Theodor Geisel, wrote on a stationery while inside the ship to New York in 1936, the words, “And this is a story that no one can beat. I saw it all happen on Mulberry Street,”. A year later, that line became the book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” What a tongue twister. This is the first book that launched Geisel as Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss was born in 1904 and died in 1991. He is a children’s book author, poet and cartoonist. His books sold over 600 million copies and have been translated in more than 20 languages.
My wife and I read Dr. Seuss’ books to our kids when they were toddlers, my eldest son would fall asleep as we read to him Mr. Brown Can Moo Can You? And when he finally learned to speak, he would moo with us. This, I guess, is the same for all the other parents out there because Dr. Seuss is a standard when it comes to classic children’s literature. So it surprised me to learn that his estate voluntarily stopped publishing 6 books with sensitive racial contents. Since then, a lot of articles have come out associating the news with cancel culture. I am not making a conclusion that the move to stop publishing is related or driven by cancel culture, and to clarify, Dr. Seuss has not been cancelled. According to the news, they just decided to stop printing. But since cancel culture has been mentioned and gaining limelight in culture and society, I think this would be a good opportunity to talk about what it is. In this podcast, I want to discuss cancel culture, wokism and how they are associated, and how it affects businesses and personalities. To understand the culture better we must first understand the philosophy behind it and its history.
Our journey begins by taking 2 roads, the philosophical roads of postmodernism and Marxism, and where the road meets is wokism and its ultimate expression, cancel culture. Note that I will confine its effects only on personalities and businesses in the Philippines.
It started from a chain of reactions. Postmodernism, the prevailing worldview today, is a reaction to the enlightenment. Enlightenment is a reaction to the middle-age philosophy. To better understand, let’s begin with the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, the main philosophy is faith explains everything, or faith comes first before reason. The Church then was the authority in everything. If the church does not allow something, then you can’t touch it and if you decide to tinker with some ideas banned by the church then you are risking your life. However, it did not stop some people from going into the no trespass areas, this led to some changes. The church eased on some issues, it recognized that the physical universe can be studied and learning about its properties will lead man to know God better, but it comes with a condition: that men of reason will attribute everything to God as the first cause. This opening gave birth to what we know today as modern science, and together with it is when reason started to crawl, then slowly it learned to stand up, then it learned to run. Once it did, the philosophy of enlightenment followed, so faith was put on the back seat, because by then, science was able to explain and discover many things in the universe that faith failed to explain before. To define enlightenment better, here is Immanuel Kant. Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. Dare to know! With all the advancements in science and technology, man has reached modernity and has put his complete hope in reason and sciences to bring him lasting happiness, but then something happened that broke him, World War 1. He thought that science and reason are the answers to a beautiful, he was wrong, and so he reacted against enlightenment. His reaction gave birth to postmodernity and the features of postmodernity are: anti-reason, skepticism, and subjectivity. The 4 philosophers and academics who were all left leaning, led the movement: Michel Focaoult, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Jean-François Lyotard. All their philosophies can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who said that since we cannot know everything, then nothing is objective. In essence, postmodernity is characterized by subjectivity or relativity. This is a quick explanation to postmodernity but it has enough for us to understand wokism.
The next road we will take is that of Marxism. Marxism is a social, political and economic philosophy that examines the effects of capitalism on people, economy and society. The key idea behind Marxism is that the relationship between capitalists and workers creates conflict and as an effect, the workers are exploited, hence the oppressor and oppressed narrative. So that there is no one that will be oppressed, the philosophy argues for a classless or equal society, that is their moral promise. Many countries like Russia, China, East Germany and others have used the ideology to run the country but have failed both economically and morally. Since the believers of Marxism are not to give up easily, they went back to the drawing board and looked for a new way to critique capitalism. What they changed was the moral standard: capitalism has been successful in creating wealth as there are less poor people today than before, but they failed in making everyone feel psychologically equal, there are still those who are oppressed in the capitalist system. Here is an example: Women may now have voting rights or have equal access to education, but in terms of pay scheme, they get less than men.
The road of the oppressed and oppressor narrative crossed the road of subjectivity, and at the crossing is wokism. Woke is a term that refers to awareness of social injustice in society and wokism is the philosophy behind it. The term Social Justice has its roots from liberal values, which promotes freedom, justice and equality. In society it looks like this: that citizens, no matter what class, gender or age, should get fair and equal treatment in society. Now, for the woke social justice is political correctness and identity politics, a system that gives highly importance to once identity. How it looks like is this: recently in the news, a translator’s work was dropped from translating the work of a young female black activist because he is not young female and black. That’s a quick example of identity politics. So, to bring social justice to society, wokes expose society’s problems judged by the principles of Marxism and postmodernism.
Wokism originated in the US, but as we have seen, the roots can be traced back to Europe. How it got to the US and spread, is through the academics who went to Europe to study and brought back the idea and injected it in the US academic system as suggested by Steven Hicks, a philosopher who wrote a book on postmodernism and Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay who wrote Cynical theory. The same idea that the ideology will grow from schools was predicted by Herbert Marcuse, the father of modern Marxism. Between the 70’s and 2000’s the ingredients of wokism are slowly growing into society, although it is not yet known by its name. Then in 2010, the philosophy gained traction, it is evident in the call to be politically correct.
