November 13, 2020

The term “cancel culture” has become one of the phrases of the age. But as with all such terms, it not only encompasses a range of trends, but also conceals them. By focusing on the question of how, where, when and why people are “cancelled” it is easy to pass over the question of what happens next. What — if anything — happens to people once they have been “cancelled”.

A new book by Kevin Myers, Burning Heresies: A Memoir of a Life in Conflict 1979-2020, arrives at an important juncture. For Myers himself was “cancelled” in 2017 over a single sentence of his column in the Irish edition of The Sunday Times. This one clumsily-worded sentence brought accusations of misogyny, anti-Semitism and even “Holocaust denial” down on his head, all of them unfairly and ignorantly levelled, but significant enough in number and volume to see Myers not only sacked from his column but effectively ending his 40-year career in journalism.

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I say the book arrives at an important juncture, because every day there is a fresh example of the cancelling phenomenon and every day there is a failure to contend with what people are meant to do once they have been so “unpersonned”, and what attitude the rest of society is meant to take towards them.

Just this week there have been two suggestive examples. First there was the case of of Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association — now former chairman of the Football Association, since on Wednesday, Clarke resigned from this position after making what the BBC described as a “remark about black players“. As with all such reports, if you were only to have read the headline you might come away with the impression that Clarke had specifically, deliberately or otherwise reprehensively insulted some black football players for being black.

Indeed the headline could encompass everything from the most appalling racial slurs, to what Clarke in fact did do, which was to use the term “coloured footballers”. The rules of the moment demand that Clarke should have used the term “people of colour” rather than “coloured people” and therefore perhaps should have said “players of colour” rather than “coloured players”. Of course the era has been through this linguistic discussion before, with some people pointing out that if the term “coloured people” is so offensive, what are we to make of the NAACP?

But all these debates are put to one side once somebody is found to have uttered remarks which some people take to be racist. Once again the words are made to transcend the context or purpose with which they are used. On this occasion Clarke was speaking to MPs about diversity and racial abuse directed against black players. Had Clarke been calling for more racial abuse of black players then perhaps his use of a slightly outmoded term would have been suggestive.

But he was talking about how to prevent such offences. So it might ordinarily be thought uncharitable to interpret the language he used as going completely against the spirit of the sentences he was uttering. Clarke himself apologised for the remarks, saying that they were “a product of having worked overseas” for years where different language norms had been in place. But he was forced to resign anyway for his “unacceptable language”.

Another person who had their career ended this week was Jeffrey Toobin, the lawyer, CNN regular and New Yorker contributor. He made news last month when he was reported as having exposed himself during a Zoom call with colleagues. Embarrassingly for everyone involved, during an election “simulation” involving staff from the New Yorker and WYNC radio Mr Toobin was seen by some colleagues pleasuring himself on camera.

The first reports of this could hardly have been more embarrassing. Though it does not completely excuse the lapse, it soon emerged that Toobin had been responsible for a reprehensible technological gaffe. He had obviously been multitasking and was darting between different video calls of a clearly different nature (something he should doubtless not have been doing).

Clearly his intention had not been to expose himself to his colleagues, although that would be the conclusion anybody reading the briefest reports of the incident might have come to. And so again on Wednesday it was announced that the New Yorker was ending its 27-year relationship with Toobin, whose career — like Clarke’s — would appear to be over. This is where the Myers memoir provides some much-needed context to our times as well as his own life story.

As it happens, a second volume of memoirs from Myers should have been eagerly awaited by everyone. His first, Watching the Door [2008], was an account of covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland between 1971 and 1978. It is one of the best books I know about that dirty, squalid, vicious war, and when it first came out Watching the Door was immediately, widely and justly acclaimed.

It is a book which, as Andrew Marr memorably said in a jacket quote, “stinks of the truth”. His second volume of memoirs is at least as good, covering Myers’s exceptionally brave work as a war correspondent in Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. In between there are hilarious memories of the Dublin press world and a serious and important account of Myers’s — for a time — one-man work to revive the memory of the Irish soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War.

All of this would ordinarily have meant Burning Heresies receiving at least as much — if not more — acclaim than his 2008 book. And yet this time the notices have been fewer and the media grandees of Marr’s stature have kept away. For, of course, in between those books is the downfall which Myers explains in painful and self-lacerating detail in this book. Like Toobin and Clarke this week, Myers was a victim of a whirlwind of accusations, originating in one terrible mistake.

As in those cases it allowed headlines to suggest that his crimes were not only agreed upon but much worse than they in fact were. They allowed old enemies to come out and settle old scores, while new enemies managed to leap to ignorant conclusions that they could lay on top. The fact that Myers ended up fighting (and winning) a defamation case against RTÉ is probably known by a fraction of those around the world who read of his first “offence”.

But as in all such cases, there has to be a way through. People cannot, or should not, just be picked up, whirled around and dumped in this fashion because of a momentary slip-up or infelicity. We know by now that social media gives the world the opportunity to put a microphone to the smallest slip-up and we should also know by now how easily this device might be turned onto any of us. Since we live in an era where we have all volunteered to have multiple camera and recording devices in our own homes, and where we have at the touch of our fingers the ability to draw the attention (negatively or otherwise) of the whole world, we should have at least started to try to work out how people get out of cancellation as well as into it.

It seems to me that the case of Myers suggests several broad principles that could be applied. The first is to accept apologies when they are sincerely and clearly uttered — to accept that a sincere apology can put a line under things rather than giving them another cycle of recrimination.

A second is that we should try to incline towards generosity in our interpretation of the remarks and actions of others. I have never had any special liking for Jeffrey Toobin, but I would assume that he did not intend to expose himself to his work colleagues. There was a time when the embarrassment brought down on him might have been enough.

What we should try to work out is whether there is any line today between total career destruction and having to never slip up in any way in life or utterance. The case of Clarke presents a similar occasion. It is possible to pretend that somebody of a certain age forgetting the precise, correct phrase of the time is revealing some deep-seated racial prejudice. But more likely he is a person who got muddled, intended no offence, is sincere in his apology and should be treated reasonably in response. Yet all this is something the age seems intent on not doing.

No two cases are precisely analogous. But what is clear by now is that our era has developed a vengeance which is troubling, and a lack of opportunity for repentance which is worse. Perhaps people are just hoping that they will never slip up in their lives and will be able to sidle along through the whole thing. Perhaps we will. Perhaps we won’t.