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Cancel culture is a culture

Overcoming authoritarianism will take courage, not just policy fixes

Artillery Row

Asking someone like Helen Joyce, one-time executive editor for The Economist and current director of advocacy at Sex Matters, “who cancelled you?” doesn’t make much sense. Was it the trans-rights organisation who first condemned her writing on the topic? Was it the trans-identified debate opponent whose objection to Joyce’s use of “male” to describe trans-identified males led to the debate being buried? Was it the BBC researcher who lied about Joyce’s availability to prevent her from coming on? Or was it the myriad editors, journalists and columnists who have avoided interviewing, writing about or otherwise engaging with her for fear of upsetting colleagues, social media, or otherwise earning a reputation of being “difficult”?

Clearly, the best answer to this clumsy question is “all of the above”. “Cancelation”, as Joyce’s experience illustrates, is never just one thing. There is no single censorious act or decision that can be pointed to as the moment of cancellation. Instead, “cancellation” is best understood as a complex series of such moments, sometimes successfully culminating in the cancelee’s quasi-total elimination from public life.

Within the moral cosmology of vulnerability, it becomes your duty de-platform Joyce

In this sense, cancel “culture” more than earns its moniker. The phenomena it identifies emerge from the un-coordinated behaviours and decisions of disparate agents rather than from some deliberate plan. There is no orchestrated plot to cancel Helen Joyce — there are just many people, each doing what they take to be right or appropriate given their given context. Denialists who insist on evidence of such a plot as their standard for believing in cancel culture miss this crucial point. They fail to take the “culture” in “cancel culture” literally enough and so miss the forest for the trees. Like Gilbert Ryle’s visitor to Oxford, who walks amongst the lecture halls and colleges and says, “Yes, I can see those but where is the university?”, cancel culture denialists will note Joyce’s experience’s listed above and still ask, “Okay, but where is cancel culture?”

“Culture” implies something more than people just acting and deciding randomly, in isolation from one another. It implies a shared set of values or beliefs that forms the context of and gives shape to those actions and decisions. Whilst individuals always have their own reasons and interests, their decisions are necessarily formulated against the background of this shared understanding of what is considered good and appropriate. Even if a news-editor isn’t personally convinced that Joyce deserves to have an interview spiked or an article pulled, it is likely that he will see why others do and will factor this into his decision-making — if only out of a fear of losing his income or reputation.

What are these shared values that make the on-going cancellation of someone like Helen Joyce intelligible to so many? I cannot lay claim to anything other than a tentative answer but I would suggest that part of it is what Peter Ramsay has called a shared concern for “vulnerability”.

According to Ramsay, this concern cleaves the social world into two crude groups — the “vulnerable” and “non-vulnerable” — and elevates the protection of the former as the cornerstone of public morality. For every single socio-political issue, the identification and protection of a relevant group of “vulnerables” is always the right thing to do — usually at the expense of other concerns like liberty, dignity or indeed truth. Signalling (say with a stupid flag or # in your social media bio) awareness of the vulnerables’ plight is always de facto the bare minimum of what a moral person does.

When someone like Joyce refuses to engage with an issue on these terms (in her case by refusing to say that men can be women. Just lol.) they commit the worst possible offence and identify themselves as part of the danger that the vulnerables need to be protected from. In not making the protection of the vulnerable group du jour (here the trans-identified) her foremost concern, Joyce reveals herself to be “problematic”, even “harmful” or “dangerous”. Within the moral cosmology of vulnerability, if you are a BBC researcher who believes this about Joyce, it becomes your duty to ensure that she isn’t platformed. Even if you are an editor who privately agrees with many of her claims (because men can’t be women. Double lol.), you’ll likely remain circumspect about doing harm to the vulnerable.

This is an essentially cultural issue, necessitating a cultural fix

Such is the power of vulnerability. It is the cultural script from which we all, to some extent, read and reason.

Whilst Ramsay argues that vulnerability is a feature rather than a bug of contemporary liberalism, tracing it back to the collapse of organised working-class politics and erosion of civil society, I continue to think that it (and the cancel culture it makes possible) remains profoundly inimical to liberal public morality as it is commonly understood.

Under liberalism, right-thinking people are expected (if not required) to be willing to expose themselves to opposing, controversial, unpopular and even offensive views. They are expected to share a commitment to robust debate and toleration of disagreement, and they are expected to recognise the value of pluralism. Instead of this, we have a public morality defined by its monomaniacal focus on protecting the “vulnerable” and deranged attempts to make the world “safe” by eliminating “dangers” like Helen Joyce.

Viewing cancel culture as emerging from many uncoordinated decisions and behaviours, shaped and bounded by a public morality of vulnerability, sheds some light on what needs to change. Bluntly, it is unlikely that a neat legal fix will be the solution. Most (even all) of the wrongs endured by Joyce fall beyond the reach of the law. Which of her rights is violated when a magazine columnist decides not to review her book or interview her? Arguably, none. The editor has not behaved in the way that we would hope someone committed to liberalism would, but neither has he infringed any of the formal entitlements that Joyce enjoys as a citizen of a nominally liberal state.

Instead of being a legal or policy issue, this is an essentially cultural issue, necessitating a cultural fix. Our collective fixation on vulnerability needs to be supplanted by a (re)commitment to some of the liberal values described above. The need to protect a designated group of vulnerables at all costs must lose its moral self-evidence. We need to recognise that for every socio-political issue, there exists a plurality of legitimate concerns that demand negotiation. Frankly, I do not know how we get there. I suspect that, at minimum, it’s going to require a few individuals in positions of editorial power finding the courage to consistently respond, “So what? That’s not all that matters” to accusations that this week’s designated group of vulnerables is being harmed by the platforming of competing concerns.

Based on our recent experiences, I remain roundly sceptical.

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