David Cohen addresses cancel culture, and its advocates who operate in “the open sewer running through the Dickensian lunatic asylum that is Twitter”.

What shall I wear? How should I speak? Will the plane arrive on time? I’m down to take part in a panel discussion on the opening night of the Auckland Writers Festival, and such considerations matter. From time to time, though, like many writers these days, I suppose, I wonder if my scheduled appearance may yet be, uh, cancelled.

You know how the whole cancel thing works, right? It’s pretty simple. First you do a bit of due diligence on a scheduled speaker or soon-to-be-published author. Find something ropey they once said (easy in my case, but I’m only an email away if anyone needs direction). Then head for the open sewer running through the Dickensian lunatic asylum that is Twitter. Declare yourself upset beyond belief. Don’t worry about grammar or humour or context or any of that boring stuff. Repetition is what counts. Consider hammering the point home with an amazingly colourful word that rhymes with “bunt”. And don’t forget to use a nifty hashtag.

Now brew a coffee or spend a few minutes checking on your bank statements, watching some porn, or whatever. By the time you finish, I’ll wager, five-get-you-10, those anonymously tended Likes will be rolling in like the mighty Waikato River and it could be the end of my gig.

Something to think about anyway. In the meantime, I intend thinking about Jim. Not former prime minister Jim Bolger, the subject of my most recent book, but the late Jim Flynn, a guy whose despicable treatment spurred me to scrutinise the whole cancel culture in the first place.

Jim should be remembered in New Zealand as a formidable scholar with impeccable left-wing credentials who intellectually gave a hell of a lot to his adopted homeland. For a brief period in the months before his death in late 2019, however, the tousle-haired political scientist from the University of Otago had the rather more depressing distinction of being the country’s first public intellectual to fall victim to cancel culture.

Yes, yes, I know, the phrase itself is a bit cartoonish. But, as the late professor discovered, and so many others are now discovering, the way it’s pressed into service is anything but.

Every second sentence seems to start with a, “Speaking as a …”

Cancel culture goes after writers by harnessing something old (the desire of the mob to scalp dissenters) with something relatively new (the ubiquity of social media) and something else that sounds rather borrowed (crypto-religious demands for demonstrations of public piety). And as the former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon pointed out the other day, while the language the ringleaders use to rally the troops is often collectivist, the tone is all Me Me Me. Every second sentence seems to start with a, “Speaking as a …”

It works by putting public pressure on publishing houses and event organisers to reconsider their relationship with the object of the public humiliation. The people who have to deal with this lack any meaningful way to quantify the degree to which these ad hoc campaigns — sometimes led by users lacking so much as an identifiable name — actually reflect any genuine groundswell of opinion. And so, understandably perhaps, they opt for the path of least resistance and dump the author.

But is opinion what it’s about anyway? More and more, it seems to me, what’s happening doesn’t seem to be in the interests of fostering the vigorous exchange of views or even correcting people who may have got something significantly wrong. At heart, I think, cancel culture is part of a wider linguistic turf war currently being fought on many fronts over who gets to control the language.

Still, it’s authors and their dependents who are currently bearing some of the heaviest weight. Only our writers, so far, face the prospect of losing their incomes by having their work removed from bookstores or publishers’ lists, or, in the cases of historical works, withdrawn from the library shelves and back catalogues.

One may disagree or have different opinions on precisely what motivates the cancellers but their style is pretty obvious. As the late Philip Roth tartly observed, those they put on public trial are denied the right of habeas corpus, the right to face and examine their accuser, and the right to defend themselves “in anything resembling a genuine judicial setting, where careful distinctions might be able to be drawn as to the severity of the reported crime.”

Take my friend Julie Burchill. The popular English writer was at this point in the calendar supposed to have been halfway through a publicity blitz for her Welcome to the Woke Trials

Nor is there any statute of limitations. The alleged offence could have to do with something you stupidly posted online last night after you had too much to drink. It may relate to something you once said as a 15-year-old. It may even be about something that until a couple of years ago would have been seen as conventional liberal wisdom. As for instance in the case of JK Rowling’s feminist-style insistence that people born and bred as Aucklanders have a different experience of Auckland to those who spent their formative years in another city. (She didn’t quite put it quite like that, but.) It may be about a book that appeared in the 1880s. It may be about one that was meant to have been published in 2021. It doesn’t matter.

Take my friend Julie Burchill. The popular English writer was at this point in the calendar supposed to have been halfway through a publicity blitz for her Welcome to the Woke Trials, a new book having to do with (hem!) cancel culture. The crowd on social media thought otherwise. A rather unpleasant “debate” ensued on Twitter — goaded somewhat, it has to be said, by the author herself. Then her sponsor had second thoughts.  

