Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin… Of cancel culture (and other scary beasts)

There are no formal barriers to being a writer — not even to being a journalist.  There’s no education requirement.  No exam.  No registration.  You don’t need to convince a panel that you’re a fit and proper person.

Hell, you don’t even need to be able to write.  Australia is lousy with stale and crusty doyens of journalism whose first drafts look like they vomitted alphabetti spaghetti all over a Word document.

Why, then, do we care what these people think?

A recent open letter was published by Harper’s Magazine about ‘cancel culture’.  Its signatories are scattered across the arts, journalism, and academia, but few of whom you’d describe as thoughtful.  The letter itself is so bland that it’s possible that the signatories meant wildly different things when they signed the letter.

The content of the letter is itself not really all that important.  It doesn’t advance any ideas, nor does it contribute much to public discussion.  What is important — and the reason why I’m blogging about it — is the title: A Letter of Justice and Open Debate.

Justice.

The letter does not elaborate on what it means by justice.  The letter notes that there are protests for ‘racial and social justice’, but does not mention the idea of justice again until the odd sentence:

We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.

What does this mean?  What could it possibly mean?  Who is arguing that writers make a choice between justice and freedom?  What does such a choice entail?

You might think, ‘Oh, Mark.  You and your taking sentences out of context.  Classic you.’  But there is no context.  The sentence before it is even more bizarre: ‘The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.’

The problem with the debate on ‘cancel culture’ is that it is so abstract, amorphous, and indistinct.  As a conservative Anglo male in the academy, I should be seeing it everywhere and should live in constant fear of it.  Instead, I worry instead about how to make sure everybody feels welcome to participate in this privileged environment of research and education.

Imagine a different letter Harper’s could have published:

We, the undersigned, are committed to improving public debate. We are dedicated to helping the public form its own views, articulate its own views, and participate in the exchange of views. Public debate is central to our shared vision of participatory democracy, and so we need a public debate where the vulnerable, marginalised, and oppressed are actively encouraged to speak out against the injustices that they experience.

We, the undersigned, will not give a platform to ideas that hurt our community. We will not broadcast the voices of those who want to hurt our community. We will not create a safe harbour for antisocial ideas to flourish in our community.

We, the undersigned, take responsibility for the quality of public debate. We will create a culture of public debate that informs, challenges, and advances our society. We will not let the market decide what views are acceptable, and acknolwedge that important speech might not be profitable, and profitable speech might be harmful.

We, the undersigned, acknowledge that we will make mistakes, but those mistakes will be made not because we felt entitled to say things that hurt others, and not because we felt entitled to opine about topics that we did not ourselves understand, but because all of us are learning how to create new norms and understandings about what is reasonable, what is valuable, and what is harmful.

Suddenly we are having an entirely different public discussion, one that isn’t defensive or entitled, but about creating something better than what we’ve got now.

The problem–as I’ve said many, many times in the past–is that our media does not know how to present meaningful, quality debates.  A ‘debate’ in modern culture is having two people who just have nothing interesting to say to each other, but who disagree vociferously.  Audiences go into a ‘debate’ knowing with which side they agree, and then they cheer as their team sledges the other team with witty quips and one-liners.

In his biography of John Sterling, Thomas Carlyle wrote that they talked ‘on moralities, theological philosophies; arguing copiously, but except in opinion not disagreeing.’ Reflecting on that sentence, Walter Murdoch wrote:

There is a world of wisdom in those last five words; they contain the quintessence of the truth about conversation. Unless you see that truth you have never had a good talk.

If you consumed a diet of political ‘debate’ from the media, I would warrant that you have never seen a good talk broadcast.  There are only two kinds of panel: those in which the discussants all agree with one another, and those in which the discussants superficially disagree with each other.  I say ‘superficially’ because the discussants are rarely able to articulate why it is that they disagree with each other.  Often it’s because they disagree on more than just opinion: they’re occupying radically different moral universes in which one of them has absurdly antisocial views for which they have artificially constructed something that apes human reasoning, and the other holds socially acceptable views by matter of luck and has (perhaps rightly) never felt the need to develop a rational defence.

In this environment, the hand-wringing about ‘cancel culture’ isn’t about advancing the debate; it is about an entitled person (usually a writer) fearing that they won’t be able to have ‘their say’ without consequences.  There’s no commitment to being informed.  There’s no commitment to advancing the best in debate.  It’s about their say on a topic that they have no particular knowledge, expertise, or skill.

‘Cancel culture’ is not a monolithic thing because it’s not really a thing.  It’s so amorphous and indistinct that it is better viewed as a projection of the speaker’s inner fears.  Should we be concerned about people getting sacked for things that they say?  It depends on what they said and what their job is.  Should we be concerned about people being ‘no-platformed’ at universities for views that they hold?  It depends on what views they hold and whether academia is the best place for those views.  And so on and so on and so forth.  We need to discuss specific instances openly and honestly rather than shadowboxing vagaries.

 

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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