Waleed Aly on what happens *after* cancel culture
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
From boycotting celebrities to calling out poor behaviour, Cancel Culture has become a controversial phenomenon in the age of social media.
It’s even united Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both of whom are highly critical of the concept.
But the ideas behind it, trying to shape a fairer and less discriminatory society, have been around for a long time.
Today, writer and contributor to The Monthly, Waleed Aly, on the origins of Cancel Culture and what’s driving it.
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Waleed, you wrote recently in The Monthly about the phenomenon of Cancel Culture, and I'm wondering if we can start by talking about why you wrote the piece. What were you observing?
I suppose when this first bubbled up as an idea, it was probably around the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, and that was really a high season for a lot of online activity that you would broadly term as Cancel Culture, I think, where you saw a lot of celebrities being, quote-unquote, cancelled on Twitter because of things they had said or done either recently or in some cases quite a long time ago.
Archival Tape -- News Reporter #1:
“Ellen Degeneres is under fire again after more co-workers from her show have stepped forward with accusations of a toxic work environment…”
Archival Tape -- News Reporter #2:
“Jimmy Fallon was all over and he has now apologised for wearing blackface when he was on Saturday Night Live…”
You had incidents where people were fired from their jobs or hounded out of their employment...
Archival Tape -- News Reporter #3:
“Well Stefan, it started with a dispute over an unleashed dog and ended with a woman frantically calling 911 claiming she was being threatened…”
...through sort of online pressure because they had said or done something - often in this context, racist, not exclusively so. So, it had kind of become a real point of discussion.
Archival Tape -- News Reporter #4:
“...her employer, Franklin-Templeton, a financial firm tweeting out tonight that they don’t condone racism of any kind and that they are investigating. Meanwhile, she has been placed on administrative leave…”
And the more I looked into it, the more I concluded that there was a genuine phenomenon here to be discussed. So, you know, there has been a real moment of feverish online activity that is directed towards policing certain moral boundaries, exclusively, in this context, I would say, progressive moral boundaries.
Mm ok. And do you mind at this point if we define what we’re talking about here, because it does feel like one of the issues when you start talking about Cancel Culture is there is a lot of confusion around what exactly you are talking about. So what do you mean when you say Cancel Culture?
Well, it turns out a not-terrible place to start is probably with the Macquarie Dictionary definition, not because I think it's comprehensive, but because I think it captures the gist of it quite well. So Macquarie defined it as ‘the attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure’ such as, you know, cancellation of an acting role or a ban on playing an artist's music or removal of them from social media or whatever, usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.
But while the Macquarie Dictionary focuses this on public figures, the general phenomenon of Internet-based mobilisation for the public shaming and in some cases the destruction of livelihoods of people isn't confined to celebrities. In fact. celebrities seem to withstand that kind of backlash relatively easily. It spreads into non-celebrity behaviour as well, for the purposes of establishing norms of anti-racism, for example.
So why do you think it is that the effects of being cancelled are so uneven? Is it as simple as rich and famous people being able to use the fact that they're rich and famous, whereas ordinary people can't necessarily do that?
I think that's definitely part of it, yeah. You know, I think if you've built up a platform, a fan group, a kind of cultural and perhaps even economic power over a period of time, you are in a better position to withstand some of these things.
I think, though, that that raises a really interesting problem, because one of the justifications of these sorts of acts of cancellation is that it's a way of holding the powerful to account. But if actually it's those who are least powerful that bear the brunt most, then I think that argument begins to fall apart a little bit because the pain, the justice, the retribution, whatever it is you want to call it, isn't evenly distributed. And it's certainly not distributed according to the very power metrics that seem to be the engine that drives the logic of cancel culture.
There is a lot of nuance to this because there are people who have been, as you say, cancelled, but they haven't really had many tangible impacts from that. Or if they have, they've managed to sort of come back from that quite fast. So does that suggest to you at all that cancel culture is overstated?
It doesn't suggest to me that it's overstated. It suggests to me that it may not be as effective as it wants to be. I don't think the fact that a lot of these celebrities survive this is by the design of cancellers. I think it might just be, by the way that the dynamics play out afterwards. So J.K. Rowling is a classic example.
