Home Moral guidelines Cultural wars: the right is trying to cancel freedom of expression

Cultural wars: the right is trying to cancel freedom of expression


A recent example provides important insight into how this power works in practice.

On July 9, 2019, socialist writer Dawn Foster used her Guardian column to denounce then-Labor deputy leader Tom Watson, a standard-bearer for party centrism, then at the height of Corbynism.

Foster, rare as a working-class woman who had made her way into commentary, who had earned her column through brilliant reporting on the Grenfell Tower disaster, and who had held various roles behind the scenes of the newspaper for years, has been laid off. of the Guardian. Attacking this icon of Labor centrism has crossed a line in the newspaper, and she will never write for him again. It was cancelled”.

Earlier this year, she passed away suddenly, in her early 30s. Giles Coren, whose father was comedian and editor Alan Coren, whose sister is writer and media presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell, and who himself works as a restaurant critic for The Times, tweeted:

“When someone dies who trolled you on Twitter, saying mean and hurtful things about you and your family, is it okay to say, ‘I’m sorry for the people who loved you, and all human death diminishes me, but can you get the hell out of now where you belong ‘? “

The commentary is particularly profound if you know that Dawn was vocally Catholic.

Her grudge came, it seems, because she had tweeted, two and a half years earlier: applies to almost all men except Jesus.

But while she was effectively fired from the Guardian for her decidedly over-the-belt criticism of Tom Watson, Coren still produces three columns a week for The Times and still hosts BBC shows, her career not being hampered by his comments. It remains decidedly not canceled.

This example is quite illustrative. A fairly small group of powerful people – disproportionately upper-class white men – are used to shaping the conversation in this country about almost every aspect of our society, from politics to food to the arts: what is and is not, what is and is not controversial, what is and is not important.

Sometimes people outside of this world are allowed to do it, briefly. But their positions are almost always vulnerable. Too often, they have to deal with this precariousness by walking carefully, being sure not to offend the wrong person, by learning to say the right thing.

And if they don’t, like Dawn, they can expect their careers to suffer. But she was not fired because of a foaming crowd who threw stones at her online. She was gently chased away, having upset someone with power.

The net effect of this constant sidelining of the voices of the working class, women, the left and blacks is striking.

A 2019 study found that 43% of the UK’s top newspaper columnists and editors attended private schools, compared to around 6% of the overall population, and that top journalists are more male, much whiter. and much less likely to be Muslim than the country that works. in general.

Just as authorities in modern Venice would have done, these people tend to hate social media. They hate that the last victims of their moral panics can fight back, that black people can explain to them when they are racist, that trans people can report when they are transphobic, that working class people find a voice instead of unions crushed by yesteryear.

People who have had little chance to generate public opinion in the past, whose voices have never counted so much or been heard as loud as those who have the means to produce the national debate, finally have the tools to respond. to those who have for centuries told them what to think. And the people who used to tell that hate him more than anything. Standing on their still huge stages, they declare that they are canceled, because someone had the audacity to heckle.

In fact, the growth of social media means that more people around the world have access to platforms through which they can speak to a wider audience than at any time in human history. .

Of course, this speech is also regulated. Facebook – by far the greatest publisher of all time – has its own ideological positions and sets limits on the types of speech allowed on its platform: something that becomes especially clear when you compare what Israelis are allowed to post. with what Palestinians are forbidden to say. There are, and rightly so, great concerns about how he is using this power and that what has become our public forum is controlled by a monopoly corporation.

But the solution isn’t to let fascists and conspiracy theorists pour bile and lies into people’s timelines. It is about developing mechanisms of democratic accountability and control, whether through regulation or, ultimately, public ownership.

But it’s also important not to overdo the problem. The most powerful malicious actors in the public debate aren’t shady Facebook pages. These are media empires owned by oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch, shocking American radio stations, and politicians spreading bigotry and lies.

And thankfully, the online culture has started to influence the offline world and empower people to respond. The vast and glorious liberation movements of recent years – #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the trans rights movement – have encouraged people to speak out when they feel the language or actions of those around them are wrong. inappropriate. Rather than biting their tongues, the marginalized have used social media to stage protests against powerful people they disagree with, and to protest when powerful people say things they find objectionable. It is not an inhibition of speech, it is a liberation.

It’s not that the government sees it that way: The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently passed by Parliament, will criminalize a series of traditional protest techniques often used. by climate change activists and anti-racists. But none of the right-wing cultural warriors, for all their worries about “culture cancellation”, seem to have expressed the slightest concern about it.

The real culture of cancellation

“I’m fiercely protective of the fact that we can provide instruments,” explained the principal horn player of the Shirebrook Marching Band, speaking to me in the fall of 2017. The band, based in the Miner’s Welfare building at the top of the city, provides each player with his trombone, his euphonium, his drum, his tuba or his horn. It is not cheap. With 25 players in a traditional squad, a single set can cost £ 100,000.

The same principle no longer applies in local schools, she explained.

“As the funding was cut, children were not allowed to have an instrument if they could not afford to buy one,” she said. “It kills our future group players. “

Shirebrook, a former mining town in the East Midlands, is part of the constituency of Bolsover. For four decades he was represented by Labor MP Dennis Skinner. But in 2019, it became Tory.

Perhaps the feeling of being at the heart of a dying culture contributed to this result. Where once the mines, the army and the church provided spaces for form, purpose and meaning to emerge from communities scattered atop England’s coal seams, now all three are crumbling to dust. These communities, which literally powered England, were once centers of working class arts, learning and resistance: now culture is something that is projected onto a screen.

Many bands, no longer sponsored by the long shuttered pits and after a decade of austerity, have disappeared. Local regiments, which recruited a sort of community and masculinity, were reduced as the UK semi-retired from global policing and automation replaced squads with drones.

So don’t get me wrong. When I say that there is no cancellation of culture, I don’t mean that no culture is canceled. Neoliberal globalization is killing working-class cultures everywhere.

Across the world, at least four languages ​​have died out since the start of the COVID pandemic, taking with them every poem, song and saying they taught their speakers. Each year the version of English spoken in a given town or city in England further conforms to a south-eastern standard.

People of the working class are woefully under-represented in almost every art. The theater is increasingly dominated by former students of public schools. The increased emphasis on reading, writing and math has pushed music out of schools, meaning it is increasingly the preserve of children whose parents can afford evening classes.

If capitalism continually tries to get people to consume more while paying them lower wages, then modern life means they are always told that affordable food is inferior, practical clothes are not fancy, and everyone else is told. world should aspire to an imaginary lifestyle invented by the media -industrial complex, which is almost always based in an invented metropolitan core, far from your suburb, town or peripheral town.

The message is clear.

‘You are a loser. Your whole lifestyle is for losers. Sell ​​us enough of your time and buy enough of our products and one day you might be a winner like us. ‘

This is the real culture of cancellation. It is one of the main engines of consumer capitalism. And this is felt viscerally by billions of people. But that’s not what Uncancelled Britain meant, is it?