Saturday, June 22

Woke cancel culture was always going to create its opposite

Stuff writer Charlie Mitchell (an often genial and thoughtful presence on Twitter) recently penned a piece addressing the spate of campaigns against corporations in the U.S. targeting support of subsets of the LGBT community. The most successful of these was the boycotting of once popular beer brand ‘Bud-Light’, in response to trans Tiki-Tok star Dylan Mulvaney being used as the beer’s spokesperson. The beer brand’s parent company Anheuser-Busch has reportedly lost billions due to the boycott.  

Mitchell goes on to list other successful U.S. campaigns against various brands, before tying it to less fruitful (at the date of publication) local attempts to challenge our own ‘The Warehouse’, along with the growing pushback against InsideOUT, an LGBT education group that share their message in New Zealand schools. 

In the case of InsideOUT, Mitchell clearly believes a parent wanting their child to sit out one of their sessions to be seriously problematic, ignoring the controversial nature of the group within the gay community itself which is divided on gender ideology. But this isn’t Mitchell’s only – nor his most egregious – omission of important context. 

Mitchell’s lament over this emerging cancel culture makes absolutely no mention that the faux-Left has been leaning on corporations, and canceling groups and individuals, for years now. The Right, and parts of the class-Left, are simply adopting the faux-Left’s tactics. While I would agree with Mitchell that this development is unfortunate, it was thoroughly predictable. What’s surprising is that it hasn’t happened sooner. 

We’ve all seen the memes shared on social media in which the faux-Left defends boycotts and cancellations. In them we’re told that a boycott itself is an expression of free speech, and a cancellation is simply showing an asshole the door. The only defense the faux Left can use to justify finger-wagging at Right wing cancellation campaigns is to claim a unique moral right to such tactics, which would betray a conformist, Right-leaning worldview. Remember, it was the Right who invented what we commonly refer to as cancel culture, most recently with McCarthyism and the Regan-era campaigns from groups like the ‘Moral Majority’, who went after everything from video games to Heavy Metal. The faux-Left embraced this tactic and deployed their own supercharged version of it. The Right is claiming it back. 

I am not a fan of organized boycotts. While I understand that societies will naturally develop mechanisms to marginalise truly unsavory opinions, for me boycotts run contrary to the spirit of free speech. While I may not personally put my toddler in a ‘PRIDE’ onesie (I’d never get the idea past his Muslim mother, anyhow) who the Hell am I to say others can’t? What right do I have to dictate how other parents dress their children? I have quietly withdrawn my patronage from plenty of businesses, for all sorts of reasons. But they are my reasons, and, in the liberal world I inhabit, my values don’t need to be thrust upon others. 

But plenty of people feel their values do need to be thrust upon others. This political censorship (which has been driving division and disharmony) will always create its opposite, which is another reason why we have free speech: it is a compact demanding tolerance. 

A common argument against censorship is that political winds invariably change, and a seemingly benign law, installed to serve a very specific issue, ends up being used against its cheerleaders. The Right-wing cancellations we’re seeing are exactly that: the faux Left is being hoisted by their own petard. Expect more of it. 

But will Mitchell and others accept the blame for this blowback? Unlikely. They are also unlikely to ever accept that the free speech advocate, rather than being in opposition to the faux-Left, was by virtue of their work attempting to save the faux-Left from themselves

What the free speech advocate never wants, and exists to prevent, is tit-for-tat cancellations: we don’t want a society where organised political bullying and silencing take place. Ever. The final irony here is that, by choosing the path of censorship, the faux-Left has severely limited the shelf-life of their political project. The monster they gave birth to has dragged them onto the ice for a final, deadly confrontation. 

And then? 

We, the free speech advocate that is, will have to fight the new/old monster in the exact same fashion until the wider culture breaks the cycle. 

If you claim a right to censor others, you cannot act alarmed or surprised when people censor you. A miserable era of Right-wing cancellation is thoroughly on the cards now, and we will know exactly who was to blame for it.