What is Cancel Culture? And Does it Matter?
Updated: Jul 18
by Phil Butland
Everyone's talking about 'cancel culture', although there is no clear definition about what it actually is. This discussion is, to a large part, down to an article published in Harpers magazine and signed by various prominent writers ranging from Noam Chomsky via Francis Fukuyama to J.K. Rowling.1 Although the article does not mention cancel culture by name, both its supporters and detractors are convinced that this is what it’s ‘really’ about.
That Harpers Article
The article lists a number of recent events which its authors believe are a sign of "a dangerous trend" in modern society:
“institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity;
journalists are barred from writing on certain topics;
professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class;
a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study;
and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”2
When I first saw this charge sheet, what sprung out was the lack of specificity. This was probably deliberate. A list of misdemeanours is given without any context or background information. But it is relevant to know, who is punishing/firing/barring/investigating/ousting whom and why. This information was not deemed important enough to include in the article.
Other journalists have saved me some work by researching the cases that are being alluded to here:
The editor “fired for running controversial cases” was presumably James Bennet, who resigned from his post as editorial page editor at the New York Times. This after the publication of an incendiary column by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton - which called for the military to be used to crush BLM protests. 3 The Times itself admitted that the piece was not up to its own editorial standards; and its publisher said in a letter to staff 4 that the piece was emblematic of a “significant breakdown” in the editing process.5
The book “withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity” could be American Dirt, a book by Jeanine Cummins, who recently began identifying as Puerto Rican 6. But American Dirt was not actually withdrawn and is a bestseller. So maybe - it was Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen’s book that was dropped by Hachette, a major publisher, after employees protested Allen’s history of sexual assault allegations. 7 8
We can assume that the professor “investigated for quoting works of literature in class” is a white teacher at UCLA who used the n-word repeatedly in class while quoting Martin Luther King Jr. Even after Black students asked him to stop 9 10
The researcher fired was almost certainly David Shor, who may or may not have been fired, for posting a study encouraging protesters to be non-violent 11 (because of a Non-Disclosure Agreement, he has never claimed that he was fired).
The claim that “heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes” is, as The Objective says “so vague that it seems hard to pick out a specific example”12. It could be the president and board members of the National Book Critics Circle who resigned after accusations of racism.13 Maybe it’s ‘Bon Appetit’ chief Adam Rappaport, who resigned after a photo of him in brownface circulated.14 Forbes has a longer list 15 of CEOs who stood down in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
The other claim in the Harpers article is that “journalists are barred from writing on certain topics”. This is hardly news. The press are run by the rich and the powerful who have always set the agenda for what is allowed to be printed. 80% of the UK´s press is controlled by only five billionaires, and other countries record similar figures. This is, of course, a scandal, but it is nothing new.
Now you may think that some of these acts are justified and some are not. I know I do. Most cancellation comes from above, and accusations of improper conduct are often instrumentalised to get rid of "unruly employees". On the other hand, examples of bosses falling when their racism becomes common knowledge do not cause me any lost sleep.
It is possible to simply believe that we should not try to “cancel” anything. I believe that this is the position of one of the signatories, Noam Chomsky. It is not mine. If a group of Nazis want to march down Unter den Linden, I’ll get together with as many people as I can to stop this happening. This is because their performative act has consequences, particularly for Blacks and other minorities.
You may disagree, but let’s have a discussion about what we should get rid of and what should remain, rather than hysterically decrying a “culture” of increasing irrational censorship which seems to be at odds with anything that is happening in the real world.
Who signed the Harpers article?
Let’s now look at the people who signed the article. They are described by Hamilton Nolan as “people who have been yelled at a lot on Twitter”16; and by Jessica Valenti as “a who’s who: political luminaries, columnists, authors, and professors — people with powerful platforms, and access to large audiences”17 And no, this is not just about JK Rowling.
