Why I endorse the campaign to end cancel culture
Last week, more than 150 prominent writers, journalists and academics published a joint letter registering concern at the erosion of free speech in modern artistic environments. The letter, published in Harper’s magazine, warned that so-called ‘cancel culture’ – the trend of public shaming by online mobs - is destroying creative expression. I wholeheartedly concur, and I fully endorse the letter.
JK Rowling signed the edict. So did Margaret Atwood. Noam Chomsky lent support, too, along with Malcolm Gladwell, Garry Kasparov and Salman Rushdie. Regardless of your ideological bent, somebody you admire has likely signed this declaration of intent. Rarely have I encountered a more important document in the quest for free speech, and I implore you all to read it.
Predictably, the response to this publication has proved its central theme. Mainstream news articles are littered with references to ‘the controversial letter,’ while some television networks refuse to mention the campaign entirely. That global titans of word and thought from across the political spectrum have united to take a stand barely seems to matter. The signatories have been subjected to the very treatment they sought to illuminate.
What is cancel culture?
In short, cancel culture describes the contemporary zeitgeist of publicly humiliating individuals or organisations online, usually via social media, whenever they act, write or speak in a manner that is not deemed politically correct by a secular band of sanctimonious angels acting in self-appointed roles as moderators of morality.
Cancel culture is leftist idealism in reductio ad absurdum. Cancel culture is revisionist whining in the avoidance of actual action. Cancel culture is the logical endpoint of untrammelled liberalism. It focuses on microscopic misdemeanours – as judged by a complicit jury of self-serving cynics – as opposed to tackling big problems. Quite frankly, cancel culture is why the left loses elections while the right governs countries. It is incompatible with genuine change.
To be cancelled is to be shunned, ostracised or attacked for daring to articulate a sentiment that does not jive with the prevailing orthodoxy, which itself is entirely warped by fear into reductive modes of self-defence. He or she who is cancelled usually invokes grey when asked to choose between black or white. Cancel culture detest such nuanced deliberation, because it is fuelled by a lust for anarchy and retribution even when neither is particularly warranted.
What is it like to be cancelled?
I have been cancelled on many occasions. Last year, I wrote an article about my beloved Tranmere Rovers having a better squad in the fifth division than they did in the third – a literal opinion about sports, perhaps the most nebulous of important things.
The backlash on social media in relation to my piece was volcanic, and one Rovers forum even started an entire thread about my mental health, where people predicted my descent into another bout of suicidal ideation based solely on an evaluation of the squad that differed to the prevailing norm.
That was a horrid experience, but as stated in the Harper’s letter, far more subliminal forms of self-censorship occur every single day, and that anxiety-riddled phenomenon is what threatens the uniqueness and confidence of diverse opinion. That is what stops people from writing. That is what encourages people to bottle up their hurt. That is what makes us more susceptible to extremist politics, because he who does not speak from the heart is bound to be exploited in the mind.
Right now, we are living through a grim nadir of self-censorship. Never before have people been so inclined to dilute their own truth through fear of it offending other people. Some see that as a force for good, fostering restraint and encouraging compassion, but I see it as a trend for ill, diminishing art and muzzling expression.
While writing my latest book – Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart – I trawled through seven proof copies, not making stylistic tweaks or amending grammar, but simply warding off potential criticism and attempting to assess ways in which the story could be demolished by sabre-rattling vanguards of the libertarian left. I was forced to play devil's advocate lest my unchecked opinions offend.
You see, nowadays we live in a world where the utility and pleasure of an entire book can be cancelled from the historic realm by virtue of one single sentence that conveys a confused, unfinished or raw opinion. As authors, we are forced to write in a manner that will not cause offence to readers who are becoming more robotic in their ability to scan a page of text and identify all of its perceived inaccuracies. We must sculpt our writing to match its epoch, rather than allowing the epoch to be defined by what we write. That is the very antithesis of creative expression or journalistic inquiry. That is a sanitisation of self drenched in hypocrisy.
Every single time I publish a blog or news article, I now sieve through the entire copy two or three times, attempting to identify areas that could leave me open to a lawsuit. As a journalist, that crushes my soul. I do not write anything that is particularly extreme or insensitive, but even hinting at an uncommon thought can leave us open to claims of defamation and slander these days. For self-published authors and independent bloggers like me, that often poses a financial risk we are simply unable to take, and so great exploratory work often goes unpublished.
