How to defeat Cancel Culture.

The key is to defend the independence of editors from all of their enemies. And those enemies are not all in The Woke Mob.

Maureen Lipman is the latest in a long line of artists and writers to complain about the chilling effect Cancel Culture can have on the arts. I have some sympathy with her view. Don’t risk sophisticated witticisms. Appease that lowest common denominator that has a bad-faith agenda, or an inability to process irony.

Ricky Gervais — from here.

When I watched a video clip of Ricky Gervais skewering Hollywood, it showed how to tread that line very smartly. It’s a very tough skill to master, and one that almost defines who can, and who can’t practice comedy. You can see why comedians that don’t have this specific skill would resent it.

This carries over into cultural politics too. The debate around transgender rights has happened in a way that helps no one, while also resulting in genuine censorship and people losing their jobs unfairly.

Yet being aggressively judgemental can also help in ways that the courts and the police won’t. It can sometimes succeed in challenging incitement or defamation. Did Deborah Lipstadt cancel David Irving? No. A judge did that, but from my own personal perspective, I’ve watched antisemitic cranks being challenged very effectively in recent years with some satisfaction.

On balance, I’m glad that it’s possible to raise consciousness and illustrate the toxicity of toxic views. Society needs to be able to do this. There are babies in this bathwater.

So what’s the solution? How do we persuade the people perceived to be orchestrating exaggerated or simplistic outrage to change? Is this even possible? And will they do it quicker in response to being called out as The Woke Mob™?

Can we reason with The Woke Mob anyway? In theory, we could ask those who are being unfairly judgemental (as opposed to those perceived so) if they really want the prejudices that they oppose to be driven underground where they can fester and grow?

It’s not a useful argument though. Both the left and the right have cohorts who are invested in polarisation and division. When edgy blowhards complain about censorship, I’m always tempted to ask them to spare a thought for the most silenced group of all — the purveyors of sensible nuance.

Claims of censorship are often largely a gambit anyway. How often do we hear of commentators saying fairly rancid things without irony, and then pretending that they’re being censored when they aren’t.

“I’ve been silenced! Read all about it in my regular columns in The Telegraph, The Mail, Spiked & The Spectator”

Also, people who don’t get published (because they’re unbearable cranks) are encouraged in a belief there’s a big audience for their nonsense, and that Cancel Culture is denying it to them.

All of this gives me an idea for a TV show format: “Cancelled? Or Contradicted?” in which a panel of comedians and commentators consider examples and form a judgment. This would only be a good idea for a show if it solved a problem that could be solved by public discourse though.

It won’t be, will it? A demand that The Wokes Should Just Stop It is one that you can read every day, often (but not always) in (again) The Telegraph, The Mail, Spiked & The Spectator, all of which seem to write about little else.

The actual question a panel on such a TV show would have to consider here is around editorial decisions. Did a publisher / TV channel / other platforms not commission you, or spike your stuff because of pressures external to editorial ones?

This question of “pressures external to editorial ones” is the key to solving this problem. Free expression is delivered most effectively by a media that can say all of the things that its consumers are prepared to consume, bearing in mind the fact that the public has limited bandwidth. The bandwidth point means that a functioning media market will serve the public interest by rewarding good work.

Simply by choosing what we consume, we all enhance free expression, and we do that by rewarding the provision of attractive content. Public pressure to distort that market censors us all because it is an attempt to deny our fellow citizens of something that they would otherwise wish to consume.

The role of the media is to make this marketplace work by offering material that is artful, entertaining, and well-edited. This applies as much to comedy, documentary, and drama as it does to news. The only acceptable limits on free expression in the media are the various protections that we need against defamation, incitement, etc. And even those protections should be applied as lightly as possible.

Cancel Culture, where it exists (and more importantly, where it succeeds) is a form of mob rule that distorts that marketplace. This is the free-expression understanding of Cancel Culture. Where the label can be made to stick, it should be a damning one.

However, we never hear this challenge to Wokeism being put in this way, because many of the usual suspects who are obsessed with this point are also politically invested in the other big challenge to free expression.

Ownership Bias is also a long-standing and largely unchallenged distortion to that marketplace for content. It even has a law: Greener’s Law:

“Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.”

The class bias in journalism is undeniable [pdf] and the ownership of newspapers often appears to be more geared to beating regulators and exercising soft-power than it is about winning a contest to provide the content that the public demand. If media owners are in the game for anything other than the profits that arise from every title they publish, the news media will be objectively pro-corruption. It is also a huge asset to political conservatism.

As long as owners influence the content of their platforms, the marketplace for free expression won’t exist. Any distortions create a pretext for correcting distortions — and that’s what Cancel Culture is. In material terms, I’d suggest that it’s a more damaging and pernicious distortion than anything that The Woke Mob can offer.

The way to challenge both Cancel Culture and Ownership Bias is to defend the status of ‘editor.’ Editors need to fight for more respect, and they need us all to be their ally in this. A strong guildy-type union for editors of all kinds — one that can blacklist employers who succumb to coercion from The Woke Mob or the press baron — would be useful.

If we want to stop this kind of editorial coercion, a fashionable public hegemony that defends editors saying “I disagree with what you commission, but I will defend to the death your right to publish it” would help.

Unfortunately, the existing ‘Society of Editors’ doesn’t appear to be very robust in challenging ownership bias in the press. If anything, it’s an apologist for it.

Cancel Culture won’t be challenged properly until editorial independence is properly asserted. In turn, that won’t happen with any credibility until it is no longer compromised and debased by Ownership Bias.

Cancel Culture can be understood as being the dialectical response to Ownership Bias. It is the latest tactic that the hive mind of progressive opinion is using to deal with the biggest problem facing those who are really concerned about the need for free, un-coerced expression.

Calling for an end of Cancel Culture without challenging Ownership Bias is like calling for an end to trades unions' restrictive practices without demanding an end to monopolistic practices and blacklisting by employers.

That all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

(I’ve decided not to complicate this article any further by arguing that this problem could be solved with the creation of tax incentives that reward media companies that turn themselves into consumer co-operatives).

Author of “Save Democracy — Abolish Voting” published by @demsoc — everything written in a personal capacity. Personal website: www.paul-evans.org