Without it we can’t breathe
Anne McShane explains why the ‘cancel culture’ is so badly misdirected
Harper’s Magazine recently published a letter signed by 153 writers and academics decrying ‘cancel culture’, which has provoked a storm across social media.
The signatories, who include Margaret Attwood, JK Rowling, Salmon Rushdie and Noam Chomsky, say they feel obliged to speak out because: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal democracy, is daily becoming more constricted.” While applauding the “powerful protests for racial and social justice”, along with “wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society”, they deplore some of the methods being used to tackle inequality and challenge institutions. A culture of “censoriousness” is spreading.
The letter cites the suppression of freedoms, including books being withdrawn from publication, punitive measures against academics, and the sackings of editors and heads of organisations for “what are sometimes clumsy mistakes”. The letter concludes: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” The inclusion of people with distinctly opposing views on issues like Palestine and transgender rights was clearly aimed at illustrating that the concern about censorship was not confined to a particular viewpoint.
A response came on July 10 from over 160 journalists and writers in a letter published by The Objective - a media platform with the stated aim of campaigning for equality within the journalistic profession.1 This was initiated by “journalists of color with contributions from the larger journalism, academic, and publishing community”. Their objection to the Harper’s letter is that it sought to defend freedom of speech mainly for the liberal elite, while providing a cover for structural inequality.
The fundamental problem was that the Harper’s letter “does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who has not”. Indeed, the fact that it was authored by a group of mainly white cis writers in a magazine with a reputation for elitism, meant that it should be considered a rebuke to those who seek to challenge the establishment. The Harper’s signatories “use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform”.
Interestingly, The Objective letter stated: “Many of the signatories have co-workers in their own newsrooms who are deeply concerned with the letter, some of whom feel comfortable speaking out and others who do not”. It also stated: “Many signatories on our list noted their institutional affiliation but not their name, fearful of professional retaliation. It is a sad fact, and in part why we wrote the letter.”
Thus by their own admission the signatories to this letter confirm that there is a problem: writers fear the consequences of being controversial or ‘offensive’.
Although the term ‘cancel culture’ did not appear in the Harper’s letter, it is widely used to describe the “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”.
In a Facebook exchange I was informed by a number of comrades from the Socialist Workers Party tradition that the term ‘cancel culture’ is used by the right to deride challenges to its supremacy from the Black Lives Matter and identity rights movement. One comrade even went so far as to say that I should be ashamed to use the term.
I had a quick look on Google to check its origins and usage. ‘Cancel culture’ is defined by Urban Dictionary as “A desire to cancel a person or community out from social media platforms”. Wikipedia describes it as having a number of meanings, with online shaming, comprising harassment, mocking and bullying, while ‘cancel culture’ also includes boycotts of well-known individuals who are deemed to have transgressed in some fashion, along with the use of online review sites to publicly shame individual writers. Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that the origins of the term ‘cancel culture’ lie in the #MeToo movement - “The term has been credited to black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag.” Vox states: “Cancel culture can be seen as an extension of call-out culture: the natural escalation from pointing out a problem to calling for the head of the person who caused it.”
It has, of course, been utilised as a protest against powerful people - a way of taking revenge by those who do not have the power to really challenge the system which those individuals represent and dominate. But those targeted are often able to ride out the public shaming - the most obvious example being Donald Trump. Indeed, The Objective letter makes the very valid point that, while some of the Harper’s signatories have faced attacks on social media and in their professional lives as a result of their pronouncements, they have most certainly not seen their lives destroyed:
It’s ironic that the letter gives highly sought-out space to some of the most well-paid and visible people in media, academia and publishing. These are the same people who possess the money and prestige to have their ideas shared in just about any elite publication, outlet or journal. There will always be a place for them to have their voices heard.