Martin Amis is best known in recent years for his racist thought experiment, saying in an interview “There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan”18
Bari Weiss, according to Glenn Greenwald “channels whatever prevailing right-wing grievance exists about colleges, Arabs or Israel critics (ideally, all of those) into a column that’s supposed to be ‘provocative’ because it maligns minority activists or fringe positions that are rarely given platforms on the New York Times op-ed page.”19
Weiss has already used her NYT space to endorse an inaccurate smear campaign against Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. 20 She has also accused multiple Arab professors critical of Israel of being antisemites, although an investigative committee found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as antisemitic.” 21 Weiss also appears to have reported a Black editor to the Times leadership for politely declining to get coffee with her. 22
David Frum coined the term “axis of evil” that helped to "rationalise" the invasion of Iraq. 23 Olivia Nuzzi recently wrote a fawning obituary of a woman known for harassing a leading Black journalist and his family. 24 Cary Nelson began a campaign to persuade the board of Illinois University to rescind an offer of work to Steven Salaita because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. 25 Roger Berkowitz runs the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, where criticizing Israel can get you fired. 26 Ian Buruma lost his job as editor of the New York Review of Books two years ago, after he published and defended an article that violated the new spirit of the #MeToo movement. 27 Katha Pollitt has excluded major trans writers from her journalism listserv. 28
I tend to agree with Jonathan Cook when he argues that “some of those signing – like Frum, a former speech writer for President George W Bush, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former US State Department official – would be facing a reckoning before a Hague war crimes tribunal for their roles in promoting “interventions” in Iraq and Libya respectively, not being held up as champions of free speech”.29
Harpers publisher, John “Rick” Macarthur also signed the letter. Macarthur has viciously restricted Harpers’ employees right to unionize, sacking whoever stood in his way. 30 31 Harpers also refuses to pay its interns, 32 and has shown a limited understanding of free speech for all. Only a third of articles published by Harpers are written by women. 33 This may be better than some other media outlets, but its not an example of equal opportunities for all.
And yes, amongst all these names and more, you can see the names of Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood. Chomsky has always held a principled (if wrong-headed) libertarian position on free speech, arguing for freedom of speech, even for Holocaust deniers. 34 This article is not primarily about this viewpoint, but we should at least note that most signatories of the article did so for quite different motives.
Indeed original signatories like Jennifer Finney Boylan withdrew their names as the list of co-signatories made it clear that the article would be used to attack the left. Boylan tweeted: “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, [Gloria] Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.“35
Whatever one can say about this motley crew, it seems that most of them are only interested in free speech for some people, while maintaining their own right to insult minorities without anyone taking them up on it. In fact no-one is preventing their right to be heard. Indeed, some people like Rowling have been ubiquitous in the media since the Harpers article was published.
So what is “cancel culture”?
In its article on 'cancel culture', the Website dictionary.com reports “Canceling spread as a term and phenomenon in the public consciousness with the #MeToo Movement, as major public figures— from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to Louis C.K. and R. Kelly—were getting canceled due to credible allegations of sexual violence in their past. Other figures were getting canceled for past racist and anti-LGBTQ remarks, such as Shane Gillis and Kevin Hart, respectively. 36
Jonathan Cook argues that “’cancel culture’ started as the shaming, often on social media, of people who were seen to have said offensive things. But of late, cancel culture has on occasion become more tangible, as the letter notes, with individuals fired or denied the chance to speak at a public venue or to publish their work.” 37
It may be worth noting two things here. Firstly, the people who are firing individuals are, by definition, bosses. Similarly, those who are denying people the chance to publish or speak at a public venue are those who own the media outlets or organise the venue’s programme. They are, in short, people with power.
Secondly, it is true that some student bodies have inadvisedly attempted to “no platform” speakers with whom they disagree (of which more later). But if I’m asked to choose between the people who are appalled by the behaviour of sexual predators and those who defend their right to carry on as before, I know where my sympathies lie.
