Musings on Cancel Culture

12 Mar

The episode “The Great Wife Hope” features yet another attempt by Marge to stop everyone’s fun. Nelson inadvertently gives her great advice on how to get together other pissy moms, clergymen, etc. He claims this is because he secretly enjoys event planning, but the real more subtle joke is that what Marge wants to do is essentially bullying.

-TV Tropes

I won’t make any bones about it.  Cancel culture is one of the most evil and dangerous trends to develop over the last decade, evil and dangerous because (on the surface) it can be so easily justified.  It’s easy to argue that someone deserves punishment for an act that may not be, legally speaking, a crime; it’s easy to say that some degree of mob justice is justified if the law refuses to act.  But cancel culture has long-term effects that can often defeat the objective.  For one thing, an argument that boils down to ‘SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP’ is not a convincing argument.  For another, if you enjoy cancel culture, you might discover – as Will Wheaton did – that cancel culture can easily turn on you

And that’s not even getting into the fact that your target won’t be the only one hurt by your acts.  The guy who shot Cecil the lion may or may not have deserved punishment.  I’m certainly no fan of big game hunting.  But what about his family?  His employees?  If his practice went out of business, did his employees deserve to lose their jobs?  Did his clients deserve to lose their dentist?  These are the questions cancel culture has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.  If you hurt innocents … tell me, what do you deserve?

My concerns about cancel culture were neatly summed up by Itchy and Scratchy and Marge, an early episode of The Simpsons that showed just how well the show could work when given a meaty subject and competent writers.  Not coincidently, it was also the first of two episodes that convinced me to dislike Marge.  Marge gets up on her high horse, not without cause I’ll grant, and does a great deal of damage that thoroughly discredits her cause.  Cancel culture has the same problem in spades.

The basic plot is relatively simple.  Itchy and Scratchy, a show within a show, features a cartoon cat and mouse inflicting horrific injuries upon each other.  Maggie is inspired by the show to hit Homer with a hammer, leading Marge to ban Itchy and Scratchy from their house and lead a crusade against the producers.  She eventually gets Itchy and Scratchy banned, only to discover that her fellow moral guardians want to ban Michelangelo’s David too … something she finds outrageous.  Caught in the trap of her own hypocrisy – “What do you have to say to all them Marge Simpson wannabes out there who wish to suppress David’s doodle?” – Marge’s campaign collapses and Itchy and Scratchy goes back on the air. 

Leaving aside the obvious fact that Marge is clearly spoiling for a fight – starting a letter “dear purveyors of senseless violence” is not the sort of thing you say if you’re genuinely interested in a dialogue, although it doesn’t justify a response of  “… and the horse I rode in on!?!” – there are two fundamental problems with Marge’s actions that stuck in my craw.

First, she sought to impose her tastes on everyone else.

Second, she was blind to the precedents she was setting.

As a parent myself, I fully agree that Marge had every right to tell her kids they couldn’t watch Itchy and Scratchy.  There are TV shows and programs I don’t let my kids watch, for various reasons.  Marge even had the right to ask her friends not to let Bart, Lisa and Maggie watch Itchy and Scratchy at their houses and, if they rebuffed her, to tell her kids that they weren’t allowed to go there any longer.  It was her duty, as well as her right, to keep an eye on what her kids were watching and make sure it was age-appropriate.

Marge did not have the right to make those decisions for others.  She is not everyone’s mother.  It is not her place to decide if Bart and Lisa’s friends are allowed to watch Itchy and Scratchy.  She could certainly try to convince other parents to ban the show from their homes, if she wished, but she couldn’t force them to comply.  In trying to do just that, Marge stepped well over the line.  She did not have the right to impose her tastes on others.

Worse, in getting Itchy and Scratchy actually taken off the air, Marge ensured that no one could watch it.  I’d happily agree that there are plenty of adult movies and suchlike that are not suitable for children – Game of Thrones, for example – but that doesn’t mean that adults aren’t allowed to watch it.  Marge didn’t just take Itchy and Scratchy away from the children.  She took the show away from everyone

And that is, let us be blunt, the sort of behaviour that gets someone a bad rep.

But the second problem is worse.

By pushing for a show to be cancelled – and suceeding – Marge set a nightmarish precedent.  If one show can be cancelled, why not another?  Pick a show, any show.  I guarantee you that someone will find something to complain about, something they can use as an excuse to demand the show be banned.  And Marge discovered this, the hard way, when her fellow censorship-happy busybodies demanded she lead them in a campaign against Michelangelo’s David.  Marge is caught in a trap.  Either she supports censorship, even when she doesn’t agree with it, or she is exposed as a hypocrite.  Once the precedents are set, once you let the censorship demon out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put it back in.

One can argue, of course, that context is important.  Michelangelo’s David is a work of art.  Itchy and Scratchy is simple-minded TV mayhem.  Marge could have tried to argue that there was a world of difference between the two – and she wouldn’t have been wrong.  But this was a point that was lost on her fellow busybodies.  Once you create an emotional storm, once you ensure people can no longer think with their heads, context goes out the window.  And indeed, with Marge exposed as a hypocrite on live TV, the pendulum swings back.  The kids are going to be exposed to David, like it or not, because the schools are going to be forcing them!

Cancel culture itself is based on a social fallacy.  As the writer of Five Geek Social Fallacies explains:

Social fallacies are particularly insidious because they tend to be exaggerated versions of notions that are themselves entirely reasonable and unobjectionable. It’s difficult to debunk the pathological fallacy without seeming to argue against its reasonable form; therefore, once it establishes itself, a social fallacy is extremely difficult to dislodge.

