Cancel culture is back but, of course, it never really went away. And yet, the recent flurry of controversies surrounding a new narrative no one can get enough of — JK Rowling and the Succession of Statements — makes it feel like the debate around its existence has resurfaced in the popular media with a vengeance.
I have complicated feelings around cancel culture, personally — partly because it is often so scatterbrained in its approach, precisely because it is not the magically unified movement it is often made out to be by its opponents.
This tweet, however, broadly hits the nail on the head:
But this is not to ignore cancel culture’s more interpersonal instances of emergence, where it tends towards the encouragement of a lot of leftist infighting. I’ve spoken before about this — about how I found myself on the receiving end of an attempted cancelling in 2017, and how it really sent me west, pushing me into some dark corners of the political imaginary that I’m happy to have later crawled out of. However, I’ve also witnessed numerous other people go through the wringer of leftist paranoia in this way — a paranoia mistaken for a militant sense of justice — and many of them have unfortunately not recovered.
The issue for me is that “cancellation” is, in its everyday usage, bad praxis. It rarely looks like how it is described above. In less public instances, it often pushes those accused of a leftist infidelity further into the arms of an apparent enemy. It also seems to me like it often resembles a kind of mutually-assured mental destruction. No one who comes out of an instance of cancellation, whether sent or received, does so undamaged. So whilst holding public figures to account is important, cancelling is a terror if it is used as a blunt instrument.
This is to say that I think there is a huge difference between punching up at those who have long gotten a free pass on over-inflated platforms and those who have been on the receiving end of a paranoid “prison politics”. Those who perceived themselves as being victims of a successful or attempted cancellation nonetheless often confuse which side of the divide they are on.
This tendency is epitomised, I think, by Nina Power’s recent article on JK Rowling for the Telegraph. To talk about “a principle of charity” in this regard is laughable for multiple reasons.
Rowling is in a position where she is far too used to a rhetorical charity. It is arguably what makes people of such cultural acclaim stop thinking once they get to a certain level of success and forget that they are human and when they open their mouths what comes out can be dogshit. As such, Rowling epitomises a petite bourgeois white feminism that clings tightly onto experiences of suffering, despite the extent to which her present circumstances have changed.
Take, for example, all of the times that Rowling has spoken about her experiences of depression and anxiety, single parenthood and the struggles of getting published, or her most recent claim that she too could have been trans maybe in another life — she does sometimes publish under a male pseudonym, after all, and that’s basically the same thing. In the spirit of the principle of charity, however, it remains true that Rowling has been through some tough times — and these are experiences that shouldn’t be diminished.
Everyone is broadly in agreement about this. When the Sun opportunistically ran an interview with her ex-husband, who she left amidst accusations of domestic violence, many of those critical of her TERF tendencies were among the first to rally behind her and criticise the Sun. But that alone does not legitimate her other positions. In fact, she seems to be incapable of empathising with those who find her articles and carelessly tweeting to be as upsetting as the Sun’s article about her. Nina Power also fails to grasp the limits of her own argument in this regard.
It is clear that, in that moment, Rowling’s husband was approached through the principle of charity and given a far bigger platform to not apologise for his behaviour on than he warranted. It was also an interview displayed with more prominence than it needed. It was seen by thousands and this was damaging, not just to Rowling but also those who share in her experiences. Evidently, there are instances where a principle of charity is inappropriate.
I’ve been thinking about Nancy Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory a lot recently, in light of this, after transcribing a Mark Fisher lecture which discusses it. The central point here is one against the moral relativism of this sort of argument, whereby everyone is entitled to their own point of view, but it is also true that some points of view are nonetheless better (and better informed) than others. Applying this to class struggle, Hartsock uses the figure of the cleaner as an analogy — specifically someone who cleans toilets for a living. This person is, as far as society is concerned, at the bottom of the social ladder. They do a job few want to do. However, in cleaning utilities they also understand better than anyone how those utilities are used. Whilst, for a bourgeois establishment, this kind of labour is increasingly abstracted — it just gets done whilst those who do it remain invisible — the person at the bottom sees all. They see the machinations of the capitalist system above them and, if encouraged to break the illusion of immediacy, can have a far better understanding of capitalism in its totality than a bourgeois class that is wrapped up in the ignorance of abstraction.
In the world of twenty-first century gender politics, we are discovering new depths to this upturned pyramid of privilege. There is certainly, in some corners, a race to the bottom, but people’s analyses of the world around them more often than not speak for themselves. However, it goes without saying that trans people have always been on a lower rung of the ladder than cis men and women. This is most apparent when we consider the arguments that trans people are suddenly everywhere. They’re not suddenly everywhere but rather are no longer so socially invisible. They have also been afforded greater freedoms by social progress and now their perspectives on the illusions of gender (given in immediacy) are being heard. It is also clear to many that women like JK Rowling, no matter how contrary this may seem to their personal experiences, have been listened to at the expense of other demographics long enough. Their struggles are real, but their perspectives are nowhere near as omniscient as they like to insist. When push comes to shove, this becomes very much apparent. (See: “Central Park Karen”.)
Of course, no one likes to have their worldview challenged in this way. No one likes to hear the suggestion that their view of reality, no matter how “rational” in the parochial context of their own experiences, is off the mark. This often isn’t the start of some dialectical process, however. The likes of JK Rowling — Alan Sugar is also one of the first to come to mind — more often than not retain a firm grip on their time lower down the social hierarchy in order to further abstract their own success as the expense of others. What they end up expressing, as a result, is a kind of cognitive dissonance, whereby their understanding of oppression is acutely blinkered because it is solely defined by their own experiences. It is clear, in this sense, that social mobility does not provide better informed perspectives. The world you left behind is lost in the haze of abstraction.
The irony of Nina Power’s article on all of this is that she has fallen into this very trap, although her mobility has been more horizontal than vertical. Much of her most recent work bemuses many people but I think it makes perfect sense in the context of her combined experiences of state persecution and leftist persecution. The combination of the two blurs the boundaries rather than providing a better view of the whole. It is sad, more than anything. What is dangerous about this, however, is how her own reasoning is draped in the pretensions of a flawed philosophy. This is not simply a case of one person slipping from left to right. For a philosopher of her standing, it is far more embarrassing than that. After all, surely there is no fate more shameful for a Badiou scholar than to end up defending moral relativism in the Telegraph.
I am all for the principle of charity and the left could certainly do with internalising one, but it requires a version of this principle that is far more robust than Nina Power’s. After all, sometimes charity is little more than an attempt to launder an ethics, and obscure the extent to which, as Badiou might put it, we have betrayed a truth.
Update: There was considerable fallout from this post. You can read about that here.