Besides which, it is not only liberals who are attacking “cancel culture”. In his now famous Mount Rushmore speech, Donald Trump attacked “the ‘cancel culture’ of those who toppled monuments”38 during recent anti-racist protests. He went on: “one of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism”39
You could take a quite different view of what “cancel culture” really is. In the wake of the Harpers letter, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted: “The term ‘cancel culture’ comes from entitlement — as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience, and one is a victim if people choose to tune them out. Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.”40
In the New York Times, Te-Nehisi Coates argues that “cancel culture is not new. A brief accounting of the illustrious and venerable ranks of blocked and dragged Americans encompasses Sarah Good, Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells, Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and the Dixie Chicks. What was the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, but the cancellation of the Black South? What were the detention camps during World War II but the racist muting of Japanese-Americans and their basic rights? ”41
More recently, argues Coates, Colin Kaepernik’s whole NFL career has been cancelled after he took the knee against racism. “This is curious given the N.F.L.’s moral libertinism; the league has, at various points, been a home for domestic abusers 42, child abusers 43 and open racists 44.”45 Kaepernik, however, has not been allowed to play for three years.
Before we wring our hands about the dangers of “cancel culture” we need to be clear about what we’re talking about – people throwing offensive statues into the harbour - or internment, Big Football punishing anti-racist campaigners and McCarthyite witch hunts? And does it really help to see these quite different actions as being part of a single “culture”?
Who is cancelling whom?
In an unconvincing article for Jacobin, Leigh Phillips argues that “to suggest that ordinary people cannot participate in censorship or inculcation of an illiberal environment is to be blind to the ways that such attitudes can operate at multiple levels in society.”46.
Phillips provides an impressive list of attempts to control speech. And almost every single one of them is an action by the state or other power élites. So, he mentions bans of BDS activists, the effective sacking of Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein, governments muzzling climate scientists, Donald Trump using the National Guard to teargas protestors, the Turkish government censoring comedians, China convincing tech giants, the NBA, and even Hollywood imposing censorship, Barack Obama prosecuting Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, bans of women wearing the veil or headscarf, the French government prosecuting school students. LGBT-free zones in Poland, busking bans in the UK, planes from the West bombing TV stations in Iraq, Stalin’s purges, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields of Cambodia.47 You could go on (and indeed Phillips does).
And what are his examples of censorship from the left? What Phillips calls the “de-platforming of ‘hate speech’” and the Salem Witch Hunt, of which he argues that the key dynamic came from the people, not the authorities who imposed and encouraged the hysteria. You may notice a slight imbalance here.
Phillips disingenuously argues that “contra the arguments that non-state actors cannot engage in censorship or illiberalism, neither Hollywood studios that fired or no longer hired left-wing actors, screenwriters, and directors, nor the trade union bureaucracy that purged alleged Communists as part of that process, were agents of the state.”48. Indeed, he says “there are many cases that involve independent schools, so this plainly cannot be the action of a state, even as this is quite clearly censorship”49.
In passing, it is interesting that Phillips is using the same specious arguments as reactionary Islamophobic drunk Nick Cohen, who says: “occasionally, you can see them raise the exhausted excuse from the grave that only the state can censor. On this reading, Islamists killing cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or CEOs firing whistleblowers, are not censoring because they are not civil servants.”50
Phillips appears to believe that the people running independent (private) schools somehow embody the 'will of the people'. Similarly, while the Hollywood studios and trade union bureaucracies may not be agents of the state, they wield an awful lot more power than a few people getting upset on Twitter. If you don’t understand the power dynamics of who is cancelling whom, you draw an equivalence between two very different things.
“Cancel culture” and political power: the example of Palestine
If you want to look at how things can get cancelled, just look at the current debate on Palestine. Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to become British prime minister was stopped by a systematic campaign trying to label him an antisemite because of his pro-Palestine views. 51
Ironically, the attacks against Corbyn were often led by the Guardian, whose editor Katharine Viner ironically has had her own experience of censorship. In 2005, Viner and Alan Rickman co-wrote the play My Name is Rachel Corrie 52. It was based on the diaries of the US-American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer.
In the UK, My Name is Rachel Corrie won the Theatregoers' Choice Awards for Best Director and Best New Play. When it was due to move to the US, it was postponed indefinitely because of its content. 53 Rickman reacted: “calling this production ‘postponed’ does not disguise the fact that it has been cancelled. This is censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences – all of us are the losers."54
The attack on the right to speak about Palestine is not just a relatively niche debate about which plays are staged in New York. A recent document listed over 100 recent meetings on the Middle East which have been cancelled in Germany. These were organised by groups as diverse as evangelical academies, theatres and Amnesty International.
