This article appears in Lay of the Land Cancelling Cancel Culture
Whatever happened to the art of conversation and polite debate? There used to be a time when we could engage in robust, often passionate discussion and if we had divergent opinions, we would politely agree to disagree and then move on. No friendships were ended. No ties were cut. Nobody was “cancelled”.
Cancel culture is an ugly new phenomenon and lately it seems to be gaining a stronger tailwind than ever before. One only has to visit the social media platforms of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to see how anyone with a different opinion from the “woke” norm, are summarily subjected to online abuse and then cast aside. Cancelled. Persona non grata. You will never work in this town again!
It would appear that the first casualty of this is nuance. Understanding the complexities of issues is important if we are to find middle ground – and tolerance. Somewhere and nobody is certain when we lost our ability to politely and respectfully debate, discuss and engage in discourse. Having an opinion today can get you into serious trouble. As the momentum from Black Lives Matter protests grows around the world so to increasing extremism of some elements within the ranks that are pushing an agenda. One of the issues of this agenda is erasing those parts of history that explain the injustices of the past because they don’t support a narrative that the movement would like to promote. Statues, movies such as the classic “Gone with the Wind”, product branding and even great literary works like “To kill a Mockingbird” seem to have no place in current society because there may be references to inequality and racism.
From New York to South Carolina, and from London to Liverpool, statues are being pulled down off their respective plinths. The war on history and culture has started. But will cancelling important historical narratives really bring about racial equality or justice?
The only way to move forward, to teach tolerance and help to heal and understand the injustices and hurts of the past so that we can all do better is to have nuanced, robust and even painful conversations.
When Apartheid fell in South Africa, there were hearings conducted between victims and perpetrators of the racist system. The intention was to try and heal some of the terrible pain of the past and to help each side understand each other’s experience. Perhaps this is needed in other parts of the world so that the perpetrators can understand and learn, and we can all work towards a better, more just and tolerant society.
It is not just around issues of race where cancel culture is flourishing. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, created a storm that had muggles on social media channeling their inner Voldemort. All jokes (and bad references to the wizarding world) aside, Rowling’s attempts to explain her position regarding the transgender community. The row began after Rowling responded to a headline on an online article discussing “people who menstruate” by writing in a tweet: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Critics accused her of being transphobic, but Rowling said she stood by her comments, saying it “isn’t hate to speak the truth”. Rowling took umbrage to the definition of women as “people who menstruate” and in an impassioned essay warned of the erosion of the identity of women.
Rowling was summarily called a “TERF” – transgender exclusionary radical feminist and cancelled across social media. Even the stars of her movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, whose careers were effectively birthed by the series, criticized Rowling. Was this because they honestly took offense or because they themselves were fearful of being cancelled should they be seen NOT to take a stand?
Cancel culture which is favoured by the far left is the most illiberal form of liberalism. There is nothing progressive about killing debate – or careers.
There is also a difference between cancel culture and holding someone accountable for their actions. By removing debate and discussion, the ability to teach the importance of taking accountability and the relevant consequences falls by the wayside.
The one area where cancel culture seems to have disappeared is around antisemitism. This ancient hatred is allowed to go unchecked. It is quite unbelievable that while the world holds important and necessary discussions around race, the rising discrimination and hatred targeted at Jews is roundly ignored. Those of us active in the fight against antisemitism are routinely told “don’t make it about you”. This is an appalling double standard. Jews are paying with their lives having been killed in synagogues, museums, grocery stores and in their homes from Pittsburgh to Paris. The time for silence is over.
The only way to fight racism is to deal with all forms of hatred and prejudice. Fighting racism effectively should not be done at the expense of promoting another form of prejudice, including antisemitism.
Cancel culture is dangerous. At a time when the world has become more and more polarized, we can ill afford more divisions, let alone shutting down conversation and people entirely. The dangers of this kind of extremism supported by the far left are that eventually the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction and give a tailwind to the alt-right.
The only way forward is to seek middle ground and engage in discourse and education.
Perhaps the time has come to cancel this cancel culture?