Cancel culture is not about the powerful

The left is defending the right of employers to punish people for their opinions.

Tom Slater

Being left-wing used to mean agitating against people losing their jobs. How quaint that feels now. In the culture wars of today, the illiberal left’s primary response to any statement it disagrees with seems to be demanding that the person who said it be immediately sacked and made an example of.

For all these people’s blather about ‘Karens’ – that insufferable meme about entitled lower-middle-class white women who always want to speak to the manager – the ultimate Karens today are to be found on the identitarian left. They’ll go straight to the manager of anyone who dares utter a dissenting thought.

Now their censoriousness is being ‘called out’, as they might say. A letter published in Harper’s last week, signed by a diverse group of liberals, civil libertarians and left-wingers, raised the alarm about the growing intolerance on the left and the mobbing of the insufficiently woke.

The response from the pro-censorship left has been a carnival of obfuscation, bullshit and bad faith. A rogues’ gallery of illiberal midwits – many of them veterans of cancellation campaigns themselves – have denied cancel culture is even a thing and valiantly argued with caricatures of their opponents’ arguments.

Corbynista Guardian columnist Owen Jones says cancel culture is just ‘public figures being criticised on Twitter for things they’ve said’. Here he is apparently struggling with the distinction between ‘being criticised’ and ‘being faced by demands they be sacked’, which is of course what we’re actually talking about.

That he doesn’t seem to know the difference is a little odd, given he spends a good chunk of time doing the latter nowadays. Just a few weeks ago he was calling on Oxford University to fire its deputy director of external affairs and international strategy over something unpleasant he tweeted about Ash Sarkar.

This braindead take, that the backlash to cancel culture is just rich people complaining about being criticised, has been repeated ad nauseam. Nesrine Malik, of the Guardian (again), accused those behind the Harper’s letter of being influential people ‘unaccustomed to being questioned’.

Given the letter was signed by Salman Rushdie, that take doesn’t even hold water if you glance at the list of signatories – unless you think the fatwa was a devastating Twitter thread. But nor does it hold water if you bother to read the text itself.

The letter describes ‘an intolerance of opposing views’ and a ‘vogue for public shaming and ostracism’ that is leading people to ‘fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus’, or even just make ‘clumsy mistakes’. In the UK, this culture has resulted in far more than ‘criticism’ of dubious public figures.

Indeed, even upstanding people in public life, like Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt and veteran newsreader Alastair Stewart, have been sacked after their innocent words were yanked out of context and their employers gave in to mob pressure.

But, more importantly, the letter argues that this culture is more of a threat to those without power, influence and gilded academic positions. ‘The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society’, it says, ‘invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation’.

This is a crucial point. The mobbing of prominent figures doesn’t only have a chilling effect on debate more broadly, by setting the terms of acceptable debate for everyone else; it also legitimises the cancellation of less powerful people – those less able to fight back.

Critics of the Harper’s letter constantly single out one of its signatories – JK Rowling, who has faced abuse and death and rape threats for expressing trans-sceptical views. The idea that this multimillionaire author, with more than 14million Twitter followers, has been ‘silenced’ is ridiculous, they scoff.

But no one, including Rowling, is saying that she has been silenced or cancelled. Rather, it is the people further down the pecking order, those without hundreds of millions of pounds in the bank, who will ultimately bear the brunt of this silencing dynamic.

In fact, in relation to the Rowling controversy, that’s already happened. Children’s author Gillian Philip was sacked earlier this month for the crime of expressing support for JK Rowling. After 24 hours of abuse and complaints, her publisher caved.

This case was put to activist and songwriter Billy Bragg over the weekend, after he rubbished cancel culture in the Guardian (and again). In response, this alleged socialist declared: ‘I believe that employers have a right to act in such circumstances.’

Here Bragg just came clean about what these illiberal leftists often try to obscure – that they have become so intolerant that they now stick up for the right of employers to sack people for their opinions. In this culture war, ‘bosses’ rights’ is their rallying cry.

While the woke left’s cancelling efforts are most often aimed at people in the more rarefied circles – the media, academia, the arts – that they move in, the climate they have whipped will inevitably hit ordinary working people, too.

Brian Leach, a disabled grandfather, lost his job in an Asda store in Yorkshire last year after he shared a Billy Connolly routine, which took the piss out of jihadists, on his personal Facebook page. Someone else on staff took offence, and he was sacked.

That the bourgeois left has become increasingly shrill and intolerant has been clear for some time. But it’s still worth asking why these supposed radicals are so comfortable handing over the power to police speech to the state, bosses and Silicon Valley.