Understanding cancel culture and identity politics
In this regard, cancel culture is forcing me further into the centre ground of conventional politics. I loathe the way lefties have diluted the discourse of our time to 140 characters of retrospective point-scoring. We have to be better than that.
Concurrently, the right is equally responsible for encouraging this erosion of dynamic thought. As mentioned previously, cancel culture and its attendant litigation has devastating economic repercussions for humble writers like me. That dread of publishing a hard-hitting exclusive news story and waiting for the legal challenge is an evil rooted in capitalism. In a world obsessed with fame, defaming someone – even using facts – is fast becoming the most heinous crime imaginable.
When the clearest facts are debated into malleable forms of usage, where do we draw the line? When the plainest truths can be repurposed as fake news simply to serve an insurgent agenda, where do we go for answers? When the clearest wisdom is expurgated due to the ticking of a clock making it obsolete, where do we find support?
Cancel culture is the perfect recipe for a spineless society that lacks a sufficient bedrock from which to nurture and monitor its members. If things can simply be exterminated with one click of a button, there is little recourse to effort or discipline. There is no incentive to try.
Why political correctness has gone too far
This brings us to the symbolic activism of cancel culture: demolishing statues and throwing them in rivers to prove self-satisfying points. Sure, humans have done some depraved things in the past. That is inarguable. However, tearing down monuments because of things that happened hundreds of years ago serves little tangible purpose. We cannot rewrite history, and such revisionism is the enemy of modern progress.
We live in the age of great or horrendous. There is nothing in-between. There is no place for context or constructive disagreement. Only the greatest of all-time in any particular field are celebrated, while everybody else is cancelled due to his or her failure to meet curated standards of greatness.
In essence, people now dismiss the skill of Aaron Judge because he is not Mike Trout, rather than appreciating both baseball players for their own unique skill. We never did that to Joe DiMaggio because he was not Ted Williams, so what precedent is set for our future by thinking in such binary terms now?
Sometimes, it feels like the contemporary existence is an exercise in gathering every single datapoint about every single thing, then putting it all through one giant woke taxonomy of liberal acceptability, arriving at ultimate classifications of great or horrific, permissible or deplorable, celebrated or cancelled. Such homogeneity of thought makes us less tolerant, not more so, and that speaks to the debasing implausibility of so-called 'progressive' politics.
At the moment, people are even bickering about who has the right to feel cancelled. According to some, as a white guy from England with a steady job and a comfortable life, I should be immune to cancellation. My type do the cancelling, they say, even if such exclusive and pejorative tropes are guilty of the very thing cancel culture rails against.
To a certain extent, freedom of speech and cancel culture should be apolitical. They belong to more humanistic realms, far away from the nuts and bolts of economic dogma and foreign policy. However, many political influencers and campaigners have conflated cancel culture with discerning criticism. Perhaps it is the coronavirus lockdown driving people indoors, or perhaps it is a simple misuse of technology, but the internet is becoming a cesspit of polarising rhetoric that threatens to do more bad than good.
Rather than engaging in sensible debate about important topics, moving the needle through astute conversation, modern campaigners are more inclined to fire off a pithy tweet that grinds their opponent to ash. Doing so annihilates a terrific opportunity for progress, however, both internally and for the other person, because when vitriol is the go-to conduit of communication, nobody learns from their mistakes.
For the longest time, I have campaigned on the left of global politics. Some of my left-wing references have raised eyebrows over coffee with centrist friends. I have only ever voted for Labour here in England, but that party becomes more anachronistic with each passing day, to a point where my views are no longer consistent with what the left has become.
Yes, there are non-negotiable truths that must be respected. No sports team should be named Redskins or Indians, for instance. No person should be told how to feel about their own gender. And no religion should interfere in state governance. Everybody reserves the right to disagree with certain opinions, but those who hold those opinions also reserve the right to express them. That is how we learn, grow and move forward. That is how we develop.
I admire socialist protest. I applaud civil rights demonstrations. I support democratic activism. Nevertheless, cancel culture loses me in its attempts to cleanse everything and in its propensity to unearth catastrophic deductions that are not really there.