Now let us look at the role social media played. Our beliefs are influenced and reinforced by what or who we are exposed to. Since we spend hours on social media and streaming, our beliefs no longer come from the immediate family members , schools or churches. So we have multiple sources of beliefs and a family can consist of members with different beliefs. In a family there can be conservative, or progressive. Gone are the days when one family subscribed to the same idea. Now, this belief is reinforced by social media and search engines. Computer algorithms are programmed to work in such a way that it studies our behavior and shows us what we want to see and what we will agree on and this reinforces our beliefs. Since it has been reinforced daily through the results of our search or those that are fed to us, it becomes an infallible belief to us. Former president Obama even has a story about this during his interview with David Letterman. Here is how the story goes: “Somebody took a liberal, a conservative and quote-unquote a moderate and sent them on a Google search. Egypt — type it in. For the conservative, it came up “Muslim Brotherhood,” and for the liberal it came up “Tahrir Square” [the site of mass public protests in Cairo] and for the moderate it came up “Vacation Spots on the Nile.” … [W]hatever your biases were, that’s where you were being sent.” There is also this study that says, we tend to look for news or articles or join communities that agree with our beliefs. So if you are a conservative, you read articles leaning towards conservative ideas, and you join groups having the same idea. So now, people are formed into different communities with different beliefs. What happens now when beliefs of these groups are challenged? My simple answer is mess. So, who is right?
Michel Foucoult suggests that the source of truth and knowledge is determined by the one who controls the narrative. If that is the case then one way to control the narrative is to control the source of information, or in a world where everything is subjective, be the loudest or the noisiest. Evidently, one of the noisiest activities is “cancel culture”. It is so noisy that the mob can convince you of their truth claims.
So what is cancel culture? It is how wokes express their wokeness, a modern way of ostracizing, boycotting or calling out someone’s mistake, mostly through social media. As an effect the person or business no longer gets support or the business may lose its reputation and eventually close for business. In order to get cancelled one has to act or say something about controversial matters that are unacceptable or offensive. This reminds me of how Rowan Atkinson describes “cancel culture”, a “digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn”.
Let us look at how wokism and cancel culture work in the Philippines with these 4 examples.
One that was canceled at the height of the pandemic is the creator of this rich, educated Auntie who wears these big pearl earrings and gives 1000 pesos to her obedient godchildren. The creator was interviewed in Inquirer Lifestyle about the reason for being cancelled, “I began getting threats on my Facebook page, but I ignored them, when I began posting the Auntie videos, I think I was already being monitored. A group of trolls had formed a chat group which sent messages telling me to take down or delete the Julie videos because they said that I was no longer funny, that I was ugly, and that my being gay was a mistake.” After that he took a bit of a rest from playing the funny aunt.
Another one is a rich Filipina artist who was under fire for doing a photoshoot of herself and her art in the slums to promote her exhibit. She was called out and shamed for using poverty to promote her art. She has since then taken down the photo from her social media account.
Another example of a business that was called out is this high-end resort in Cebu that is famous with local and foreign tourists. They earned the ire of netizens because the owner tried to educate and give his diagnosis, which he got from google, to a parent whose child has special needs over a complaint on an online reservation site. After this, many netizens came to the rescue on behalf of the mother, bashed the owner and suggested boycotting and withdrawing support for the resort, while Groups advocating the welfare of children with special needs also called the resort owner’s attention about the matter. These forced the owner to apologize and resign.
Another business example is that of a cola commercial where a mother and an adopted child were having a conversation. To some, the commercial promotes the negative stereotype of being adopted, so activists called out the company while some netizens canceled the beverage, this forced the company to explain.
These 4 are examples of wokism and cancel culture in the Philippines. I am sure there are others but these 4 made it into mainstream news so I used it for familiarity. We can clearly see here that most reactions are driven by political incorrectness and unrighteous acts. We have not yet reached the level of US wokism- which has a clear left agenda to destroy tradition and truth- as of this writing since Filipinos are more forgiving and tolerant and our Christian values are firmly ingrained. But if we leave things unguarded, or even unaware that these ideologies enter through media and educational institutions, we will wake up with values we no longer know.
A more important question is, is cancel culture effective? Results will tell us. Wokism and cancel culture are here and affect businesses and personalities, Wokeism in principle tries to achieve social justice by exposing social problems it sees from the lens of postmodernism and Marxism, and one of the expressions is canceling or boycotting. On the upside, exposing injustices allows public discourse for social change. At times it can also bring down people and personalities and businesses that hide behind their power and money. However, in the process to bring about change, canceling or calling out results in damaged reputation and livelihood, brought by the verdict of the social media court, and missed opportunities for productive discourse. In this view, only one’s anger born out of malice is satisfied by casting stones. Maybe, it is better to step back, listen and find a productive solution.