On “Cancel Culture” and Being “Woke” in Singapore

Talk of the Town was a series in which Wildchild discussed the best and the worst in pop culture today, but dare we pivot? In this article, we try our hand at socio-cultural commentary, framing and analyzing “cancel culture” and “woke-ism” in the context of Singapore.

When I typed Today Online into my search bar, the first suggestion offered by Google autocomplete was “today online woke”. This comes as no surprise, for the latest article under the publication’s Gen Y Speaks column has been making the rounds on social media. Dana Teoh, a 24-year-old Communications and New Media undergraduate from the National University of Singapore, wrote about “woke-ism” and “cancel culture” for an assignment. It was then submitted to the media outlet by her professor, Bertha Henson.

This article was primed to go viral. The headline, “This is why I don’t want to be woke. Don’t cancel me for it”, is so provocative that it’s hard to imagine that it was published by the media outlet without the metrics in mind. In her first-person essay, Teoh broaches two trending topics in Singapore — the trans experience and “cancel culture” — and made them about herself, a cis woman afraid of being “canceled” for voicing her opinions. With a headline and premise that appeals to our libidinal instincts like anger and gossip, it is no wonder that this op-ed drives clicks, leaving spectacle, controversy, as well as division in its wake. It is infuriating to know that Today Online continues to profit off our outrage (which is why the link to the full essay brings you to a PDF and not the original site).

In Laura Bennett’s deep-dive about the first-person industrial complex in media, she writes, “First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting. And first-person essays have also become the easiest way to jolt an increasingly jaded Internet to attention, as the bar for provocation has risen higher and higher.” As someone who believes that personal essays can be substantive and nuanced, it pains me to see shoddy first-person writing being exploited for clicks and to echo the well-represented opinions of the establishment, ones that discourage progressive ideas that challenge the status quo. Since Henson was the one who submitted the piece to Today, I wonder how much agency Teoh had in allowing the news outlet to run the op-ed. Other questions I have include: What led her to agree to the publication? Was she prepared for her work to go public? Is the byline worth the self-exposure and online infamy? 

Why the Essay is Problematic

The introduction of the essay is written in a fragmented manner, filled with hyperboles (“I believe we are making the world a better place”) and vague statements that are not backed with evidence (“A year later, she still seems to be lying low — I haven’t seen her name in a while”). Without defining the parameters of “woke-ness”, Teoh begins with the aspect of “canceling” that she agrees with, namely, the call to abolish slurs. Right after that, she dives into how “cancel culture” has gone too far, citing JK Rowling as an example of someone who was “canceled” — which she defines as “extreme censorship” — for merely expressing her views. Teoh inserts a screenshot of one tweet by Rowling, calling it her “fall from grace”, and defends the author’s right to classify trans women as a group distinct from cis women. Her point is misleading and obscures the fact that Rowling has repeatedly denied the existence of trans women over the years and continues to have access to over 14 million followers on Twitter, amongst other platforms. Nevertheless, Teoh supports the author’s decision to post that particular tweet, asserting that she believes in freedom of thought — as if that can be policed — and speech. 

Teoh then professes her ignorance regarding “trans issues, trans rights, and the trans experience”, signaling some self-awareness. Those in favor of her piece may use this admission to defend her, arguing that Teoh should be allowed to process her thoughts without risk of being “canceled”, or that she never once claimed to have any expertise on the subject at hand. Such perspectives fall into the reflexivity trap, for Teoh successfully lulls her supporters into thinking that professing awareness of her ignorance is enough to absolve her of it. 

Her state of ignorance is conveniently presented as an effect of “cancel culture” that has been foisted upon her: “However, I would like to know what someone else — who may be very different from me — thinks about an issue as novel as trans rights and transphobia. Someone who’s trans, maybe. But I can’t even admit that I would like to know! Because now, even asking can be construed as disagreeing or being unsupportive of the cause, and thus, offensive.” (Emphasis mine.)

Despite expressing her desire to engage in discourse about trans issues, Teoh displays no regard for centering the perspectives and experiences of trans people, evident from the entire essay as well as her use of “maybe” in the quote above. She also confesses, with perceptible tone-deafness and callousness, that she “still [gets] weirded out by photos of post-op bodies, and still [struggles] with the argument that trans children should be given hormone blockers.” 

In the last part of her article, Teoh builds a straw man and even names him “Mr Hella Woke”. She offers sweeping statements (“your outrage has created such a climate of fear that no one will ever speak their minds around you”) and platitudes (“The fact is no single individual is capable of gathering all the information there is on any topic. The world and the repositories of information it offers are far too large and complex”) that make the points she raises hard to swallow.  

She writes, “Being woke isn’t just being sensitive or caring. It also encourages narrow-mindedness, and refuses to acknowledge, let alone respect, even the mere suggestion of differences in opinion.” Since Teoh does not define what “woke” is at any point in the essay, the reader cannot determine if she associates being “woke” with liberal or progressive values. A fair deduction would be that for her, “woke-ness” is inextricably tied to “canceling”, extreme censorship, and silencing. And so, she rejects the idea of being “woke” because she refuses to silence anyone and to be silenced by anyone.