Part of it has to do with their distance from working people. This is now so vast that they have begun to see corporations as the agents of change and pretty widely held beliefs – like thinking that rushing to put kids on puberty-blockers is probably not a good idea – as unspeakable heresies.

But it also speaks to how fundamentally unthreatening their ideas are. On cultural matters, certainly, they are the establishment – their kooky views on gender, privilege and much else besides are not only shared but even enforced by cancel culture, Silicon Valley and the state.

Meanwhile, their sixth-formerish poseur socialism isn’t a threat to anyone, not least because it lacks any popular support. Indeed, five years of Owen Jones-ism running the opposition led to Labour handing over its northern working-class heartlands to the Tories at the last election.

Now, deeply disappointed with ordinary people, the bourgeois left has resigned itself to policing their opinions, doing by compulsion and censure what it cannot do by reason and argument, with the assistance of the capitalist class where necessary.

No wonder they cling to cancel culture. It’s all they’ve got. In a way, it is all a bit tragic. But it is also a menace to the free speech of precisely the people the left once aspired to represent.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

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Puddy Cat

21st July 2020 at 8:52 am

The left keeps on jumping on the zeitgeist bandwagon. After each of it failures it has to virtually rewrite its raison d’etre. Its motto is to emulate that which we associate with the US, bring us your tired and hungry, forgetting that such people grow and even prosper and so gravitate towards Conservatism.

I cannot see a commentator supporting Labour’s views without seeing a person that never left the emotional environment of university. Who still refers back to teachers they had in secondary school with emotional attachment. Where as most people can pull themselves from under that reliance and in maturity can refer back to their own mastery and self-reliance, died in the wool socialists still need the heady atmosphere of marching and that thing that they would call awareness. approval seeking in an environment of safety that defies confronting alternatives. The new cause, the inevitable story of want and disablement.

With all the tools of modern society, its attendant science and technology, their preferred imagery of life is the squalid ‘backs’ of terraced houses, dirty children and bomb sites. In the end it sounds like a metaphor for stultified conceptualism damned forever to only think the worst. If the ‘red wall’ proved anything it is that people deny the efficacy of mass action, of being herded and classified by constant references to poverty and disparity, and now choose the self, initiative and opportunity over jealousy or uniformity. In short they want to be admiring and respectful of themselves and not an anonymous component in a machine.

John Pretty

19th July 2020 at 1:12 am

“Corbynista Guardian columnist Owen Jones”

Wh are you smearing Jeremy Corbyn?

John Pretty

19th July 2020 at 1:12 am


Suzy Hirst

18th July 2020 at 9:53 pm

“Now, deeply disappointed with ordinary people, the bourgeois left has resigned itself to policing their opinions, doing by compulsion and censure what it cannot do by reason and argument, with the assistance of the capitalist class where necessary.”

In a nutshell.

Gilbert Grape

19th July 2020 at 11:32 pm

“Bigoted Woman” (G Brown). It’s been going on a while…..

Wag gle

17th July 2020 at 4:56 pm

We need some of the these unfair dismissal cases to go to court to make it clear that our speech is free (within the legal constraints) so fewer bosses bend to the demands of any twitterati mob.

a watson

17th July 2020 at 8:11 am

The London Labour Councils have been cancelling working class male opinion for many years – in fact they have tried their best to purge the party of working class men.

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Stephen Elliott

14th July 2020 at 1:44 pm

Just checked out Bragg’s Tweet. Good to see that there are leftists, women and trans people giving him a hammering.

Barry O’Barmy

14th July 2020 at 10:08 am

Owen Jones is an immature queer like so many of the Guardian’s contributors. The majority are foreigners and many are sexually bent.

Finbarr Bruggy

18th July 2020 at 9:46 pm

His homosexuality is irrelevant. The problem is he is an intolerant, loud-mouthed, virtue-signalling tw@t.

Andrew Levens

14th July 2020 at 9:51 am

there is a difference between free speech and intimidation. these people are deliberately bypassing our established laws and customs to enforce their views on society, but they are only too happy to use the legal system when it suits them. they need to be strongly resisted, and employers need to understand that. So do politicians.current protest movements have the word ‘rebellion’ in their titles.

Chris Hanley

14th July 2020 at 9:05 am

Owen Jones’ feeble fist symbolizes the bankruptcy of ‘bourgeois left’ .

