Ignore the gaslighting – cancel culture is real
In 2021, let’s put a stop to the malicious vogue for shaming anyone who speaks out of turn.
By now most of us will be familiar with ‘gaslighting’, a term which describes the tactic of contradicting observable reality as a means to undermine someone’s security in their own point of view. The word comes from the 1940 movie, Gaslight, in which a husband convinces his wife that she is going insane by, among other things, dimming the lights and then denying that the house is getting darker when she complains. Social-justice activists are well-known for levelling the charge of ‘gaslighting’ at their opponents, yet it is a strategy that they have themselves perfected. Even their accusations of ‘gaslighting’ are a form of gaslighting, given that we are expected to believe that they are somehow not guilty of the very behaviour they are projecting on to others.
Perhaps the most obvious example of gaslighting is how the identitarian left has created a system of public shaming known as ‘cancel culture’, which its adherents carry out ruthlessly while repeatedly denying its existence. The denial is an extension of the strategy because it enables them to continue with impunity. They insist that they are not ‘cancelling’ anyone, but merely ‘holding the powerful to account’. But when a supermarket employee loses his job for a joke he posted on Facebook, it doesn’t feel much like a valiant blow against plutocracy and the ruling class.
Cancel culture is not, as its proponents claim, aimed at the most powerful in society. It is a method of systematically smearing ordinary members of the public for failing to toe the line. This takes the form of humiliation through online censure, and direct contact with their targets’ employers in order to deprive them of a livelihood. Through social media, irreparable reputational damage can be inflicted, even when there is no secure evidence for the accusations being made. This not only often results in dismissal, but it also impedes future employment prospects.
Denialists often argue that the experience of JK Rowling proves that cancel culture is a myth. After all, she has faced a barrage of online abuse and accusations of transphobia (as well as an internal revolt at the publishing house which produced her last book), and yet her sales are better than ever. But this example inadvertently refutes the claim that cancel culture is merely a means to critique the powerful. It’s probably true that Rowling cannot be cancelled. But less lucrative authors have lost their publishers and agents simply for defending her. That is not to say that harassment aimed at wealthy public figures is in any way justifiable, but rather that cancel culture most commonly impacts on ordinary people who have neither the finances nor the influence to shield themselves from the depredations of the online mob.
The denialism is exasperating given that instances of cancellation are so frequently in the news (for anyone still in any doubt, this exhaustive thread on Twitter should set you straight). Such stories, however, are just the barest glimpse of a much wider problem. Cancel culture works pre-emptively by fostering a climate in which most people are wary of speaking their minds for fear of misinterpretation. In many cases, this misinterpretation is willful. For instance, in October, students at Cambridge University mobilised to have a porter at Clare College sacked because he had resigned from his seat on the city council in opposition to a motion relating to trans rights. They claimed that his views made them feel ‘unsafe’, a tactic that has now become grimly predictable. Employers are unlikely to take action against workers for a simple difference of opinion, but once an allegation is made that personal safety has been jeopardised they are practically obliged to take action. The elision of words and violence is a linguistic trick of the social-justice left and it has been weaponised with ruthless efficiency.
Although cancellations are often orchestrated deliberately by groups of activists, its danger lies in a broader attitudinal shift. In the past, when someone misspoke at work or unintentionally caused offence, a colleague might have spoken to the individual concerned in private in order to resolve the issue. Nowadays, there is a tendency to shame the person on social media – perhaps with a screenshot of an offending email – in order to initiate a pile-on. This is precisely what happened to William Sitwell, who resigned from his post as editor of Waitrose Food magazine, after a joke he made in a private email was posted online. Rather than inform him directly that he had caused offence, and offer to discuss the matter in person, the recipient instead decided to expose his behaviour to the world. This kind of incident, now sadly familiar, shows how pervasive the impulse to ‘cancel’ has become.
There are few of us who do not know people who have lost work, been disciplined or been passed over for promotion on the grounds of relatively innocuous remarks they have made in a private capacity. Even towards the end of my former career as a teacher, many of my colleagues had given up on making jokes in the classroom because they understood that deliberate misconstructions of their words could be used against them by pupils or parents with a personal grudge. The result was an enervated and less stimulating learning environment, and all it took was a few unscrupulous pupils to make disingenuous complaints to ruin it for the rest of them. This is now an accepted feature of all modern workplaces, only it is adults who are generating these precarious conditions. When people are expected to behave like robots, who will never misspeak or inadvertently cause offence, the business of living is reduced to drudgery.
We need to challenge this atmosphere of conformity by reasserting the values of basic human empathy and resisting unreasonable demands for moral infallibility. Those examples of cancel culture that make the headlines are often widely discussed precisely because so many people recognise that cancellation could happen to any of us at any time. There is nothing healthy about a society that no longer believes in redemption, in which a substantial proportion of the population chooses to self-censor rather than risk facing reprisals for the crime of thinking freely. Cancel culture is a malicious and inhumane trend that perversely elevates the instinct for retribution above the virtues of forgiveness and compassion. We can only hope that in 2021 we might be able to reverse this trend.
Andrew Doyle is a comedian and spiked columnist. His new book, My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath), is released this week. Order it on Amazon.
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