Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be familiar with the new craze sweeping the West as the 2020s unfold, known as “cancel culture”.
The more this phenomenon grows, the more the label risks being misapplied. Cancel culture isn’t just anything, however: it follows a very recognisable pattern.
First, someone with public profile transgresses a woke orthodoxy of the present age. Second, a small but influential group names and shames them. Third, a mob forms to sully that person’s reputation and effectively drive them from public life.
The list of casualties grows longer with each passing month.
Arguably the incident that defined the cancel culture genre was the 2017 protest against Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College. More recently we’ve seen Disney fire actress Gina Carano, and the lead guitarist of Mumford and Sons shamed into taking time away from the band.
This week I argued that the Dr Seuss affair was likewise a manifestation of cancel culture, albeit a slightly milder one — and against someone long departed.
(It’s worth pointing out another common feature of cancel culture: how shockingly mild any of the alleged “crimes” actually are. In all seriousness, take some time to look into each incident listed above).
In it, he suggests that there’s a final step to the cancel culture routine — and that is the large number of “otherwise decent people” who fail to defend the victim.
“Why is it that in so many areas of public life, from the lecture hall to the comedy club, when the mini-mob comes, the adults just vacate the room?” he asks. Murray explains the dilemma:
“In case after case it has been the same. The problem is not that the sacrificial victim is selected. The problem is that the people who destroy his reputation are permitted to do so by the complicity, silence and slinking away of everybody else.”
What he surmises is that this — the silent cowardice of bystanders — is the only part of the cancel culture sequence that’s actually fixable.
We must “encourage people to stand up in defence of people who are being defamed,” Murray proposes. He goes on:
“Simply stand up for your friends, colleagues or allies when you know that they are being lied about. It seems so simple and so obvious a thing to do, and yet it is a habit in exceptionally short supply today.”
His article ends with a profound, almost proverbial truth: “Fighting for something you love will always give you an advantage over someone fighting because of hate.”
That’s something we can do on an individual level. But it’s encouraging to see associations forming around the same concern of late, in an effort to collectively push back against cancel culture.
One of these is the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA). The idea for this was sparked by Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University, who draws an analogy between cancel culture and the contrasting ways in which zebras and elephants defend themselves against a lion’s attack.
Zebras scatter, leaving any potential victim to fend for itself, he explains. Elephants, on the other hand, circle around their vulnerable associate. “Academics behave like zebras,” George says. “And so people get isolated, they get targeted, they get destroyed, they get forgotten.”
Like Murray’s his solution is simple: “Why don’t we act like elephants? Why don’t we circle around the victim?” Inspired by the idea, 20 other professors from Princeton (and millions of dollars of donor money) have formed the AFA, whose catchy slogan is that “an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on academic freedom everywhere”.
The group’s 200 members now provide aid and support to defend the “freedom of thought and expression in their work as researchers and writers or in their lives as citizens”. Here’s conservative academic Carol M. Swain explaining the work of the AFA:
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