And, while those who claim ‘cancel culture’ is an invention of the right are wrong, there is no doubt that it has been used very effectively by the right. One of the best examples is the attacks on those who support the cause of the Palestinian people. A July 12 article in Jacobin by Leigh Phillips makes some important points about the danger of the very same methods being used to muzzle the left. The Israeli state is a case in point:
In 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew an offer of employment to English professor Steven Salaita after some faculty students and donors asserted that his tweets critical of the Netanyahu administration during the Gaza war were anti-Semitic. Due to the controversy, he’s been driven out of academic employment and now works as a bus driver. Political scientist Norman Finkelstein - another critic of the Israeli occupation - was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007 after a successful campaign by the Anti-Defamation League and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. He likewise has difficulty finding employment and says he struggles to pay the rent.2
There are numerous other examples from the witch-hunt against the left in the Labour Party, which has seen the ‘cancellation’ of Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker, Stan Keable and the recent sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary. And, while it is unclear whether the fact that cartoonist Steve Bell will not have his contract with The Guardian renewed has anything to do with him offending sensibilities, it must be a relief for the editors that they will not have to defend the claims that he has exhibited anti-Hindu racism by depicting Priti Patel as a bull, and anti-Semitism because of his relentless exposure of the Labour witch-hunt. The Jewish Chronicle was delighted to report his sacking.3
Perhaps the most controversial Harper’s signatory is JK Rowling. Antagonism towards her mainly stems from her criticism of the movement for transgender recognition and rights. The Objective letter states that she has:
spouted transphobic and transmisogynist rhetoric, mocking the idea that trans men could exist, and likening transition-related medical care such as hormone replacement therapy to conversion therapy. She directly interacts with fans on Twitter, publishes letters littered with transphobic rhetoric, and gets away with platforming violent anti-trans speakers to her 14 million followers.
Rowling has recently published a lengthy piece on her blog where she sets out her views and experiences. She states initially she entered the fray to support Maya Forstater - a tax specialist who had lost her job because she had made allegedly ‘transphobic’ remarks online. Rowling also supported Magdalen Berns, who “was a great believer in the importance of biological sex, and didn’t believe lesbians should be called bigots for not dating trans women with penises. Dots were joined in the heads of twitter trans activists, and the level of social media abuse increased”.
Rowling claims that transgender activists had accused her of “literally killing trans people” with her hate, had been “called cunt and bitch” and told that her books were being burned.4 Rowling sets out her concerns about transitioning as an answer to the complexities of gender identity and stereotypes in an unequal world. She also explains how her own past experience of abuse has made her very sensitive to the notion of sharing toilets and other women-only spaces with transgender women. It is true that she is antagonistic to the transgender project and I believe that she is wrong to present transgender women as a threat to cisgender women, but I do not think she is a transphobe.
Following the publication of the above piece, two official Harry Potter fan clubs, The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet, announced that they would remove her picture from their websites and no longer link to her site. They stated: “Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary.”5 Paradoxically Rowling, who has been accused of ‘disappearing’ trans people, had herself been disappeared.
The use of the term ‘Terf’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) by transgender activists and their supporters to describe cisgender women who oppose or question their claims has been effective in silencing many. However, having followed some of the online disputes, I would say there is intolerance and irrationality on both sides. In opposing the evidently factually incorrect claims that transgender people are ‘literally women’ or ‘literally men’, some become unnecessarily derogatory, refusing to respect the right of transgender people to describe themselves as such. And it is faintly amusing to witness some leftwing men becoming extremely exercised about protecting ‘women’s spaces’ from transgender women. It is as if they have become chivalrous knights intent on defending a maiden’s honour against an interloper. I have witnessed also the ‘doxing’ of a transgender woman - with details of her workplace openly circulated for complaints to be made to her employer about somewhat intemperate utterances on social media. The backlash against this reprehensible act was a wave of bullying and intimidation against those who tried to defend the perpetrator. An almighty shit-storm and one within which it was impossible to arrive at any rationality.
There are other examples - some of which are alluded to in the Harper’s letter - of the irrationality of ‘cancel culture’. One is the investigation of academic and poet Laurie Sheck at the New School following a complaint by a white student that she had repeated the N-word from a James Baldwin essay, in which he challenged the intellectual inheritance of slavery. The Objective letter dismisses this abysmal treatment of Sheck with the assertion that she ultimately has not lost her job, so it is not really that serious, particularly in comparison to the treatment that minorities have endured for expressing their views: “Black, brown and trans professors have been harassed by conservative websites, threatened, and had careers ruined for speaking about our own experiences or confronting systemic racism.”
As I mentioned above, there has been a strong reaction from the left to the Harper’s letter. Noam Chomsky has been derided for putting himself among the likes of Bari Weiss, who is said to have a history of harassment of supporters of Palestinian rights and has claimed that criticism of Israel amounts to anti-Semitism. Jonathan Cook has argued that, with the notable exception of Chomsky, “many of those who signed the letter are defending not free speech, but their right to continue dominating the public square - and their right to do so without being held accountable.”6 He goes on:
despite their professions of concern, the evidence suggests that some of those signing the letter have been intensifying their own contribution to cancel culture in relation to Israel, rather than contesting it.
