Cancel culture, and the toxic rebranding of the ‘woke left’

Cancel culture, and the toxic rebranding of the ‘woke left’
The free speech myth — The ability to actually ‘cancel’ anyone remains with private entities and the state, not the left. So why does everyone keep saying free speech is under attack?

Right-wingers love cancel culture. They especially love to pretend it’s a new phenomenon. They loved it before we knew it as ‘cancel culture’, back when it was ‘call-out culture’, ‘political correctness’ or ‘PC gone mad’. 

Nobody owns up to loving it, mind. As an example, earlier this month, a varied group of writers, academics and authors – including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling and Bari Weiss – signed an open letter in Harper’s criticising the phenomenon. They conspicuously do not refer to ‘cancel culture’, but instead; “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity”. 

The letter has produced a slew of takes and counter-takes, including this one. Predictably, the right has been significantly more favourable. “The cancel-culture fightback: how the ‘Harper’s letter’ astonished the Twitter mob” crows a Telegraph lede. But what, exactly, are they ‘fighting back’ against? 

‘Cancelling’ is a neologism for an old custom; someone or something is perceived to have committed a transgression, and as a result, loses status and/or support among the public. A consumer boycott, essentially. 

There is no tendency across the entire political spectrum which does not engage in boycotts of some variety, governed by their specific ethical red flags. Sometimes red flags of wildly different moralities happen to align. Those who boycotted Nike in response to the conditions faced by their workforce, for instance, are unlikely to share a great deal of ideological common ground with those who boycotted because they featured Colin Kaepernick in one of their ad campaigns. Nevertheless, both could be said to have ‘cancelled’ the company, in their own way, though the latter would never describe it that way.

The current backlash against cancel culture seizes upon progressives’ specific usage of the word ‘cancelled’ to present a universal behaviour as unique. The lack of specificity as to what the act of ‘cancelling’ actually refers to provides further ammo for its critics. It is deployed to encompass a diverse, often unrelated and inappropriately comparable set of events. 

A high profile figure is accused of serious assault or misconduct; a member of the public’s behaviour is caught on camera, goes viral, and sees them sacked; a historical bit of media is resurfaced and condemned for being problematic in the current era; an event is quite literally cancelled due to protests aimed at a controversial speaker; a writer pens a particularly tin-eared piece, probably about cancel culture or something, and receives a torrent of abuse; a right-wing pundit is disagreed with by a left-wing audience member; someone, somewhere on the internet, receives any negative criticism whatsoever, and doesn’t like it. Cancelled, cancelled, cancelled.

The only real unifying theme is that there is the potential for some degree of disgrace to occur, and for something to happen as a consequence. According to cancel culture’s opponents, this ambiguous potential is the enemy of free speech, because it contains implications for saying things. 

By way of conclusion, the Harper’s letter states: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away… We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” 

This viewpoint has debate existing only within some hermetically sealed vacuum. Intellectuals of differing opinions meet for a verbal spar, defeat the ‘bad ideas’ and then leave, back to the outside world, where everyone agrees to live according to immutable codes of civility. Open debate becomes little more than intellectual sport, where you might contend anything: from marginalised identities’ right to exist, whether certain religions or cultures are inherently violent, or the benefits of eugenics. The Harper’s letter demands that those who might dare to advance such taboo opinions must be granted immunity from consequence, yet seems barely concerned with the consequences of the advancement of these opinions visited upon others. 

But these thinkers should be fully aware of their influence within a wider discourse, whose assumed acceptable parameters inform our thoughts, our social interactions, our politics. It can be as much responsible for our kindness and tolerance, as our spite and our prejudice. It can form the basis of – or justification for – instances of discrimination; in the workplace, at home, in the street, among friends and among strangers. It can be a primary motivator behind threats of and carried out physical violence. It is fundamentally disrespectful to ‘free speech’ not to acknowledge its enormous potential for consequence. 

Opponents of ‘cancel culture’ don’t appreciate all free speech, though – particularly if it might cause real-world adverse consequences for them. It’s all ‘open debate’ until it becomes ‘cancelling’, then it’s too far. 

You would probably find broad agreement across the political spectrum that people shouldn’t be unfairly ceremoniously fired based on some comment they’ve made in their private life, particularly when taken out of context. That being said, a private company is absolutely able to retain the services of any employee, should it want to. It is they who preside over the workforce’s fate. As Nathan J Robinson observes in Current Affairs; “arguments that ‘P.C. culture’ is the problem blame the left for problems that result from institutional hierarchies and imbalances of power.”

