The latest feud in an ongoing spate of ‘culture wars’ seems to concern so-called ‘cancel culture’. While its origins lie in a more personal perspective—someone who had disappointed you was ‘cancelled’ in your estimations—it now applies to wider, usually online criticism. When someone prominent errs, usually by presenting or revealing discriminatory attitudes, they are then quickly boycotted, starved of attention and interaction.
The permanent banning from Twitter of Katy Hopkins and Graham Linehan and their subsequent, respective migration to the “free speech social network” Parler is perhaps the epitome of this process. Now, they are speaking neither to nor for the masses, but rather screaming into a reinforced echo-chamber. Why should we be tolerant of racism, xenophobia, transphobia, or other forms of discrimination? As the late philosopher Karl Popper explained, the paradox of tolerance is that “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”
There is now a desire to be ‘cancelled’ by many on the right. To be cancelled affords certain powers: it allows someone to play the role of the victim and thereby elicit sympathy. This, in turn, is meant to make them ‘immune’ to further criticism, because a victim should not be subjected to additional torment. Many see cancellation as a badge of honour, a sign that they are speaking up and proclaiming hard truths. It allows ‘the Left’—a non-existent, impossibly homogenous group—to be demonised and any valid criticisms to be discarded.
To upset the ‘loony lefty snowflakes’ is neither difficult nor important, we are told, yet a surprising number of column inches are dedicated to something so insignificant.
The fact that the majority of criticism comes from right-wing outlets and writers seems strange to me: after all, such open discourse is effectively akin to the free market, a cornerstone of conservatism. No one is entitled to a platform; one must be earned and, then, preserved. Such analysis, I have noticed, goes generally ignored by those on the right, especially the far-right. After all, pointing out logical inconsistencies and hypocrisies to such commentators and politicians would be a full-time job, one I am not prepared to undertake.
Andrew Neil, chairman of The Spectator, compared the process of cancellation to the act of lynching, which is, objectively, in poor taste and, arguably, highly offensive, given current discourse around Black Lives Matter. When Neil was called out on this, he condescendingly explained the concept of a metaphor and then complained that his language was being policed.
Open criticism is a fundamental part of free speech: the problem with Twitter is that such criticisms tend to polarise, mainly due to the format of the platform itself. It is not conducive to productive, constructive debate, as the anonymity it affords to many—although not blue-tick, verified public persons—unsurprisingly escalates toward mob mentality. Metaphors of mob rule and vigilante justice pervade the discourse, as such forms of justice are usually decidedly unjust.
But these metaphors are flawed: the mob is merely a crowd of protestors demanding that justice apply equally to all. Why are these critics so intent on making themselves into helpless victims? Surely, it is the threat of losing what precious little power they have left—the logical conclusion of the very openness and competition that they once championed?
One of the more laughable takes I’ve seen came from a Telegraph theatre critic, Dominic Cavendish, who argued that Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, a dramatisation of the Salem witch trials, is “the play that warned us about ‘cancel culture’.” JK Rowling, whose recent and unnecessary tirades against trans rights have seen her embroiled in arguments over cancellation, described herself in one tweet as “Goody Rowling,” a reference to the accused women in the play.
The Crucible was an allegory for McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare and Encyclopaedia Britannica also notes that “The term has since become a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicised indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.”
Wasn’t this the true epitome of cancel culture, being blacklisted for life for supposed Communist sympathies? It is not an apposite comparison. Arguably, today’s online justice is precisely the opposite: grassroots, bottom-up accountability, rather than dictatorial, self-preserving judgement meted out by a powerful few.
Donald Trump, in his Fourth of July address at Mount Rushmore, joined in the fray, lamenting recent left-wing campaigns against intolerance and claiming that they were “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” This is the sort of unsubstantiated, spurious claim we have come to expect from Trump.
An infamous letter was published several days later lamenting the current “reckoning” of “illiberalism”, signed by the likes of Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, and Salman Rushdie, who should know all about true forms of cancellation, having once been the target of a proclamation by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini condemning him to death for his novel The Satanic Verses. The signatories criticise Donald Trump—calling him “a real threat to democracy”—yet, it would seem, find themselves on his side of this debate.
I urge you to ignore this piece and instead read a powerful rebuttal, which provides a more forensic analysis with citations for its arguments. Worryingly, they note at the end that, “Many signatories on our list noted their institutional affiliation but not their name, fearful of professional retaliation.”