In other words, according to Cook, those who have been using identity politics for years to further their own careers have now found themselves on the receiving end of it. The BLM and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movements have put these individuals under such pressure that they now feel the need to defend themselves with pseudo claims of support for free speech.
Cook makes some telling points about freedom of speech being used as a weapon by the pro-Israel lobby. And he is correct that many of the signatories are high-ranking, well paid members of the academic, writing and journalistic professions, who undoubtedly want to jealously guard their own rights to say what they want, without fear of book cancellations or social media tirades. And he is right about the hypocrisy of many, with Rowling providing an example with her mocking attacks on Corbyn in 2018 at the height of the witch-hunt and her enthusiastic backing for claims that there was a genuine anti-Semitic problem in the Labour Party that had to be rooted out. There is no doubt that she and Weiss are in no sense to be considered true defenders of free speech. They are defending their own rights.
But where does that leave the left? As Cook says, it is essential that we stand for freedom of speech. We must utilise the weapon of ideological struggle in order to take on and defeat reactionary ideas and win over the working class. But that must mean freedom to express all points of view, including those we passionately oppose. It is of concern to see self-proclaimed socialists responding to the Harper’s letter by proclaiming that there can be no such thing as absolute freedom of speech - not when it comes to the oppressor classes or their liberal allies in any case. The complaints about ‘cancel culture’ are simply the whinges of an elite who find themselves the target of unwelcome criticism.
Yet the cancellation of books and articles, and the investigation of university staff for reading examples of ‘offensive’ language without giving ‘trigger warnings’ is not criticism. Nor is personal harassment on social media or complaints to employers about things said on Facebook or Twitter. That is not a culture that should be defended or alibied in any form.
Some of these comrades have enlisted Vladimir Lenin to shore up their opposition to freedom of speech for liberals. He is described as being utterly disparaging about such freedoms. But this is clearly wrong. As the historian, Lars T Lih, has shown in his comprehensive and critical studies of Lenin, at the core of the Bolshevik leader’s project lay the necessity of political freedom. Lih quotes from Iskra in 1903, where Lenin argued that “without political freedom, all forms of worker representation will remain pitiful frauds; the proletariat will remain as before in prison, without the light, air and space needed to conduct the struggle for its full liberation”.
As Lih argues, the logic of the demand for political freedom is the fact that the proletariat has a historical mission to overthrow the state and introduce socialism, and in order to do that it needs to have the freedom to organise and enlighten itself.7
Political freedom meant freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Lenin inherited his commitment to political freedom from Marx and Engels, who argued that it was essential for the proletariat. Lih quotes from Engels on the need for the working class to insist on these freedoms, as without them “it will be unable to move freely itself; in this struggle it is fighting to establish the environment necessary for its existence, for the air it needs to breathe”.
The history of the Bolsheviks under Lenin up to the 1917 revolution was one of open ideological struggle. Of course, Lenin mocked the liberals for their pseudo-democracy. But I do not know of any call from him to suppress their views, let alone to support their sacking or investigation by employers. Instead he and his comrades attacked their cowardice, their seeking after compromises, their fear of worker-peasant power in countless polemical articles.
There is no doubt that after the revolution there was suppression of free speech. Lih’s article referred to above shows the change in emphasis in Lenin’s approach in 1919, when he was in a position of defending an isolated and embattled regime. The quotations used in the social media debates to portray Lenin as an opponent of free speech are entirely located in that desperate period. They do not reflect the consistent democratic approach of the Bolsheviks when they were a party of extreme opposition. The closing of papers, fixing elections and banning opposition parties is not a legacy that we should seek to emulate, but an aberration we should seek to avoid.
Today we are not in a position of challenging for state power - far from it, unfortunately. We are in a time when we are fighting for the working class to become conscious of its own historical tasks. We are in a time when our class needs to fight for openness and for ruthless and trenchant criticism of its opponents; to expose the liberal intelligentsia as the hypocrites they are. To do that we must fight for full freedom of expression for all viewpoints, including those of our opponents, not join in with shrill calls for their suppression.
Only in that way will we be able to defeat them.
‘Light and air of political freedom’ Weekly Worker September 15 2010.↩︎