Companies are able to make examples of their employees because workers’ rights are weak.  Pushing to ensure for protections against unfair dismissals – or at least, the right for workers to receive a fair and due process in the event that the dismissal is justified – seems entirely reasonable. If the right were serious about ending these sorts of injustices, would the fight against ‘cancel culture’ not be far better directed against the unscrupulous whims of the free market and untrammelled corporate power?

This might have the unfortunate side effect of exposing the stark class loyalties that govern some of the highest-profile crusaders against cancel culture. They have a vested interest in pretending their struggles are shared by your average precariously employed worker. For example, in an essay for The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu charts just how lucrative it is for comedians to claim to be living under imminent threat of censure (at least four make up the US’ top 10 most highly paid), and just how much their material is now comprised of repeating assertions on this claim. In the UK, actor Laurence Fox has enjoyed a successful career pivot after appearing on Question Time to insist that he couldn’t say anything anymore, on account of being a posh white man. Despite having already run out of things to say, his voice has been amplified, not silenced. There are a roster of columnists who make a very comfortable living this way, perhaps best exemplified by the culture war correspondent-in-chief, Brendan O’Neill, who seems to find a new thing to say which he says he’s not allowed to say anymore just in time to fulfil his multiple contractual obligations every week. 

This is not to say that they don’t face criticism and condemnation – just that it has no effect on their career trajectories, other than to improve them. If anything, for many right-wingers, this disingenuous pleading of censure is a boon to their livelihoods. In order to successfully market yourself as a fearless pariah, you need to cynically and convincingly manufacture a quasi-fictional landscape in which there seems any bravery whatsoever in repeating things that are enthusiastically greeted by the massive audiences of every mainstream comedian.  

There is an incredible hunger for stories about cancellation amongst members of the general public. The self-sustaining backlash economy serves right-wing agendas no end. It gives them a raison d’etre, turns them into paragons of ‘common sense’ against hysterical lefties who want to ban all they hold nearest and dearest. 

Of course, it would be remiss to pretend this appetite does not exist among members of the left, too. It’s hard to deny the air of palpable Schadenfreude on occasion, or the instances of “public humiliation, a hunt for heretics, ostentatious displays of piety” which Leigh Phillips, writing in Jacobin, condemned. Sometimes, the disgraced are immortalised in hashtags which read “[Celebrity]IsOverParty”, belying a fairly miserable prior wish for a heinous act to have been committed in the first place, just to be able to celebrate someone’s ensuing downfall. 

However, the right are determined for the definition of ‘cancel culture’ to be so loose and so malleable as to encompass anything they want it to; from thousands of people interacting in a trending hashtag, to one lone rude person in their social media notifications; from a garbled email, to an extremely measured bit of criticism – they are able to present it as a single entity with one shared, malicious intent: the public shaming. This is convenient, for it allows them to paint good faith attempts to “defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion” (as the Harper’s letter would put it) as beyond the realm of acceptable discourse. 

There is centuries’ worth of criticism which has sought to dispute the contemporary orthodoxies of the day; this is not some novel invention of ‘cancel culture’, nor that which has been lumped in with it. Nor is it true that this criticism has been created with the intent of leading witch-hunts against individuals, but instead to confront certain attitudes inherent in their cultural, political or social output. Whenever historical media is reappraised, there is great consternation. Don’t these sensitive new eyes and ears realise the artefacts they criticise are ‘products of their time’ and perfectly uncontroversial in their day? This may be so, but the refusal to interact and engage with them in the present is to ensure their influence remains. Which, you have to feel, is precisely the point. If you’re able to convince people that it’s a far greater abuse to point out your transgressions, than it is to commit them, you can act with total impunity.

But let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that the charge of abusiveness is fair and accurate across the board, and that those engaging in all aspects of ‘cancel culture’ are doing so only out of spite, to be cruel and unkind to those they disagree with: so what? In a recent interview, the former comedian Ricky Gervais reiterated his personal mantra: “just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re right.” This is a common charge against would-be cancellers. Essentially; stop being so sensitive and get over it. Which, of course, could be repeated back to those taking umbrage with being taken to task for their potential offence. Just because you’re cancelled, doesn’t mean you’re right. 

