Growing up in Umuahia, armed robbery in the streets was so common that gangs would send letters in advance to the houses they intended to rob asking for their cooperation. There was no need alerting the police because they always seemed to arrive just minutes after the robbers had left. No one had confidence in the police any more. Rumors even had it that some members of the police force were also gang members supplying weapons and information to their respective gangs.
So what did residents do? They started taking justice into their own hands. Since the police who were entrusted with the duty of serving and protecting the citizens were failing them, then there had to be another way, even if it meant being barbaric and going against all sense of morality and conscience. I remember the first time I saw a burnt body. I was about 12 years old. I was on my way to school when on the road, I saw a charred body with tires littered around. I was later told that a thief was caught, killed and the body burnt by an angry mob. This became a norm. There was always a body lying on the streets every other day, and it seemed as though there was little or nothing the government could do about it. This practice spread throughout the state and was seen happening in other states in the country.
Slowly, it metamorphosed and became a weapon of revenge. People started setting up anybody they had a grudge against for the kill. All they had to do was shout, ‘Ole!’, meaning thief, and in minutes, the smell of burnt skin would permeate the air. I remember coming back one day from the market, and I was told that just after I’d left, a man was lynched and burnt. What was his crime? He bought a piece of meat from a meat seller, and forgot to pay. I heard of another who was burnt for taking a few cubes of food seasoning since the seller didn’t have change. A monster had been created, and lives were being destroyed over petty issues.
While in some parts of the world, lynching and burning people are still common, the internet and in particular, the cries on social media, has reduced the way people are lynched on the streets, however, it has brought in another form of lynching – cyber bulling, the cancel culture and words.
Sometime last year, I was going through the comment section of an Instagram post about a certain celebrity by a major blog in the United States, and almost 90% of comments on the said post were saying, ‘He’s cancelled.’ Honestly, it was my first time of learning of this not-so-new social concept.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, cancelling refers to the online shaming of an individual or brand, who may have said something (whether in the past, and was recently dug out), or done something that a certain group of angry people on social media consider offensive. Sometimes, the individual doesn’t even have to say or do, it just has to appear like they said or did, and that’s it, they’re sentenced to the supreme court of human feelings.
Yes, it is true that there’s needed reckoning on issues pertaining to race, social justice, political accountability, etc., and social media has provided a platform for expression of free speech, but at the same time, it has also provided a platform for the suppression of free speech. It’s paradoxical, I know, but it’s true. Open debate and freedom of thought and speech has been sacrificed on the altars of political correctness so as not to offend a certain community of people just to avoid being called out, cancelled, doxed or shamed online in any form or manner.
Taking my time to investigate the cancel culture and the ‘murders’ done on the courts of public opinion, what I started noticing however, was the striking resemblance to the jungle justice I saw all around me while growing up, especially regarding the weaponization of hashtags for the persecution of persons who we don’t agree with.
There’s a question we often should begin with when it comes to this issue of call-outs, and that’s the question of culture. There are basically three cultures in relation to absolute according to Ravi Zacharias.
- Theonomous culture, theos meaning God and nomos meaning law. It simply means that God’s law is so self-evident that it is imbedded in our hearts and generally accepted as a consensual law by the society. This could be seen in societies such as India where natural laws detect the culture.
- Heteronomous culture, where the mainstream culture is determined by the leadership at the top; where handful at the top control the masses. This can be seen in Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
- Autonomous culture, where each person detects their own moral prerogatives, and where one becomes a law to himself. This can be seen in Western countries and most progressive societies.
So the question is, if as a society we have neither a theonomous nor a heteronomous culture, leaving us with an autonomous culture, why don’t we respect the autonomy of each individual? If I share my view and speak my mind on a social issue, are you going to give me the privilege of my autonomy, or as soon as you disagree with my view, you’ll switch to a heteronomous mode, force me to accept the generally accepted mode of opinion, or I face the dire consequences of being canceled, called out, or given negative reviews?
This year, I came across a new concept. It’s called dragging, and it’s popular on Nigerian Twitter. It’s an aspect of calling out where someone’s name is dragged to the mud over what was alleged they said or did. It doesn’t have to be proven or even true. Once it’s been alleged, the person is at the risk of losing all forms of social currency. It’s become a favorite pastime of this generation, dragging. We hop on the next trend, champion the next hot hashtag for engagement purposes (likes and retweets), and at the end of it all, we say we were just having fun, or joking, while hiding behind keypads.
A lot of awareness to mental health has been made these past few years, and I’m excited about how people are now taking their mental health more seriously. However, despite the progress made in mental health awareness around the world, I often wonder if people understand the psychological damage the cancel culture, and cyber bullying in general has on the people it’s being perpetuated on. There’s an interesting verse in the Bible that says, “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I was only joking!”” And this is very telling on the attitude of calling people out without verifying the facts, and what one ends up doing in that regard is throwing arrows and death.
It’s okay to show disapproval. It’s okay to give your opinion on issues that you feel the need to address. However, we must be careful not use our words as clubs, petrol and match sticks. It’s important to verify the facts, and form constructive words based on facts. We must not form judge and jury to every case, but allow the courts of law to do their job. Our words have consequences, and just like the Bible said, “every idle word that men shall speak, they’ll give account thereof in the day of judgement.”