I’m a comedian and I’ve experienced the insidious and self defeating effect of cancel culture first hand
BY LEO KEARSE
I’m one of the UK’s few openly right wing comedians. I say “openly” because comedians are some of the most inherently right wing people I’ve met – they’re all self-starting Thatcherite entrepreneurs hustling for work in a free market, they all stuff cash under the mattress where the taxman can’t see it and despite the pay structure in comedy being really unequal (a headliner will get £300 while a middle spot gets £50) I’ve never seen one of these virtuous socialist headliners demand that the pay is distributed more evenly.
But although they act right wing, most comedians do pay lip service to being leftwing. Comedy is about being likeable, and saying nice things like “pay nurses more” is a shortcut to likeability. I, on the other hand, say that Trump is my hero (putting children in cages is a fantastic idea), climate change is a good thing, and fat people should live in the sea. Audiences love it, but many loath me, or loath the concept of me, and do what they can to get me cancelled. I’ve had protesters at my shows, reviewers marking me down for my unconscionable opinions, social media storms and venues banning me.
In 2019 I took my show, ‘Right Wing Comedian’ to the Perth Fringe in Australia. The show had already provoked the ire of other comedians – while the artistic community proudly champion tolerance and diversity, this isn’t extended to political opinions. Other comedians assumed I was either mad or pretending to be right wing to get attention. The idea that a comedian could actually hold mainstream political opinions was unconscionable. I am genuinely right wing. I believe in smaller government, lower taxes, less government interference in people’s lives – to woke people, I’m basically Hitler.
So people tried to get me cancelled. One of the ways this is done is to trawl back through someone’s twitter feed and find something objectionable they posted in 2009 when they were drunk, and use it to whip up an online furore and get that person cancelled, as happened to Kevin Hart when he was announced as an Oscars host.
They did the same thing to me. They found a clip from my show where I spoke about male privilege. You can watch it here:
People complained that this material was transphobic. It’s not intended to be transphobic. I’ve got huge respect for transgender people. I think that if you go through all the pain, expense and social stigma of transitioning, you’ve got more of a right to that gender than I do. I’m just a default gender person – I was born with a dick and I ran with it. If you’re transgender, as long as you’re not smashing women’s powerlifting records with your penis clearly visible through your Lycra, more power to you.
People complained that I was “punching down” at transgender people. The bigotry of woke people shines through in statements like this. Clumping people into groups invalidates their individual traits and defines them by their demographics. Transgender people have by definition spent their lives fighting to express themselves as individuals. Assuming they’re below me where I “punch down” at them is regressive and patronising.
And the offending material isn’t “punching” at transgender people anyway. It’s mocking the differing beauty standards of men and women. Men have it easy when it comes to socially approved presentability.
A review encapsulates the righteous ignorance of the woke brigade. Writing in Fest, Lewis Porteous wrote, “When he complains that it’s easier for women to transition than men, he’s taking the most loathsome, wrong-headed view possible, on an issue in which it’s doubtful he has any personal interest.”
But it is factually correct to say that transgender men (men who were assigned female at birth) tend to ‘pass’ more easily than transgender women. This is because small feminine men are more common and less noticeable than large masculine women, and markers for maleness, such as beards and flat chests, are easier to attain through hormones or clothing than female markers, such as a less pronounced browbone or Adam’s apple, which require surgery.
The review ends by saying, ”Despite its knuckleheaded ideology, this show could well be one of the funniest shows you see all Fringe, Scotsman Kearse reducing the audience to teary hysterics in a manner recalling no less than Billy Connolly.” A comedy show that’s one of the funniest shows of the Fringe might reasonably be expected to get a higher than average score, particularly given the rarity of actually funny shows at Fringe festivals. But Lewis gives me a flat 3 stars, marking me down for my “knuckleheaded ideology”.
And it’s a misrepresentation to claim that I have no personal interest in trans issues given that I wrote the material with a transgender woman I was dating. I totally recommend dating transgender women. At my age, all the women look like Eddie Izzard anyway.
But reviews don’t have much of an impact. What really affected me was the storm that whipped up on social media. A social media mob doesn’t ask for context or intent. They saw a white male talking about transgender issues and assumed I must be denigrating transgender people – ironically, projecting their own prejudice about white male comedians. My show was scheduled for a run at an LGBTQ+ venue. As someone with a transgender girlfriend, it felt appropriate.
Not everyone agreed. The furore kicked off with this post on my venue’s facebook page:
“Why are you hosting this bigoted loser unit’s show during Fringeworld? It’s a bad look. When you do stuff like this, it shows us that you clearly care more about virtue signalling and profits more than you actually care about our community.”
And it snowballed from there. Choice comments in the thread include:
“this is absolutely unacceptable!! THIS GUY IS A TRANSPHOBE!!! You need to sort this out!!!!”
“THIS MAN SHOULD NOT BE WELCOMED INTO OUR SAFE FOR QUEER PEOPLE SPACES SHAME ON YOU”
Someone posted a link to an article where I discuss having a transgender girlfriend, giving context to the offending material, but it was deleted after the person posting it was attacked.
My venue responded: “Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention. We have cancelled this show. We do apologise if we have offended anyone.” I fully understand and support their decision – their venue should be a place where LGBTQ+ people can feel safe. I didn’t want to jeopardise this.
The immediate consequence for me was that I had to spend thousands hiring a new venue that wasn’t as nice or as central. And I experienced anguish – I didn’t mean to upset anyone like this, I felt that my material had been misunderstood and misrepresented, that people who would enjoy the show had been put off from seeing it. I worried that the promoter who’d programmed my show would lose the venue and other comedians would be affected.
For me, this is the visible tip of the iceberg of cancel culture. As well as promoters and venues being nudged to book someone less contentious and audiences veering away from someone who has the whiff of hate speech hanging over them, the real impact ripples on through self censorship. Few comedians would dare mock the Prophet Muhammad following the massacre of Charlie Hebdo, or question the woke definition of gender following the public excoriation of JK Rowling.
I don’t believe this is healthy. When comedians such as Owen Benjamin are banned from social media, they take their fans with them to alternative platforms that don’t filter prejudiced content, which is surely less healthy. And Markus Meechan (aka Count Dankula, creator of the infamous and prosecuted Nazi pug video) says that his harassment and censorship has by his own admission pushed the former leftist to the right, with him becoming a UKIP candidate in 2019.
Psychological reactance (which occurs when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude and causes the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended) often subverts the aim of the censors. In the end, my show was a financial success at the new venue, helped by my new-found notoriety which led to media coverage and a boost in ticket sales.
Censoring comedians seems largely unnecessary and self defeating. We’re already self censoring; when we perform we’re constantly judged by a jury of peers who let us know if we say anything unacceptable. They’re called “the audience”. Let them be our judge.
Leo Kearse is comedian, writer and commentator. Follow him on twitter: @LeoKearse