As of this week six of the more than 60 books published by the globally recognised author of children books, Dr Seuss, will not be published any longer.
The six titles are cancelled due to images that portray several characters in racist and xenophobic ways – portraying black characters as savages and servants, Chinese ones with slit eyes, hunting exotic animals, and with children in the stories more often than not depicted only as white.
The decision reportedly was taken as a first step to be more inclusive of all children and communities and rid Dr Seuss of historical biases – a project to keep the author’s work relevant to current times and new social realities.
Critics were quick to challenge the decision as an instance of cancel culture, rather than an attempt at authentic attempts to correct wrongs, as the publishers claimed.
Gaining major momentum internationally, as also locally, “cancel culture” in the first instance refers to the popular practice by social media users to publicly denounce, humiliate and withdraw support from a public figure or organisation.
However, the practice has become a quick method to call out any type of offensive behaviour and mobilise social media groups to discredit the person or people associated with problematic incidents.
It’s become a tool for political action, either with ignorance or intentionally, first by selecting and highlighting a particular image or storyline that showcase an offence to social norms – “calling out”.
Then follows “dragging”, which are the insults and humiliation directed at the target, which flows into full-out cancelling.
Read only in terms of these projects it employs to discredit those guilty of offence, cancel culture seems a particularly vicious response to social dynamics.
Not so when one considers the argument for its role as a citizen practice to counter social injustices that continue to beset societies.
Cancel culture in this perspective is taken as a current day version of mass mobilisation, boycotting and divestment – political projects widely used to disrupt oppression, as also in the struggle against apartheid.
As was the case then, so goes the argument, cancel cultures today provides the means to marginalised communities to build a counter-voice and new imagination for the public spaces in society.
As a digitised form of protest, cancel culture, for citizens with little access to change public discourses, offers a sense of an activist collective and disrupts the societal image of who holds power in public.
Opponents of cancel culture argue that its practices of cancelling represent a fundamental challenge to the freedom of speech, but rather ensure that public discourses and spaces increasingly are marked by distrust and anxiety – people and their collectives are ever more fearful of the threat of being cancelled by the gaze of the unknown citizen of social media.
Cancel culture, so goes the argument, decontextualises incidents and conduct, as much as it does the people at the centre of its campaigns.
It provides no definitions of its terminologies and accusations and offers no space for the contest of ideas.
Most critically, it only cancels, it does not offer real solutions to fundamentally transform unjust realities.
Whether arguing for or against its merits, one way to make sense of the sociological realities that underpin cancel cultures is to read it as a struggle with the ghosts of the past – a “theory of hauntology”.
Hauntology refers to the ways wherein the legacies of our past return to the present in our struggles for justice.
Much in the same way as the portrayals of the other by Theodor Seuss Geisel, now long dead, still rule from beyond the grave.
* The Rev Dr BR Rudi Buys is Executive Dean and Dean of Humanities of the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor: African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education, ISSN 2706-669X.