A guide to modern cancel culture
BY NICK DIXON
I am so sorry to break it to all of you Free Market Conservatives, but when it comes to cancel culture, Owen Jones is right.
I know, I know, I was shocked too. But wipe that hot coffee you just spat off your laptop screen and place your eyes back into their sockets, because Mr Jones is only partially right.
Allow me to explain…
The other day, a group of well known left-leaning writers, academics, and other clever types — including famous wizard wrangler JK Rowling — decided to make their voices heard via the most devastating political weapon of all: the open letter.
More formal than the ‘open email’, less discreet than the private letter, the open letter strikes fear into the hearts of middle class people everywhere. ‘Oh no’, they cry, ’I hope this is not a reasonable and modest argument against cancel culture from a group of well known left-leaning writers, academics, and others’.
But, dear Free Market Conservatives, it was.
The worthy if somewhat vague missive, sent to Harper’s Magazine, politely condemned the phenomenon of cancel culture, while also getting in a quick and bracingly irrelevant dig at President Trump, just in case we had forgotten that Orange Man is still in fact BAD.
Thus a trend that had mainly bothered outspoken conservatives and pesky ordinary people finally reached the centre-left intelligentsia, and therefore became an urgent and weighty ‘moment of trial’ (I am quoting directly from the letter, as if to use its very openness against it).
Now that the libs had spoken, cancel culture was officially ‘a thing’.
The less moderate left, sometimes called the ‘far left’, the ‘woke left’, or the ‘far-far woke-woke left-left’, tried to deny that anything had happened.
The hero of our story, Owen Jones, played down the very existence of cancel culture. Sadly, the only people who agreed with him were surprisingly durable pop singer Billy Bragg, who did a tweet, and the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, who six onlookers claimed raised a wry eyebrow as if to say ‘Rowling is a TERF anyway’.
Still, even Jones’s gutsy attempts to mug off cancel culture felt dubious, as if he knew deep down in his place-where-a-heart-usually-is that cancel culture was totally real, but was not yet willing to relinquish this terrifically useful political tool.
Like an ageing boxer convinced he still has one more tricky Cuban southpaw to try and render unconscious, Jones didn’t want to hang up his trusty polemical gloves.
‘So’, you ask,‘if he was wrong about this, then what was he right about, you click-baiting popinjay?’
(I’m sorry, this is how I imagine all readers of Free Market Conservatives talk).
He was right, my socialistically challenged friends, in but one regard: that cancel culture is too broad a term to serve any real purpose.
This point, made by Jones in a head-to-head word tussle with Toby Young on the esteemed Sky News, stunned me in its accuracy.
‘Good Lord!’, I told my wife, ‘Jones has said something intelligent. Right out of his little commie mouth.’
’What’s that dear?’ My wife replied. ‘Nothing darling’, I added, ‘you obviously don’t exist. No one who is married has time to pay this much attention to Owen Jones’.
Jones’s next move was to state: ‘Given that the term is too broad, let’s just move on, nothing to see here, down with the Kulaks!’ (I am paraphrasing).
And this is where he made a fatal error.
Jones believes the imprecise nature of the phrase ‘cancel culture’ makes it useless. I, on the other hand, take this very imprecision as a challenge to break down the main sub-categories of said culture and thus skewer Mr Jones and his ilk in a way that is both satisfying and socially useful.
I am a patient man with nothing to lose but my fictitious wife. And that, my woke adversary, makes me dangerous.
The first category of cancel culture is what I call the Digital Political Assassinations (or DPA’s, if you prefer to shorten the phrase into the first letter of each word). This is where big tech gets all grassy knoll on your ass and uses whatever vague excuse they feel like to ‘take out’ any right wing / libertarian / classical liberal / generally outspoken figure who gets too popular.
Thus we have seen Twitter bans for Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Roger Stone, Carl Benjamin, Gavin McInnes, Owen Benjamin, Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Stefan Molyneux and no doubt many more.
Even if you have a well-used dartboard in your spare room with these people’s faces on it (the ones you’ve even heard of), since you are reading a journal called Free Market Conservatives, you may find their arbitrary deletion slightly troubling on grounds of individual liberty.
In ignoring wacky old traditions like ‘free speech’ (yawn) in favour of ‘riffing it’, Twitter have landed themselves and their users in an impossible position where cancellations become inevitable.
Gruff cynics, less in touch with their Jungian animas than the readers of Free Market Conservatives, might say that Twitter seem pretty chilled about all this.
