Lifestyle, Arts & Culture

Benjamin Kheng Discusses Cancel Culture


Thirteen-year-old me was watching a highlight video of one of my sports heroes, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. It was not a basketball highlight video. Instead, I heard the words – “assault”, “strangling”, “consent”, and other things that required an alarming amount of Google search. The hearing was explicit, and my hero hung his head and cried beside his wife, who looked both supportive and empty. In another video are more words – “settlement” and “apologies”.

My hero went on to have an illustrious 20- year career with five championships and plenty of smiles. He even made it onto my mobile phone wallpaper a bunch of times – the Black Mamba, the growl, the excellence, and the… rapist? These days, one in every hundred Instagram comments offers a solemn reminder of a time that Kobe Bryant would rather forget. He was acquitted of the charges, but was he acquitted in the court of public opinion? If the same thing happens today, will he still get to lace up his sneakers?

The relentless pursuit of political correctness has left many carcasses in its wake – some are warranted while others are debatable. However, do these fallen heroes who once graced our Spotify playlists and posters still deserve our worship? The way we treat a Michael Jackson hit or a Louis CK comedy special differs greatly based on a number of factors. To set the record straight, cancel culture, sustained by actual law, is pretty effective. One’s conviction of sexual assault or any other criminal offence absolutely taints his or her body of work, regardless of their talents. You will not see me moving to R. Kelly’s Ignition ever again.

When it comes to tactless behaviour or insensitive old tweets, opinions are more divided, and we are a little less trigger-happy. Is there ever redemption in the “cancelled” horizon? I opine that it is on a case-by-case basis. Kevin Spacey, though exonerated, probably cannot put his name card in the Hollywood fishbowl ever again. On the other hand, Mel Gibson covered up his misogynistic, racist remarks with a “drunk” excuse. How did Gibson get a pass but not Spacey? Is he still an anti-Semite? I still cried buckets watching Hacksaw Ridge, but would I have cried less audibly if I knew he was directing?

Much of this is an opinion of a cisgendered, privileged male, and I am happy to have my notions challenged and changed. Two things must happen for redemption in my books: an earnest apology with a radical attempt to correct themselves and forgiveness from the victims.

If I do not belong to the group of people at the receiving end of the attacks, then I do not get to decide on their behalf. Why do we, in our moments of outrage, speak up for Mormons when they are pretty chill about the musical, The Book Of Mormon? If the LGBT+ community collectively decides to forgive old bigoted tweets on account of real repentance, then I should also learn the graceful art of clemency. And I would advise any man against dispensing their wisdom on Facebook over cases of clear-cut misogyny.

While ex-offenders like James Gunn and Kevin Hart now tread and tweet lightly, we also have the Logan Pauls with half-baked apologies, smug mugs, and reckless notoriety. Also, adding pepper to the mala hotpot is our insatiable hunger for social media meltdowns. Scour the memes and TikTok videos about the James Charles fallout for perfect examples of how quick and creative we are. These hair-trigger responses push the glimmer of redemption even further back for those deserving of it.

Who then decides who is deserving? I laid out the “law of redemption” earlier, but that strictly applies to myself and my own peace of mind. When our fallen heroes crawl back repentant and contrite, can we be critical yet compassionate? All of these cases are so nuanced and different in nature, and at the end of the day, it is a beautifully personal decision. I am not commanding anyone to never put on a Michael Jackson record again or give House Of Cards another go.

The act of celebrating a fallen hero’s work and art is, in and of itself, not a crime, and there is a strange suspension of reality with every piece of art created. Man In The Mirror is a bittersweet listen after the posthumous allegations, but it will also always transport me back to my childhood home with my mother dancing to the stereo and traces of lasagne wafting from the kitchen.

As far as I am concerned, here is to a world of justice and forgiveness. Here is also to my heroes who fell and cared enough to rise again, equal parts god-like and human. Every time I shoot that paper ball into the trash can, I am still going to yell, “Kobe!”