Archival Tape -- News Reporter #5:
“A hashtag reading ‘RIP JK Rowling’ as we said earlier has been trending on Twitter. The Harry Potter author has not died, but is the latest victim of Cancel Culture…”
She is cancelled, it seems, every second day, on the grounds of transphobia, because of her discourse, particularly about trans women. In the meantime, her book sales in Britain have increased. Kanye West released an album in 2019, Jesus is King. It went to number one. This follows him being cancelled because of his support for Donald Trump, his comments over slavery in America being a choice. And he talks about being cancelled all the time...
Archival Tape -- Kanye West:
“I’ve been cancelled before they had Cancel Culture. I was cancelled before they had the term.”
...but he still gets commercial success. So that still happens. Those celebrities, particularly if they're of a certain scale in their platform, they have ways of surviving this.
What it means to these people psychologically and emotionally, that could be a different thing. And I think we shouldn't underestimate that some serious damage can be inflicted upon people going through this process. That said, J.K. Rowling seems to be doing just fine.
So Waleed, you’re describing this process where people are trying to set new norms on key social issues, things like race and gender. But there are some potentially uneven consequences that result from that process. But taking a step back, what do you think actually drives it in the first place?
What I'm arguing is that Cancel Culture is something that comes from a particular generation that sees forms of injustice in the world, that it thinks that older generations either are blind to or haven't addressed, and it wants to find a means of responding to that. The question is, how do you respond, and the problem is that the tools that are left before that younger generation, I think, are really hopeless at the moment. And I mean that in every sense. I mean that the discursive tools are hopeless.
It's one thing to decry Cancel Culture and it's sort of censorious nature on the one hand, the way that it just targets people for, you know, minor things that they might have said a long time ago - you can criticise that if you like, but you do kind of have to think about the fact that tabloid newspapers have been doing that kind of thing for decades now and have built a kind of public culture of that kind of discourse.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:
“I’m interested in getting your view on the controversy around ABC presenter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s comments on ANZAC Day yesterday, what did you make of those?”
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:
“She’s completely out of touch, she doesn’t represent mainstream Australia…”
These are just the tools that are lying around, so why should we be surprised when a younger generation that's decided that it wants to take up the fight uses similar tools? We really shouldn't be. I think there is a rhetorical sickness at the heart of this, but that's a rhetorical sickness that the purveyors of Cancel Culture can't be blamed for creating. They didn't create that. That's been around for a long time.
But then there are the different generational experiences, I think, of just things like liberal democracy, of conventional politics. And here I think it's really important to note that younger people, particularly in a place like Australia, in the United States, you could argue in the UK as well, seem to have no real way of finding the things that they care about and that affect their lives expressed via conventional political aims.
If you leave aside the example of marriage equality, it's very hard to think of an issue on which young people's views and interests have won a Democratic political debate. And so it shows up in polling data. You see young people, for example, there was a Lowy poll that found that 40 per cent of people under 30 in Australia - 40 per cent, that's all - believed that democracy was the best form of government.
That's an extraordinarily low figure in a democracy. You would expect that figure to be an easy majority. But it's not. And that tells you of a generation that is increasingly disillusioned with the conventional systems and ideas of politics. And when that happens, they're searching for a way to respond to that. The question is whether or not the tools they have at their disposal are in any way adequate for that job.
We'll be back in a moment.
Waleed, I want to come back to this idea that the disillusionment that a lot of young people are experiencing is playing into the formation of Cancel Culture. And I'm wondering, though, where you think it shifts from a response to disillusionment, into an ideology in its own right with problems of its own.
So I think the visibility of the social problems that young people identify, that perhaps the 40 plus crowd doesn't quite place so much emphasis on, I think is ideologically infused. So, you know, a lot of those problems are based around inequalities or perceived inequalities on identity grounds. Those identity grounds keep on growing and multiplying. So once upon a time, it might have been pretty locked in as a racial or gender based thing; so, you know, racism and sexism. Then over time, you've seen an increased emphasis on sexuality. Then you've seen the very concept of gender become more prominent in the way that it's morphed so that it's the multiplicity of genders, the self-determination of gender, all of these sorts of things. So in other words, these are all ways of viewing society whereby there is a kind of privileged order of things based on your belonging to a particular identity groups or your identification with particular groups.
And so part of what we're seeing in the debate about Cancel Culture, I think, is a disagreement on what lens is actually appropriate to view the world. But because people often don't appreciate that they're using a particular lens, unless they really deliberately anchoring themselves in a particular social theory, the argument kind of never gets to that level of specificity. It just becomes an argument over, well, free speech or not or something like that.
