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Censorious sadism

We are never far away from abuse and ostracism


Do you believe in cancel culture? I apologise for asking — it’s a trick question. Just as complaining about the use of Karen makes you a Karen, thinking cancel culture exists makes you deserving of being cancelled. Not that this is a problem; if anyone were really being silenced, we’d hear them complaining about it, which would then mean they weren’t actually being silenced. 

Such are the logical contortions outlined in Umut Özkirimli’s Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke. It explores how certain self-styled goodies — those who identify with being on the right side of history — promote a version of leftism which rivals the right in “its disdain for dissent, its bunker mentality, and Manichean simplicity”. 

Arising from the author’s own growing awareness that “certain ideas were culturally inappropriate, and it was up to the self-appointed guardians of the new orthodoxy to ensure that they remained inappropriate”, it‘s written from a left-wing perspective, with a view to finding a way towards a better, more truly progressive left. Of course, you’ll have to take Özkirimli’s word for that. Alternatively, you could decide he’s just playing into the hands of the right (a response he himself predicts). It’s one of the many difficulties of critiquing a political position that is so utterly convinced of its own boundless tolerance that any accusation of intolerance must be an evil plot. 

For my own part, I’d say this book is sorely needed, at a time when any rejection of left-wing censoriousness risks becoming either outright hopelesness or a turn to the right. I believe cancel culture exists, on both left and right, and that it is neither just nor trivial. Easy for me to say, though; as a Known Terf since 2014, what do I have to lose? Then again, here I am, writing an article about it. It seems I’m not quite cancelled yet!

It never matters how often you point out that cancellation is context-specific, or that the price I pay for my views remains one I shouldn’t have to, or that many others simply can‘t. For a certain class who seem to think participating in public life starts and ends with “having a platform“, there’s no harm done when the mob starts baying for blood. In a section I found particularly shocking, Özkirimli quotes the New Statesman’s Sarah Manavis claiming that “even in those rare cases where a job is lost, it’s often that [the victims] never needed that job in the first place”. How convenient! Who knew that the Venn diagram of “people whose careers we can wreck” and “people who don’t really need careers” was a perfect circle all along? 

Cancelled: The Left Way Back From Woke, Umut Ozkirimli, Polity, £11.75

Of course, that’s not how things are at all. For the vast majority of people, losing a job — even piecework, one show, one publishing deal, one temporary contract — is an enormous deal. In my own life, I know women with multiple dependents, sick relatives, no safety nets, who’ve had their livelihoods threatened for expressing such controversial views as “biological sex is politically salient” and “rape crisis centres should offer female-only counselling”. I know brilliant women, with amazing reputations, who found themselves ghosted, losing contract after contract, having wondered out loud whether lesbians ought to be threatened with violence. Nobody cares about these women because they’re not famous (and are unwilling to put themselves through the additional exposure and trauma of fighting back, as Maya Forstater so bravely did). No one thinks their lost jobs matter because to a certain mindset, if they’re not silencing the big fish — the JK Rowlings of this world — the little fish barely count (which doesn’t mean they won’t go for them anyway). 

This is not to say that Rowling’s own experience has not been harmful enough. As Özkirimli notes, the author “may continue to sell books, but this does not mean she is unaffected by the death or rape threats she has been receiving on a daily basis“. It is beyond the scope of Cancelled itself, but there is much more to say about the human cost of cancellation as a form of psychological abuse, taking place in plain sight and rubber-stamped by people in positions of authority. Some women find it reminds them of abusive childhoods, school bullying or being in a controlling relationship. For many – and I would include myself among them – it destroys trust in others that has been hard-won. It reminds us just how many people, friends, colleagues, family members, can end up persuading themselves that yes, you must just be some crazy bitch who deserves it, otherwise he wouldn’t do it. 

The sadism of cancel culture is inseparable from the sense of virtue

Maybe one day someone should write a book on this. Or maybe they shouldn’t. It’s the kind of thing the consummate canceller would enjoy, yet more proof of just how right they are. Weaponising trauma! Cis white tears! Cry harder! Die mad! Cope! The sadism of cancel culture is inseparable from the sense of virtue. As Anne Llewellyn Barstow wrote in Witchcraze, her history of Early Modern witch hunts, “witch hunters resorted to gratuitous torture (in addition to juridicial) torture to make the evil nature of the victims absolutely clear to the crowd […] without the female witch as the symbol of evil, other Europeans could not have believed themselves to be good or just”. 

Cancelled is sober in tone, but it left me angry as well as hopeful. Perhaps this is because I am moving beyond the shame I once felt at not being liked — even feeling hated — by many on “my side“. I don’t think cancel culture is just a misstep, or a misunderstanding. It’s a grave injustice, and a reinscription of power and privilege which masquerades as its dismantling. It is also, for certain people, a way of hurting others for fun. 

Özkirimli argues that the first step out of this is to listen. “Effective activism requires us to step out of our comfort zones and echo chambers, and lend an ear to what others have to say,” he writes, and I believe this is true. I also believe cancel culture has created some wounds which will never heal. In her book Hagitude, Sharon Blackie describes women’s growing fear “of being ‘cancelled’, or publicly excoriated” for their views on sex and gender in terms of the “witch wound”, a legacy of centuries of witch trials, leaving behind a “deeply ingrained and often very visceral fear of the consequences of holding unpopular beliefs, or challenging the cultural orthodoxy“. 

For the rest of our lives, many of us will know we’re only ever one statement of fact away from abuse and ostracism from people we thought were on our side. Yet I fear there will be no point in telling them this; they’ll only think it shows they were right.   

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