by Hadley Freeman
Tuesday, 22
March 2022
Debate
11:00

Why women fear cancel culture more than men

A recent NYT poll reveals a stark gender divide on self-censorship
by Hadley Freeman
Roxane Gay says that cancel culture is just a “bogeyman”. Credit: Getty

Can one cancel all talk of cancel culture? According to some liberal-leaning commentators, absolutely. As author and New York Times contributor Roxane Gay said in an interview last year, cancel culture is just a “bogeyman” invented to explain away bad behaviour having consequences — “I like to think of it as consequence culture,” she explains. 

Consequences fine, cancelling bad. Sounds reasonable. Phew. 

So when the New York Times ran a leader last week headlined “America Has a Free Speech Problem”, the outrage on Twitter was instantaneous. The Times produced stats to prove its thesis, so were the polls wrong or just the paper? Both, seemed to be the conclusion. “Pure moral panic,” huffed one media commentator and he proceeded to prove how unpanicked he was by arguing with the leader for 17 tweets. A New Yorker writer spent the next few days proving how free his speech is by sneering at the leader while ignoring the thousands of people who sent him examples of cancel culture. 

Interestingly, the vast majority of the people who dismissed the idea that maybe some folks these days are intolerant of ideas that differ from their own were men. One of the more striking details in the Times’ poll is that more women than men answered “yes” when asked “Over the past year, have you held your tongue because you were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism?” Fully 61% compared to 49% of men.

One detail of the NYT poll

A look at the (ignored) replies to the New Yorker writer’s request for examples of cancel culture gives a clue as to why: British women such as Maya Forstater, Milli Hill, Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, Rachel Rooney and Sonia Appleby — all of whom suffered enormous personal and professional consequences for voicing doubts about gender ideology — were mentioned, as were Americans Alison Roman and Jeanine Roman, for alleged racial infractions, which were far less clear cut than widely assumed at the time. 

Helen Lewis, the British author and writer for The Atlantic, could also have been mentioned. Her voiceover was removed from a computer game in 2020 because her beliefs (that trans women are women, but biological sex exists) were deemed too controversial for Watch Dogs: Legion. Some of the men I saw energetically dismissing the New York Times’ piece know Lewis, but, as we have seen, these anti-cancel culture men suffer from selective deafness when it comes to hearing women. Perhaps they cancelled them.

I have my own theories about this gender imbalance, gleaned from years of watching men go after female journalists for expressing opinions that they barely blink at when expressed by their male colleagues. Bullies target the vulnerable; I guess, in this arena, women are deemed the vulnerable ones. And as the roll-call of above names suggests, they might be right. 

Cancel culture is — as anyone who has been on social media, or worked in academia, publishing or the media recently could tell you — not about getting your due punishment for something bad. It’s about voicing an opinion that differs from an orthodoxy, and this results in public shaming and ostracism. It is a silencing and punitive movement, more concerned with making the cancellers feel good about themselves, rather than making the world a better, fairer place. 

But denunciatory cultures always eat their own. On Sunday, the writer Lauren Hough posted a blog saying she was no longer a finalist for the Lambda Literary Prize, a book prize for queer writers. Lambda had withdrawn her nomination, they told her, because they were “concerned” she had defended on Twitter a non-binary author, who had been accused of transphobia for reasons one could generously describe as tenuous. “I’m not a fucking terf,” Hough insisted, but as anyone who has read The Crucible could have told her, denying you’re a witch just proves you are one. 

“Disgraceful,” Roxane Gay tweeted her friend in response, “I cannot believe it”.

Just keep telling yourself cancel culture is a bogeyman, until it comes for you.

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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
8 months ago

For the record, “consequences” are what happen when you stick a fork in a live toaster; “cancelling” is a deliberate and premeditated act of vengeance and intimidation against someone who doesn’t see things your way. Spot the difference?

Last edited 8 months ago by Francis MacGabhann
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
8 months ago

“So when the New York Times ran a leader last week headlined “America Has a Free Speech Problem”, the outrage on Twitter was instantaneous.”
Why on earth do people still care about Twitter?

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
8 months ago

Look at how women and girls ‘fight’ – it’s through passive aggression, reputational damage, ostracism from the group. Back in the day, poison-pen letters were a thing, almost always perpetrated by women, with women being the majority of recipients. Women are much more likely to want social acceptance, to be hurt by its exclusion, so they’re reluctant to go against the herd and fear to express something that might seem like dissent from the consensus.

Social media has hugely amplified these sorts of tactics.

mike otter
mike otter
8 months ago

Look at any group of kids under 10 and the girls are way more likely to self censor or otherwise sublimate their individuality to avoid conflict than the boys. As Hadley Freeman has pointed out recently now she is free of the grauniad groupthink, girls are heavily socialised into being “good” so the problem doesn’t disappear with age it just reduces slightly as some realise they’ve been conned. On the plus side this environmental conditioning gives women the upper hand when peaceful dispute resolution is required. However peaceful dispute resolution is not always wise or required. You will not achieve peaceful resolution with Putin, wokists, eco-clowns or any other extreme ideologues as they represent The One Truth (which is mutable to them, dependant on real-politik). Also on the minus side is the emotional and psychological harm women suffer through their exclusion from meaningful social decision making, and a corresponding loss to society that close on 50% of it has no say in the set up even if they have 50 or more % of the stake in that society. And just because Iran or KSA is “worse” than the Anglosphere doesn’t make it right that we routinely exclude women from power structures, and allow wokists to leapfrog traditional theocratic misogyny to their extreme conclusion: There is no such thing as a woman.