Let’s just look at some of the cases that I’ve been directly involved in. In 2014, a report-back from journalists David Sheen and Max Blumenthal (for what its worth, both Jewish) on the Russell Tribunal 55 was due to take place in the Volksbühne, a well-known left-wing theatre in Berlin. After intervention from MPs like the Green ultra-Zionist Volker Beck, the meeting was cancelled at the last minute (we managed to move it to a local café).
More recently, I have organised two meetings with black women: Jackie Walker – herself Jewish – and Danielle Obono, a French MP, who was speaking about the political situation in France (i.e. not even on Palestine). Both times, anonymous people rang the venue, stated without proof that the speakers were antisemites, and demanded that the meetings be cancelled. On these occasions, the venue owners would not give in to intimidation, but others have.
Around the same time, I tried to organise a showing of Jackie Walker’s film 56 about how she has been systematically bullied for standing up for Palestinian rights. The cinema, which has consistently showed films defending Palestinian rights, said it would love to help but it was financially unviable. If they showed a film like this, they would receive threats of violence and would have to employ extra staff which they could not afford to do.
Last year, I organised a meeting with former Knesset MP Haneen Zoabi 57 - an Israeli Arab politician, who is a proponent of a binational secular state and vocal critic of premier Netanyahu. Booking a room was almost impossible. All venues which had any state funding said that they supported us 'in principle', but if Haneen were to speak in their venue, their funding would inevitably be challenged. In the end, the meeting took place in an independent Christian meeting room.
These are just my personal experiences of trying to organise meetings for justice in Palestine in Germany. Anyone else who has tried to organise something similar has similar reports – and worse. These episodes were all before the German Bundestag passed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as being antisemitic. Although the resolution has no immediate legal validity, it will be used to further close down discussion on Palestine.
Anyone who wants to moan about “cancel culture” and does not address these incidents of real censorship is simply being either inconsistent or insincere. And yet the debate is often framed as if the worst censorship derives from people being rude to each other on social media.
“Cancel culture” on the Left?
As the ability to cancel usually depends on the possession of power, "cancel culture" is, by and large, a weapon used by the powerful against the powerless. As I don’t own a right wing newspaper – or even a liberal publication like Harpers – I am in no position to decide who may or may not be allowed to speak.
It has been contested that the political Left has also restricted debate. Right wing speakers have been excluded using a variety of methods – some better than others. Media reports have tended to conflate several very distinct issues, so it is best to approach this on a case-by-case basis.
First there are the cases of the 'dog that did not bark'. The National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT representative refused to share a platform with Peter Tatchell, accusing him of racism and transphobia. Tatchell spoke anyway. 3,000 students petitioned Cardiff University to cancel a lecture with Germaine Greer after Greer said trans women are not women. The lecture still took place.58 In neither case was anyone banned.
Then there are the campaigns by some student unions for a ban on “TERF” speakers (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists – itself a contested term) 59 Here again, we must draw a distinction. Student unions do not have any responsibility to invite anyone to speak. If they decide not to invite Greer or Rowling because they disagree with their views, this is their right.
It becomes more complicated, however, when student activists invoke the principle of 'No Platform' against voices of which they disapprove. 'No Platform' is a very specific strategy which emerged in the 1970s in the fight against the Nazi National Front and later the British National Party (BNP).
The campaigning journalist Paul Foot explained 'No Platform for Fascists' on the following basis:
“the connection between saying and doing. If an organised party goes around preaching race hatred against Black people, as the British National Party does, that race hatred is bound to overflow into deeds. Every single survey in and around the Isle of Dogs in East London since the BNP won a council by-election there last year has proved the rise in attacks on Black people, and the connection between those attacks and the election. It is as though all those who felt like beating up isolated and defenceless black people felt encouraged, from the election, by a surge of legitimacy.”60
In the same article, Foot makes the point that “the central aim of fascism is to destroy democracy. This is not speculation, as it might have been before Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922 or Hitler in Germany 11 years later. Now we know without any shadow of doubt that the aim of fascism is totally to destroy democracy and to remove the rights and freedoms of everyone except themselves.” 61
In other words, the argument that allowing a platform to fascists only serves to expose them just doesn’t wash. It gives them a legitimacy that allows them to establish themselves and their antidemocratic views and actions.