Cancel culture manufactures controversy - which masquerades as progress online – to compensate for the left’s chronic failure to produce a cogent, unified and pragmatic proposition for rule that is viable enough to entice a majority of people to support it. Out of conventional excuses for bureaucratic failure, we have resorted to moral victories online.
Why cancel culture is destroying free speech
Here, we see how life inside the Twitter echo chamber differs from life in the real world. An alien scrolling through social media for the first time, absent any other knowledge-building tools, would easily determine that militant liberalism is the bulwark of our political age. Twitter and Facebook are the preserve of baying morality cops who spend hours each day finding things about which to be offended. These ‘progressives’ purport to be agents of expressionism and individuality, but they actually restrict free speech mercilessly – forcing everyone through the same ethical cookie cutter and doing in different shades that which they condemn others for supposedly attempting.
Free speech is the grist of human progress. It sparks debate and it encourages discussion. It thaws pernicious worldviews by exposing them to heat. It shines a light on true injustice by allowing people to challenge it in a constructive manner. By contrast, cancel culture is a subversion of true disenfranchisement. It trivialises hardship and it suffocates passion. It dulls our message by channelling it through juvenile projects. It dilutes the progressive tradition – founded on iconoclastic thinking and progressed through tangible action – into gifs, memes and sarcastic tweets. We have to be better than that. We have to come out of the basement.
Some say cancel culture is the ultimate gift of free speech – our right to criticise people and their ideals writ large in digital print. However, such an assessment is deeply inaccurate for a myriad of reasons. There is a difference between debate and destruction, for instance, just as there is a chasm between consultation and cancellation. Immediately shooting somebody down and deleting their entire life’s work based on one questionable statement or action is not free speech. It is vigilante opportunism devoid of the very compassionate consideration it claims to protect.
Why cancel culture sets a dangerous precedent for our future
Aside from the personal trauma and professional entropy it creates, cancel culture sets a dangerous precedent for the future of politics, society and life itself. The world’s collective nervous breakdown has culminated in a sense of guilt even by silence. If anything bad happens anywhere in the world, every man, woman and organisation must place on record their thoughts, prayers and disgust or face the wrath of outraged proxies.
We have sports teams wearing political slogans on their jerseys. We have soft drink companies issuing statements about corporate responsibility. We have retail brands boycotting Facebook because it resists utopian censorship. The sentiment of these actions may seem commendable, but they are only motivated by one thing: fear. Fear of missing out. Fear of failing to conform. Fear of being left behind if rivals express woke sympathy in more lyrical tones.
Today, it is not enough to convey sadness at one tragedy. We must acknowledge all tragedies, even those that happened thousands of years ago, or leave ourselves open to scandal and derision. If we speak out against one injustice but fail to do so against another, we are labelled as insensitive or biased. If we pass along condolences for one death but not for another, we are discarded as insouciant or prejudiced. If we support the plight of one minority but refuse to dabble in similar yet unfamiliar waters elsewhere, we are branded as ignorant or uneducated. We are cancelled, in other words, for focusing on core topics of our heart rather than covering everything in blanket platitudes. Rather than living these days, we are all just apologising for other people being offended.
In this regard, some say that opposition to cancel culture is just a strained justification for bad, outdated or hostile opinions. The key point here, though - as expressed by so many scions of academia in Harper’s – is highlighting the arbitrary, corrupt and totalitarian ways in which good and bad are determined in the modern age.
One size does not fit all, and the cancel culture trolls create nothing but vindictive instability and genius-crushing anxiety with their misplaced zeal. The same people who delete public figures for expressing ‘insensitive’ views are themselves insensitive in deciding what is acceptable and what is unconscionable. The hypocrisy is stifling.
While real people are out there being killed by police because of their skin colour, so-called progressives are online trying to get episodes of Fawlty Towers from 1975 removed from digital streaming services. I get the logic, and in a setting more conducive with intellectual debate, I would usually be inclined to agree. Yet such trendy tokenism obfuscates more important challenges, and such revisionist virtue signalling distracts us from attaining real change.
Look to the future, people. Do not spend your time airbrushing the bruises from history. Learn from our past, but live in our present. Together, we can build more harmonious societies and transform the subtext of daily life. But first, we must talk, and we must do so without fear of suppression. We must preserve our right to free speech, or else the conformists will speak for us, stealing our voices in the process.