Rearranging Chairs While the Ship Sinks: Preliminary Reflections On Cancel Culture

On July 7, an open letter was published in Harper’s Magazine entitled a ‘A Letter On Justice and Open Debate’. Signed by a cast high-profile, authors, writers and columnists from across the political spectrum, although it should be noted, the signer’s appeared to be predominantly taken from the liberal media class, the letter warned of a slide towards “illberalism”, amidst a rise in “new moral attitudes” and “political commitments”. The letter has so far received a mixed reaction, with some arguing that the claim of ideological adherence does not ring true when considering the platforms that many of the people associated with the letter have inhabited or the negative material effects of certain rhetoric.

It would seem then that the actual substance of the complaint then is surely not about the range of opinions being constrained but rather the disquiet that results from their being voiced in certain contexts and the consequences that result from this. Opponents of cancel culture have typically focused on the ease by which people, are summarily dismissed from their positions for voicing ideas that whilst occasionally provocative were not seen as being beyond the pale. However, it’s not clear from the content of the letter who exactly this applies to, although many have suggested JK Rowling’s and Jesse Singhal’s inclusion in the list of signer’s and the mention of “complex policy issues” suggests one group that perhaps might have previously been the target of the “blinding certainty” referred to in the letter were gender critical voices.

One of the recent instances of such a cancellation was supposedly Maya Forstater, who’s contract at a tax policy research center was not renewed after her steadfast campaigning against the reforms of the gender recognition act and as covered in most mainstream media outlets her belief in the importance of biological sex. However, even a cursory look at the judgments appear to reveal a different story, firstly the failure to renew her contact came, not from a consistent campaign by public voices but after a previous warning by the HR department of the company that she works for that her behaviour, which at one point saw Maya publishing up to 150 tweets a day against potential reforms in the GRA, could be perceived as “offensive and exclusionary”. During the court case it appeared that Forstater was not merely seeking compensation for the way she had been treated but appeared to be seeking the ability to enshrine her particular beliefs as protected beliefs which was subsequently denied by the judges. I’ve written some words elsewhere about the issues with Maya Forstater’s case, specifically the incompatibility with her beliefs and the more nuanced understandings of sex that currently exist, however in this particular instance I’m less interested in this, and more interested in how Forstater was cancelled. There was no concerted media campaign or online harassment, rather the organization of which she was a part decided not to renew their contract with her. The letter makes a case against such “knee-jerk” measures but then how were the “reforms” called for as an alternative to dismissal to be implemented? Additionally Forstater’s aim was not to widen the sphere of discussion rather the campaign of which she was a part aimed to limit the autonomy of others by preventing their ability to self-id.

James Bennett from The New York Times was “cancelled” due to a public push-back against an article written by the republican Senator Tom Cotton which called for a military presence to suppress the protests that had erupted across America following the killing of George Floyd, this public push back was then was taken up by several staffers at the New York Times. However again upon investigating more closely, while Bennett appeared to incurred criticism from several staffers accusing him of jeopardizing their safety, it appears the final decision was left to him. Whilst it’s somewhat idealistic to claim that people make choices in situations entirely of their own choosing however in such a circumstances what then can be deemed censorious about such a situation, or who’s free speech is being suppressed? The staffer’s made a case for condemning the article, utilizing what might be seen as the “caustic counter-speech” discussed in the letter, however the situation was still perceived as a successful “cancellation”. What then could be seen as a more measured response to the publishing of such an article?

There is perhaps another way to consider why cancellation might have assumed a slightly different dimension which is the accusation of causing harm rather than being wrongful or mistaken. In an article written for the The Conversation Laura Hood, examines this as being a potential way in which conversation can be stalled or constrained as harm is generally seen as a situation that must be resolved to each parties satisfaction before the conversation can progress. Whilst I do have some sympathy for the idea that this perhaps introduces an additional dimension to cancellation that goes beyond simply seeing the response issued by NYT staffers as participation in the free market place of ideas, I disagree that it some how places their comments beyond the realm of “caustic counter speech”. Harm can indeed be interpreted differently and indeed this particular version of events was challenged, albeit unsuccessfully,┬áby Bennett prior to his resignation.

However whilst this may seem as though I have disregarded the idea of cancel culture this would also not be the case, earlier this year a young trans woman named Isabel Fall published a short story entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, which drew opprobrium from multiple figures given it’s reference to a well known internet meme used to ridicule trans people. This was despite the fact that Fall was trans herself and used the reference to actually make a far more nuanced point regarding the nature of gender and it’s significance for transgendered individuals. What strikes me as particularly unique however is that much of the reaction to Fall’s piece didn’t come from an active engagement with the content of the story rather it came from an interpretation of the title with the writer and critic of the story N.K Jemisin, later revealing they had not read it. A “knee-jerk” reaction in this case stifled a useful contribution to the canon of fiction actively engaging with the relevance and importance of gender.

There is also one more critique of cancel culture which I believe has an understated importance in understanding why it has gained a heightened significance for many in recent times in 2011 Guy Standing released a book entitled ‘The Precariat’ in which he made reference to “a new dangerous class”. This class arising from the increasing prevalence of “flexible” labour laws, during the neoliberal turn introduced, heightened anxiety into ones terms of employment. This new class, Standing argued, was particularly dangerous because of it’s internal cleavages which pitted workers against each others and created a vacuum for political extremism particularly those often targeted as being the cause of this instability, commonly migrants and other vulnerable groups.

A 2018 report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre looked at self-reported statistics around anxieties around job stability, the loss of a suitable work-life balance and other work-related concerns. They found that, particularly among working age men, job precarity, the collective term for these various issue had been rising since 2008 and had, by 2018 and reached 2003. We now live in a time when these job related concerns may have reached new levels with record unemployment perceived to be on the horizon amidst increased cuts to social welfare. This alongside the “flexible” labour laws and at will employment creates a situation where concerns around unemployment is particularly heightened and whilst it’s unlikely that those signing the letter might feel this particularly keenly it’s quite likely that those reading it will. Indeed, one thread that’s run through many cancellation’s has been the inability of employees to respond to the increasingly unchecked power of their bosses, who, driven by the need to maintain their public image in order to shore up increasingly thin profit margins often rapidly look to distance themselves from potentially controversial incidences.

As the current crisis rumbles on, the deep economic fissures will continue to heighten and exacerbate these kinds of social tensions as does the necessity to supersede them, not only due to the fallout creating further precarity, despondency and disrepair but as an additional consequence creating further schisms within the only class that have ever been able to resolve or reverse these trajectories. Once again we face between discovering a shared understanding or falling victim to a common ruin.

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