If you haven’t checked out the Plebity conference on Free Speech and the Left, I suggest checking out these online interviews. It is essential that leftists and liberals don’t allow the right (which is temperamentally and historically uncomfortable with open dialogue) to “own” the cause of free speech.
One of the worst things about cancel culture is that it provides shelter for people like Woody Allen. When I talk about cancel culture, I’m talking about the job loss, censorship, and no-platforming of individuals for expressing heterodox opinions or calling attention to inconvenient facts. Cancel culture is policed on social media and enforced by self-serving clueless boobs, especially in the corporate media. Just as the McCarthy witch hunt was unable to bring down people like Lucille Ball, while ruining the careers of lessor figures such as John Garfield, today’s cancel culture has only managed to annoy JK Rowling, while forcing people like Julia Robertson out on their own. Cancellation is about disallowing legitimate speech, not about behavior. Ironically, purveyors of witch hunts and cancellation, while often denying these crusades are taking place, reserve for themselves illegitimate libelous speech, such as wantonly calling someone a “communist” or a “transphobe” without evidence.
Which brings me to Woody Allen. He has long been under fire for behavior, not for opinions or for speaking about unpopular facts. Even granting that the credible allegations by Dylan Farrow have never been proven, for reasons having nothing to do with their merit, the dude hooked up with the young daughter of his former romantic partner. It may be true that he waited to become sexually involved with her until she became barely legal, in which case what he did wasn’t against the law, but most people consider his actions exploitative and despicable, and some people hold him accountable accordingly. If people object to this pervert being feted in awards ceremonies, it doesn’t bother me a bit.
What bothered me about his quashed autobiography was not that it was being published. I wouldn’t have read it, being way too familiar, throughout my social work career, with the whining victim tone predatory men use to describe their life. But I personally wasn’t upset about the book deal. What did upset me was Ronan Farrow’s allegations that Allen’s account of the crimes he remains accused of was not fact-checked. This, after Ronan Farrow’s journalism on sexual predators in the film industry was minutely scrutinized for evidence.
For Allen to claim that Dylan Farrow’s allegations are unfounded is to say that she is lying or delusional. Women who bring false claims of sexual abuse are treated harshly, by public opinion and the law. It’s one thing for Allen to claim he’s innocent in an interview. In a nonfiction book, it calls the publisher’s vetting process under scrutiny. I am not privy to serious discussions about the course of action after Ronan Farrow raised a stink, but I don’t see how the book could have been published while giving Allen permission to address allegations against him without proof. He’s had adequate opportunity to respond, without making the credibility of those associated with his projects problematic.
On to the second fish to be fried, flayed, and charbroiled. The Dr. Seuss biz has about played out, but I’m bringing it up here as another example of something being reflexively assigned to “cancel culture.” The situation here is more of a gray area.
The trust for Dr. Seuss voluntarily withdrew a half dozen of his many books from publication. The drawings in the books, most people would agree, are unequivocally racist. There is no evidence that the trust was forced to do take the action they did, although there have been calls from some quarters to withdraw all Dr. Seuss books from school libraries and publication, whether overtly racist or simply penned by the author. So there were calls to “cancel Dr. Seuss,” yet there is a difference between responding to legitimate criticism and having your arm twisted to (not) say “uncle.” There were other ways to address the racism in those particular books, but the trust chose their own course of action.
I supported the decision to withdraw the books in question from publication, and would not call this “cancel culture.” In retrospect, however, I think the way the decision played out is a cautionary tale. If the Dr. Seuss trust was not under any exigent threat, why was the decision accompanied by a formal announcement? That in itself triggered an outraged response. Perhaps the hope was that the public statement would mean racism in other children’s books would be addressed, through being withdrawn, redrawn, or edited. (This process has actually been happening since the sixties, though not fast enough or complete enough for some.) Perhaps the trust thought the calls to cancel Dr. Seuss altogether would cease if they responded to legitimate criticism. If that was the hope, it was misplaced.
Soon there were calls for all libraries everywhere to destroy the books in question. Then the calls to cancel Dr. Seuss altogether were amplified, along with similar outcries against other twentieth century children’s authors. EBay and other resellers banned the sale of the now out-of-print Seuss books. Considering the amount of racist memorabilia sold on eBay, not to mention the appropriated archeological treasures, this action could only be called a cynical ploy to pander to what was becoming a mob frenzy. The move to halt publication of the books may not have been provoked by cancel culture, but cancel culture took over.
Calls to cancel “racism” in books, longstanding or newly published, are often, in the current climate, not made in good faith. This is a power and control game, one that shuts down discussion of racism instead of furthering it. When the trust made an announcement about withdrawing those six books, rather than doing it quietly, some people smelled blood in the water while others had fears stoked that were not about racism. Suddenly we were talking about censorship and cancel culture, and while that needs to be talked about, racism itself, as opposed to ass-covering virtue-signaling designed to avoid being called a racist, was no longer part of the conversation. Was quiet action a better choice? Either way, a discussion that could have been had, was not had.
Which is what cancel culture is all about.