By many measures, Trump himself ought to have been cancelled: requests for his resignation often trend on Twitter; he is subject to intense criticism online and in the media. These are, we are told by the right, the very criteria of cancellation. Surely, impeachment is the constitutional equivalent of a cultural cancellation?
Yet, he is still the President of the US and is running for re-election in the autumn. If he fails, no doubt he will play the victim, but will he have been ‘cancelled’? Or, will democracy simply be doing its job?
Jordan Peterson is now a household name. He’s known as a psychologist at the University of Toronto, a best-selling author, and, more specifically, as a representative of the free speech movement. His writing and lectures around his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, have made him into somewhat of a celebrity among many different internet communities, particularly among young men who feel that they’re being censored elsewhere. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that he has now created his own explicitly free speech-focused social network called thinkspot. With the platform now live, it’s important we look at the idea behind it. Is an anti-censorship social media network a good idea?
Thinkspot functions through a subscription-based model so that people who are posting on the website can monetise their content (much like Youtubers, Instagram influencers and OnlyFans users). There also is a minimum word length for comments (50 words), so that people can’t post insults that easily, and actually have to give some thought to the things that they write (an idea that sounds full of promise but probably only means people have to be more creative with the way they insult others). Before the platform was even live, Peterson confirmed that popular alt-right personalities like YouTuber Carl Benjamin, who ran for a position as an MP for the UKIP party, and Dave Rubin, who also hosts a popular show on YouTube, were on board to be beta testers for the website. On thinkspot, the only way for someone to be asked to leave the website or have their content removed is if a court deemed it necessary because of illegal content.
The platform, subtly presented as an alternative social media platform for the alt-right where the terms and conditions are dictated by the absolute need to maintain standards of free speech, came against the backdrop of what conservative thinkers and the alt-right had been saying about the censorship of right-wing views. Despite this allegation of bias, Senate Republicans held a hearing around this very topic where they introduced a bill to make sure that social media companies removed content in a “politically neutral” manner, whatever that means.
Many on the right, whether they’re based in the US, on Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, have long since alleged that these social media companies have a bias against conservative viewpoints. They point out the example of Steven Crowder, a YouTube personality who had his channel demonetised after mocking Vox journalist Carlos Maza, using homophobic slurs against him and inciting his audience to follow suit. It’s worth pointing out that Crowder’s account still remains active, although he can’t make any money from it.
That’s why Peterson offered to create this ‘haven’ as an antidote to what he and his followers call censorship, but there were a couple of issues he has yet to address. For example, Peterson wanted the site to rely on an upvoting or downvoting system, something similar to Reddit’s system of approval and moderation, which is community-based. In practice, this could simply mean that any view that doesn’t fit within the consensus among thinkspot users will be downvoted. It’s unlikely that progressives have been signing up in droves to this platform, given its guidelines, as well as the demographics of Peterson’s ‘fanbase’. No one in their right mind would want to sign up to a website where simply pointing out you’re a woman will probably get you trolled and insulted (as long as it’s done in at least 50 words).
The idea behind thinkspot is to place an emphasis on thoughtful and respectful conversation, although the way that the site itself is really organised remains unclear. Yet, thoughtful or respectful conversation—however it’s defined—requires some sort of moderation, even on a very minute level. It potentially means that some guidelines are imposed, either algorithmically or through human intervention. For groups of people who have come to thinkspot to ‘flee censorship’, this may not be received well and it could even lead to further victim complexes, as the allegations of liberal bias against conservatives are on very thin ground.
Peterson’s free speech crusade is also, arguably, wilfully naive. Websites like 4chan, Reddit, and Voat, which have also started with similar enough principles of providing an open forum for discussion, have thriving communities that fester off hatred and have been, in some cases, directly linked to extreme violence around the world. Peterson’s own sense of importance also leads him to believe that courts won’t be paying attention to the content posted on thinkspot, nor will they be able to act fast enough.
As cases involving large social media companies and free speech have shown, things can move quickly if there’s enough media attention (and it’s likely there will be). Simply posting inflammatory or offensive messages on a public messaging board is enough to attract other people with similar views, which means that thinkspot might be the free speech platform with no holds barred that some have been waiting for, but it won’t be without a cost. We’re still waiting to see whether Jordan Peterson’s thinkspot will ever be in the spotlight.