Monday, 13 July 2020

Unpacking the false narrative and real motivations behind 'cancel culture'

As fallout over the Harper's magazine 'cancel culture' letter grows, it's worth noting some significant response pieces helping to cut through the seeming tangle of argument, positions and agendas around it.

In particular, Jonathan Cook offers a key dissection of the real motives and issues behind the letter.

But first, there's the 'issue' of Noam Chomsky's inclusion amongst the list of signatories to consider.

Citing and siting Chomsky

At the outset, Cook accepts Chomsky's apparent reasons for signing the letter, in contrast to others on this list:

"Chomsky, importantly, is defending free speech for all, because he correctly understands that the powerful are only too keen to find justifications to silence those who challenge their power. Elites protect free speech only in so far as it serves their interests in dominating the public space."

Still, for Cook, this doesn't alter the problematic effect of Chomsky's signature in providing 'cover', or 'being used', for the kind of anti-left agenda being propagated by many others on the list. 

For Cook: "He made a mistake. He’s fallible."

Yet, as Cook makes clear, and clarifies in a second update to his article, this isn't, or shouldn't really be, about Chomsky at all, but about the letter itself, and what's driving it:

"Really, Chomsky shouldn’t be the issue. The issue should be that a bunch of centrists and right-wingers used this letter to try to reinforce a narrative designed to harm the left, and lay the groundwork for further curbs on its access to social media."

This, indeed, is the key point.

It can be added here that while there's legitimate discussion to be had over Chomsky's signing, leftists should really be invoking an actual Chomskian principle in not getting overly detained by it.

A past example from Chomsky himself (invoked in a more direct way by Cook in his piece) can be applied here:

'Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing'. 

By the same token, why help critically amplify Chomsky's name in the Harper's letter rather than highlight and challenge the main signatories and motives behind the letter itself?

Why give the right and centrists, including many of those same signatories, the added benefit of seeing their claims go unchallenged by diverting criticism away from them and towards Chomsky?

In short, the citing of Chomsky in this letter is less important here than the siting of him.

In the aftermath of the letter, Chomsky shows no regrets about his inclusion, noting the letters of support he's had from left academics and others fearful of the toxic climate of 'cancelling'.

But this is just more confirmation of his bona fide motivations in permitting his name to be used, as a true defender of free speech - a point, again, acknowledged by Cook in his piece.

Yet, at the same time - as Cook also rightly insists - that shouldn't inhibit us from noting the potentially harmful ways in which that inclusion can, indeed, be used.

And, as Chomsky himself no doubt understands, much of the right surely will use his inclusion in the letter as a means to attack the left.

Yet, Chomsky's vast body of work and lifetime effort towards truth and justice is sufficient evidence of his own progressive intent here.

Again, whether Chomsky was mistaken or not in lending his name here is not really the key issue. We can be sure, however, that his basic reasons for doing so still stands moral mountains higher than many of the figures on this list.

As with Cook, this writer won't be 'cancelling' Chomsky any time soon.

In contrast, you're highly unlikely to find many of the others on this list lauding Chomsky or his work, even after lending his name to their 'cause'. 

Indeed, it's so reflective of the posturing Harper's letter and it's lofty signatories that the most effectively marginalised and 'cancelled' figure of all by the same kind of liberal 'free-speechers' over so many years has been Chomsky himself.

A re-run of 'fake news'

The 'cancel culture' letter being peddled by many of these signatories and their proponents is reminiscent of how the whole 'fake news' framing was originated, embraced and driven by the same kind of entitled liberals. 

A large element of this involved Guardian, BBC and other established journalists fearing that online media and citizen journalism was undermining and exposing their own privileged 'right' to that long-held domain. 

The same kind of attack by the same kind of people is underway again here against the left. It's the same posturing attempt to 'retain' the moral high ground, using 'free speech' and 'persecution' tropes this time to push back and suppress real radical and alternative voices, most notably those calling out that very liberal entitlement.

Cook makes a similar kind of point in yet a third clarifying update to his piece:

"This letter won’t help the left because “cancel culture” is being framed – by this letter, by Trump, by the media – as a “loony lefty” problem. It is a new iteration of the “politically correct gone mad” discourse, and it will be used in exactly the same way."

In many cases, as with Rowling, it's also a rearguard 'vanity' response, with liberal celebrities using this 'halt illiberalism' line to push back against those criticising their own personal political positions. 

Ali Abunimah also comments on the "monumental hypocrisy" of such people in even claiming to be 'cancelled', or threatened with it, given the widespread platform they are still given across 'mainstream' media.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes similar valid points on entitlement and who is really being "cancelled" here.

The real test for many on this list and their exponents is how ready they are to take up much more difficult positions in defence of really purged figures like incarcerated journalist Julian Assange or the hounded Labour Party member Chris Williamson.

