From cancel to propel culture

Moses Naim, in his book The End of Power, describes a contemporary phenomenon he calls ‘the Gulliver Effect’. In the contemporary landscape of power, a large number of small actors have the possibility to prevent all sorts of things from happening – but there is no actor powerful enough to take resolute action.

I’ve come to understand ‘cancel culture’ as one component of the Gulliver Effect. It may rightly be seen as the downtrodden rising up against oppression, using the tools at their disposal for justice, speaking truth to power. This may well offer a needed emotional outlet to some who deserve it, and rightly condemn abuses of power. Yet the effect is not generalized empowerment, or a greater capacity to coordinate change.

Anger is a consuming passion. Cancelling mobs have a fascinating power. All eyes are glued on social media. Making those channels prime real estate for advertisement. And so, with every cancel storm, shareholders cash in. Behind the shouts of popular anger, can you hear the background chuckle of Zuckerberg, pension funds managers and wealthy boomers. 

It’s not just about money flows: it’s energy spent. It takes effort, and time, to organize a social movement, articulate an alternative worldview, or build a work of art. Anger will drain much of that energy. And then, to soothe the angst, we spend our cash on Uber Eats and Netflix subscriptions. Besides, polarised minds are ill-prepared for the creative efforts of inventing a new world. It’s too much complexity to hold. So, by leaning into the anger, we may well leave a wide empty playing field for large corporates. Once again, I can hear the chuckle of Sillicon Valley tycoons and wealthy boomers in the background.  

So here is a proposal, to counter the Gulliver effect. What if we were to deliberately stop engaging in those anger games, engineered to the benefit of wealthy boomers and billionaires. What if we were to use that energy to create new worlds instead? Easier said than done – well, here is a possible first step. What if, instead of ‘cancel culture’, we were to build a ‘propel’ culture. What if we were to use our brains and hearts and bodies not to destroy what we hate and despise, but praise and uplift what we love and admire?   

This is – in fact – what I propose to do over the coming months or so. Shift the tone to gratitude, identify people I admire, projects I find promising, books and ideas I find inspiring and admirable – and articulate what it is about them that I like. As an act of resistance against engineered malaise.

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