S. Garside

14th July 2020 at 11:11 am

That seeming “weak first” habit is, I believe, a now widely-used and deliberately-trained technique.
I see many politicians, and public speakers do it. Once you spot it, you see it everywhere.
I believe it’s a technique to stop actual Finger Wagging and Fist Pounding.
It’s a technique that is meant to help the user keep some subtle control over their body and therefore over their performance.
Public Speaking is physical as well as mental.

Bridget Jones

14th July 2020 at 8:44 am

Suggesting the twitter mob’s cancel campaigns are simply criticism is to liken the services of an alarm installation company to that of a protection racket. Both of them offer to protect your property and if you don’t get an alarm there’s a greater chance you could be robbed. Don’t bow to the mob however and they will actively seek to destroy your life and livelihood.

Jill W

14th July 2020 at 6:49 pm

Liked this analogy, Bridget


14th July 2020 at 7:04 am

Part of it is due to the Guardian needing to find a market niche. Being faced with the prospect of society’s values on race, sexual relations, criminal punishment, etc becoming much in line with those that it advocated in the 1970s it has been forced to become a parody of social liberalism.

AidanLeonard AidanLeonard

14th July 2020 at 6:40 am


Gordon O Gopher

14th July 2020 at 2:31 am

Owen Jones has absolutely no place to talk about cancel culture. An opinion writer for the 20th most visited website in the UK (the toxicGuardian) and over a million Twitter followers – this is a person in a very privileged position to spread his opinion. A million followers yet he only follows 6,000. This definitely suggests someone with much less interest in other people’s opinions than his own.

But his figures are nothing compared to JK Rowling – 14 million followers yet follows fewer than a thousand.

I’d quite happily cancel them all. This website says in another article it wants people to think for themselves – the numbers suggest they don’t want to.

alan smithee

14th July 2020 at 5:07 am

Confusing message there Gordon. Care to rephrase? You are for cancel culture I see.

Gordon O Gopher

14th July 2020 at 8:34 am

It’s not about me.

There are a small number of people with lots of power to get their voices heard. If any of them have social concerns then they’ll worry less about getting their own voices heard and try to find ways to amplify other people’s voices.

I suspect neither OJ nor Rowling care much about other people’s opinions.

Dominic Straiton

14th July 2020 at 5:32 am

I wonder how many of his “followers” he’s blocked.

S. Garside

14th July 2020 at 11:20 am

Speaking of Follower/Following ratios, have you seen Peter Hitchens’ (@ClarkeMicah) ratio.
According to Mathematics, that’s not even possible !!!

john larkin

14th July 2020 at 1:21 am

Co-opting the power of corporations? The Corporate State? Ring any bells?

David Wolcott

14th July 2020 at 12:16 am

I do think the emphasis here is in the wrong place. People have always shouted and squawked and demanded any number of loony things. It is the fact that they are listened to and their demands acted on that is the real problem. Institutions need to get a spine, and businesses need to combine to resist threats to their economic survival. Caving in hands all the power to the blackmailers and creates the current environment of McCarthyist fear.

Brandy Cluster

13th July 2020 at 11:55 pm

Better to avoid corporates and the civil service and have your own business; the only way to go!!

Gareth Roberts

13th July 2020 at 10:23 pm

A long time ago, when I was a student, some law students I knew went off to visit a prison. They came back moaning that the prison officers were ignorant/bigoted/prejudiced etc. “The things they said about the prisoners!” It didn’t seem to occur to them that prison officers were in close contact with convicted criminals every day, and their opinions were based on experience.
The Woke zombies make the same false assumptions about everyone and everything. Their own opinions are based purely on ideology; they never learn from experience. They assume that everyone else is the same. If anyone disagrees with them, they must believe in some Evil Ideology that isn’t Woke.

Dominic Straiton

13th July 2020 at 9:19 pm

They are nothing more than a snivelling bunch of snitching rats, devoid of any honour or bravery. The article forgets to mention James OBrian who is probably the biggest turd of them all.

Linda Payne

14th July 2020 at 2:19 pm

Oh god the infernal O brien, gets paid £3,500 a go for talking to himself for three hours


13th July 2020 at 8:45 pm

Perhaps if S pi k e d published some articles about the gross corruption and incompetence of this government in particular and the British political system in general (lack of an elected head of state, decimation of local government and civil society, unjust electoral system, House of Frauds, monopolies such as Amazon, etc.) instead of pushing its own agenda of rightist virtue signalling then maybe we could take it seriously as a forum for discussion and debate. B rendan and his acolytes are as mired in the swamp of identity politics as naive Marxist idiots like Owen Jones. The UK is the most centralised state in the western world and certainly one of the most dysfunctional.

