Cancel Culture and Useful Idiots
Ever the cliché, I belong to a Facebook group ‘for writers’. Aside from the regular scam posts about ‘Reviewing your book for free! No strings!’ one of my favourite recent posts was from an author promoting their new novel. This hapless writer posted a photo of themselves holding their new book, while they posed in a fancy new outfit and hairdo.
The accompanying caption read like so much self-help twaddle with, ‘speaking your truth’ taking centre stage, followed closely by a desire for us to know that they were ‘out to embrace their natural look’ and their ‘best selves’. It was topped off with them imploring us to ‘grow together’. Strangely, there was barely any mention of their book.
But it was the first comment underneath that grabbed my attention.
“Do you know the book is upside down?”
Apparently not. In a hurry to show off their ‘authentic self’, to ‘be real’, and of course ‘speak their truth’ while doing so, the star of the post had failed to notice that they were holding their book the wrong way round. It seemed to me the only authentic thing about the post was that this narcissism had overpowered everything else, even the author’s own hard work. But rampant narcissism, conceit, and idiocy is a la mode on social media.
Another member posted a newspaper article about ‘Cancel Culture’ and how it had manifested itself in the world of literature. It cited the cases of authors including JK Rowling, Julie Burchill, and Jeanine Cummins. All of whom have been attacked, accused, vilified, and in some cases silenced for their views or work. Or as it’s reasonable to term, cancelled.
Mentions of Cancel Culture on social media are very often met with a wilful misunderstanding of the term, and what usually follows is an inevitable denial of its existence.
As we all know, rather than meaning an absolute state of being cancelled, it quite obviously refers to an attempt to shut down speech, ban individuals from having platforms to communicate, or violently and oppressively discourage any veering from the current orthodoxies. It can happen in small circles, and in large high-profile ones, and can lead to all manner of consequences for the cancelled, from losing one’s livelihood, to being doxed.
The denial is usually accompanied by less kindness than a Klan rally, a flimsy argument, and an inability or refusal to see the inherent dangers in denying its existence as a modern phenomenon. There is also a less than subtle whiff of siding with aggressors to place themselves in what they believe is a position of safety. Which of course, by its nature, it can’t be. It could happen to you. That’s the point.
No one wants to admit they might be an awful coward and bully, and what better way to avoid that than double down and try and gaslight whole swathes of people.
On the writers’ group, when they saw the article, a few of the noisier types must have salivated like Pavlov’s dog, and began bashing their keyboards righteously.
‘There’s no such thing as cancel culture’, ‘They are rich so they’ll be fine’, ‘Speech has consequences’, ‘TERF!’, ‘JK Rowling is a transphobe’, ‘I hate JK Rowling’, and so on. Someone even suggested that people being cancelled in these ways was somehow ‘voting with your feet’, which seems at best a misunderstanding of that phrase when in fact it is the result of a horde of unhinged, entitled employees throwing a hissy fit because of hurty feels and demands that ‘bad lady’ go.
LBC’s heroically unpleasant airwave rodent James O’Brien is one of several commentators who regularly deny the reality of cancel culture. He and others will trot out that, ‘these people aren’t cancelled’ and they can ‘always go somewhere else’ with the criteria being if you are successful or rich, you can’t be cancelled. Which is great. If you are rich. And it was true.
The fact is there are new examples all the time, including Helen Staniland who was suspended from Twitter for asking what is known as #TheStanilandQuestion, “Do you believe that male-sexed people with a penis should have the right to undress and shower in a communal changing room with girls?”
Perhaps they could explain what happened to WSJ journalist Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage which examines the shocking scientific phenomenon of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD) in young girls. Following a couple of complaints from trans activists on Twitter, the book was pulled from Target’s online store, and her publisher was stopped by Amazon from advertising the book on their store. Then following an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Spotify staff threatened to strike unless the episode was removed. Meanwhile, no major outlet would review it, and a professor at Berkeley asked for it to be burned.
But no, not cancel culture. Nothing to see here. She imagined it. So did you. Shhh. #Shhh.
And if some are able to escape or withstand calls for their removal from jobs, platforms, or social circles, it doesn’t legitimately call into question the existence of cancel culture. It just means it didn’t work that time. Yet that type of flawed and hateful logic seems to be at the foundation of any defence or denial.
It doesn’t matter, it behoves commentators like O’Brien and many others to proudly defend their intellectually immiserated position, as admission might lead to becoming prey. So what transpires is a combined embracing of the behaviour, and denial of its existence.
Despite the presence of Julie Burchill and Jordan Peterson, much of the ire in this group was predictably served up to JK Rowling. Despite her ‘crimes’ on the face of it being far harder to pin down than others’, she seems to hold a particularly prominent spot in the hate stakes.
Is it because these perennial infants feel betrayed by the author who accompanied them through their formative years? Is it the equivalent of Gen X finding out that Tony Hart, when not admiring children’s art, would relax by chewing the faces off of kittens?
Perhaps for some they are shocked that Rowling, previously politically allied to their own views, a champion of the vulnerable, and someone who dropped off the list of billionaires due to the amount of money she has given to charitable causes, is otherwise relatively bulletproof and therefore, problematic. It’s hard to call her a fascist. Though some surely do.
Let’s face it, it’s very possible that it’s just because she’s a woman.
Either way, these people don’t seem to care. Perhaps it’s my fault that I was surprised at the lack of support for other authors, or even the faintest grasp of freedom of expression in this group for people who would like to be considered artists. Perhaps they’re simply another example of what Lenin is said to have termed, ‘useful idiots’, blind and foolish apostles used by a cause whose ultimate goals they don’t fully understand.
And remember, if you’re swayed by the excuse for this behaviour that it calls out all kinds of evil that the world should be rid of like racism, I suggest reading JK Rowling’s well-chosen words on the subject for which she’s been vilified. Only the most deranged mind would genuinely find offence in it. And then compare the abuse that’s sent her way in response. Here’s a handy guide!
One suspects they let out an excited squeak when Suzanne Moore was the victim of that nasty little campaign to get her kicked off the Guardian. Maybe they gave the air a weak punch when another feminist writer, like MK Fain, was banned from this very platform for writing about…well, which subject do you think it involved?
But were they as happy when Will ‘Cancel culture, lol’ Wilkinson was fired from the New York Times for suggesting Mike Pence should be lynched?
When Trump was kicked off Twitter they surely would have cheered, but when the Socialist Workers Party was booted off Facebook, was there a flicker of doubt? Have they wondered at any point why the man behind Father Ted is banned from Twitter, while the Chinese Communist Party and Ayatollah Khamenei carry on happy as Larry? Well, maybe not happy, but you get the idea.
#YouDoYou they unironically tag all over social media, implying people should just be themselves, but it would seem more accurate to partner it with #AsLongAsWeAgree.
Given that most bleeding edge offensive views weren’t vaguely controversial ten years ago, it seems likely that the nobility they feel when attacking someone now, will turn to dread one day. Thousands more will become ‘problematic’ as their transgressions are excavated, and we can sit back and watch the snake eat itself.
It seems short termism at best, if not completely stupid not to realise this. As they say though, never underestimate the power of stupidity. Or its volume.
Tom James’ new book Your Children Are Boring is available here on paperback and kindle in the UK, US and worldwide.
And now on audiobook at Audible, Amazon and iTunes.