The second type of cancel culture is what I will call — in keeping with my amusing cold-blooded murder theme — ‘Dream Snipers’.
These are those stoic little storm troopers who make it their business to prevent someone, usually a public figure, from achieving a lifelong career goal because said public figure has made an unforgivably offensive comment at some point in the last six or seven decades.
Famous examples include Kevin Hart losing the Oscars hosting gig, Roseanne losing her sitcom, and comedian Shane Gillis losing his spot on Saturday Night Live the very moment he got it.
The motivation here may be political, or simply spite. Or, if I am to be generous, in some cases it may be actual concern for whatever person or group the public figure has allegedly maligned.
It is not clear that these cancellations make the world a better place — if they do I certainly haven’t noticed it nudging up my daily joy quota — but for the victims and those close to them they definitely make it quantifiably worse.
Of course, it can be difficult to engage the beleaguered public in an outpouring of grief for a multimillionaire who is feeling totally bummed out.
Thus these dream sniping ‘hits’ are easily exploited by people like Comrade Jones in order to justify his cunning assertion that cancel culture is merely ‘public figures using their privileged platforms to complain’.
The third type of cancellation is the kind that creates the most problems for cancel culture deniers, and that is the good old-fashioned mob lynching.
Here, groups of bloodthirsty moral midgets scrabble over one another in their insatiable glee to get ordinary working people fired and harassed, wreaking untold destruction on these people’s lives and livelihoods.
Journalist Jon Ronson, known for his infuriatingly good books, wrote a whole 300-page belter about this deleterious craze called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
(‘Public shaming’ was the older, quainter, quasi-religious term for ‘cancel culture’; the very phrase itself seems to have undergone a Maoist makeover).
One story Ronson covers is that of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who was one of the first people to get very publicly cancelled on Twitter. Sacco tweeted a joke that was actually a solid satire on first world privilege, but was interpreted as a racial slur by online thickos. She then got attacked by the entire internet, lost her job, and had to spend a year rebuilding her life.
Such cases have only become more common. Very recently we saw well-regarded charity worker Nick Buckley lose his job for criticising aspects of the Black Lives Matter organisation.
Then just last year there was Professor Afzal Mehmood, falsely accused of sexual harassment at the peak of the ‘metoo’ trend. His wife left him, then his university refused to issue a letter of retraction despite him being cleared of all charges. Try telling Professor Mehmood cancel culture doesn’t exist. You can’t, because shortly after all this, he killed himself.
These cases expose the pernicious claims made by people like New York Times writer Charles M. Blow that ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CANCEL CULTURE…The rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organise their dissent’.
The truth is often the exact opposite. Cancel culture is always an attack on the solitary person by the collective, whether it is a bureaucratic public institution or a callous corporation. And when it is in fact ‘the masses’ at work, they are just as likely to turn on an ordinary member of the public as they are ‘the rich’.
It seems that certain leftist commentators aren’t willing to spare these innocent people at the cost of losing one of their political weapons. That would mean the collectivist left admitting that the most vulnerable type of person in society is still, ultimately, the individual.
However, if it really is just a more nuanced definition of cancel culture they are after, then I have given it my best shot.
The obvious next question is what on earth to do about it.
Here I become less cocksure. I go quiet, look somewhere into the distance in a wistful yet still ruggedly handsome way. I swill my whiskey around in my glass and mutter something obscure about The Korean War. I get…philosophical.
Because to some degree cancel culture is just a modern spin on an ancient human problem: people are full of resentment and hatred, and they enjoy taking it out on others. They are also possessed by ideologies and will do whatever is necessary to destroy opposing beliefs.
In this sense cancel culture is not a new phenomenon, merely an upgrade in technology. And — as I hardly need to tell readers of this conservative publication — not all progress is good progress. Some things are best left how they were, like football before VAR, or Harry before Meghan.
Short of destroying Twitter, or people suddenly developing decency and restraint (LOL), things like the mushy Harper’s letter may be the only way forward. Such interventions might gradually stigmatise the idea of cancel culture, so that more and more people and institutions take pause before indulging in that vicious pile-on or hasty sacking.
But if that doesn’t work, I refer to my long-held belief that we should bury Twitter in a deep hole in the desert. And for you, dear Free Market Conservative, I will even bring my own shovels.
Nick Dixon is a comedian and writer. Follow him on twitter: @nickdixoncomic