Very few of these figures, or Harper's itself, appear willing to stand up for greater discussion of taboo subjects like the right to criticise Israel and Zionism without being witch-hunted and expelled.

From the right-wing Frum to centrist Rowling, these are already highly privileged figures who are now getting an even more elevated platform to cast their complaints and views.

Many others, in contrast, are consigned to the silenced fringes. Consider, for example, Jackie Walker, another Labour member denigrated, removed and anonymised, with no support from the kind of celebrated signatories to this letter. 

Cancelling power

'Cancel culture' is not an encouragement to more expansive speech. It's actually a discouragement to those seeking to mount more action-based challenges to power from below. 

Are we now to inhibit or stop people calling out Blair and his accomplice in crime, Alastair Campbell? 

To do so is not just about wanting such figures 'cancelled'. It's about them being held to proper account, brought to justice. And a key part of this is about challenging a system of power that protects and grants them ongoing platforms. 

Which means ultimately, for any serious leftist, that this actually is about cancelling outlets like the Guardian as we seek to build truly independent and system-changing media.

As the backlash against the Harper's letter intensifies, discussion around 'cancel culture' isn't just exposing many of the signatories and their motives, it's also serving to put some of the 'media left' itself under new scrutiny. 

For example, Billy Bragg has written a response article strongly critical of the Harper's piece, making a similar set of valid points about the privileged nature of the signatories and their attempts to push back against a new generational movement of political and media voices.

Yet, as pointed out by Media Lens, we have the irony, some might say hypocrisy, here of Bragg placing his piece not at any such new social media space, truly reflective of that shift, but at the Guardian, an organ of that very 'older', more privileged media establishment, one that has not only sought to slap down alternative media voices, but actually led the cancel Corbyn agenda, and, as part of that smear campaign, sought to cancel out any discussion critical of Israel as 'antisemitic'. 

Lamentably, Bragg cannot even see the paradox of his consistent endorsement and support for the Guardian or its deep culpabilities here.

Owen Jones is an even more prominent leftist denouncing the whole 'cancel culture' line, again correctly pointing out that this is the powerful defending their privileged platforms and positions against new social media and marginalised voices. 

But, again, Jones himself is solidly ensconced within that same privileged world through his own tenure at, and relentless defence of, the Guardian. 

Jones was also part of the Labour-Guardian cabal that helped purge people like Williamson and Walker, and openly greeted the removal of Asa Winstanley, while eagerly defending the virulently anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement. 

Again, like Bragg, Jones refuses to see or acknowledge both his own and the Guardian's key parts in that much more brutal and systematic cancelling.

All too typically, Jones has now blocked Williamson for daring to respond back to these latest criticisms of him - just as he has blocked Media Lens and critically reasoned others.

Again, like Media Lens, Cook is well seasoned in exposing and challenging this kind of 'cancelling'.

Feeding, exposing and using the narrative

There is, of course, the more familiar paradox here of 'narrative surge': that by actually engaging the Harper's letter, we are giving 'cancel culture' the very enhanced airing it seeks. 

Yet the inevitable hype and consequent opportunity to challenge the letter and its backers can also serve to expose that narrative itself. 

In showing how those who already have the highest platform are the ones being granted an even higher one, it's possible to subvert both that entitlement and the narrative supporting it.

The same exposure of that framing also serves the vital purpose of opening up for critical examination many of those doing the 'subverting', in particular those 'guardian leftists' acting as the 'vanguards' of independent media and in 'defence' of the purged while authenticating the very platforms and institutions engaged in protecting the entitled, purging so many dissenters and nullifying radical change.

Engagement in that debate may, again, seem like the very divisive outcome desired by right and centrist exponents of this letter. But it does serve to bring this much more comprehensive and crucial set of issues out in the open.

All round, that amounts to a pretty healthy, critical and constructive 'use' of this letter and the real issues around it.

But there's a further vital point to be made in this regard. Amid the fire and heat over this debate, even as we assertively argue our corners, it's easy to lose sight of the truly invaluable array of people and outlets, like Cook, Media Lens and others, serving to illuminate our understanding of such issues and how we best channel that awareness. 

Unlike the loaded, sanitised and conformist version of framing and 'analysis' handed down by the 'mainstream', this is a medium and process to be utilised and cherished, a very real learning process helping us to think, and re-think, through such difficult questions and how best to action them. And, of course, it's precisely these kind of writers, this set of resources, this capacity for tolerant, reasoned and system-changing debate that power is really intent on not just 'cancelling' but truly silencing.


Cleopatra Jenkins said...

Excellent article

John Hilley said...

Thank you.

Unknown said...

Indeed. Excellent article.