Modern societies do not seem to really have evolved from the classical period of witch hunt between the 1450s and 1750s. This era saw the summary executions of an estimated 50,000 persons accused of sorcery, voodoo, or having extra-terrestrial powers in Europe and America. There were evidence of witch hunt in Africa and Asia even after the Europe’s last recorded execution in the 18th century. For the most part, several persons were executed just for being the wrong place or looking like a witch. This is why, “witch hunt”, in modern times, means an action done tailored to indict or convict one’s opponents with elements of moral panic or mass hysteria.
In recent times, the idea of “witch hunt” has been replaced by the cancel culture. In other words, someone can be “cancelled” or blocked from having a prominent public platform just by them making an innocent mistake. The cancel culture, as it is now known, has a pattern: a popular figure does or says something “offensive” or an innocent mistake which is followed by a public backlash, often fueled by social media. After the public figure’s goof comes heavy calls to cancel the person meaning to effectively end their careers or unfollow their social media accounts or boycott their contents or for their employers to institute disciplinary actions against their person. To many people, “cancelling” is about a call to accountability where other means have failed to achieve that purpose.
Recent examples of the use of cancel culture in Nigeria have shown that it actually has more evil intentions than useful purposes. Like the witch hunt of old, which starts with the intention of disinfecting societies of witches, social media mobs hardly (that’s if they ever do) give fair hearing to the other parties. At times, cancel culture can lead to lawless behavior such as arson and violate civil discussions or conflict resolutions.
One of the cases that demonstrates how cancel culture can lead to chaos came after a disturbing video of a boy Sylvester Oromoni, a pupil of Dowen College, writhing in pain was posted online in December 2021. Sylvester later died just before his 12th birthday.
In what looks like a normal reaction, a certain Perry Oromoni – a relative of the deceased - did series of tweets on Twitter suggesting that Dowen College was culpable being a haven for teenage cult members recruiting other pupils into their gang. No further proof was needed by tweeps with notoriety for passing judgments just after the first accusers make their case. Understandably, the College came under a barrage of criticism on social media. Many people felt the school management did not do enough to curb bullying among its pupils. Some tweeps pushed for burning down the College as a measure to “prevent future occurrence”. Soon, professional activists or protest merchants, in series of emotionally-charged messages, went on marches at the radius of the school. What were they really protesting after the state Government has ordered the school to shut down pending the outcome of the Coroner's Inquest?
A recent Premium Times investigation found that Sylvester “could have been given dangerous concoctions when he was taken to the church for a miracle healing.” All through the outrage on social media, nobody ever mentioned this.
It is normal for parents to become overtly emotional over the loss of a child. The family’s emotional outbursts are well understood. It is also natural for people to demand accountability for some actions. But is never a good idea to join the mob. Sylvester's story nearly got Down College burnt by a mob of professional protesters. They'd have just burnt down the institution on the basis of crude lies and emotional blackmails. Will burning down the College have revived the dead? Nothing I said here should be (mis)interpreted as me suggesting that or absorbing Dowen of possible culpability either.
Another example of apparent mob action in recent time happened when Nigerian skit maker, Maryam Apaokagi (better known as Taaooma) and some of her colleagues to pay a courtesy visit to the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osibanjo (SAN) in November 2021. While I am not privy to what led to or happened during the said meeting, I honestly see nothing wrong in anyone meeting an elected state official or a country’s sitting Vice President. More importantly, I see nothing wrong in these skit makers trying to give publicity to their Nigeria Skits Industry Awards (NSIA) by meeting the VP.
According to the comedian, she met the VP and “urged for the ‘actual’ lifting of the Twitter ban and as well, stressed on the issue of police brutality which hasn’t gotten any bit of change even after all the promises." Even though engagement with elected or appointed government officials is part of activism all over the world, the ever-ready rampaging social media mob do not seem to seem to care. They were hoping either Taaooma or any member of her delegation would have met the VP and rain heaps of insults on him for her to be described as an “activist”. For this lot, “activism” means just insulting or destroying people unprovoked. Not surprisingly, Taaomaa and her team were “dragged” (a favourite word for the apostates of the cancel culture) on social media. She was literally coerced and mobbed into apologizing for what was no offence really.
The cancel culture largely thrives on heavy emotional blackmails, collective rage, double-faced morality, and pure mortal hatred. It’s typical of jungle justice syndrome where the victim’s side of the story is rarely heard or understood. This cancel culture syndrome has the capacity to affect their victims’ mental health. But, really, can one wake persons who are pretending to be asleep?
A recent poll carried by the Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies , cancel culture is a threat of freedom of expression. This is because it curtails many persons from genuinely expressing their views on social media for fear of being mobbed. There is also evidence of increasing cases of anxiety and depression as a result of the cancel culture. This is because, the victims often tend to result to isolation or feel lonely thinking everyone else has given up on them or increase the feeling of being hopeless even before they apologized or corrected their mistakes.
Another problem with the cancel culture is that it does not pick and choose its victims. It has no degree of tolerance and can resort to violent behavior against the victims’ physical or mental well-being. Anyone can just be a victim of the insanity of cancel culture especially in Nigeria where social media has become polarized by party politics. I have been a victim of mass cyber bullying before on Twitter. My response was standing firm and never to back down or give in. It takes serious mental strength to stand up firmly against mass bullying. Unfortunately, not everyone can muster the strength against the ravings of mobs!
There is the urgent need to curb this culture which incubates and replenishes evil, encourages the destruction of other people’s lives or means of livelihoods just because of some mobs that are antithetic to rational thoughts. If an estimated 50,000 people accused or suspected sorcery could have been killed in the era of witch hunt, let’s imagine the number of people cancel culture might have killed emotionally or physically!
Olalekan Adigun, an Accidental Writer, sends this piece from Lagos. He can be followed on Twitter using @MrLekanAdigun