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Cancel culture – pressing the red button

July 9, 2020

Whenever I think about this phenomenon known as “cancel culture”, Peter Sellars comes to mind. Not the man himself, but the character he plays in Being There, which regular readers of this blog will know is one of my favourite movies.

In the scene I have in mind, the simple-minded gardener who has been mistaken for a sage carries his TV remote control with him on a rare outing from the garden he tends. He sees something in the street that distresses him. He points his remote control at the object of his concern in the expectation that it will go away.

The idea that a virtual mob of right-thinking millennials and Generation Zeddites can “cancel” someone because of what they say or believe is equally ludicrous.

Except that it’s not ludicrous. It’s true. People are losing their jobs. Authors are finding their work declared to be off-limits. Journalists and university faculty are afraid to express their true opinions for fear of upsetting a bunch of intolerant, ideologically-rigid Twitter users.

As you may have guessed, this post hasn’t come out of the blue. It’s prompted by a letter signed by a group of well-known writers and academics. The letter was published in Tuesday’s Harper’s Magazine.

In it, the signatories deplore the curtailment of freedom of expression by ideologically-driven lynch mobs.

You would have thought that the sentiments expressed in this excerpt would be uncontroversial:

But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

If anyone asked me, I would certainly endorse such concerns.

Two of the signatories are Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling. Rushdie has a very good reason to sign the letter. After all, he spent many years in hiding from those who sought to follow Ayatollah Khomeini’s guidance that he should be killed for his alleged blasphemy in The Satanic Verses. Two of the translators of the book were murdered. He would possibly argue that the gap between “being cancelled” and being the subject of a fatwa is not that wide.

JK Rowling has been the subject of widespread condemnation for having the audacity to claim that women are people who menstruate, thus enraging the trans community, who would argue that you’re a woman if you think you are.

The Harper’s letter makes no reference to this issue, by the way. Nonetheless, Rowling’s name on the letter so spooked some of the signatories that they withdrew their endorsement.

This I find extraordinary. If I read a 500-word letter, and I’m asked whether I will sign it, I will make that decision on the merits of the letter, not on the basis of who signed it. I admit that there’s a contradiction here, in that I might think twice about endorsing something that Adolf Hitler might have signed. But that’s because it’s highly unlikely that we could have agreed on anything. But what if Donald Trump signed it? Fine, so long as I’m happy with the words.

So, for the avoidance of doubt, if anyone tried to cancel me, I would suggest that they go forth and multiply. I can afford to, because I’m a nobody, I don’t rely on public opinion for my job, and therefore I’m uncancellable.

I would also ask anyone who tried to cancel me whether they were OK with the Chinese version of cancellation, wherein people who say the wrong thing about COVID, Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Falun Gong or the Uyghurs are rewarded by being silenced in a variety of ways including imprisonment. Would they wish the same fate for JK Rowling or Salman Rushdie?

Or would they prefer that those who say something that offends them be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, which was a popular tactic for suppressing dissent in the Soviet Union?

So where are the boundaries, at least as far as I’m concerned? In my country we have laws against hate speech of various kinds. People who have transgressed, including on Twitter, have been prosecuted, though not enough in my humble opinion. We also have laws against slander and libel, as Johnny Depp has discovered.

If you don’t have such laws in your country, I suggest that you encourage law-makers to introduce them. But if you happen to be one of those people whose righteousness impels them to go around cancelling people, be careful of the language you use. Especially avoid death threats. Otherwise you might find yourself falling foul of a force far stronger than yours. You might end up in court, which would not be fun.

I have no problem with activism. It’s your right to criticise, excoriate or boycott anyone who offends you. But I suggest that people like the author of Harry Potter are soft targets. Perhaps you should consider going after people who actually do unspeakable things rather than those who merely express an opinion that you find toxic.

I would also encourage you to come and see me in fifty years’ time, so that you can tell me whether your world is still so bleakly digital, or whether you have come to value the shades of opinion that may change over time, but that, I would argue, define any society that regards itself as diverse. And if you disagree with the opinions others hold, perhaps by then you would be prepared to discuss and debate, rather than deny and suppress.

I shan’t be around by then of course, but I’m willing to guess that many of you will have become, in reality, the rational, tolerant, humble and emotionally intelligent human beings that you think you are today.

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    I liked the one I saw the other day. Twitter, I believe, but I wouldn’t swear to it. It was a message from T, and above it it had a warning to not believe it or some such. Didn’t come out and say it was a lie, but I somehow have a vague memory that they suggested you check it out. Better than banning!
    Instead, encourage THINKING!

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    As the father of a successful trans-daughter, I have to agree. There is so little empathy left in the world, it should be quoted on the stock market along with platinum and gold.

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