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Issue #1926      August 3, 2020

OP-ED

Cancel culture outrage much ado about nothing

What is “cancel culture”? Why is it getting so much attention? Should we worry about it? Cancel culture supposedly involves commentators being subjected to concerted attempts to have them sacked from jobs and banned from appearing in various media platforms, merely for expressing controversial opinions.

J K Rowling still has 14.3 million followers on Twitter and is the most published living woman on earth as well as one of the richest. Thus, if the backlash to her tweets amounts to cancelling, it’s hardly a death sentence.

Free speech is endangered! “Progressives”, a nebulous group including everyone to the left of the far-right, are being intolerant! Fearless commentators are self-censoring! Life in English-speaking countries is becoming like North Korea, only we don’t do those spectacular mass-flag-waving events at stadiums.

What cancel culture is, really, is a furphy with a grain of truth at its heart. Cancel culture is not unlike “political correctness” (PC) – both started as a joke and became an alibi and a distraction.

PC, a cartoon version of commendable efforts to recognise the full humanity of people who hadn’t been treated with respect for ages, is invoked to avoid the need to defend racism or sexism. Cancel culture is used to demonise criticism instead of addressing the reasons for that criticism.

Although usage of the term can be found as early as the mid-20th century, contemporary usage of PC started life as a self-deprecating joke, by progressive people about how hard they were trying to include previously marginalised groups. The joke caught on, and a book of funny and entirely fictional PC expressions became a minor best seller.

Nobody had seriously suggested that a “manhole cover” be renamed a “personhole cover” or tried to replace “short” with “differently-heighted.” However, PC became a massive alibi – which racist wouldn’t rather say “I’m very non-pc” than “I fear and hate non-white people”?

Similarly, “cancelled,” applied to people instead of subscriptions, meals, or TV shows. Contemporary usage started out as a funny way of telling friends you disagreed with them, the term evolved into shorthand for saying you had good reason for disliking a celebrity or company. I’m a Twitter addict and I’ve mainly seen “X is cancelled” in the context of telling everyone that a celebrity has done or said something that would make any reasonable person want to stop consuming their work, rather than as a call to arms.

As Aja Romano points out in a Vox.com piece, “Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture,” the concept is often confused with “call out culture” – the practice of publicly denouncing someone for doing something seriously wrong.

So does anyone really get cancelled? A better question would be this: does anyone really get cancelled who wouldn’t have been sacked or suffered consequences anyway if we weren’t talking about cancel culture?

Recently, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter by a number of prominent public figures, such as J K Rowling and Noam Chomsky, calling for the end of cancel culture. It’s significant that the open letter didn’t cite any actual cases. For example, Roseanne Barr lost her TV show after a racist tweet. The American Broadcasting Company knew how a lot of their audience would have felt about her comments. Ponder this: would a company not fire an employee that was making inappropriate comments that left other employees incredibly uncomfortable? Arguably not. Similarly, Harvey Weinstein lost all his power and influence on his way to prison for numerous sexual offences. Weinstein’s history of sexual assault would have been a career killer at any time. Rowling’s tweets suggesting that trans rights were somehow incompatible with “the lived reality of women globally” were criticised by a lot of people including some of the Harry Potter actors and some of the other writers employed by her publisher. She still has 14.3 million followers on Twitter and is the most published living woman on earth as well as one of the richest. Thus, if the backlash to her tweets amounts to cancelling, it’s hardly a death sentence.

Which brings us to two of the reasons why we’re hearing the term cancel culture being used a lot now.

Firstly, Donald Trump mentioned it in a recent speech. He was speaking against the removal of memorials to confederate generals and said “we can’t cancel all our culture,” which suggests Trump has given the concept no thought at all.

Secondly, is the aforementioned open letter. The letter claims that “powerful protests for racial and social justice,” while a good thing, are leading to “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.” What’s more “the free exchange of information and ideas […] is daily becoming more constricted.” This is bad, the letter tells us because free expression is “the lifeblood of a liberal society” (“liberal” here meaning “free” not, as in Australia, the “monstrously corrupt reverse Robin Hood political party”).

As mentioned above, while the letter doesn’t give any specific instances of actual people who’ve been actually cancelled, it claims that calls for “retribution” in response to “transgressions of speech and thought” are “all too common.” The language is pretty over the top – is there anyone who’s calling for punishment for thoughts? We have to ask: what do they mean by “retribution”? If it’s just non-following, well, they’ll have to suck it up; I’ve still got the right to dislike things and to urge others not to consume them. If I do that, I’m engaging in a practice that’s as old as opinion. If “retribution” means “trying to sack someone,” I haven’t seen as much of that on the part of progressives. They don’t seem to mean the hounding of Yasmin al-Magied out of her job and her country by Murdoch publications, who published more than 120,000 words on her for a seven-word tweet that mentioned the words “Lest we forget.”

Yasmin al-Magied was pushed out of her job and her country by Murdoch publications, who published more than 120,000 words on her for a seven-word tweet that mentioned the words “Lest we forget.”

The letter goes on to justify its call for tolerance on the part of “progressives” by claiming that “right-wing demagogues are already exploiting” it. No evidence is given that right-wingers are exploiting actual dogmatic intolerance on the part of “the left.” I’ve been keeping an eye on right-wing commentary since the mid-1970s and the accusation of intolerance against the left who – oh, the irony – are supposed to be pro-tolerance goes back at least that long. The idea that if the left is nice enough demagogues like Trump will stop accusing it of intolerance is delusional.

Are there valid reasons for being concerned about cancel culture? Not really. Rowling claims to have received death and rape threats after her excursion into transphobia. That’s appalling, but the solution to those threats is not to scold people for criticising Rowling. The fact that one of the signatories is Bari Weiss, who literally made a career trying to have academics dismissed for supporting Palestinians, doesn’t mean that open debate is not a good thing, but is a good reason to be sceptical about the phenomenon of cancel culture.

We are going to hear this label thrown up a lot in the near future, not to protect open debate, but to distract and change the topic. If you’re accused of participating in perpetrating cancel culture or hear the label thrown around, ask these questions. Who exactly is being “cancelled”? What’s the topic they’re supposedly being cancelled for? Is what’s happening to them different to criticism?

Next article – Locked out Woolworths warehouse workers in Wyong This week …

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