CANCEL CULTURE BEGAN as moral blackmail; the weight of the righteous forcing an institution to bow down to its knees and evict the sinner undergoing the public flagellation. It was not enough for him to be shamed, he must also be rendered destitute. Earlier, mobs needed organising at a physical level but social media makes it all too easy. The effort required is minimal and there is no financial cost. Now that the model had been established, is it any surprise that the phenomenon would mutate as we saw in Tanishq pulling out a perfectly decent advertisement because Hindu fundamentalists on social media found it offensive.
All that the advertisement showed was the ritual of a Hindu bride being celebrated in a Muslim family. It did no more than echo what this country has always paid lip service to, an ideal of religious harmony even if it probably never existed. It took just the scantest of trolling on Twitter for Tanishq to panic and put out this statement: ‘We are deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions and withdraw this film keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well being of our employees, partners and store staff.’
Exactly what sentiments were hurt? The one that finds affront in a marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim? The second part about the ‘well being’ of associates is more understandable because there is essentially no law in India when a group with political support decides to use violence. But the chances of that happening were remote. The leap from online to offline takes organisation and resources, and such a mundane issue would not have met the political energy threshold. By caving in even before it became an issue, Tanishq turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. From the extreme corners of Twitter, the issue was brought mainstream. Like clockwork, there was an attack on one of its showrooms soon after the advertisement was pulled out.
You can trace Tanishq’s actions to how corporates and institutions in recent times have decided that the best way to deal with online coercion is by giving in. They did so with the MeToo movement. They did so in recent times in the US when the anti-racism fervour caught on. These were thought to be virtuous movements and corporates hoped to get their image correct in going along with cancel culture.
What you see in Tanishq is the fear internalised to be issue-agnostic. They learnt to panic in the face of a compelling, if flawed, moral case. And now they can do nothing but panic whenever any mob makes any case whatsoever. As for what the present episode portends, there is the oldest rule of bullying—it never ends so long as the bully feels he can do it. In social media, every little bully also invites himself to the party once he sees a beating happening. The solution is simple: no matter who is doing the bullying, the social justice warrior or the bigot, ignore them.