Mm hmm. And so what do you think that we should be concerned about here in terms of the consequences of all of this? Because in your piece, you call Cancel Culture a monstrous overcorrection. So I'm wondering, what do you see as the danger here? What would happen if it went too far? I mean, it sounds like you think it already has.
It's an overcorrection because it's so total in the way that it views systems of oppression. It's so comprehensive and it wants to dismantle so much that it becomes very difficult to argue that there's a genuine meeting point of deliberation between someone who accepts this sort of totalising account of oppression and someone who doesn't or is sceptical of that.
So to take the concept, for example, of open debate: eventually, you will probably have to argue that the very notion of open debate is a problematic one because people don't come to open debates with equal cultural power, with equal privilege, and that the notion of open debate favours those who already have privilege because there are all these cultural assumptions at play that mean that their voices matter and are believed and other voices don't.
Now, that's fine as an analysis as far as it goes. But the logical consequence of that is that open debate itself becomes a system of oppression. And when that happens, the only option you have is to try to dismantle that in some way, and Cancel Culture I think is a way that that happens. It's kind of an assault on the very notion of open debate because it doesn't want engagement, what it wants is liberation through the dismantling of the structures of discourse that we have in our society.
Mm. And there has been a lot of pushback against Cancel Culture, so do you think that its impact is becoming or will become more diluted or do you see this as, you know, as a trend that's going to continue on and become bigger and more powerful?
It's very hard to predict where that's going to go. I think Cancel Culture itself, its force, will diminish. I say that because as we've seen it come to express itself more fully, is starting to see, I think, more scepticism of it from within political progressive circles as people recognise the kind of limitlessness of it.
What do you mean by that?
Well, there's no really obvious realisable endpoint here where people no longer need to be cancelled. It's kind of a perpetual motion machine where people who want to create some kind of system of ideological purity where there is no privileging of anybody. There will always be some kind of thing to deconstruct, there will always be some kind of privilege to deconstruct. And as a result of that, it can never really end - you're sort of constantly looking for the next thing that is problematic and expanding the circle of what is problematic.
And when you start to problematise so much- I think you're already beginning to see this now - people who are on the progressive side of politics, who are sympathetic to a lot of the aims or the concerns of Cancel Culture to do with social justice, those people are starting to become more sceptical of what Cancel Culture can deliver. And Cancel Culture itself, I think, as a term has become something that people don't want to be associated with for that reason.
The other thing about it is that in some ways what cancel culture is going to do, or is starting to do, is have a perverse consequence whereby cancellation, far from being something that crushes you and silences you, ends up being something that in and of itself liberates you to say whatever you want. This is at the moment far more visible on the right side of politics where you’re starting to see almost a mini industry in cancellation. You know, there's now a group of people who are professionally cancelled.
You know, the fact that they have been cancelled is what qualifies them to become celebrities in the next sort of sphere of anti-Cancel Culture discourse, right?
On the right that's easy to understand because it positions them as anti-politically-correct, you know, anti wokeness and all of that sort of stuff. And there's a certain social, cultural, political capital within subcultures that happens with that. But I suspect that dynamic will start to creep into the progressive side of politics as well. So that being prepared to stand up and be cancelled itself becomes something that isn't, that you don't need to be afraid of in a professional sense.
If I'm right about that, like if that little trend that I'm beginning to see ends up expressing itself, then I think what inevitably happens is the Cancel Culture disappears because really all it's doing is serving the very opposite ends of the ones it wants to serve.
Waleed, thank you so much for your time today.
Not at all, thank you.
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Also in the news today...
South Australian health authorities have expressed concern about a decline in the number of people getting tested for coronavirus.
SA Health is now ordering anyone who attended the Intensive English Language Institute at Flinders University's Sturt Campus since November 13 to self-isolate.
Almost 6,000 people connected to Adelaide’s Parafield coronavirus cluster are still in isolation.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.
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From boycotting celebrities to calling out poor behaviour, cancel culture has become a controversial phenomenon in the age of social media. But the ideas behind it have been around for a long time. Today, Waleed Aly on the origins of cancel culture and what’s really driving it.
Guest: Contributor to The Monthly Waleed Aly.
Woke politics and power in The Monthly
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
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