If you are on the right I suspect you have heard leftists saying something like this:
‘Thousands of people are dying from coronavirus, the Chinese and Indians are fighting, young black men are being killed on the streets and all conservatives can talk about is “cancel culture”. What is up with that?’
Well, in the past few weeks there have been attempts, many successful, to force people out of their jobs for discussing social science studies and genetic research, for saying all lives matter, for questioning whether the killing of George Floyd was racially motivated, for publishing a US senator’s opinion piece, for making edgy jokes, for refusing to ‘walk around with a BLM sign’, for wearing blackface to a Halloween party two years ago et cetera. I hope it is obvious that these are not cases where sensible discussion could be had about the limits of public tolerance. This is ideological fundamentalism.
In the past few weeks we have seen online mobs ramp up the hysteria. One man was falsely accused of assaulting Black Lives Matter protesters. An ex-cop was falsely accused of committing the same crime. The actress Skai Jackson has been broadcasting the personal information of kids who use the n-word to her more than half a million followers in an attempt to ruin their lives. Grown adults in the media are applauding her on.
In the past few weeks we have seen statues vandalized and threatened, not only of slave owners and Confederate generals but of Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Cook, Lord Nelson and Mahatma Gandhi.
If there was just an episode of Fawlty Towers being recut, or the weird Emancipation Memorial being removed, it might be strange to kick up a big fuss about it. But consider all these cases in their totality. In essence, leftists — not all, of course, but many — are saying, ‘We can fire you for your opinions. We may try to ruin your life. We will rewrite your history. But also, you are boring if you complain about it.’ Imagine your boss slapping you in the face during a meeting and sneering at you for putting the trivial matter of physical assault above the far more consequential matter of the future of the company. It would be hard to think about business while being assaulted.
But leftists are right in an accidental sense. People on the right do talk about ‘cancel culture’ too much. It is tedious. We all know people without an idea in their heads who drone on about censorship because it is an easy subject to discuss. Yes, you like free speech. We get it. But what do you want to do with your free speech?
Being boring is no sin, yet talking about cancel culture is not very useful. What does talk accomplish? I am an opinion columnist so by God I hope that my speech can be entertaining, and interesting, that it can help us exchange, assess, and explore ideas. But what does it do? What does it actually accomplish?
The answer is, not much. Conservatives and liberals have been griping about being censored, de-platformed and canceled for years, and even with an un-PC Republican in office the problem has worsened rather than improved. For all the acres of prose that have been devoted to left-wing intolerance, nothing has been done. It has felt great to sow our grievances, but nothing has been reaped.
There is some value in commentary. If nothing else, it is inherently valuable to expose lies and uphold truths. It might shift a few people in your direction. But it has to be combined with some form of activism or it is a noble form of impotence. It is essentially one person’s opinion, and one person’s opinion has little value on the marketplace.
The left is far better at activism than the right. It became establishment and had to learn how power spreads through institutions and social movements. The right, meanwhile, has never managed to adapt to not being the establishment. Think of how Saul Alinsky, the community organizer and author of the book Rules for Radicals, became a conservative bogeyman in the Obama age. What if instead of hating Alinsky, the right had tried to learn from him?
So, what can be done? Well, I am a writer, and not a natural organizer. In fact, I would struggle to organize a barbecue with friends. I am, in many ways, a symptom of the disease and not a cure.
But one thing I know is that if we are going to complain we should complain less into the ether of the internet and more to the people that count. For example, posting grumpy tweets about Tucker Carlson’s advertisers abandoning him despite his show being the most successful on the air might make you feel better. It accomplishes nothing. None of their executives is among your followers. If a small fraction of his four million viewers bombarded these advertisers with complaints, on the other hand, and threats of boycotts, it would be a disincentive against doing it. So, if someone is in danger of being ‘canceled’ make sure your audience knows how to contact the people who are going to pull the lever. Make sure that it is at least a difficult decision.
Leftists have all kinds of shady institutions which attempt to defund and de-platform the right. ZeroHedge was kicked off Google Ads, and the Federalist was threatened with demonetization, thanks to a mysterious British think tank called the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
This is easy to say, I know, and far more difficult to do — like pointing up a mountain and saying, ‘Why don’t you climb it?’ — but how can the right establish institutions to respond to censorious activities? Granted, the left has more institutional sway than the right by virtue of cultural norms and not just organizational skills but something dedicated and formalized would be better than nothing.