I suppose the time will come when activists and journalists on the political right wsuppose the time will come when activists and journalists on the political right will stop crying “cancel culture”, but it won’t be for a while. As nauseating as this reductive slogan might be, those who throw it around do have a point. While the revolution has to breathe and the complacent and the comfortable are being correctly shaken, there are times when even the most righteous campaign can go too far. And as the long-silenced finally have the chance to voice their anger, this can lead to the outright censorship of an idea or a person that may be challenging, but is hardly a social gargoyle.
It’s a theme that will be unwrapped over time, and I’m confident that sense and sensibility will prevail over pride and prejudice. For now, I do understand the position of those who decry cancel culture. What irks me, however, is the hypocrisy of so many of those who complain about it. First, it was the right who successfully played this game for generations, with the left very much as newcomers. Consider, for example, the odious Joseph McCarthy, or the Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books), which wasn’t abolished until 1966, or the various progressive voices squeezed out of mainstream culture and argument, especially in North America.
Then there’s the personal. Until eight years ago I was of the right, especially the Christian and socially conservative right. The details of my “epiphany” aren’t important here, but I’ve ended up an Anglican priest of the liberal Catholic, Christian socialist brand – and one who, in Canada at least, has a fairly high profile as a columnist and author.
When I moved my position on some, though far from all issues, however, I found myself the target of censorship and hostility. Thousands of emails, death threats, attacks on my family, calls for my wife to leave me, accusations that I was a child abuser – I still receive that one almost daily – and allegations that I was a thief and a fraud, who had only changed his views for money. That was especially odd, in that my accusers organised boycotts of advertisers so that newspapers and radio stations would fire me. Credit where it’s due: it worked.
I lost five regular newspaper columns, a dozen speeches, a book contract, two radio shows, and a position as a TV host. There is none so angry as a conservative fundamentalist who has been scorned. The television role was interesting because, as with many of these platforms, I had a contract. I was ditched just before Christmas: “It is felt that with the high public profile you have in media and social networking in relation to gay marriage, we have to part our ways as an organisation.”
I responded that not only had the TV show given me a list of confirmed dates for my appearances, but that I’d also never mentioned the issue of equal marriage on their programme. No matter, I was gone. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I suppose I could have sued but chose another path. Jesus and all that.
The effort to “cancel” me has been ongoing for years now, and it spans various continents and causes. Last year, a leading British, conservative online platform for which I’d written 19 articles suddenly stopped accepting my pitches. This surprised me, as the senior editor had just sent me a personal email explaining what a fan she was, and the platform had said yes to almost every piece I’d suggested, with column subjects ranging from long-dead British writers to the state of Roman Catholicism, to Canadian politics.
Finally, after several rejections, I asked if it was worth my while pitching. No, I was told, by an obviously embarrassed editor. Because of my views I was no longer welcome in a publication that regularly lamented the rise of cancel culture. Not my views expressed in the journal itself, but those apparently expressed elsewhere. It seemed bizarrely inconsistent.
Yet that, regrettably, is the norm. There are genuine liberals out there who will encourage a whole range of opinion, if it is well expressed and within the frame of civilised comment. But in my experience, the loudest of conservative complainers about cancel culture are some of the quietest defenders of its antithesis.
Voltaire did not, of course, actually say that he might “disapprove of what you say but would defend to the death your right to say it”, but he did sort of think it. Mind you, he benefited from the proceeds of slavery, and was a grotesque racist and anti-Semite. And yes, he’s often been cancelled in his native France because of this. I’m just a Christian lefty who annoys right-wingers and won’t shut up when I should. As I say, it’s going to take a long time to sort this one out. But please, be consistent.