Some Notes On “Cancel Culture”

Toby Young’s Free Speech Union pronounces on Wiley, a musician now primarily famous for conspiratorial anti-semitic rhetoric on social media:

Wiley’s comments on Twitter and Instagram were clearly anti-Semitic. However, he should be given the chance to listen to the opposing view, retract his comments and apologise. Everyone makes mistakes.

It is disproportionate for a person to lose their career merely for expressing an opinion, however unsavoury and offensive.

The FSU opinion was embedded in a graphic Tweeted by Young and also expressed on the FSU Facebook page and Twitter feed. However, the statement has now been deleted, as far as I can see without explanation.

Perhaps the above remains the FSU view, but they don’t wish to say so publicly anymore for some reason; or perhaps they have changed their mind and now believe that Wiley does indeed deserve to lose his career as a result of his opinions after all. Most likely, though, is that the FSU realised that the statement amounted to an incoherent cop-out: if Wiley ought not lose his career as a point of principle, why then does he need to “retract his comments and apologise”? The real sentiment appears to be that “It is disproportionate for a person to lose their career merely for refusing to apologise for an obnoxious opinion”.

The FSU was created by Young after he was obliged in 2018 to step down from a role with the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, following controversy over a history of coarse comments and trolling on Twitter. Young’s pensées (now mostly deleted) included lascivious observations about breasts and a joke about having his “dick” up a woman’s “arse”, and he also replied to a random member of the public who had said that she was upset by a television scene of poverty in Africa with a joke suggesting that he was using the same material for masturbatory purposes.

Since that time, Young has been on a crusade against a trend that has now been crystallised under the term “cancel culture”, a phrase that supposedly indicates a particular brand of progressive intolerance but which actually denotes a perennial phenomenon that has now been democratised by social media. Consequential censure over (alleged) behaviour or opinions is hardly new; the mass media have been doing it since the cancelling of Roscoe Arbuckle (perhaps earlier). The difference now is that newspapers are no longer the gatekeepers, although they retain some control over how social media expressions of outrage are framed. Thus depending on the target, some social media censure will be amplified as being popular expressions of righteous anger and moral disgust, while others will be derided as the effusions of “vile trolls” (who themselves deserve to be exposed and cancelled).

As such, I’m not convinced there is “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate”, as claimed by the authors of the famous recent letter published by Harper’s. Rather, there’s a new set of media platforms open to all within a context of heightened consumer choice and leverage, as well as the easy availability online of private personal information. The issue, then, is structural, with social media and the internet providing new opportunities for a wider range of bad-faith actors to weaponise the self-righteousness of crowds. At the same time, though, other bad-faith actors, some of whom have profited from an online outrage economy, would like nothing more than to stigmatise accountability as totalitarian “cancelling”.

People need to take seriously the importance of looking into an allegation critically before they decide whether or how to amplify it. And they should ask themselves whether their keenness to denounce someone as part of a popular “pile on” is matched by a willingness to take a less easy stand against a false allegation. They should also maintain a sense of proportionality, particularly when a non-celebrity faces censure; progressives perhaps more than anyone ought to be wary of creating a climate in which bosses police their employees’ social media output. There should be natural scepticism and caution when gratuitous personal intrusion is involved, or when the person leading the charge appears to be exulting in their power to inflict personal destruction. These, I think, are the “moral attitudes” that are required for a reasonable way forward.

One Response

  1. I’d never heard of this Wiley. When the BBC considered that there was a news story worth putting on national news about his tweets, I did what I like to do with far-fetched BBC news stories – to fact-check them.

    I discovered a tweet by an Alan Loren I’d never heard of either, boasting of having got the said Wiley banned from Twitter, saying “I’m the one who got
    @WileyCEO suspended”

    I replied to Loren, complaining, “I’m the one who heard on @BBCNews last night that Wiley had written offensive content, who has learnt the need to fact-check BBC claims, but who cannot fact-check, thanks to you. I condemn such censorship, and you for grassing Wiley up, and Twitter for treating us like children.”

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