Why cancel culture will destroy itself

There’s a powerful force sweeping through societies around the world, driven by social media (particularly Twitter) and gathering momentum as it goes. I’m talking about “cancel culture” - the phenomenon where thousands of indignant social media users attack a prominent figure for saying or doing something disagreeable with the express intent of getting them fired, demonetised, removed or disinvited - in other words, “cancelled”.

The reason this works is that the people paying for TV shows, book tours and campus speaking gigs are sensitive to any kind of scandal. Scandals mean boycotts and PR nightmares. They mean concerned calls from shareholders and embarrassing protests at the premiere. They are bad for the bottom line, and the best way to get yourself fired or your funding cut.

An instructive example of cancel culture is the firing of director James Gunn by Disney in July 2018. Gunn was a rising star at Disney. His film adaptation of “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a surprise smash hit and he was working on the sequel. His crime? A series of distasteful jokes posted on Twitter. The jokes aren’t very good, and their references to paedophilia don’t make them any funnier. But should some foolish tweets by a (then struggling) comic result in the end of his career? The online mob certainly thought so.

I use the word “mob” intentionally. Cancel culture operates exactly like a vengeful mob of villagers, complete with pitchforks, who burn the old lady down the road for having too many black cats.

Your only crime is to have said or written something deemed offensive. The fact that you said this thing a decade ago when it was tasteless but still socially permissible is not a valid defence. You have done wrong and you will be punished.

You don’t even have to say the offensive thing yourself - merely defending someone else, or calling for reasonable debate is guilt by association. The similarities to Mao’s Cultural Revolution are not accidental.

A more recent example is the chorus calling for JK Rowling to be cancelled because she expressed support for an academic who is seen as problematic by some trans rights activists. Whether or not you agree with the conclusions of either Rowling or the activists is beside the point. Rather than having a nuanced debate, the mob immediately called for her head. However, rather than buckling to the pressure, Rowling has refused to apologise. It helps to be a billionaire, it seems.

Calling this social justice is laughable. As with any mob, cancel culture is arbitrary, capricious and completely unaccountable. A few people take a disliking to a prominent person and dig up something odious from their past, or take a recent statement out of context. The rest of the mob, whooping with outrage and barely concealed delight, picks up the scent and deluges that person’s employers and patrons with tens of thousands of tweets. In panic, the person is summarily dismissed.

These successes drive the mob to find further targets. They are doing the right thing, after all. They are rooting out evildoers and heretics! It’s their duty! And the great thing about a mob is that no one can tell who struck the killing blow. But boy was it thrilling to throw those stones. Power, it turns out, is a lot of fun.

The temptation to misuse this power is enormous. I’ve seen prominent young (South African) intellectuals on Facebook calling for the cancelling of Pete Buttigieg because he worked for McKinsey which proves, apparently, that he actually worked for the CIA where (and I quote) “he ran spreadsheets for the CIA, the result of which was a Joint Special Operations Command death squad helicoptering into a remote village in Kandahar Province to shoot every woman and child they can find.” Who knew spreadsheets could be so sinister?

The fact that South Africans will have zero influence on whether Mayor Pete becomes the Democratic candidate is beside the point. Cancel culture is a hammer and when you have one to hand you start looking for nails.

But the most fundamental flaw in cancel culture isn’t the mob mentality or the hypocrisy, it’s that it will fail to achieve its stated goal - changing society for the better. That kind of culture change can only be achieved when a majority of people in a society either agree with the change or at the very least stop actively blocking it. That requires you to change people’s minds, which means changing their emotional stance on the subject.

This can happen by slow persuasion, as it did with gay rights and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, or it can happen by attrition and exhaustion as it did with Apartheid.

Once gay people started to come out of the closet in sufficient numbers in the 1970s (following events like Stonewall and the first Pride marches), most people began to realise they knew and loved (or at least respected) a gay person.

It’s much harder to hate a group of people when your favourite cousin belongs to that group. Over the next couple of decades, a majority of people came to agree that simply giving gay people the same rights as everyone else was the obvious thing to do.

With the fall of Apartheid, the mechanism was different. People voted “Yes” in the 1992 referendum for many different reasons, but perhaps the most important one was that people realised that the system wasn’t working and something had to change. This might appear to contradict my claim. After all, aren’t sanctions the ultimate form of cancel culture?

In short, no, they’re not. Sanctions follow a process - they are voted in by democratically elected officials. They are not arbitrarily imposed overnight by an unaccountable mob with no regard for facts or a broader consensus. Apart from Donald Trump, no world leaders are imposing sanctions via Twitter. And if the Left thinks Trump is a valid model for behaviour then public discourse is already completely broken.

You might argue that public censure is a great way to convince people to change. When someone says something deemed offensive and is publicly shamed, you change your mind about the subject, right? Wrong. You learn that expressing your opinion on that subject is dangerous and so you stop talking about it. Your dissent is stifled but your mind has not changed.

And then there are the targets of cancel culture. They are overwhelmingly left-leaning and socially liberal. No one would bother trying to cancel anyone on Fox News - their audience makes them immune to cancel culture. Ditto Jordan Peterson. He doesn’t need the advertising (or box office) money or the social approval that are the primary vectors of cancel culture’s attacks.

So, in short, the people most in need of being cancelled are the people most immune to it. Instead, the people being cancelled are the people closest to hand. The mob is beating up the Muslim businessman from next door to punish ISIS.

What’s worse, anyone who is cancelled (and anyone who agrees with that person) has only one direction to go - towards the people immune to cancelling. So the Left is quite literally swelling the ranks of their ideological opponents. People told “your favourite writer is a racist and anyone who likes him is also a racist” are apt to say “Ok, I’m a racist then. Go fuck yourself.”

But even if cancel culture is ineffective, the sheer enjoyment it produces should sustain it, right? Nope. Like the Cultural Revolution and the French Revolution, cancel culture will eventually consume itself. When only the pure of thought are left, they begin to invent new tests of purity. Eventually, we all turn into Robespierre.

If you’ve read this far, you probably already agree with me, the proponents of cancel culture having left to tweet their disgust around paragraph six. So what can we do about this destructive nonsense? First, and most importantly, don’t join in. When someone you dislike gets attacked, take a breath. Disagreement doesn’t need to result in defenestration.

Second, research the details of the cancel-worthy event. What was the context? Could the person have meant something else, and just expressed it clumsily? Is this part of a pattern of statements, or something isolated. Everyone is allowed to have bad days and bad sentences.

Finally consider whether you might also have made the same mistake, or at the very least how you would feel if you were being cancelled for an offence of the same magnitude. Imagine you were the one faced by the mob. Not so fun now, right?