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Artillery Row

The real cancel culture only cancels me

I am cancelled, you are held accountable

Have you ever wondered what true cancel culture is? The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee is here to help you. 

As part of the paper’s current series — we like the Royal family because the Queen’s died, only maybe we don’t — Toynbee wrote a piece on how “dissenting voices on royal mourning have been silenced” by “a right-wing mob”. This, she declared, is “the real cancel culture”.

According to Toynbee, “businesses, shops and charities, colleges, schools and public servants, any minor figure in the public eye has been rendered petrified, terrified of doing the wrong thing during days of mourning”. Sounds scary! 

To be fair, she doesn’t have many examples of the consequences of “doing the wrong thing”, but that’s only because “the bullying by [the right-wing] media has been so thorough over so many years that everyone is already intimidated into silence”.

I do not want to become jaded in the face of others facing censorship for their views. Nonetheless, reading pieces such as Toynbee’s feels to me like being tied to the stake at a village witch-burning whilst someone in the crowd tells you that he’s getting a bit hot and would you mind doing something about it.

“When you next hear [the right-wing press] trying to stir up bogus ‘cancel culture’ indignation about a few students no-platforming some speaker on a college campus somewhere, remember what real cancelling is, how dangerous, nasty and powerful,” she writes. 

The left can’t drive cancel culture because that’s what baddies do

Yes, how terrible. I can think of few things more horrific than Douglas Murray not liking an article I like, or Ben Goldsmith cancelling his subscription to the New York Times whilst someone else gets in a tizz about what colour ties should be worn at the BBC.

To be clear: I am not a royalist. If you must know, I spent most of the Queen’s funeral with the TV off, making plasticine Pokémon with my seven-year-old son. Nonetheless, I find the proposition that today’s anti-monarchists represent those at the front line of the free speech wars not just laughable, but downright offensive.

If you are someone who sneers at other people’s complaints of cancellation — if you decide they are bogus” whereas yours are “real” — then you should not be surprised when others are less than willing to take you seriously. It’s not that I disbelieve Toynbee, or that I feel her complaints lack any validity. It’s that her own principles — principles which decree it’s only “true” censorship if the person participating in it is your enemy — implicitly support the practices of which she then complains. 

Toynbee’s argument rests on a false distinction between left (the noble speakers of truth to power) and right (the evil suppressors of liberty). It’s one that relies on the hard leftist self-mythologising described in Chris Clarke’s The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master, which sees the political spectrum as a moral spectrum. 

By this logic, the left, the goodies, can’t be driving cancel culture because that’s what baddies do. It’s an infantile mischaracterisation of left and right, and of how morality and silencing function. The distinction that really matters here is between those who welcome a plurality of viewpoints and those who don’t. 

It’s ironic to see an explanation of “the real cancel culture” in the Guardian, the publication from which Suzanne Moore was hounded following her excellent piece defending the rights of women to organise in defence of sex-based rights. Ironic, too, to witness the airy way Toynbee refers to universities as a locus of pretend cancel culture in the same week the TES published Laura Favaro’s exemplary research into the treatment of academics seeking to write on sex and gender. 

The picture Favaro paints is bleak. She describes being advised not to conduct her research to begin with because “everybody is going to hate you […] Certain doors in academia may quietly close if I went further; invitations to speak would disappear and online abuse would follow”.

Favaro persevered, interviewing both feminist academics and those supportive of trans ideology. She found that the former had endured years of “negative repercussions … for expressing their view”: 

 … complaints to and by management, attempts to shut down events, no platforming, disinvitations, intimidation, smears and losing career progression opportunities, including being blocked from jobs. Others spoke about being physically removed from events, alongside receiving torrents of abuse online that even included incitements to murder.

At the end of her report, Favaro mentions fears for her own career “not least as an immigrant early career scholar with a family to support”. She is right to be fearful. Following its publication, several senior academics who did not like her findings started having open discussions on how to bring her down. 

You aren’t ordered to put ‘loyal subject’ in your email signature

This looks like cancel culture to me, and it is the same cancel culture that many Guardian writers — perhaps one more than any of the others — have embraced, regardless of what gets laid at the door of “the right-wing press”. 

It is not enough that Toynbee does not actively join her colleagues in the shaming of feminist thinkers. She perpetuates it by her trivialisation of what her own side chooses to inflict on others. In Toynbee’s world there’s nothing to see on campus, just “some speaker” (Jordan Peterson, probably) facing a noble challenge from “a few [plucky, marginalised] students”. It’s not cancel culture; it’s accountability culture when the canceller is you. 

I am not suggesting those on the right never promote a one-sided vision of cancel culture, claiming it is only ever “the woke” who are puritanical about which words should and should not be spoken. They, too, should speak out when anti-monarchists are under attack — but actually, many of them have, despite the “where are the freeze peach warriors now?” sneering of their adversaries

This is perhaps one of the most galling aspects of this situation. Why should those of us who have been signing letter after letter in defence of freedom of expression, only to be told it’s just a cover for hate or we’re really in favour of punching down, suddenly be called on to demonstrate our free speech credentials? We’re not the ones who have been pretending the problem is fabricated. 

I am with you in principle, anti-monarchists. That said, it’s not as though you’ve been ordered to put “loyal subject” in your email signature and are awaiting workplace training on the “science” behind superior royal bloodlines.

It’s not as though you’ve had to face what happened to a friend of mine: losing your social media account, visits from the police and changing jobs because you called a male sex offender “male”. 

I know, I know. It’s not a competition. But if you want other people to raise their voices on your behalf, maybe you need to lift the scold’s bridles from their heads first.

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