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29 June 2021

The Jess De Wahls debacle shows you can only really be cancelled by your friends

It is the left who are especially sensitive to perceived betrayal, and it is therefore left-leaning people who are most often cast out as traitors.

By Louise Perry

The artist Jess De Wahls certainly doesn’t look like a bigot – but that, in a way, was the cause of her undoing.

Originally from Berlin, De Wahls spent her twenties mingling in London fetish clubs while working as a hairdresser in a salon that was based out of the Soho Theatre. Much of her embroidery art is themed around feminism and her exhibition titles have included works such as, “Big Swinging Ovaries Vol.2” and “Stitch Fetish”.

De Wahls is about as sexually liberated as you can get; many of her friends are gay men or lesbian and her father is a proud cross-dresser. With bright red hair, bright red lips and a cornucopia of tattoos, she is the picture-perfect bohemian artist for our times.

She deviates, however, from her in-group on one crucial issue: De Wahls is gender critical, or – as her detractors would describe her – she is a “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or “TERF”. In a blog post in 2019, De Wahls wrote that although she had “no issue with somebody who feels more ­comfortable expressing themselves as if they are the ­other sex (or in whatever way they please for that matter)”, she could not “accept people’s unsubstantiated ­assertions that they are in fact the opposite sex to which they were born and deserve to be ­extended the same rights as if they were born as such”.

After publishing this blog post, De Wahls was driven out of the Soho Theatre and ostracised by many in her social circle. One friend of ten years tweeted: “never trust a bitch who does vagina art” (a statement that De Wahls now features in some of her artwork). Other artists attempted to destroy her livelihood, launching petitions that resulted in cancelled exhibitions and collaborations.

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On 18 June this campaign against De Wahls escalated when London’s Royal Academy of Arts announced that it would no longer be stocking her embroidery pieces in its gift shop. Following a media outcry, that decision has since been reversed and the sales of De Wahls’ work are now soaring as a result of the media attention. This is a clear-cut example of the so-called Streisand effect: an attempt at censorship that accidentally produces the opposite effect.

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De Wahls’ case is also an example of ­“cancel culture” in action. The term ­describes when public personas are “cancelled” – often by being fired, socially ostracised or by having their public platform removed – for acts or views that could be classed as either bigotry or nonconformity, depending on your political perspective.

There are people who question the existence of cancel culture, instead insisting that it is, actually, “consequence culture”, where censure is appropriately doled out in response to bad behaviour. These critics argue that the careers of most of the victims of “cancellations” survive the experience, such as JK Rowling. Similar to De Wahls, in June 2020 Rowling was branded a TERF after tweeting her disapproval of an article ­headline that referred to “people who menstruate” instead of “women”. The author was then condemned by friends and colleagues, and stripped of awards. Rowling, however, has continued to sell books and has also ­attracted a lot of support – hardly a sign, Rowling’s critics would say, of being cast into the outer darkness.

These critics also point to the many examples of crude and unkind statements about trans people, which go much further than those of Rowling and De Wahls, that go unpunished. The Spectator’s longstanding columnist Rod Liddle wrote a piece in which he ­imagined a cervical smear test performed on a trans woman where a clinician might “poke around a bit with that spatula thing in whatever has recently been excavated”. Did Liddle lose his column because of these comments? No – he remains bulletproof, and widely published.

The cause of this double standard is political polarisation. Anyone rejected by one “side” can typically attract allies and positive media coverage from the other, which means that a thorough cancellation is rarely achieved – in De Wahls’ case, it was mostly centre-right newspapers that supported her. The art world has no power to cancel Liddle, but they were able to persecute De Wahls by temporarily withdrawing her work from sale, as she is a part of their community and therefore, in their view, exactly the sort of person who should be a full throated advocate for trans activism. Her friends and associates felt betrayed by her, and they were able to aggressively punish her because she was one of their own.

Similarly, the feminist, philanthropist and Labour Party donor Rowling failed to embrace every item in the progressive political package, which seems – emotionally, if not logically – to be worse than rejecting the package altogether. The odd thing about cancel culture is that you can only really be cancelled by your friends.

Which is exactly why left-leaning people are the most often cancelled. It is the left who are especially sensitive to perceived betrayal and it is therefore left-leaning people who are most often cast out as traitors. And while the right do attempt cancellations – sometimes successfully – they generally don’t turn on their own.

I’ve written left-coded pieces for right-leaning outlets, and right-coded pieces for left-leaning publications, and I can attest to the fact that the latter receive a lot more flak. Write a diatribe against capitalism or patriarchy in a right-wing publication and some readers will generally accuse you of being a fool. But write anything heterodox for a progressive publication and you are sure to be told, not only that you are wrong, but that you are a bad person who needs to shut up.

The old saying that “the right looks for converts, while the left looks for traitors” is much older than cancel culture, and it ­remains as true as ever.

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.