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Artillery Row

The truth about cancel culture

Conservatives are merely incidental players in a vicious leftist civil war

Cancel culture, one is regularly assured by centre left journalists, isn’t real. If it is happening, even more progressive journalists tell us, it’s a good thing. The argument goes something like this: conservative figures say and believe offensive things, some people (rightly) exercise their freedom to condemn or disinvite them, and the “victim” whines about their justly merited reputation. Off the back of this confected cancellation, they draw in bigger crowds, sell more books, and complain about how silenced they are on live TV.

There are numerous misconceptions here, but the big one, largely shared by both sides, is that conservatives are the primary victims of cancel culture. In fact conservatives are by and large not the subject of cancellations, because they are far less likely to be in ultra liberal spaces in the first place. The main victims are liberals who hang on to some element of classical liberal ideas about freedom of expression and dissent, rather than progressive ideas of equity, intersectionality and inclusivity. They think, often naively, that they’re on the same page as colleagues because they share most of their views on salient left-right issues.

The divides are often generational, with many instances of older liberals falling foul of younger progressives. Superficially their politics align, but at a deeper level their values have totally diverged, and they use the same words to mean entirely different things. Far from an inexplicable youthful hysteria, the more militant views of younger liberals are adaptive and evolutionary. Older generations of liberals had to persuade and live with a vastly more conservative society; liberalism was still entangled with religion, patriotism and tradition. The left itself was more defined by the labour movement than by social progressivism. The old “deal” was that minority groups just wanted the same rights as everyone else, and you were free to disagree with their lives, so long as you didn’t stop anyone living as they wished. This was the prevailing paradigm well into the 2000s.

Millennials and zoomers have grown up in a period of hegemonic liberalism. They have no conservative establishment to contend with, and little reason to compromise with conservatives or even tolerate them. With social liberalism not only normative, but legally enforceable through human rights legislation in every major institution, there is a vast apparatus of political control just waiting to be fully employed. Nor are old school social conservatives their primary focus — the main reactionary class within the liberal hegemonic context are the old guard of classically liberal centre leftists.

Faced with cancellation, few good options present themselves to centrists. They can throw up their hands and surrender, but forgiveness is never on offer. They can stick to their guns and vanish — in which case nobody ever hears about it — or they can go on right wing platforms to fight back. This latter option is why we even know about a lot of cancel culture, and it’s a classic Catch 22. If we hear about cancel culture, it can’t really be cancel culture, because we’re hearing about it. Or so the revolution’s pet denialists like to tell us.

Thus cancel culture is identified with conservatism, even though most of those cancelled are exiles from the liberal left. What about actual conservatives? In one sense they’re immune to cancellation — they’re far more likely to have social and professional networks that won’t throw them to the wolves for not towing the line. Whilst this “immunity” may prevent the sudden horrific lurch into exile, it’s actually overall worse than cancellation. Conservatives aren’t so much cancelled as precancelled.

Liberals have cheerfully trampled on their own principles to ban prayer outside abortion clinics

Whilst centrists may wake up one day to discover their views are no longer acceptable, conservatives already know it, especially younger ones. When your university common rooms and classrooms are swathed in pride flags, there can be few illusions about what can and can’t be said. Whilst centrists sometimes lose their jobs in elite cultural and educational institutions, open conservatives simply can’t get hired. Do you suppose someone could get a job at the V&A or Oxford University in 2023 if they publicly disagreed with same sex marriage (a view that was normative well into the 21st century, and still is in most of the world)? Conservatives either entirely conceal their politics, like modern day conversos ever fearful of discovery, or are forced to surrender any hope of ready advancement in fields like education and the arts which are politically off limits to their kind.

The conversation has moved on, and the lines of contestation are intra-liberal. The greatest push-back on any progressive issue in recent years has been on the trans issue. It’s an admirable effort, supported by heroic individuals resisting the elite consensus, with powerful investigative reporting, often by non-reporters. It’s essentially been a rear-guard action, however, by exiled left liberals with the help of right-wing platforms. Conservatives meanwhile have not so much been defeated as disappeared from political life in Britain. Liberals have cheerfully trampled on their own principles to ban protest and prayer outside abortion clinics, with barely a whisper of objection from anyone who mattered.

With classical liberals losing badly on their home turf, the improbable alliance of feminists and conservatives has been the only meaningful act of resistance in the entire process. It’s an opportunistic coalitional politics that on the face of it looks unstable. Yet it points the way to an alternative path forward for both disaffected left and disinherited right.

Politics has shifted so rapidly that it’s left many of us stumbling and blinking in confusion, wondering where we belong. As a socially conservative supporter of the labour movement, I’m part of the growing ranks of the politically homeless. Whilst the political elite has cohered around an economic and social ultra-liberalism, with a technocratic authoritarian streak, most people have very different values. For all the many divisions, humanism, democracy and a sense of rootedness are widespread but fully unrealised political values.

In this uncertain space, unlikely alliance has crystallised into a common cause. Louise Perry, Mary Harrington and Nina Power have charted a feminism that spans the conventional political spectrum. With progressives moving away from “carceral” responses to male violence and sex crimes, and seeking to legalise and destigmatise so-called “sex work”, old school feminism has been rendered conservative by default.

The pandemic, with its outright biopolitical control of populations by managers and technology, has exposed progressives as entirely at odds with political and civil liberty. They are irretrievably wedded to a dystopian agenda. Solidaristic politics have broken down, and those who now seek to “improve” the public conversation attempt to do so by lobbying social media companies to censor and manipulate speech and information.

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