Self-Righteous Immorality: The Dangers of Cancel Culture

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By Martyn McGrath

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 10 of VARSITY News.


Cancel culture constitutes a practice of acting on an accusation of problematic behavior or speech by socially ostracizing the accused individual and/or their professional, artistic or academic practices. Cancel culture goes against some of the ideals and morals that make up the fabric of modern, post-colonial South Africa. From free expression to the principles of Ubuntu. Those who perpetrate it tend to do so with a self-righteous outrage which they believe gives them the right to silence and shut-down any one who disagrees with them.


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 enshrines in the Bill of Rights the ‘Right to Freedom of Expression’ under s16. This free expression extends deeply, even to those who may be expressing so-called ‘problematic viewpoints’. The only check on this freedom of expression is in s16(2) which prohibits war propaganda, incitement to violence and incitement to cause harm based on race, gender, ethnicity or religion. All of these restrictions are carefully put in place to maximise the rights of all involved. Something being ‘problematic’ or ‘offensive’ is not enough to be deemed as breaching these provisions, and any response that attempts to forcefully silence people who are not in breach of s16(2) is, in itself, contravening these constitutional values.


Further to this – cancel culture contradicts the reconciliatory concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu focuses on reconciliation, unification, community and understanding rather than vindictive and retributive action. It is in contradiction of the vindictive, brutal, judgmental and single-minded culture of Apartheid-era ‘justice’. Ubuntu looks to understand and to transform people and communities – instead of ostracising and embittering them. Shouting people down, refusing to hear their side of the story, accusing them without proper processes and then running their reputation through the mud without does not achieve desirable results. Not only does it create anger, bitterness and fear in the accused person rather than remorse and sorrow – but it brings no justice – because if somebody is truly guilty of a crime – especially related to GBV – then they should go to prison, being ‘cancelled’ is a get-out-of-jail free card for those who are true perpetrators of such horrendous crimes.


Even if we disregard these points – we must question the morality of simply ‘cancelling’ someone based on accusations of misconduct. To refuse to engage with an individual and hear their side of a story, or offer them a fair trial is immoral and unjust.A common argument is that the crime they are being accused of is even more immoral or unjust, and that is as may be. However, the fact that one wrong has been committed is not justification to retaliate with another wrong – especially if the accusation is unproven. So it appears that whichever way we unpack it, cancel culture is immoral, it does not achieve justice and it is against the values of the constitution.



This section of VARSITY is a vehicle for expression on any topic by members of the UCT community. The opinions within this section are not necessarily those of the VARSITY collective or its advertisers.


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