Cancel culture is recent but it draws on a much older activist script
Christina Lamb, a garlanded war correspondent whose work I have long admired, with decades of experience of being shot at, ambushed and kidnapped, wrote in The Sunday Times last weekend about – as she described it – the more unpleasant experience of being harassed, threatened and cancelled online because of something she wrote. Covering the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, she had repeated an example of one of his racist comments, suggesting that ‘we’, the British people, secretly enjoyed these ‘gaffes’, as much of press had long preferred to call them. (The Sunday Times is behind a paywall, but you can read the Guardian’s report of the response to her piece here.)
In her explanation, she wrote about the time pressure under which she’d filed her report on the funeral. Her intention with the sentence in question, she explained, was to convey that Prince Philip’s lack of diplomacy was sometimes widely appreciated. But, she was mortified to realise once it had been published, her careless wording made it sound like the public approval he enjoyed was specifically for the particular racist statement that she was quoting.
Two things stand out for me in this explanation. One is that, having apologised for racism, Lamb is in a hurry to regain her status as not-racist; to regain her status as a good person. ‘Yes, I am sorry for what I wrote,’ she said. ‘I have learnt from this and will read my copy more closely in future. But if I get something wrong, does it mean I am a racist?’
Well, actually… what if it does? Perhaps Lamb, and perhaps we – by which I mean, other white people – shouldn’t be so quick to avoid acknowledging the power of racism to underpin our thinking. Underlying structures of thought and feeling, about who is at the centre and who can be written about in throwaway terms without thinking too hard, might indeed affect how we write a sentence. They might affect how we will read it back before filing the piece on a tight deadline. They might affect how likely it is that a sub-editor, subject to the same underlying structures of thought and feeling, will pick up on the throwaway line.
Getting something ‘wrong’ might well be a sign of the underlying and ongoing assumptions created by the culture that has shaped us. The dissolution of these assumptions is long work requiring ongoing care and attention. Lamb’s perceptible defensiveness, in that last line – ‘does it mean I am a racist?’ – feels like a turning away from that necessary attention. It feels like another wall has just been put up, even if that might not have been her conscious intention.
(Let’s also note here what I know from my own experience as a journalist: that this line may have been edited into this form of words by a sub-editor. If so, I’d be interested to know what Lamb actually filed.)
The other thing I notice is the point that she opens up at the end: ‘If you are going to go after me for racism, fine: I am sorry and will say that loud and clear as often as you want. But then please go after the people who think it’s OK to spill vitriol online.’
Now, I’m not sure that ‘going after’ them will help; the last thing we need, when people are already ‘going after’ each other, is more of the same. But she’s right: it is worth thinking about what is going on when we think it’s ok to shout online at people whom we don’t know.
There are many conversations going on about cancel culture, and the power that social media has given to everyone who previously could not get past the traditional gatekeepers of public discourse (which is most people). Right now there are people using that power to speak out against those who have hurt them, and there are people using that power to join in in support of them, some of them with violent language. Then there are people who fear the use of that power, and the Conservative party in the UK is harnessing those fears to stoke the dangerous culture war that it has chosen – in the absence of a more generative political offer – as its electoral strategy.
It is true that we are living through a revolution in communication whose implications we barely understand and whose ultimate consequences may still be beyond what we can imagine. This revolution spans my working life so far: I graduated from university in 1997 and the last backpacking trip I did without a webmail account was that summer. My agreement with my parents was that ‘no news is good news’ and my only communication was a not-always-successful attempt to call home on reversed charges every couple of weeks. I learned how to use email in temporary secretarial jobs that autumn. I trained as a reporter in the last days before Fleet Street’s business model was turned inside out by the internet. And now everyone is their own publisher, the powerless can sometimes bring down the powerful, democracy is looking shaky, and the far right and the violent can find each other.
Because we are struggling to comprehend, let alone to keep up with the impact of this revolution, and because we are already addictively marinated in social media, it’s easy to think that the problems raised by cancel culture are about social media. But social media-fuelled cancel culture is drawing on a much older activist script.
When we begin to do activism, whether we learn the politics of resistance from our families or turn to it in reaction to our families, it’s easy to pick up that familiar script. We know it, from watching and listening to other people doing activism. I say script, here, to mean a set of implicit instructions; a pre-constructed frame for looking at the world. That’s disgusting! That’s outrageous! They’re wrong! Let’s do something!
The unspoken ethic of activism is based in ideas about purity. We are right because we are doing good, and everyone else is either wrong or asleep. Feelings of superiority have been present, in some form or other, in every form of activism I have been involved in over 25 years, from local community organising to professional lobbying for charities, from civil disobedience to living off-grid on a permaculture project.
It can be hard to resist the temptation to use activism to make ourselves feel better by comparison, especially when the ‘other side’ is doing something obviously horrible. And it can be hard to resist the temptation to avoid our own implication in what is wrong by throwing out accusations of wrongness at everyone else.
Our righteousness has always made us hard to hear, to many people’s ears. It’s too close to smugness, and as soon as we can be found to be hypocritical, we’ve lost the match, at least in our opponents’ view. And now social media has turned everyone into an activist, and the ‘other side’ is… well, it’s potentially anyone, including the people on our own side who haven’t ‘got it’ as much as we think we do. The social sphere is aflame with fires that used to burn only when activists were taking action.
Our task, I think, is to be more honest about activism, whether we’re keyboard warriors or taking part in campaigning activities on the streets or in institutions. And the honesty we need is about our implication in the problems we want to solve. We are none of us free from the effects on our thinking and behaviour of a culture premised on domination and extraction, although of course we are affected in different ways depending on our histories and lineages. Acknowledging our entanglement defuses the potential accusation of hypocrisy and disarms some of our opponents.
And by starting in a place that recognises we are inevitably part of the problem - as Christina Lamb could perhaps have done a bit more of in her piece - it becomes much harder to demonise the other side. It might even make us more likely to persuade some of them.
The Entangled Activist: Learning to recognise the master’s tools by Anthea Lawson, is published by Perspectiva Press on 30th June.