“That’s not cancel culture, that’s consequences culture.” John Palethorpe responds to David Cohen’s piece in Newsroom, pointing out how opinions that have faded from fashionable to cringeworthy have made it much easier for people to speak up. 

I was interested to read David Cohen’s recent Newsroom piece entitled “A word with the lynch mob” which, let’s be honest here, yikes. It’s about cancel culture, apparently when someone in a “distinguished bunch” (Cohen’s words, not mine) experiences consequences for something they have said. To illustrate it, Cohen imagines himself being cancelled for something he said by someone declaring themselves very angry on Twitter.

That’s the best example he can give, although he tries his best to rope in friends and acquaintances as examples of how dangerous cancel culture is.

His first example is that of the late Professor James Flynn, aged 86. Flynn’s UK publisher rejected his book due to the legal liabilities the content could expose it to. He then published an article decrying his cancellation in Quillette, a mainstay of the right-wing “intellectual dark web”.

Flynn was cancelled, you see, and his work was not published. However, his book A book too risky to publish: Free speech and universities is available as an ebook, in paperback and hardback via numerous online retailers. The evident contradiction here is the same magical thinking threaded through Cohen’s work, and those who decry cancel culture in general.

Speaking of magical, J.K Rowling, 55, gets a mention for being cancelled for her “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.)”

There is a tendency among a specific subset of the older left-wingers, who valued counter-cultural cachet in their younger days, to drift into an ageing provocateur status in their autumnal years.

This is almost as tortuous a metaphor as those found in J.K Rowling’s published work, available in many good book stores and all of the bad ones too. She’s also a transphobe, but we’re not allowed to say that. Oh, we are? Good.

Continuing with transphobes, a friend of David Cohen, Julie Burchill, appears as an example of more recent cancellation. Burchill had a book called Welcome to the woke trials, due for publication until “A rather unpleasant ‘debate’ ensued on Twitter – goaded somewhat, it has to be said, by the author herself” and the book was dropped by the publisher.

What Cohen fails to acknowledge fully is that Burchill went on an Islamophobic crusade against a left-wing Muslim journalist, Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar, 29, who wrote:

“I was referred to as an Islamist and a paedophile worshipper. I read multiple tweets speculating about whether I’m any good in bed, and insults about me supposedly having a moustache. Strange poems popped up portraying lurid sexual fantasies about having a threesome with me and the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. I saw posts being liked on Facebook that told me to “kill myself for shame” and suggested that I had been a victim of female genital mutilation. None of these were the actions of an anonymous troll – they were the work of Sunday Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill.”

Burchill subsequently paid substantial damages to Sarkar and issued an apology. In the meantime her Welcome to the woke trials book was picked up by Stirling Publishing, a small independent publisher. The owner of which turned out to be a conservative-turned-nationalist, turned-ethno-nationalist. Burchill then fired her publisher. The cancelled becomes the canceller?

Recognising this rather grim crew of victims needs a little stardust, the piece is sprinkled with quotes from John Lydon, 65 – the former punk-turned-British Army, Brexit and Donald Trump supporter and opponent of same-sex couples adopting children – who complained that people who say “Speaking as…” negate any collective action they desire because it’s “Me, me, me”. It’s a far cry from “I am an antichrist and I am an anarchist” isn’t it?

Nick Cave, 63, also gets a mention, for warning that rock stars might also be cancelled. Cave described cancel culture as “bad religion”, which is pretty accurate in that it’s a set of beliefs centred around something that does not materially exist but benefits those who speak most loudly about it.

You might have noticed a trend among this group of people in that they are adopting positions almost exclusively held by the those on the right, which makes it strange that Cohen refers to both Flynn and Burchill as members of the “honourable left”, claiming “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.”.

Writing for Quillette about how you’ve been cancelled and banned when you haven’t. Advocating against equal rights for transgender people. Islamophobic, misogynistic libel and harassment of a journalist. Homophobia and decrying young people as self-obsessed. These aren’t pernicious conservative tropes, they’re conservatism in act and word.

(There’s also Cave’s defence of former teen-angst star Morrissey’s, 61, support of the far right For Britain party. To summarise, Cave said we should ignore the silly old man and enjoy the good stuff he did, which doesn’t warrant ranking alongside the issues in the previous paragraph).

It is not an accident that each contributor to this article has their age next to their name. There is a tendency among a specific subset of the older left-wingers, who valued counter-cultural cachet in their younger days, to drift into an ageing provocateur status in their autumnal years. That this takes the form of decrying what the youth of today are up to, in often hysterical terms, renders them indistinguishable from those on the right of the same generation.

This is not an attempt to cancel Cohen. Neither Flynn, Rowling, Burchill, Cave or even poor old Morrissey were cancelled, as has been claimed. If anything it’s strange to watch how some of the tail-end Boomers and initial Gen X-ers are dealing with a world that has moved so incredibly fast in terms of giving people a place to speak up, speak out and talk back.

As their own opinions faded from fashionable to cringeworthy, it became much easier for people to speak up and say “Hey, what the hell man?”. That’s not cancel culture, that’s consequences culture.

John Palethorpe is a writer and teacher based in Auckland.

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