Thoughts on Cancelling Russia

Not too long ago, during a train ride, someone asked me what I thought about cancelling Russia. I said I considered absolute cancellation a mistake. She looked disappointed, so I listened to what she had to say. She considered cancellation—by which she meant refusal to engage with Russian people, things, and culture—absolutely necessary for the time being. She emphasized that it should be temporary but strong.

I thought about it over the following weeks and came to agree with her more than before. Still, I see many dangers in cancellation overall. My views are less about Ukraine in particular and more about cancellation itself.

First, “cancellation” is difficult to define; there are so many different kinds, ranging from economic boycotts to actual cancellation of events to a cutting of ties with individuals. So-called “cancel culture” can even take the form of brutal online attacks, destruction of people’s careers and personal lives, etc. So it’s important to be precise about what kind is at stake and why.

In a war like this one, economic boycotts are justifiable and may convey strong messages. Their effects aren’t always fair—they can hurt people who have nothing to do with the war and don’t support it in any way—but then, no powerful response is fair. During World War II, many German bakeries in NYC went out of business because people stopped buying from them. This was unfair on the bakeries themselves (in many cases humble businesses with no ties to Nazis), but understandable in context.

I also see reason at times to cancel (or simply stay out of) high-profile cultural events, especially those that celebrate an aggressor country and its achievements. I was sad for the pianist himself when Alexander Malofeev’s concerts with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were cancelled, but at least the orchestra made clear that this was not directed at him personally.

There are thorny questions aroud “Russian-ness” itself. The Yale Russian Chorus, as far as I know, is still considering a Russia tour in August. They have stated that they will include more Ukrainian songs in their repertoire. However, that hardly makes things better; according to Oleksii Antoniuk, if they sing Ukrainian songs, they should change their name from the Yale Russian Chorus to something else. If they do not, they are implying that Ukrainians are just “small” Russians. I see the point there and believe that this all needs to be sorted out.

But boycotts and large cultural events aside, what kinds of cancellation are appropriate? I don’t have an answer; the answer will vary from person to person, situation to situation. But I see dangers in knee-jerk cancellation.

If those doing the “cancelling” know what they are cancelling and why, then there might be some principle involved. But if they don’t, their actions will come out of ignorance and generate more of the same. If, say, people were to refuse to read Russian literature because it’s Russian, they would only be limiting their own education and that of others. If this kind of action spread, anyone could refuse to learn about anything at all. Not only that, but the refusal would come with a self-righteous attitude.

Where would it stop? No country, no entity is exempt from blame. For instance, what if people in the U.S. started cancelling all things Hungarian because of Orbán’s illiberal populism? This would just spread illiberalism. If you write off an entire country just because you disagree with its leader, you give the leader more power and credence than he already has. Anyone can do the same back to you and yours.

What about personal cancelling—the targeting or absolute cutting off of someone you know? I would reserve that for the most extreme circumstances, where you have really tried and failed to hear the person out, or where your safety is at risk. Yet personal cancellation remains in vogue: “freeing yourself of toxic people.” People who cut others off may pride themselves on their social justice or sense of personal liberation. But there is no social justice or liberation involved here, no willingness to find out what the person really thinks, or at least offer the benefit of the doubt. I realize that I am wandering into somewhat different territory here, yet it all falls within the larger concept of cancelling.

In short, I understand that certain kinds of cancelling have their place, especially during this war. But when it comes to the larger question of cancellation, I would say: define what you are doing and why, keep it to a minimum, keep it as humane as possible, remember that you do not know everything about another person or place, and follow your own conscience and knowledge. Because in wartime (or any time, really) these are among the few things you can keep.

Image: Anton Chekhov, by Osip Braz (1898).

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1 Comment

  1. You verbalized many of the reservations that I have around the concept of cancelling.

    I will also add that so many popular “cancelling” proposals are completely misguided and stupid. Cancelling vodka brands that aren’t even made in Russia. Cancelling a poutine restaurant because it sounds like “Putin” even though the two have nothing to do with each other. Some of this seems almost idiotic enough to laugh at (poutine, really?) but when you have a well-intentioned person with poorly-thought ideas on a reactionary internet more than willing to fuel the flames of terrible ideas, it’s kinda scary actually

    Reply

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