In my view, there is a sharp distinction between how the left should deal with transphobia and neo-fascism. While it can be argued that having a so-called TERF speak at a University might possibly increase the number of transphobic attacks, this is not comparable with neo-Nazi organisations whose very purpose and strategy is tied to physically attacking ethnic or religious minorities and their political opponents.
There are some on the Left who insist that trans women are not women. I personally believe that they are fundamentally wrong - but I do not think their opinion represents a form of neo-fascism. We should oppose these ideas with political arguments. For this reason, I believe that no platforming so-called TERFs is a political mistake. At the same time, insinuating that this misguided attempt to fight transphobia is equivalent to the control that the right wing media exert over what we are allowed and not allowed to hear is fundamentally mistaken.
The politics of boycotts
One of the apparently objectionable aspects of "cancel culture" is that "the mob" deprives 'hard working writers' - like JK Rowling - of a decent living by refusing to buy Harry Potter books (spoiler: I do not think Rowling will be filing for bankruptcy in the near future). And yet boycotts have been a legitimate left-wing political tactic for a considerable time.
I know plenty of people who refuse to see films by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, or the comedy of Louis C.K., because they do not want to finance someone who they believe to be a sex pest and/or child abuser. Cultural consumption is an individual choice and no-one should be required to see artists whose views they find offensive. Indeed, I would question what the opponents of indvidual cultural boycotts are proposing. Should we all be forced to read shitty children's books about public schoolkids and wizards?
Outside the realm of culture, boycotts have also been an important instrument of progressive political campaigns, ranging from the from the demand that our government stop selling weapons to despotic (or other) regimes to the boycott campaign against South African apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.
Throughout this period, and partly as the result of excellent campaigning by activists like Peter Hain, South African cricket and rugby teams were treated as pariahs: no country would play against them in official matches. This caused a considerable dent in South Africa’s self-image, and helped stop the normalisation of the Apartheid State.
I have fond memories of picketing Barclays bank, as well as entering supermarkets and asking customers not to buy South African oranges. This was not just a defensible action: it was the right political strategy to battle apartheid. It played its small part in bringing down an unjust state which was violating fundamental human rights.
More recently the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has been a way of showing concrete solidarity with Palestinian people who have very little power to change their desperate situation. BDS has the support of trade unions 62, academics 63 and artists 64 and is an international mass movement, comparable to the Anti Apartheid movement organised by the previous generation.
Consumer boycotts has long been a weapon in the political Left’s armoury. But we should be prepared to engage in a debate about who we should be targeting – for example, should JK Rowling be singled out when prominent men like Ricky Gervais 65 or Dave Chappelle 66 are more obviously transphobic? This is a discussion to be held within the movement, and, if anything, is an argument for extending a boycott, or changing its target, but not for lifting it.
While I was writing this article, an invite was posted in the Labour Berlin WhatsApp group, asking people to request that “bars I know in Berlin who sell Tyskie, Zubr and Lech beer ... should boycott these brands as the brewers, Kompania Piwowarska, have sponsored a right wing PiS supporting newspaper who distributed "LGBT-free zone stickers" and supported Duda's reelection.” Responses were, of course, universally positive.
Political Correctness gone mad?
For those of us who are old enough to remember the hysteria around Political Correctness (PC), the debate around “cancel culture” sounds depressingly familiar. Accusations of PC were initially used to demonise supporters of affirmative action/positive discrimination in the USA. Later, the attacks widened to criticizing British leftists` and liberals` attempts to change the way we spoke.
