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Capitalism, oppression and 'cancel culture'

Faline Bobier

July 21, 2020

As we live through a historic health, economic and environmental crisis with catastrophic consequences for people around the world, and in particular, for people of colour, the poor and essential, often low-paid workers, why is the question of so-called ‘cancel culture’ so prominent in the media?

Here is how the Orange Monster weighed in on the question at his recent July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore:

"One of (the left's) political weapons is 'cancel culture' -- driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.”

A group of 150 artists, writers and academics recently signed an open letter, published in Harper’s magazine, bemoaning the weakening of public debate due to ‘cancel culture’ and warning that the free exchange of information and ideas is in jeopardy. You would think notables such as Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky and others might think twice when someone like the despicable and authoritarian American president seems to be on their side.

According to the letter, "The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.

"But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."

Mary McNamara, writing in the L.A. Times, poses an interesting question about the focus and timing of this letter: “Any way you look at it, the timing is … odd. I have no idea why those who wrote and signed it thought that the middle of a global pandemic and a worldwide uprising against law enforcement’s long history of racist brutality was an ideal moment to give young people a stern talking to about the moral and societal risks of cancel culture.”

In addition, one can hardly claim that the folks who signed this letter are in much danger of being ‘silenced’. They have privileged platforms that allow them to exercise their right to ‘free speech’, much more so than the vast majority of Black Lives Matter protesters who are putting themselves and their bodies on the line against the brutality of the racist state to finally say they have had enough of the continuing murder of Blacks and other people of colour, at the hands of the police.

A recent article in the British Daily Mail is typical of much the media’s coverage of the cancel culture debate and it is not in any sense an unbiased view.

“The online mob so keen to erase Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling for taking a stand on transgender politics now uses a similarly ugly tactic to silence dissenters. Never mind the subtleties of Rowling's case, denouncing her is all that counts.”

Describing J. K. Rowling’s recent transphobic comments in which she denies trans people’s right to determine their own identities, as ‘taking a stand on transgender politics’ is a misnomer. She is not taking some courageous stand but rather chiming in on the right-wing assault which creates a climate where trans people are denied rights in the work place and have been subject to violence and even murder in the larger society.

The article goes on to quote one Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union who says he “receives daily requests from people who have been – or fear they will be – ‘cancelled’”. He compares the cancel culture atmosphere to ‘some of history’s darkest episodes’:

“What’s disturbing about cancel culture is that we’ve seen it so many times before – in 17th Century Salem, in Paris after the French Revolution, in America during the McCarthy era, in China in the 1960s.”

This is ridiculous hyperbole. It equates criticism of racist, sexist, or other oppressive behaviour on social media platforms with the real power and violence of the state to ruthlessly impose inequality and injustice.

That’s why it’s important not to look at the question of ‘free speech’ as if it exists in a vacuum. The furore around cancel culture has a lot of similarity to a similar ‘panic’ in the early 1990s around the question of ‘political correctness’.

The charge of political correctness, like the charge of cancel culture today, was used against the left and those who were challenging the status quo. It was a tool for the right wing who wanted to argue that there was censorship and squashing of freedom of speech on university and college campuses because students and others were demanding that university curriculum include Black studies, women’s studies, anti-colonial studies.

The real censorship was the status quo itself, which prevented any cultural expression except that of the dominant white culture. This went along with real reforms being attacked and rolled back, such as affirmative action – a measure enacted to try and redress long-standing injustice about who was able to access post-secondary education. Affirmative action promoted fairer access for Blacks, other people of colour and the working class in general, so that post-secondary education was not solely the preserve of the wealthy classes.

Many of the gains that were made in terms of equal rights for oppressed groups – women, Blacks and other people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals – came as a result of the struggles of the 1960s. As the movements were defeated and the right gained the upper hand throughout the 1980s, there were concerted attacks on all of these gains.

The phoney ‘political correctness’ charge was part and parcel of these attacks on real gains made by those long marginalized in capitalist society.

Freedom of speech is not an abstraction. One of the hopeful things in the current moment, in spite of the horrible pandemic capitalism has brought upon us, is that millions of people around the world are discovering, as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, there is no progress without struggle.

If the #Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter have brought to the fore the questions of sexism and racism and are refusing to accept ‘the way things are’, they are to be supported. Is it wrong to stand up against rotten sexists like Harvey Weinstein and make them accountable for the years and years they assaulted and raped women with impunity? Is it wrong to call for defunding racist police forces who routinely murder Black people, people with mental health issues and others? Is it wrong to demand that the massive funding that goes to police forces who defend private property and the wealthy go rather to services that would actually benefit the majority of the community: social services, health care, education? Is it wrong to challenge someone like J.K. Rowling when she makes openly transphobic statements, which show the same kind of bigotry we would oppose were she making similar statements about people of colour or women?

As socialists, of course we defend the need for open debate and discussion. But it’s no accident that the people who are warning us against ‘cancel culture’ are often those who benefit from the current totally unjust status quo or worse, those who are responsible for perpetuating this system of injustice.

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