Silence through a Megaphone: Thoughts on Cancel Culture
Cancel culture follows in the footsteps of other modern phrases in political discourse, with an intangible variety of definitions fit for every situation. Despite the smorgasbord of options to choose from, the permutation of the phrase I’m most interested in is more common in conservative discussion of progressive issues: the social response to the apparently harmful actions of an individual.
You’ve seen it play out before. A talking head says something which could be politely described as ‘controversial’ — but better described as inappropriate — and is subsequently sanctioned in some form or another. In response to these sanctions, the accused claims to have been cancelled by a culture of intolerance. The discussion shifts from the action in the first instance, and morphs into yet another conversation about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the marketplace of ideas. Despite the supposed silencing effects of cancellation, the accused is given access to a number of conventional media platforms through which they paradoxically lament being silenced. At this stage, the original issue is buried; those who felt the initial harm now sidelined in favour of the victimisation narrative of the accused.
With frustrating frequency, these ‘cancel-worthy’ comments often involve opinions on marginalised people or groups. The on-going saga with JK Rowling and her comments regarding the Trans community is an example of this intersection; the millionaire, best-selling author was regarded as the victim; not the people she was spreading disinformation and harmful rhetoric about. Of course, it should go without saying that any form of targeted abuse is unacceptable, and that any directed at Rowling — even by marginalised people — cannot be justified. With that said, most of the response to Rowling was thoughtful and composed response. People expressed disagreement and disappointment with her ideas, and one way such disagreement manifests is to withdraw financial support. Somehow though, the pushback Rowling received was distorted into a David and Goliath battle; the all-powerful transgender lobby assailing a lone woman, and her standing against it against all odds. Somehow, a minuscule proportion of the population with zero political power or representation — and zero financial backing — was transformed into a force so powerful it could silence a widely beloved millionaire author. Rowling’s comments were dismissed at the time for simply being the expression of her opinion (an idea that implicitly suggests that an idea is worth hearing on no higher merit than “someone thought it”), but the ideas she peddled have since been realised; the United Kingdom High Court, as recently as this week, has handed down a ruling that effectively removes the option for appropriate and necessary medical care for transgender young people. As expected, the all-powerful Goliath in the story is conspicuously absent, and the cause of the millionaire is successful. In the words of Taylor Swift in her 2010 hit The Story of Us: “I’ve never heard silence quite this loud”.
Locally, there’s been another interesting example of this scenario. WAtoday published an article on the 12th of November regarding a dispute at the State Library of WA’s Disrupted Festival. In it, the writer gives voice to disgruntled panelist Augusto Zimmermann. Zimmerman is a professor of law at the Sheridan Institute of Higher Education and president and founder of the WA Legal Theory Association. When the festival organisers chose not to livestream the panel discussion due to the consent of one of the panel members not being given, Zimmerman took this to be a personal affront to his freedom of expression — despite the express consent of all panel members being a condition of the livestream from the outset. In remarkable similarity to the comic above, Zimmerman had the following to say in his interview with WAtoday:
“A festival that is about the free exchange of ideas and challenging the status quo and the establishment has been censored by one of the members of the status quo.
“You really need to allow in a democratic society people to have the freedom to express their ideas without the fear of retaliation and persecution as a result.”
Without a hint of irony, the complaints of censorship and retribution are freely published in one of the state’s major newspapers. Following the same pattern, Zimmerman paints himself as the victimised or the outcast, contrasting himself with “one of the members of the status quo”. It would be remiss to skip over the notion that a law professor considers himself further removed from mainstream society than an LGBTQIA specialist and sexologist; there appears to be a stunning lack of self-awareness for a man so qualified. As is often the case however, it may not have been a lack of self-awareness that drives these notions; Zimmerman’s idealogical leanings are clear from his own organisation’s publications on the event:
“During the panel discussion, Dr Zimmermann explored the ‘fascistic agenda” of the “new left” in Australia.”
Zimmerman’s own words in the piece speak about “left wing elites” and “hegemonic discourse”
“To preserve the current status quo, the left-wing elites will continue to suppress dissenting ideas and to prohibit opposing voices that challenge their hegemonic discourse in our democratic society”.
His Sheridan biography mentions his involvement with the Heritage Foundation, an America-based right-wing think tank that lobbies for anti-LGBTI movements and legislation. With this noted, the pattern continues; an individual has things they want to say about minorities, is unable to do so, and feels that they have been victimised.
Strategically, this makes total sense: hand-wringing over cancel culture acts as an effective smokescreen for saying things that probably shouldn’t be said, and shifting the discussion from the merits of an issue to whether or not that issue should be discussed at all helps to obscure the fact that some of these issues lack merit in the first place. While it is entirely possible that these reactions come from a place of cold calculation, it seems more likely that it stems from a broader narrative of comfortability as the prevailing authority; or rather, the indignant response to this authority being challenged in the first place.
This indignation seems to present as a form of entitlement. The notion that their ideas are meritorious by virtue of being their ideas, and that any obstacle to expressing these ideas is simply unacceptable. This is an idea completely foreign to marginalised groups, who have been forced fight for a seat at the table for years. It is in this contrast that these discussions of cancel culture take place. Rowling’s authority as a millionaire white woman — and a beloved celebrity author — seem to make her ideas untouchable by the masses. She has had an unopposed platform for so long that pushback is not simply disagreement, but censorship. Of course in reality, she has continued to release best selling children’s books; her commentary on trans issues has not harmed her career in any tangible financial way. Rather, it bruised an ego, and the only way to salvage this is to pretend that those who have bruised it are not as powerless as they may actually be.
Zimmerman is, by all accounts, a part of the status quo; a man who does not stray far from the hegemonic systems he claims to be against. Someone in his position does not accept a platform, but expects it. To be denied this platform is therefore not simply the retraction of an offer, but to take something from them. The panel that Zimmerman spoke about still went ahead at the event; it was simply just not live-streamed. What he appears to have wanted was not the opportunity to speak (which he received), but to control the terms of it. When this was denied by another participant (someone who ranks lower on the perceived hierarchy), it became not just an opportunity that did not eventuate, but a conspiracy by left-wing elites. In reality, it is clear that he is a man with views that should be discussed, but they do not necessarily deserve the audience he wants for them; the other participant seems to have identified the risks clearly based on Zimmerman’s biography and comments after the fact.
Zimmermann says the following in the WA Legal Theory Association piece: “The Left have been supressing debate so for quite a long time and before we knew it as Cancel Culture, back when this was just called political correctness.” Possibly unintentionally, Zimmerman highlights exactly what the strategy has been the whole time: shift the discussion away from the topic, and into an assault on some other core value.
It is impossible to know the workings in another person’s head, so it would be foolish to concretely ascribe the motives above to Zimmerman’s or Rowling’s responses. Whether cold and calculated or simply knee-jerk reactions to being challenged by those they see as lesser, the same underlying principles apply: they believe they have a right not only to speak, but to be heard above others.