Last edited 8 months ago by mike otter
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
8 months ago
Reply to  mike otter

“… girls are heavily socialised into being “good”. ” Maybe when Hadley Freeman was young. But that was decades ago. My experience as a teacher and as a father of teenage girls informs me that modern young women are very different.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
8 months ago

Another excerpt from my heroic couplet satire, The Wokeiad by Richard Craven:-
Now Ursa Major’s stormed Minor’s redoubt,
The time has passed for CRT for Scouts. 1430
The news passes like Covid through the crowd.
Tell it in Bath, and publish it in Stroud.
No more shall special snowflake rule the roost,
But lose the privilege to which they’re used.
No longer shall their tantrums be appeased;
Instead they’ll just be mercilessly teased.
When Tsars drop hyperbaric bombs on serfs,
It seems jejune to shrink in fear of TERFs.
Microaggression or misgendering
Begins to seem a nugatory thing; 1440
Explain unconscious bias and its harms
To an old woman missing both her arms.

polidori redux
polidori redux
8 months ago

“I have my own theories about this gender imbalance, gleaned from years of watching men go after female journalists for expressing opinions that they barely blink at when expressed by their male colleagues.”
That may be true in your world, but it isn’t true in mine. There are times when I could almost feel overcome by a sense of pity for Guardian “liberals”. Almost, but not quite.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
8 months ago

The cancel crowd is largely the mean girls from middle school. Insecure with good reason and looking for someone to take the heat off themselves.

Howard Clegg
Howard Clegg
8 months ago

I used to read the Guardian, still do I suppose. It’s not all bad I suppose, just the wanky wokey bits.

I remember the “Red Wedge” from the 1980’s with their ridiculous hats and approved haircuts. Just insecure teenagers desperate to submerge their insecurities within the protection of the herd. Like wildebeest.

I tried to engage, they appeard to be cool after all. And I’m not unsympathetic to radical politics. In my heart if not my head, I’m an old fashioned anarchist circa 1937.

I tried to voice what I thought to be common sense observations. I didn’t necessarily agree with those observations, I was just playing with ideas. I was given to understand that that was what university was for. Soft play with dangerous concepts, so go play, enjoy, discover.

No.

Initially I was surprised by how quickly I was shut down. I thought that people has misheard me. That if I could just finish a sentence people would realise that I had just discovered an interesting logical inconsistency that might be fun to explore.

No.

The more carefully I constructed my arguments, the more I listened and rephrased and restructured my offerings, the quicker I was shut down, ostracised… cancelled.

These are those same people, Red Wedge all grown up. The same people; who now are visiting their myopic twattery on those of us who went to work with the actually disenfranchised, in real life in real time.

These people who have never spent more that five minutes with a black, disabled, transgender, learning disabled teenager. I have and it’s as terrifying as it is heartbreaking. How dare they tell me to “check my privilege.” How dare they suggest that I’m “institutionally racist/sexist,” or even worse, my colleagues who are usually women and often black. (Insert foul expletive here)

I thought they’d disappeared you see. After university they dropped off the radar. But we were all put to sleep by the Blair years, the easy(er) money and low(er) property prices. They’d all gone into the media or academia, cushy jobs, where no contact was required with real people or real lives.

But now they are finally feeling the pain. The internet and disruptive technologies have trashed their safe little happy places. And what do immature people do when the are in pain? They externalise. But wait! That’s what everybody else is doing, all the time, including me, right now. Thanks to the socials.

So what do you do if you are losing your privileged voice? Your place of authority in the market place of public debate. You find something eye catching, something that trumps reason, that triggers all kinds of icky sexual discomfort but resolutly refuses to engage with that sexual discomfort. Sounds like Love Island, oooh I’ve got shivers! It’s a a winner! Let’s call it “trans women are women,” yes, back on top again, what a relief. I win!

The intellectual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LA LA LA.”

And just as embarrassing.

An interesting thesis? Maybe. Just playing with ideas, like back in my university days. Maybe I’ll be downvoted (cancelled.) Don’t kid yourselves, it’s the same thing just slower.

But I’ve just managed to successfully externalise my pain, so job done.

Some of you might respond, but probably not, in any case nobody outside of this little corner of the Unherd bubble cares. We are all just screaming in to the abyss at this point.

But if all you want to do is externalise your pain, its perfect. The abyss is a big and doesn’t give a damn. You just need get over the fact that nobody is listening. Everybody is too busy talking.

Lindsay Snoman
Lindsay Snoman
8 months ago

I think that more men have a “don’t give a f*ck” attitude which ultimately makes cancel culture less effective against them than women. Maybe if we could get beyond the fear of being cancelled we can disempower the bullies but its difficult.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
8 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay Snoman

Speaking as a man completely open about my utter disdain for wokeness, I think you’re right.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
8 months ago

“Disgraceful,” Roxane Gay tweeted her friend in response, “I cannot believe it”.
What a delicious bit of irony there

William Shaw
William Shaw
7 months ago

Women are as competitive as men but more indirectly so, preferring approaches such as covert aggression, group pile-ons and social exclusion. Social media is used by females to up-scale aggressive behaviour with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of participants engaged in the character assassination of a single individual. In general, disagreements and arguments between men are dealt with in a very different manner.