Some of these changes were common sense: for example, with more women entering the profession, it made sense to to use the term “fire fighter” instead of “fireman”. Other accusations were just made up. Right wing newspapers like the Sun hysterically printed fictional stories about how schools had forced children to sing the rewritten nursery rhyme “Baa, baa, Green Sheep” (instead of “Baa, baa, Black Sheep”), and mocked the apparently widespread use of terms like “vertically challenged” for short, and “follically impaired” for bald. Yet, as John Molyneux asks “Have you ever actually heard anyone use ‘vertically challenged’ or ‘follically impaired’ other than ironically?” 67
But the point of the attacks was not to reflect anything that was going on in the real world, but to create an atmosphere in which the new right could win the support of some people to their left. This led “the way that certain liberals and old-school leftists joined the neo-Conservatives in making several of the arguments as something new and perhaps quite significant, since previous debates tended to observe a chaste division of left and right” 68
What was the transgressive language that was being attacked for Political Correctness? Often it was just people being polite, or rejecting everyday racism and sexism. White Riot, Rubika Shah’s excellent film about the first year of Rock Against Racism, describes what you could expect to see on 1970s British television:
“black face, colonial racism, and a white man complaining about “nig-nog” neighbours, all from tv programmes shown in prime time. This was the tip of the iceberg (remember the language school set ‘comedy’ Mind Your Language, whose only joke was that foreigners are funny?). Apologists may claim that these shows were just being ironic, but whatever their motivation, they ended up normalising racism”. 69
At worst, PC was a defensive attempt by a left which had endured over a decade of right wing government in the UK and USA. People who had survived Thatcherism and Reaganism were saying, “we may not be able to change broader society, but at least we can change how we behave”. At its best, PC was a way of affirming "we are better than this”.
There was another element which was politically important. "Black and White unite and fight" is a nice and necessary slogan, but such unity is difficult to achieve if one half of the equation is systematically referring to the other half with derogatory language. Inasmuch as PC was recognising that there is a problem in using terms like “nigger” and “bitch”, it was an entirely positive thing.
But while PC was an important part of challenging the racism and sexism that are endemic to capitalist society, it was less effective at uprooting such ideas from people's heads. This requires not just a change of language but a campaign which unites people with different backgrounds. As Marx says, "ideas change with struggle".
As with "political correctness" so with "cancel culture": it may be very satisfying to call out bigots on Twitter, and it can help show the victims of the bigotry that they are not alone. But without a united fight for ideas that involves all the people who lose out from the way society is currently organised, it is a strategy which is limited in its effectiveness.
The discussion around political correctness moved from a debate about affirmation / positive discrimination in the USA, via one about language in Great Britain, to the phrase being used as a catch-all insult used by right wingers against anyone who was trying to improve the world. I fear that something similar is happening in the discussion about “cancel culture”.
The term “cancel culture” was originally used to describe how young Twitter users reacted to celebrities who had suddenly gone out of favour. Just about every report that I read about the Harpers article contained the phrase “although it isn’t mentioned in the article, this is about cancel culture” (or something similar). And yet the debate is no longer primarily about what happens on social media.
What has happened in between? Significantly, we have seen the birth of two powerful social movements: #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. New actors are taking centre stage and starting to make their own demands. Some of these demands are to remove offensive aspects of the old society which has oppressed us for so long.
This is a process. Virtually no one complained when Harvey Weinstein got cancelled in 2017, certainly not liberals or leftists. The convicted sex offender wielded too much power in the film industry and obviously had it coming. There was a public debate, but it was less concerned with defending Weinstein and more on asking how he could have got away with it for so long.
It is a credit to all involved that #MeToo brought down Weinstein and other sexual predators. And yet this was always a mainstream movement. Black Lives Matter is something else. It is more militant, more working class, more – how shall we put this? - Black. Middle class liberals may be finally prepared to accept a movement whose figureheads are white middle-class women. One led by working-class black kids is different.
Black Lives Matter still has the potential of getting out of official political control: to turn the world upside down. Now statues are being despatched into the harbour and defunding the police – an idea that sounded utopian and revolutionary a few months ago – is being seriously discussed.