John Reic

13th July 2020 at 8:22 pm

Constantine is spot on Owen Talcum X Jones is the definition of a cry bully and Bragg is A stasi-ist

James Knight

13th July 2020 at 8:19 pm

They claim it is about protecting minorities. But the ultimate minority is the individual and these are the ones who are cancelled. It obviously irks some that Rowling can speak out and not be cancelled because of her position.

I have no problem with people getting fired for genuine harassment in the workplace. But we see so many cases that are nothing of the sort. A man in the US was fired for allegedly making a white supremacist hand gesture which was what most of us would call the “OK” symbol. As he was Mexican he seemed like an unlikely candidate for a white supremacist.

Constantine Sotiriou

13th July 2020 at 8:14 pm

Can we stop referring to this as “the left”. This is a cult. This is a cast of brainwashed useful idiots egged on by cowardly, duplicitous “bluetick” politicians and Media players like the BBC at the behest of the neoliberal establishment and big business who up until 4 years ago had complete rule of the roost and could run the world the way they saw fit and have kicked and screamed to get their way ever since.

Peter Anestos

13th July 2020 at 8:38 pm

So true! This privileged cosmopolitan layer is NOT about socialism. That’s the well-practiced rhetoric it uses to obscure its drive to seize power—in the name of the bourgeoisie—and, especially, its hatred of the working class. Little Owen is a principal avatar.

Mark Houghton

13th July 2020 at 8:14 pm

Cancel culture is all about suppressing dissent from anywhere. I was a listening volunteer, mentor and leader with The Samaritans for 3.5 years. I was suspended pending disciplinary action for comments I made in a personal capacity on a social media platform. I quit – I am not prepared to work for an organisation that believes they have the right to judge my personal views. As a result people, possibly suicidal people, may have to wait longer to get put through to a listening volunteer.
Cancel culture is dangerous.


13th July 2020 at 8:46 pm

I am sorry to hear that. Could you tell us what you said that caused you to be kicked out?

alan smithee

14th July 2020 at 5:08 am

None of your business Big Brother

Mark Houghton

14th July 2020 at 9:20 am

No. My personal views had no bearing on my ability to do the job. That’s what should matter but these days it doesn’t.

David Wolcott

14th July 2020 at 12:10 am

The Free Speech Union was set up to address exactly this sort of thing. You should contact them.

Tony Benn

14th July 2020 at 6:37 am

A protection of free speech for some, decided on by some committee is all very nice for the likes of Toby Young and Douglas Murray, but what will happen when some working class bod gets sacked for saying something they don’t like?

Free speech for ALL protected by our laws, to say anything except threaten the individual or group. We had this in 1970s, the fact we have just handed it over due to “terrorism” and “the rise of the far right”, both of which are rarer than hens’ teeth and irrelevant anyway, is a great cause for remorse

Mark Houghton

14th July 2020 at 9:21 am

I did but then thought that I didn’t want to volunteer for an organisation that thinks it’s OK to moderate my personal views so I quit.

Tony Benn

14th July 2020 at 6:32 am

Typical #SJW converged corporation, your views are more important than people’s lives.We are now in a position where I have to tell my daughter, who is going to university this year, to delete her social media and to create two new accounts : One for her social “face” where she can use her pictures and another with no pictures and no names where she can state her views.

I’m also going to suggest she deletes her “views” posts after a week so they cannot be used in future by SJWs to “hunt her down”

Linda Payne

14th July 2020 at 2:28 pm

Charities are often the worse offenders, nowadays just another organ of the state, I will never work for one again, I did volunteer for over 10 years so did others with health problems, jobs only went to the middle class wealthy early retired set and the work for volunteers just piled on, we were given high responsibility and then swiftly demoted, the training for CAB was three years but for doing all that and being a specialist benefits advisor all for no pay my job title in the latest review was the uplifting ‘form filler’. I will never forget a man I worked alongside, Richard who suffered from RA which meant he had flare ups and often could not work for a week or two, he had volunteered for years and really knew his stuff, he really wanted a job and had tried many places without success, a job came up and it immediately went to one of the early retirees, he ended up leaving the CAB relapsing into alcoholism, set fire to his bed and died.

Alex Cameron

13th July 2020 at 7:45 pm

‘I am the milkman of human kindness’ – I think Billy’s bottle is empty!

Stephen Elliott

14th July 2020 at 9:35 am

Played that CD to death, I would not use it as an ash tray now.

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