#SecondThoughts: Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture is not new, it’s just a new name for people turning on others. It’s not even that the social aspect is new, although social media does provide a new dimension.

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

 there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV

Every now and again, Debs and I find the time to have a chat about the state of our joint project(s). We set up Fiction Can Be Fun a few years ago to get into a writing practice, and to encourage people to have a go at writing themselves. In both regards we’ve met with mixed success. Squeezing in writing around day jobs and all the other distractions remains as challenging as ever, and a regular routine remains elusive; we’ve made some great friends through a shared love of writing, but we’ve not reached the hoped for numbers joining in with the monthly writing prompts.

When we had our last catch up, one of the things we talked about was how to catch people’s attention – what blogger doesn’t dream of a post going viral? By far and away the post that has had the most number of reads is one that Debs wrote on the fact and fiction of The Eagle Has Landed. I know, with reasonable confidence, when the film has been on somewhere in the world, because there is a spike in hits on the site: when I check the details, it’s always that post that has been looked at. Even so, it’s not a viral post as most people would understand it.

A lot of people who’ve had posts go viral talk about their five-year overnight success, or about being in the right place at the right time. Can you ever really plan a viral post? Sometimes the advice is to write about something controversial, something divisive: we’ve all seen the kind of posts that have lots of comments for and against.

But all of that said, it’s not really our style – we’re not so fussed about chasing the numbers that we’re going to write to be objectionable. Our aim is a muscular, moderate position, which avoids the splinters of sitting on the fence by finding a positive place between the extremes.

Cancel culture has been on my mind recently. I had a post in mind to write, but in mulling it over I decided that it would be jumping on the band wagon and not particularly helpful. The conversation with Debs, and particularly the point about trying to avoid extremes put me on a new track though. For a start, Cancel Culture is not new, it’s just a new name for people turning on others. It’s not even that the social aspect is new, although social media does provide a new dimension. (By social, I mean that there is an aspect that goes beyond simple community pressures). One only has to look at the McCarthy Witch-hunts to see how mass media exacerbates issues. The particular problem with social media is that it is difficult to have a nuanced discussion.

It’s easy to wish that complex moral questions simply boil down to some kind of binary answer: right/wrong; yes/no; up/down; left/right; black/white… Opponents of complexity point to grey as being morally ambiguous, neither one thing nor the other: there is suspicion of those who promote neutrality. In the UK, perhaps we are burdened with the failure of Neville Chamberlain and the spectre of Appeasement. Appeasement is one of the worst aspects of neutrality. But perhaps we should be suspicious of grey. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be part of our palette, but there are a lot of other colours out there to choose from too. 254 shades of grey between black and white may give a richness to grey-scale pictures, but there are thousands of colours to choose from.

A year ago I wrote a #SecondThoughts piece where I discussed the problem of trying to deconvolute the things that we find admirable in our heroes (I use the term in a broad sense, encompassing artists, writers, friends, colleagues) with the things that we find objectionable. (You can find that article here). Where we have to be careful is in vilifying someone who has expressed an opinion that we find objectionable – in modern parlance, ‘cancelling them’. It perhaps requires greater subtlety than can be achieved by social media, but surely one of the great things about being human is that we have the wherewithall to interrogate complex issues.

In my day job, I have been known to ask students which is more important: Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or the General Theory. My argument is that it is the General Theory: the special theory can only deal with a very specific case. When I roll out this example I’m usually trying to encourage my students to think about the limitations of the work they have done so far, and what needs to be done to make their work more widely applicable. The reverse of this, is that even the most objectionable people are not wrong all the time.

I’m in a very difficult position. There is a book sitting by my bedside, that I think I’m going to return unread to the person who loaned it to me. There are multiple reasons for this, but the key one is that the author has said something objectionable, and I’m trying to disentangle from their work. I can’t unread the stuff that I’ve already ready, but I don’t have to read any more. That said, the author has been subjected to an unjustified level of vitriol. There is a debate to be had…no, that’s not quite right. At the heart of so many issues, there is a truth. The problem is the layers of obfuscation and the unwarranted certainty of the truth. The world would be a happier place if people took the time to reflect and engage in a dialogue to find the boundaries around an issue. Latching on to an extreme example should not set the tone for the whole dialogue, and it should not lead to a single answer.

Writers can find themselves in a difficult position: we are reflecting on what we see around us, and perhaps presenting an exaggeration for the benefit of a story. Midsomer, St Mary Mead, and other homes to famous detectives are notorious for their unrealistically high rates of murder. Is the writer advocating crime? No, this is just what the reader wants…but if the murderer is following a particular agenda, particularly a controversial one, then the question might be asked “why is the author giving this opinion air time?”

It’s easy to suggest that perhaps we should just not read authors who air unsavoury opinions in public, or even just opinions that we don’t agree with. The danger with that is that we end up in an echo chamber, only reading the things that we agree with, and failing to understand why people hold the views they do. Those views don’t exist in isolation, there will be something that has led to them. Right or wrong, the holder of those views is a person and we should be spare the time to see what their views, and our reaction to them, mean for our lives. Just ignoring them won’t make them go away, and reacting aggressively will just make the person become more entrenched. And if they’re a writer, you’ll probably end up as an unflattering cameo.

Scapegoats come and go: there is nothing new under the sun. But as responsible readers, perhaps we need to engage more, but less vociferously, with what we are reading and the community that builds up around the books we read.

(C) David Jesson, 2020

One thought on “#SecondThoughts: Cancel Culture”

  1. For the most part, I try to steer clear of controversial issues online. It’s not that I don’t have strong opinions and it’s not that I don’t have causes that I want to advocate for. But I think there are more productive ways for me to advocate for the causes I care about. Getting into fights with people online is not fun for me, and even if it were, I don’t believe ranting about stuff online will actually change anybody’s mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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