Cancel culture has yet to be cancelled. In fact, it’s never been busier and no one is safe. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich and famous, or poor and unheard of, you too can be a target. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether you meant to offend anybody — if enough people are offended, or claim to be, you can lose your privacy, your reputation or your job. Even being dead is no guarantee. If there’s some sort of monument to your memory then that too is fair game.
It should be stressed that cancel culture is not the exclusive preserve of the woke Left. Performative offence-taking is something that can be engaged in by persons of just about any ideological persuasion.
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However, if you see a reasoned complaint about cancel culture, then it’s probably coming from a conservative or libertarian point of view. On the other side of the ‘culture war’, liberals have rather less to say about this matter.
Which is odd, because in many ways they have more to lose. While conservatives are already alienated from modernity, and libertarians dream of a future that hasn’t happened yet, liberals are living in the world that they built. Our cultural infrastructure may have roots in pre-modernity, but today most of it is run by liberals — and has been for decades. It’s not called liberal democracy for nothing.
As radicals exploit the crisis-filled moment to continue their march through the institutions, it is liberal values that are under attack — like free speech, fairness, equality and reason.
So why aren’t the partisans of the Enlightenment rallying against the statue topplers — and the other manifestations of cancel culture? The liberal grandees of the commentariat seem remarkably unalarmed by recent events. Some of them, like Matthew Parris, in a recent piece for The Spectator, emphasise the upside.
At this point I should point to some honourable exceptions. For instance, impeccably liberal writers like Janice Turner of The Times who speak out against the “tiny, intolerant minority” that “is dictating public policy which the vast majority of us abhor”:
“Where will the righteous anger train stop next? When will we know that ‘progress’ is finally achieved? When every member of every public body utters the required line? When every associate of JK Rowling is shamed? When every corporation is scared into compliance?”
Turner isn’t the only one. There are others, including some who aren’t just liberal but firmly on the Left, who have taken a stand. However, they often pay a price for doing so — becoming othered and isolated from the bien pensant mainstream. The feminists smeared as ‘TERFs’, for instance. Or the defenders of academic freedom associated with Quillette magazine. Or the Remain supporters, like Caroline Flint, who resisted the undemocratic attempt to overturn the referendum result.
Though these all continue to believe the things that placed them firmly in the non-conservative camp, they’ve become defined by their dissent. That’s not because liberalism and wokeness are the same thing (they aren’t), but because liberals who expose the differences find that their fellow liberals refuse to stand with them. It’s not that such solidarity would require full agreement, just a defence of the right to disagree.
So why the passivity? It maybe that mainstream liberals perceive the woke threat to be an exaggeration — perhaps an outright invention of the populist Right. If the calling-out of bigotry does occasionally tip over into cancel culture then any excess is the work of irrelevant fringe. And, anyway, where’s the harm? Will democracy be irreparably damaged if the likes of Katie Hopkins are kicked off Twitter?
Except that cancel culture goes so much further than any of that. This issue is about what is happening within mainstream institutions — and what is being done to people with mainstream views.
Look at what happened to James Bennet, who was, until recently, a well-regarded comment editor at the New York Times. He was forced out after internal ructions a few weeks ago. The controversy was over the paper’s publication of an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator. It happened at the height of the unrest in several American cities — and Cotton argued for “an overwhelming show of force” to restore order. It was a hawkish piece, but one that drew a distinction between a “majority who seek to protest peacefully” and “bands of miscreants.” Nevertheless, that was too much viewpoint diversity for the paper’s activist-employees — and Bennet had to go.
It’s not only editors who need to watch their step. Columnists too are in danger. In March, Suzanne Moore of The Guardian wrote in defence of Selina Todd, an Oxford professor who was de-platformed for wrongthink on trans issues. Moore soon found herself facing an intense campaign of criticism. This included a condemnatory letter whose signatories included several of her own Guardian colleagues. Buzzfeed News reported on a further letter, this one apparently signed by hundreds of Guardian staff. Unlike James Bennet, this insider pile-on did not force Moore out. Still one doesn’t have to achieve a full cancellation to make others think twice before defying the party line.
