A Discussion on Democracy and Cancel Culture
By Bilge Guven, Staff Writer
The air was buzzing with curiosity and excitement as the crowd of students filled Hart House for a much anticipated face to face with Margaret Atwood.
“The (Political) Right kidnapped free speech,” said the projection of Atwood on a screen as the discussion got started, “we have to kidnap it back.” After the disappointment of the renowned writer not being able to attend in person due to COVID, such a strong start was reassuring.
Randy Boyagoda, a literature professor and the principal at St. Michael’s College, was interviewed alongside Atwood by Sam Tanenhaus, former editor at the New York Times. The three talked about democracy and the dangers it faces today. Atwood mentioned the “jagged line” that democracy follows—an insightful perspective since Western nations otherwise tend to see Democracy as a done deal.
Atwood made the point that we have become a lot less self reliant: “We expect something called the government to do a lot of taking care of us.” Boyagoda asked what is sacrificed by citizens in social welfare democracies in exchange for state protection, positing that the price is autonomy. He is of the opinion that we turn to a “Mr. Fix It”, a sort of “Big Brother” to solve our problems. The panelists agreed that people should not become passive pawns in the dynamic structure of democracy. Atwood called for people to take individual action. She talked about her climate activism as an example and said, “Despair is no answer to anything.”
Regarding Toronto specifically, Boyagoda referenced the increased police presence around Queen’s Park due to ongoing protests. He claimed that this caused a quiet erosion of democracy – in himself and the larger scale. He got used to the police being around!
The conversation quickly tumbled towards a thinly veiled critique of cancel culture. Boyagoda talked about the idea of a “global village”. He said, “In a global village, incompatible realities sit side by side on the bus.”
Atwood mentioned the discourse online, “You are not in a village on the internet.” She continued, asserting that people have a high tolerance for eccentricity as long as it’s eccentricity within themselves.
The panellists then began discussing the role of words, language and rhetoric play in democracy. Boyagoda said that in order to have a coherent conversation, people need to agree on the definitions of the words they are using, which is very difficult to do online. Consequently, having a coherent online conversation is riddled with challenges.
Boyagoda then gave an anecdote. He was having a debate on cultural appropriation with a student in a public area when another student started filming. He got very anxious about the words he was using. When he told a colleague about his frustration with the situation, he was greeted with the sentiment that perhaps it was a good thing, “Maybe you were going to say something wrong,” his friend told him. Boyagoda implied that this was an erosion of democracy.
Then, Boyagoda said that the word feminist had become a fraught term, referring to the controversies Margaret Atwood has been involved in in relation to excluding trans people from feminist rhetoric.
When asked if Margaret Atwood finds herself self-censoring, she responded by saying, “I was badly brought up and I don’t have a job.” She then said that writers who don’t have a job are called to speak in public because they can say things that would get employed people fired from their jobs. “We see a lot of mistaking beliefs for facts,” she added. This tangent was very obviously dog-whistling her passive involvement in reinforcing trans exclusionary radical feminist ideas, which has been widely criticised for being harmful to marginalised groups.
The atmosphere became very tense as she kept making jokes and only some strained laughter emerged from the packed room. The awkward tension only grew when she said that Randy Boyagoda himself was culturally appropriated, referring back to his aforementioned story of the student filming him during a debate.
Carmen, a student who attended the panel, said that the event did not live up to her expectations.