The reasonable form of this particular social fallacy can be summed up as ‘you find something offensive, so you don’t have to watch it.’  No one could reasonably object, as I said above, to Marge refusing to allow her kids to watch Itchy and Scratchy.  Indeed, Marge has a point; Itchy and Scratchy is shockingly unsuitable for children.  The social fallacy in this case is that finding something offensive and/or objectionable gives you the right to demand it be denied to everyone.  You may feel, for whatever reason, that something should be cancelled.  Plenty of other people will not agree with you.  And if you try to ban it anyway, those people will view you as the villain of the piece.

This is more pervasive than you might suppose.  A person who dislikes stand-up comedy and wouldn’t visit a comedy club if you paid him might still find it offensive – and dangerous – to have an unfunny comedian driven off the stage.  The precedent is too dangerous to be allowed to go unchallenged.  Today, someone with terrible jokes; tomorrow, someone [person] actually likes.  One can stand up for freedom of speech without enjoying or agreeing with whatever the speaker is trying to say.  In the immortal words of Patrick Henry (or Voltaire or Evelyn Hall) “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it, to the death

The blunt truth is, people don’t like being told what they can and cannot watch (or read or whatever.)  This spurs resistance – the Soviet Union had a thriving trade in illicit literature – and pushback.

The more serious problem, however, was neatly illustrated in a Supergirl comic.  A white racist comes to town, leading to protests led by black students and a riot.  The comic makes the subtle point that one good example is better than a lifetime of nagging, but it also points out that the students have set a dangerous precedent.  The black students association wants to invite a black activist and speaker, who also happens to be a notorious anti-Semitic and the Jewish students are planning to protest …

A different take on the problem comes from Footfall, where the alien attempt to understand humanity through watching Deep Throat leads to a debate on censorship between American farmers, Russians astronauts and an American congressman.  The Russians point out that they are in favour of banning the film, while the congressman does not.  The congressman misses the opportunity to point out the fundamental problem with all forms of censorship – where does it stop?  Where do you say enough

The sad truth is that there are people who will never say ‘enough.’  They will keep going, asserting their power – the power they’ve bullied others into giving them – until they’ve either erased everything (including the bible) or taken complete control.  Cancel culture represents nothing more than an attack on freedom of speech and human liberty itself, disguised as decency and wholesomeness.  And the question the cancellers never seem to ask, until it’s too late, is where will they hide?

If you find something offensive, you don’t have to watch.  No one is forcing you to watch.  If you want to tell the world you find it offensive, by writing a review, you have every right to do it.  Write a review, tell everyone your opinion … let them make up their own minds!  But if you seek to cancel something, to damage or destroy careers and lives, the vast majority of people will see you as a monster!  Your valid point – Marge was quite right to condemn Itchy and Scratchy – will be lost in a sea of seething resentment and hatred.

If someone’s being an ass on social media, block them.  Think no more about them.  No one will think any less of you if you decide that some halfwit troll isn’t going to say anything interesting and block him.  Or, if someone is wrong, calmly and reasonably point out what’s wrong.  You really don’t want to accidentally give someone credibility, do you?  But that’s what you’ll do if you cancel them.  People will think you can’t actually answer their claims and they’ll be right.  As I said before, King Arthur’s attempt to silence Dennis makes Dennis’s claim more creditable. After all, if Arthur had a good answer to Dennis’s question, wouldn’t he have given it?

The price we pay for freedom of speech is … well, freedom of speech.  Everyone has the right to say things and yes, many people will find some things offensive.  And the mature response is to remember that you don’t have to listen.

But wait, you say.  Some people deserve to be cancelled!

Well, maybe they do.  But are you prepared to take the risk of setting a dangerous precedent?

I’d like to close this essay with a look-back at one of the most interesting trials in the last couple of decades.  The case of David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt is illustrative because it’s a demonstration of how such matters should be handled.  In this day and age, I have no doubt Irving would receive the full cancel-treatment.  His speeches would be hounded by protesters, his publishers would be pressured into withdrawing his books and his supporters would be attacked on the streets.  And you know what?  This would give credence to Irving’s views!  People would believe Irving was right!  They would be wrong – as Richard Evans makes clear – but they would have good reason to think otherwise.

Penguin Books, faced with a lawsuit for libel (Irving filed suit; he was not, in any legal sense, on trial), took a different tack.  They hired historians to go through Irving’s work and access its value, then – when it became clear that the vast majority of Irving’s mistakes went in one direction – prove that Irving genuinely was a Holocaust Denier.  This actually forced them to prove that the Holocaust took place, which they did.  Irving, given a fair trial (that was, in some senses, weighted in his favour), lost and lost badly.  And it was all perfectly fair and reasonable.  There were no grounds for any reasonable person to think Irving had been steamrolled for wrongthink. 

Our society can only work if we allow free expression and speech.  And yes, some of that speech will be offensive or libellous.  In the case of the former, we can choose not to listen; in the case of the latter, we can prove it to be so. 

Or we can just keep tearing down legal protections until the devil turns round on us.

2 Responses to “Musings on Cancel Culture”

  1. Brian March 12, 2020 at 6:50 pm #

    My personal current favorite is the news media saying that using the term “Wuhan Virus” is racist. Starting with the fact that Wuhan is not a race. But showing their earlier video and tweets show the very same people using those terms.

    Of course Ebola River, West Nile, Spain (Spanish flu), Germany (German measles) were unavailable for comment.

    AOC called it racist when people were not eating at Chinese restaurants. Including those of Chinese decent who were not eating there.

    In those immortal words from Stipes, “lighten up Francis.”

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 12, 2020 at 6:56 pm #

      Elsewhere, I called it the “China Flu” and as a joke somebody replied “that’s racist”.

      How do I know it was a joke?

      I know the person and the person would not seriously say that “Calling it the China Flu is Racist”. 😀

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