Not that one has to be a public figure to be targeted. Earlier this month, the Washington Post decided to run a major story (getting on for 3,000 words of it) about a fancy dress party that happened two years ago. This was deemed newsworthy because a party guest had covered her face in black make-up. According to the article, the costume was intended as a satire on people thinking that wearing blackface is OK. The guest quickly regretted her decision and apologised for it. Nevertheless she was subsequently tracked down, named and ended up losing her job. Justin Trudeau is still in his though.
Another recent example is the bizarre story of how David Shor, a political data analyst whose work has contributed to Democrat election campaigns, got cancelled. His offence? Tweeting about research by a black academic showing how, in 1968, peaceful protests increased the Democratic vote while riots reduced it. For this, he was accused by members of his professional peer group of ‘anti-blackness’ and other affronts. His employers, a progressive data analytics company, fired him — though for reasons why are disputed. You can read more about this Kafkaesque tale here and here.
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, we’ve had the Booker Prize Foundation’s cancellation of its honorary vice-president Baroness Nicholson, (see Janice Turner’s article for more). And also Graham Linehan, of Father Ted fame, getting banned from Twitter (trans transgressions, again).
So, no, it’s not just right-wingers who get cancelled. If they do or say the wrong thing — or merely do or say it in the wrong way — progressives can also find themselves in trouble. Indeed, on the principle of pour encourager les autres, liberals make the ideal cancellees.
Perhaps that’s the real reason why liberals are reluctant to speak-up — they’re afraid they’ll be next. As Winston Churchill said about appeasers, “each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last”.
What can liberals do to defend liberal values while standing clear of the snapping jaws? Well, one thing they could do is to name their ‘woke breaking point’ — to state publicly how much woke is too much. Think about it in terms of statues. It’s one thing to object to a monument to a slave trader (I’d certainly hate to have one in my town), but how much further would you want either the illegal topplings or the official removals to go? Where do you say ‘thus far and no further’? Should Churchill be safe? Gandhi too? I’ll admit this is fast becoming a clichéd question, but it does demand an answer — especially from those who fancy themselves cultural arbiters.
For commentators who believe that the woke threat has been exaggerated there is surely no risk. Either they are right and their lines in the sand will never be breached — or they are wrong, in which case they’d surely want to defend their liberal values. If you use your position of influence to say that the crocodile doesn’t exist (or only eats bad people) then you shouldn’t be afraid to have some skin in the game. If the mob does come for the monuments that you said wouldn’t be toppled, or the writers that you said wouldn’t be sacked, then you should be honour-bound to take a stand.
What is dishonourable (for a self-professed liberal) is to make excuses, or stay conveniently silent, no matter how many times that liberties are encroached upon, or history erased, or language twisted out of shape, or the blatantly irrational imposed as incontestable truth.
Note that liberals don’t have to choose the same breaking points as their reactionary opponents. They can heartily approve of getting slave traders out of the public square or banning racist trolls from social media sites. Indeed, this isn’t only about wokeness and anti-wokeness — because not all the threats to free speech are about overtly woke issues.
For instance, in April, the CEO of YouTube announced that content contradicting the World Health Organisation advice on Covid-19 would be banned from the site. One can certainly see the wisdom in denying snake-oil salesmen a platform to peddle their wares. But equally one should see the danger of shutting down sensible debate on scientific questions that have yet to be settled. For instance, take a look at this UnHerd interview with Professor Karol Sikora. Can any true liberal be comfortable with the fact that this entirely reasonable discussion of an important issue was taken down by YouTube for “violating guidelines”? Or that the limits of allowable debate in major forums are now defined by the official line of a UN quango (which, by the way, goes against its own previously published guidance — e.g. by U-turning on the use of face coverings)?
If a spirit of intolerance and paranoia takes hold of our most important institutions — whether in academia, the media, politics or the arts — then that, ultimately, is a threat to everyone. If you can’t find it within you to defend the rights of those you disagree with, then at least think of yourself.