Talk about crazy culture. First the publisher, Little, Brown, contracts a writer to produce a sizzling takedown of this generation’s Moral Majority precisely because of her status as a provocateur — i.e., because she’s Julie Burchill. Then the publisher drops her for precisely the same reason — i.e., because she’s Julie Burchill. Are these people serious publishers or village idiots?

On the face of it, Jim Flynn seems an unlikely inclusion in this roll. Jim’s punctilious manuscript for In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor wove together case studies he had gathered around the theme of honest intellectual inquiry. It was a theme close to his heart of the onetime American-born civil rights campaigner.

The son of a Washington sports writer, Jim loved a rollicking argument. More than that, though, he had witnessed the power of a good argument decently waged and convincingly won. This he had done over a long and distinguished career, not only as a civil rights activist back in the 1960s but as a world-renowned intelligence researcher, a popular professor among his students in Dunedin and in the political circles in which he comfortably moved.

For quite a while, the book’s intended British publisher evidently thought so, too. In the words of Emerald Press’s advance notice in its catalogue, this new study offered a timely reminder that the “freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought”. Readers would marvel at its impressive “overview of recent failures to uphold free speech on the part of universities”, it burbled. They would deeply appreciate what he had to share about “controversial topics such as race, gender and IQ” and blah blah blah.

Alas, Emerald saw the writing on the Facebook wall and suffered last-minute palpitations. “The challenging manner in which you handle these topics as author, particularly at the beginning of the work,” the author was told in a letter, “increase[s] the sensitivity and the risk of reaction and legal challenge [and] could be seen to incite racial hatred under United Kingdom law.” While Flynn had “no intention of promoting racism”, the question of intent was irrelevant. If it were perceived as “likely” that racial hatred could be stirred up, then all hell could break loose.

Guess what happened next?

# # # # # #

Jim, of course, was a man of the honourable left, and so’s Julie Burchill and so are a lot of others who worry the most about cancel culture. People like Nick Cave who also warned recently that rock performers may be the next for the chop. Nobody in their right mind would group these folk — and me, too, I hope — with the kind of pernicious conservative tropes and “phobias” that the cancel crowd whelp on about.

Looking at the usual calibre of those getting cancelled, you can’t help but notice what a distinguished bunch most of them are

But you don’t have to be George Orwell to appreciate that, far from conferring immunity from mob censorship, this is precisely the position that makes an author or artist most easy to extract the maximum concessions from. As writer Jonathan Kay recently noted, there are numerous popular authors and broadcasters who promote deeply conservative, sometimes genuinely repulsive themes without attracting any notice from the censors. But woe betide the left-leaning eminence who gets caught out on a minor ideological infraction.

Of course, I would say all this, though, wouldn’t I? Nick Cave just happens to be one of my favourite performers, Julie Burchill a personal friend and Jim Flynn somebody I feel honoured to have interviewed a number of times over the years.

On the other hand, I’d usually just as soon eat a sterilised gumboot as curl up next to a cracking winter fire with the collected works of the American philosopher Peter Singer. I honestly can’t stand some of his horrible ideas, especially the stuff about parents having the supposed right to do away with a new-born who has disabilities. And yet, here I am again, solidly in his corner on this one.

“Freedom of speech applies to people who write hostile criticism on Twitter,” Singer recently told the New York Times, “they have freedom of speech, too. I think you’ve just got to develop a thick skin. But if no publisher will touch them for fear of being branded, then I think you have a problem. John Stuart Mill says this explicitly: offense can’t be a grounds for prohibiting free speech, because it’s just too wide.”

Indeed not. But there you have it. It’s with us, it’s real and it’s growing. Mind you, looking at the usual calibre of those getting cancelled, you can’t help but notice what a distinguished bunch most of them are. 

All in all, then, and much as I’m looking forward to a lively discussion next week in Auckland with the excellent Sonya Renee Taylor and Caitlin Spice, I guess on some level it would probably be something of honour to join the ranks of the cancelled. I mean, it’s like some old white guy used to say: the hero only dies once — but the coward dies every day. And coward culture is surely what we are all grappling with here.

David Cohen will appear in a panel discussion cancel culture at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 11. His book Fridays with Jim (Massey University Press, $45) was very favourably reviewed by Ian Templeton at ReadingRoom, and is available in bookstores nationwide or at least until the author is cancelled.

David Cohen is a Wellington writer and the author of seven books, most recently as editor of The RNZ Cookbook (Massey University Press).

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