Nobody’s pretending it isn’t a thoroughly unpleasant experience to be pilloried by a large group of people at once, on or off the internet. It sucks. It can be extremely disorientating, distressing and dehumanising to feel as though a punching bag for collective ire. But why is this only acknowledged as being experienced one way? Why should we spare the feelings of comedians and contrarians, but dismiss those of their targets? Are you allowed to make fun of anything and anyone, except the people making fun of you, precisely for making fun of you?

Suppose we accept the idea, as before, that the implications involved in ‘cancelling’ someone – designating them a bigot and mercilessly ripping into them – are too much to bear; that they may lead to severe distress, loss of livelihood, and perhaps even physical harm – are these not the exact grounds which marginalised groups object to material they deem to be offensive? In their crusade against cancel culture, many on the right are essentially making the same case for limiting free speech as those in favour on the left, only with different case studies.

Here it should also be noted that being ridiculed is obviously not the same as being driven out of work, and yet you can invoke sympathy by describing yourself as having been ‘cancelled’, invoking visions of the latter when you only suffered the former. It’s a distinction James Marriott, a deputy editor at The Times, simultaneously acknowledges and ignores when he writes on his “brush with cancel culture” about responses to his articles. He didn’t lose his job, no, but some strangers on the internet made fun of the shape of his head. That’s not so much being ‘cancelled’ as it is being exposed to a negative reaction and ensuing mockery. This is what passes for so much of this moral panic; people with no platform being able to register their disapproval, even if some of it is unwarranted and unkind. It was hardly likely that anyone at the Murdoch-owned Times would act on said disapproval of Marriott’s opinions on political correctness and terminate his contract, and yet the paper is heavily invested in having its readers believe that a group of people it obviously despises have any sway whatsoever over the employment of its writers; publishing 25 separate articles on the menace of ‘cancel culture’ in the past week alone. 

In the same paper, in the same week, Janice Turner denounces the ‘woke left’ in a piece which ends with a list of examples of people having had their employers contacted due to their internet activity. “These people are denied free speech for utterances that are within the law.”

She is correct that all of the examples she states are within the law, just as it is completely legal for someone to contact an employer with a complaint. Turner might think that such contact is overzealous or pernicious, but it’s not tyrannical. It’s within the jurisdiction of the employer to respond to the complaints as they so desire. The ‘woke left’ might have the power to put the frighteners up a company, and its staff, but its power ends there. Even if there was a consensus among this faction to have it written into employment law that someone should be fired for liking the wrong accounts on Twitter, which there obviously isn’t, the fact remains they aren’t in power. 

If anything, it’s those harbouring left views who should be most concerned. An illegal construction industry blacklist existed up until 2009, containing files on some 3,200 workers according to their views on “suspected political affiliations or sympathies, or perceived militancy”, particularly around trade unionism. The existence of this list only came to light after a Guardian investigation. There may well be many others. As such, the ability to actually ‘cancel’ anyone remains with private entities and the state, not the left, however unacceptable Times writers may find them. 

The government are closing in too. One of the best illustrations of where this is all leading is in their conditional loans to universities on the brink of closure. It is a startling illiberal package, which expects recipient institutions to close courses considered by the state to be of “low value”, as well as demanding they must “fully comply[…] with their legal duties to secure freedom of speech” and that funding for student unions be for “wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism.” 

This is the perfect encapsulation of the right’s absurdly paradoxical weaponization of cancel culture. In one fell swoop, it seeks to guarantee the absolute right for right-wing controversialists to speak at universities, while removing the ability of the student body to protest against them, or the institution as an autonomous body to disinvite them – while also dictating which courses should be taught. Speakers and lecturers with ideologies sufficiently aligned with the state become unassailable and irreproachable, regardless of free-market principles – principles which are simultaneously used to administer an opposite, punitive fate to those they disagree with. When does activism become mainstream, and why is it then only acceptable to a government supposedly attempting to secure free speech? 

The free exchange of information and ideas the signatories of the Harper’s letter and those like them purport to defend are being dismantled in a pre-emptive attack against those who never threatened them in the first place. The fight against ‘cancel culture’ is an attempt to remove any consequences for one faction’s freedom of speech by denying their opponents’ right to it, while maintaining the precise opposite is happening. It’s a fight they want to keep rumbling on, indefinitely. 

Follow Tristan Cross on Twitter.

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