Teoh’s essay is filled with misinformed thoughts that she has yet to iron out and does nothing to substantially educate readers about or demystify the taboo surrounding transgender issues. Broadcasting this op-ed on a national news outlet is not only detrimental to the trans community, a group that is already marginalized in Singapore society, it also makes it easy for Teoh and those who support her essay to cite the fervent response by trans people and their allies — be it valid criticism or uncharitable umbrage — as proof that they are being silenced for their views. 

Are Teoh and the supporters of her essay really being silenced when their views, aligned with the establishment, are granted access to a large audience through a national news outlet? In his response piece to Teoh’s essay that urges readers to avoid conflating the criticism with “cancelation” and to engage with the concept of “cancel culture” more critically, Paul Jerusalem cites the Spiral of Silence theory by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who posits that individuals are less willing to voice their opinions in public discourse when they have divergent views from the dominant group, fearing ostracization or reprisal. He reminds us that it is imperative to correctly identify the dominant group; in this case, the less vocal majority in Singapore whose views align with the state narrative. Apart from the relative group size, it is also important to consider the power dynamics at work. Given that the government wields the power in society, having claimed a monopoly over violence (through the military and the police) as well as legislation, those who air views that contest and challenge the state narrative risk far-reaching consequences that affect their lives and livelihoods — prominent activists have been imprisoned, sued for defamation or bankrupted. These consequences pale in comparison to receiving the ire of interlocutors who do not possess power of equal magnitude. Kirsten Han, an independent journalist who covers important socio-political issues often neglected by mainstream media, adroitly explains how “woke-ism” is a tool that the elite uses to “undermine progressive activism that challenges their power” in Singapore society.

The Complexity of Online Discourse

I’m not dismissing the vitriol that Teoh has received for her essay, especially since first-person writing made her an easy target for personal attacks, but highlighting that the article and the controversy surrounding it obscure the power imbalance between groups with opposing voices. It also serves as fodder for tedious circular arguments about “free speech” and “cancel culture”, making it easy for valid criticism directed at her ideas to be dismissed. 

One thing that we may all agree on is that discourse feels fraught, especially when it takes place on social media. In How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reminds us that “difference is strength, a prerequisite for creativity that allows individual growth and communal political innovation”, as well as a result of a plurality of agents and ideas. However, she concedes that in this modern age, “our politics play out on platforms ill-designed for difference, plurality, and encounter”. Instagram and Twitter are examples of flow-oriented social media; they make posting knee-jerk responses easy while offering less room for coherent, nuanced, and extended debates. It can also be difficult to find or separate critiques from trolling, posturing, and cruelty — often by faceless and anonymous users who dodge accountability — especially when the volume of feedback is huge. 

Another problem with online discourse is that social media makes it easy for us to align ourselves with values we don’t demonstrate in person. Although they were articulated in a way that leaves more to be desired, Teoh raises valid points about the complicity of performance: “Congratulations, you’re officially in a room full of virtue signallers. Who, by the way, may behave badly in private, hurting the communities you so vehemently claim to protect.” 

Teoh makes a blanket statement by dismissing online discourse as virtue signaling but there are grounds to her cynicism. It is important to look inward and avoid falling into the trap of thinking that demonstrating solidarity on social media, such as through (re-)posting infographics about social justice causes, is sufficient. Have we been socialized to think that not posting anything online is equivalent to staying silent in the face of injustice? More importantly, do we espouse the values that we perform online? If yes, is denouncement enough? 

Still, it must be acknowledged that the legal, social, and cultural boundaries established by the state hinder active engagement with socio-cultural and political issues in Singapore, making it vital for us to harness the power of online virality to garner public attention as well as gather and mobilize resources. In January this year, LGBTQ+ activists were arrested during a peaceful protest that sought to raise awareness about transphobic discrimination within the national education system and to demand change, under the grounds of public assembly without a permit. Given that there are constraints to civic participation, those who are committed to the pursuit of meaningful progress have to ensure that their work is not just visible but also impactful, regardless of whether they accept or reject labels like “woke”, “progressive” or “liberal”.

Self-education is an integral aspect of achieving this goal. Complacency inhibits growth; we have to avoid deluding ourselves into thinking we are unimpeachably good or morally superior to others just because we perceive ourselves as progressive or educated. Remaining self-critical and constantly examining our privilege through the lens of our socio-political identities such as class, race, gender, and sexuality and how they shape our values, priorities, and life experiences is a step towards understanding the different ways in which we navigate the world. This way, we are likely to feel more empathetic and less wronged, attacked, or alienated when others disagree with our perspectives. Only then can we begin to carve out online and offline spaces where our ideas are addressed, understood, and challenged in good faith.

Feature image by Stella Heng, Raphael Cheong, and Sherryl Cheong

Sherryl Cheong

Sharer and carer of wildchild

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