The anatomy of cancellation
How speech ends up being suppressed
It is rare for a day to go by without a university, publisher or company making the headlines for censorious behaviour. Whether it be “sensitivity readers” rewriting Roald Dahl, the pulling down of statues, the harassment of academics like Jordan Peterson and Kathleen Stock, or the cancelling of events like the screenings of The Lady of Heaven and Adult Human Female, there seems no end to the list of peoples, places and things the new puritans want expunged from history and contemporary culture.
Despite cancel culture being a feature of everyday life, the practice of cancellation is more mysterious. How do these protest movements emerge? How do minor, spurious or niche complaints pick up speed and become a matter for national news, legal process, or even a matter of life and death?
In the last three weeks, I have been at the heart of a university-based cancellation after students at the University of Cambridge took issue with my hosting a Q+A screening of the documentary, Birthgap — Childless World. From the first complaint to the cancellation of the event, I can now reveal to you all, from the inside, the anatomy of a cancellation.
Every cancellation begins with a complaint. You have said or done — or intend to say or do — something with which someone else takes issue. Rather than address their concern to you, the plaintiff takes to social media (outlets like Meta, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter or semi-public WhatsApp groups) and alerts their community to your existence. Here they will accuse you of committing one or more of the modern-day sins: racism, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, antisemitism or (the more generic) “bigotry”.
Protesters were asked to elucidate, and no explanation was forthcoming
This will come as a surprise to you as you do not — nor do your friends and family — regard yourself as a hate-inspired person. These accusations are tangential, often entirely baseless, and require much mental gymnastics to reconcile. To return to the example of Birthgap, the documentary — made primarily by women, with women, for women — was accused of being misogynistic because the women in it recount some discomfiting facts about fertility. More bizarrely, the film was accused of transphobia and racism for, well, your guess is as good as mine. In this instance, protesters were asked to elucidate, and no explanation was forthcoming.
The accusations don’t have to be true, only incendiary. On the premise that you are spreading “hate”, the plaintiff (people whose day job or hobby is activism) calls for you to be “cancelled” or “deplatformed”. You, your work or your event will be accused of threatening, endangering or inciting violence towards one or more “oppressed” groups. The justification is simple: “We are intolerant of intolerance”, and, as a result, you and your ideas need to be culled, purged from polite society.
In extreme cases, like Salman Rushdie’s, your purging is meant literally, and an attempt is made on your life. More often, activists are aiming for your social death. This can involve one or a number of the following: having you cast out from your job, denounced by your friends and family and colleagues, or your professional reputation ruined. If you are a writer or creator, it means getting your work removed from public spaces and attacking your financial revenue. If you are hosting a debate, talk, exhibition or (in my case) a film screening, protesters will try to get your event cancelled.
Vilification and intimidation
Those who do not understand the weaponisation of labels like “transphobic”, “homophobic” and “racist” will, understandably, run a country mile from whomever is tarred with this brush. These labels were once reliable markers of a social “wrongen”. There’s no smoke without fire, right? However, the overapplication (and false application) of these labels has diminished their potency. Protesters who make false accusations are relying upon the fact that most people do not have time to do a background check on everyone they meet, nor interrogate the legitimacy of every accusation levelled. As a result, many people will see your name, work or event being talked about in relation to hate, misogyny or antisemitism and dismiss you as someone with whom they do not want to be involved. This is the right response — unless, of course, the accusations are false.
You have been vilified, on social media or in the press. As a result, many potential customers or attendees to your event have boycotted you. What of those who know, or those who can see that the accusations are less than true? Protesters make sure your remaining audience will be guilty of your sins by association. In making a spectacle of your supposed transgressions in the public square, you become a vector for disease. Anyone seen in your company, with your book or entering the venue on the day of your event will be condemned as complicit in or endorsing “hate” against minorities. For this reason, good people who otherwise believe in your innocence will not use the tickets they bought, for fear of losing their social position or their livelihoods.
Appeals to authority
If any of your audience remain after being misled, frightened away and intimidated out of attending, protesters will begin to appeal to authorities and governing bodies. This means your employer, your venue, the people who advertised your event, the platforms or shops that sell your work, or even your bank provider. Protesters will accuse them of being complicit in your sin. If that is not enough to make them abandon you, they will threaten to expose them as sharing in the same sin. This is known in protest communities as “guilt” tactics. In the instance of Birthgap, protesters decided to write to a faculty which had circulated details of the documentary showing and accuse it of “promoting eugenics”. This is an utterly spurious claim, given that the film encourages governments worldwide to enable anyone and everyone who wants children to have them, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, country, religion or racial heritage. Some protesters, however, don’t seem concerned with letting the truth get in the way of their own agenda.
Outside protests and “inside antics”
When appeals to power fail, protesters take to the streets. This was the ultimate death-knell for Birthgap. Protests are not an issue in and of themselves. They are, as the saying goes, the sign of a healthy society. I would not advocate for the abolition of protest — quite the opposite. The point of contention is the style of protest.
The only antidote to cancel culture is to continue speaking
In the last few years, the definition of “peaceful protest” has been blurred. It has come to encompass any public action that does not involve “too much” violence. In the same manner “Just Stop Oil” intends to cause excessive disruption by blocking the roads, the people who protest debates and public talks intend to make proceedings impossible with the production of excessive noise. Surrounding the venue, protesters will screech, scream, use megaphones, chant, and bang pots and pans and drums to drown out the speakers inside. Sometimes protests will take this one step further by barging in or infiltrating the room. This is known as “inside antics”. They wave their flags and placards, shout at the speaker, and continue with their “noise disruption” until the audience surrenders their right to listen, or protesters are removed by venue security.
The mere threat of disruption and disquiet is often enough to cause venues to back out of hosting an event. This is what happened with the screening of Birthgap — Childless World at St John’s College, Cambridge. Venues are often forced to cancel events because they cannot ensure the safety and security of the audience and speakers. Protests are arranged in private group chats by people who obscure their identities, and venues often lack the necessary information to hire adequate security. As a result, the event is cancelled. This is otherwise known as “the hecklers’ veto”.
This is just a brief glance at an intense and complex phenomenon. Some protesters truly believe you are that of which you are accused. Their strongest conviction is that any challenge to (what they regard as) the “settled science” (on topics like climate change and gender identity) is to condemn the planet to burn within their lifetime, to cause people to die, and to implement a “genocide” against the vulnerable. When the threat is this existential, any means are justified to stop debate. To these people all sympathy must be given, and no effort spared in talking with them.
Some protesters do not believe you are that of which you are accused, however. They only pretend that you are and accuse you as if you were — with false grins and pointed fingers — because to do so is expedient for their own cause. The only antidote to their lies is the truth. The only antidote to cancel culture is to continue speaking, however intense the aspersions and threats become.
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