Some time ago a listener of the podcast asked me not use the word ‘retarded’ in any future episode. I declined, somewhat impolitely. He bid me farewell, and I assume he’s not heard from me since.
In some way this was a tiny act of ‘cancel culture’. The listener enjoyed the podcast, but felt he could not keep tuning in if I was to use the r-word again. And so a one-man boycott began, which is somewhat less impressive than the 7.8 billion who don’t listen due to lack of interest.
I mention this because there is something to the case made lately that cancel culture, broadly defined, is both old and common. People have been ignoring messages that offend them for as long as messages have existed: walking past town criers, leaving churches, throwing away newspapers, returning books, turning the radio dial, switching channels on TV or closing a tab on the web browser. That is their right.
Yet there is a wilful blindness among some cancel culture deniers who downplay excessive responses to offence. An observable trend has emerged to punish transgressors of the latest fashionable ideas, usually by phoning their employer and trying to get them sacked, as noted in a recent open letter in Harper’s Magazine.
The distinction between ignoring opinions you don’t like and seeking to prevent them being expressed by threatening people’s livelihoods is obvious. Not listening is your choice; preventing others from listening isn’t. Besides, people with unpopular views will shrink into irrelevance given enough time, and probably still deserve to eat.
The justification for social censorship is that some ideas are ‘harmful’ and should be suppressed (see also: all blasphemy and obscenity laws throughout history). As the journalist Flora Gill wrote in the Times, such activists are “merely pointing out rhetoric they consider harmful and asking for it to be addressed in return for their support”, which puts it too nicely.
The stretching of the concept of “harm” since John Stuart Mill outlined it as a justification for restricting freedom has doubtless had upsides, but this application is perverse. It’s arguable that anybody arguing for a political cause you don’t like is causing harm. If people read the Guardian there is a heightened risk they will vote Labour; Daily Mail readers are at equal risk of voting Conservative. Both are viewed as harmful by somebody.
That slippery slope aside, some of the backlash against social media mobs is fuelled by newspapers’ awareness that their influence has waned to make space for the likes of Twitter and Facebook. Such tech giants have stolen ad revenue and allowed individuals to build platforms independent of old media groups (though not, alas, the new ones).
Billy Bragg, in an otherwise dimwitted Guardian piece, is right to argue that the ability of middle-aged gatekeepers to control the agenda has been usurped by a new generation of activists working online. Straightforward turf wars tend to explain much of the debate on free speech at any given time.
That said, it seems to me the middle-aged gatekeepers have a wider remit for acceptable speech than the wokesters calling on everyone to be sacked for opinions that not only, to paraphrase Douglas Murray, were common yesterday, but are still common today. So they have my vote, if indeed we are still voting.