I’ve stayed out of the Rowling row, pretty much, as it has unfolded over the past month or two, despite my long term commitment on this blog to championing free speech. For one thing, I’m not a Harry Potter fan. As a real Witch, I’ve been less than impressed with the series. If you like it, fine, I don’t ridicule fans, but it’s not for me. Another reason to stay out of the controversy is that I’ve posted so much on this issue of censorship that I’m tired of it. I’m really really tired of it.
But I decided to weigh in, to celebrate one media outlet’s decision to listen to JK Rowling’s lawyers (or maybe their own?) and print an apology for libel. That’s the place we’re at, where an unimaginably wealthy woman hitting back over false accusations designed to silence her is a milestone.
When I shared with a friend my interest in the backlash to Rowling’s essay clarifying her positions, my friend dismissed the backlash by saying, “Well, JR Rowling is rich. She can’t really be hurt much.” Rich people might beg to differ on that, but I understand my friend’s point: rich people don’t have to worry about basic economic survival, which is always a calculus in what ordinary people say or write.
The ”these people are rich and famous so they can’t really be cancelled” argument exploded after the Harper’s Letter (as it is now called) earlier this month. That letter argued, in a vague, general way, for more tolerance of honest discussion. Many were offended by this (rather mild) letter, saying instead of listening to these famous writers talking about something that isn’t happening (to them or anybody else) we should listen to MARGINALIZED people, who don’t have platforms, and highlight their struggles, which have nothing to do with the Harper’s Letter.
But here’s the thing. When a woman fights back against cancellation, she’s always too rich or too White or too educated or too straight or too socially/politically connected for her stand against injustice to be justified. The only legitimate woman to give pushback, say the detractors who watch bullying from sidelines, is the WOMAN WITHOUT A VOICE. The very poor, dark skinned, immigrant, non-English speaking woman with ten children, two them disabled – THAT woman is entitled to criticize an online culture limiting free discussion and debate. If only she could.
Because the point of pointing to the WOMAN WITHOUT A VOICE is that she has no voice and can’t speak. If she could speak, she would tell the woman with a voice speaking in a way disagreeable to somebody to SHUT UP. The woman without a voice is the ultimate straw woman. I follow Black women on social media who have been subjected to cancel culture – booted off the birdsite or threatened with violence or disciplined at their job for speaking up. Ditto for disabled women, working class women, lesbians, Latinas who don’t like the X. Where are these people saying cancel culture isn’t an issue for marginalized people, when women with multiple oppressions (sexism alone doesn’t seem to count) are subjected to its bullying tactics?
Little known fact: Rowling ran afoul of cancel culture originally for supporting a working class lesbian student struggling with a life threatening disability. A marginalized woman. This woman, Magdalen Berns, faced a brutal cancellation campaign. You always know when you’ve found your voice: there are people telling you to shut up. The cancelers will justify their attempts to censor women by bringing up the woman without a voice, a woman who might even be have been you, once upon a time. The woman without a voice is the beloved woman of the left-liberal patriarchy because she isn’t speaking. Listen to the voices of women who are speaking. Or at least, don’t join the mob to cancel them.
I don’t know how many of my readers are aware of the banning of a feminist from New Zealand from the Wellington Zinefest for her political beliefs.** Renee Gerlich had her registration refunded and was asked not to participate in the festival after organizers became aware of her peaceful activities protesting the sex industry through art and an article on her blog criticizing the medical transitioning of children. She was told that “your presence at zinefest would jeopardise the safety of our queer and trans artists, people we have worked hard this year to protect and create a safe space for.” That the zines Gerlich planned to sell at her booth were themselves inoffensive to the organizers did not matter.
Banning somebody from purchasing a booth at a festival because you don’t like something they once wrote on their blog? Really?
This attitude recalls the disinvitation by the Norwegian government a few years ago of Janice Raymond, who was scheduled to present a paper on prostitution. She wrote a book over thirty years ago on a different topic that had become objectionable to trans activists. Granted, the New Zealand example is on a small scale, grassroots level, but this exemplifies how censorship of feminists is being waged across the liberal/left spectrum, perpetrated by both government officials and scruffy anarchists. It is a censorship project underway from the far north to the far south and everywhere in between.
The phrase “safe space” is fast becoming a code word for “censor and suppress free speech.” Donald Trump used the phrase, albeit loosely, a week ago in denouncing the cast of the play Hamilton for calling out Vice President-elect Michael Pence. “The theatre must always be a safe and special place,” Trump tweeted. It is only fitting that the so-called “safe” phraseology of censorship should be put to use by fascists since it embodies a fascist concept. The tools male supremacists on the left/liberal spectrum have in desperation pioneered to assert dominance over females within their movements will increasingly be put to extreme rightwing uses. Look for “inclusivity” to move beyond its current usage as a rationale for excluding radical feminists from the public discourse, and get ready for it to exclude those who threaten the “safe space” of white supremacists and Christian fundamentalists.
Since they monitor everybody’s blogs, I suppose I am never going to have a booth at the Wellington Zinefest. And as for the Norwegian government: don’t bother to invite me. I’m sure I also wrote something thirty years ago you wouldn’t like.
*Apologies to Robin Morgan; it just fit so well.