so perfectly? Who never say the wrong thing or express an ugly thought or bias ever?

There must be.

I know because I see the number of self-righteous comments that follow any social media public shaming — individuals who show no sympathy for the offender.

Even worse, this quickly becomes a witch-hunt. Online “do-gooders” will find out where the person works, where they live, what they ate for dinner last night and even the name of their last partner.

Then other people will happily share this information — plastering the name and image of a human being everywhere — so the naming and shaming can be amplified including lobbying for the culprit to be fired/deported/divorced.

It happens quickly and it is terrifying.

Turns out there is a name for this phenomenon — cancel culture. And we must cancel this cancel culture.

I am not alone in this; in fact, I have good company. Recently former American President Barack Obama said, “The world is messy; there are ambiguities.”

He continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”

He was speaking at the inaugural Obama Foundation summit and the media summed up his comments as an accurate portrayal of the psychology of an increasingly toxic culture.

I am not as articulate as him but I agree. It is a dangerous precedent and I say this out of selfishness... because I know I am not perfect and if ever I mess up I would like a chance to apologise and learn.

The psychology that drives this behaviour is often described as “armchair activism” because it is so much easier to leave a nasty comment calling for the “cancelling” of a person who offended than it is to actually get up and do the work it would take to solve the base problems.

Most recently, on Deepavali, a good friend sent me a link to a man in Singapore who had been recorded yelling at a security guard over a parking fee levied onto his guest.

Unfortunately for this man — his implicit contempt revealed itself — he took a conversation that should have focused on a property developers’ or residents committee policy and turned it to one about the haves and have nots.

It is, of course, vulgar and it is upsetting for the security guard who was simply doing his job.

Be that as it may, responses that involve sharing a person’s phone number and personal details should not be accepted. This is the path of mob justice and dangerous populism. 

A police report has been made by the security officer who was the victim of the man’s tirade and the matter should be left to the police and if need be, the courts.

Pressure can certainly be applied online in the form of comments even memes — but making threatening phone calls to a person’s private number should be illegal.

That is borderline vigilantism and not something society needs.

The hatred and ignorance of the man's outburst will not be countered by more hatred and ignorance.

Society needs to a be a place for discussion and learning, not a forum for revenge. 

Public institutions, leaders and administrators should work to increase the space for tolerance and discussion in this society.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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