Black Lives Matter has shown that mass protest involves a new, more democratic and inclusive, form of politics. The old way has been tried to often, and we have seen that waiting for the great and the good to change society has not worked. As Anthony Reddie remembers
“we campaigned for an apology for Britain's involvement in the Slave Trade and Blair gave us deep sorry but no apology because the slave trade, sanctioned by greedy white mercantile interests, said it was legal at the time. So no apology and certainly no reparations. Once again, we were not hectoring or behaving like a mob. We made arguments, some of us wrote books, essays and articles and it still made no difference.” 70
In the end it was a mass demo and near-riot that condemned Edward Colston’s statue to a watery grave. As Billy Bragg notes,
“we may have been angry about Thatcherism, but our ability to sway mainstream public opinion was limited. Today, a 22-year-old footballer with a Twitter account can force the government to make a U-turn in less than 48 hours. Darnella Frazier, whose smartphone footage of four Minneapolis police officers killing George Floyd provoked outrage around the world, is just 17 years old."71
This is all to be welcomed.
Many people with an interest in the old politics from above are pushing to return to the old methods. These people who have appropriated the “cancel culture” debate and are using it to push their own agenda.
What is to be done?
In this context, we need to consider three arguments. Firstly, it is not illiberal to demand the right to “cancel” what never belonged in a civilised and democratic society. We have no need for sexual abusers in Hollywood, nor for statues of colonialists or a police force that systematically harasses black people and other minorities. They all must go.
There are some things which just should be cancelled. I can only concur with Professor Anthony Reddie when he says “we continue to live with the psychological and spiritual damage of witnessing monuments to the people who made millions from peddling the Black flesh of our ancestors, and this is before we even get to the tangible manifestations of economic hardship and the social deprivation facing Black bodies in postcolonial Britain.”72 The statues must come down.
Secondly, when our side asserts its democratic authority, this is not the same as censorship from above. Donald Trump has threatened to jail people for a year for burning a US-American flag 73. The Polish government has announced that it is creating LGBT-free zones 74. To use one term to describe both these acts, plus the unfriending of celebrities on Twitter and mass democratic movements is to stretch that term beyond any useful meaning. Yes “cancel culture” does exist, but it is currently used to describe so many different contradictory things that it has become a hindrance to any useful debate.
Finally, our strength lies in our numbers and social weight. Appealing to the state or an Internet Moderator to shut down our opponents rarely works, and often strengthens them to shut us down in the future. Calls on the state to ban neo-Nazis has often led to laws which have been used against the left.
Yes, it is a problem that some people obsess on the misdemeanours of minor celebrities who have transgressed in what they have said or thought. But where does this come from? Firstly from a society which we do not control, and secondly from a feeling that we are unable to fundamentally change things. In these circumstances is it really surprizing when someone thinks “I may not be able to overthrow capitalism, but at least I can make a snarky statement on facebook”?
It is by united struggle that we will usher out the old society and build a new one. Movements like Black Lives Matter are creating the terrain for such a struggle. If this means that a few more statues get swimming lessons or fewer racists dominate our media, all the better.
I’ll leave the last word on Free Speech to Vladimir Lenin:
“We must say to you bourgeois individualists that your talk about absolute freedom is sheer hypocrisy. There can be no real and effective “freedom” in a society based on the power of money, in a society in which the masses of working people live in poverty and the handful of rich live like parasites. Are you free in relation to your bourgeois publisher, Mr. Writer, in relation to your bourgeois public, which demands that you provide it with pornography in frames and paintings, and prostitution as a “supplement” to “sacred” scenic art? This absolute freedom is a bourgeois or an anarchist phrase. One cannot live in society and be free from society. The freedom of the bourgeois writer, artist or actress is simply masked (or hypocritically masked) dependence on the money-bag, on corruption, on prostitution”.75
Phil Butland is the joint speaker of the LINKE Berlin Internationals. He would like to thank Georgiana Darcy, Dimitra Kyrillou, Carol McGuigan, John Mullen, Jacinta Nandi, Emily Pollak and Mark Porciani who all made useful comments on an earlier draft of this article. All mistakes are, of course, his own.
68 Berman, cited in Molyneux op. cit.
75 VI Lenin: “Party Organisation and Party Literature” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/nov/13.htm Thanks to Judy Cox for making me aware of this quote.