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Cancelling the soul

A culture of censoriousness is stifling our civic life

Artillery Row

At the risk of upsetting my echo chamber, I must admit that I’m sometimes ambivalent that people are still banging on about “cancel culture”. Yes, most of us can name high-profile people who have suffered intolerant hotheads unjustly trying to stop them being able to talk about things. Yes, these same people have often suffered disproportionate and unfair consequences for their professional lives and reputations. Yet we all know who these people are, which means they have continued being able to say the things they were cancelled over. 

This is partly because resistance to cancel culture has gained considerable momentum over the last few years. “No platforming” now means “alternative platforming”. As the resistance movement has developed, an industry has accrued around those who, quite rightly, push the envelope against an increasingly restrictive and unimaginative culture. Let’s be honest, though: for some people the alternative/post-cancellation platform has provided a far more enjoyable and lucrative professional life, and a far bigger and more influential platform, than they ever would have had otherwise. 

Soft-ostracisation works in the tacit domain of our day-to-day friendships

The more snide observers in the group-chat might even have suggested that some people seem actively to seek cancellation, because the fruits thereof are so abundant. The less snide observers might respond by saying that this surely a good thing — all grist to the mill against our common foes. 

I don’t want to belittle the very real unpleasantness of having people write letters to the leader of your organisation about you (I speak from experience). I definitely don’t want to belittle how potentially serious this is for people with families, rents or mortgages. 

I should also point out that, for every one of those high-profile victims of a backfired cancellation, there are many others of whom we won’t hear anything. These people actually were effectively cancelled, or suffered something like a part-cancellation — a more subtle restriction on their professional standing, being overlooked for promotion or tenure, not being invited to things necessary for their career development, and so on. The numbers of people contacting organisations like the Free Speech Union make it clear that most of us see only the very tip of the iceberg. 

Yet the largest, most insidious, and most deeply submerged expanse of that same iceberg is surely the soft-ostracisation that someone who questions things today often undergoes. Soft-ostracisation works not in the formal and material domain of career and livelihood, but in the informal and tacit domain of our day-to-day interactions and friendships.

This is where you find that old school friend who quietly unfriended you on Facebook after you railed against the “indignant London bourgeois” on the day of the Brexit referendum result. This is the domain of that colleague whom you regularly went for coffee with, before she read some of your reservations about decolonising the curriculum. This is just living with the fact that someone whose daily small talk in the office is always amusing and enjoyable, now struggles to compute how you can be so affable yet not have pronouns in your email signature. 

Man-up! you think, and you’re right (but don’t say this precise phrase, at least not at work). None of this minutiae really matters, let people think what they want, who cares? An effective tonic, and all part of growing-up as well. At the same time, the little informal and regular encounters we have with people do matter, and in some ways they matter more than the encounters we have in the domain of formal strictures and meetings with HR. 

As Christopher Lasch wrote, “the pub and the coffee shop” seem “at first sight to have nothing to do with politics”, yet they contribute “to the kind of wide-ranging, free-wheeling conversation on which democracy thrives”. Ray Oldenburg, similarly, speaks of the informal domain as a “third place”, somewhere neither work nor home, where interactions and conversations are “predicated on human decency”. 

Something distinctively human emerges in these informal encounters

Cancel culture works by shifting the Overton window so that opinions recently considered reasonable are suddenly rendered reprehensible. Then, in a short space of time, the average person who is neither on twitter, nor engaged in the discourse, shifts along with it. However awful it is for people subjected to formal censor, there is also that subtle, low-level awfulness experienced by those to whom others feel they can no longer predicate human decency straightforwardly. 

It is in the informal “third place” domain that life has soul — the quick-witted remark, the knowing nod of understanding, the shared eye-roll, the cheeky comment. Something distinctively and awkwardly human emerges in these informal encounters — something that thrives when encounters have no explicit function, as they do at work, nor any complex obligation or commitment, as they do at home. 

The bits of life that seem not to matter can be the bits that, in a way, matter the most. Ask someone who has been housebound for any length of time what parts of their day give their life soul — it is the by-the-way conversations from carers or visitors, not the services they undertake whilst they’re there. 

The theologian Romano Guardini suggests that truth telling is a virtue because, every time we tell a lie or go along with some falsehood, the ultimate truth of our humanity finds it harder and harder to shine through. Our souls are all the more perceptible the more truthful we are, and any little untruth muddies the light of the soul itself. Soul thrives on truth, and it withers from falsehood. 

Soul is also understood traditionally to flourish from the soil of a culture. Culture is a word agricultural in origin — cultura means the cultivation of soul. At its worst, a culture of cancellation threatens to be the slow cancellation of the soul itself. 

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