This is your weekly instalment of WTF is going on because, these days, a lot can happen in a week…
In Ancient Rome crowds at gladiatorial fights would pass judgement on the loser simply. They would either turn their thumbs up or down. Thumbs up, they lived. Thumbs down, they died.
On social media, we pass judgement almost as easily - we either like what someone says or, we do not. There is little room for nuance - that grey area in which most of life needs to be unpicked. If someone says something stupid or misses the mark they are publically shamed, #cancelled online and then they may then also experience real life cancelling - no platforming. In the last year it's happened to high and medium-profile people on both the left and the right alike from Hetty Douglas to Toby Young, Munroe Bergdorf and classicist Mary Beard.
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Cancelling used to be reserved for actual fascists like the racist and far right English Defence League (EDL) whose ideology incites violence and puts people in physical danger.
Similarly, In 2007, when I was at uni, the former leader of the British National Party (BNP), Nick Griffin, was invited to give a speech at our union alongside the discredited historian David Irving. I was disgusted and sure that they should never have been invited to speak. Griffin was then not yet an elected Member of the European Parliament. He was just a guy, heading up a fringe political party which advocated openly xenophobic, racist and (you might even argue) fascist views. Irving was and remains a shitbag holocaust denier who had deliberately misrepresented historical evidence and had no place on any serious panel.
At the time, the then President of my student union maintained that he wanted the men to appear in a debate about free speech, ignoring the complaints of hundreds of students. Protestors surrounded the union building on the night of the event and, in the end, the union President said he was glad he had gone ahead because both men came out 'looking pathetic'. People travelled from around the country to protest that night and, in the end, there were more anti-racism campaigners outside than there were audience members inside but that wasn't enough to redeem the whole thing.
Those who staged that event argued their right to do so using the old maxim of democracy: 'I disapprove of your views, but would fight to the death for your right to express them'. To me, though, this was a cut and dry cancelling case. The distinction between hate speech and free speech is crucial and must be made. Irving and Griffin are rare examples of people who fit neatly into the categories of right and wrong, both being about as wrong as you can possibly ever be about...well...anything. Not only this, but the views they both, but, in particular, Griffin, espouse have and continue to inspire violent racism amongst their thuggish followers. Racism is abhorrent, the holocaust happened. There was no call for further debate, the case was closed.
If somebody holds racist, misogynistic, transphobic or homophobic views which are inaccurate or directly intended to inspire hatred and violence then it's clear that they should be called out and, even, #cancelled. Indeed, they are probably breaking the law anyway and cannot claim free speech as a defence.
But, it's not always so cut and dry. Right now, it feels like anyone can be #cancelled for voicing an unpopular view and this is shutting down important conversations. Just as it was wrong when Munroe Bergdorf was condemned by the right for saying 'all white people are racist' out of context, she herself was wrong when she said that 'the suffragettes were white supremacists' on Twitter months later. Two polarising and dogmatic wrongs do not make a redeeming right.
We have an online economy of outrage which rewards negativity. It is a culture of quick criticism where our fingers fire off half-baked ideas almost faster than our minds can generate them. Impulse dictates that those on the receiving end should then reply quickly and cleverly. Their responses tend to fall into two categories: defence or even stronger criticism aimed back at the caller out. The later is more likely to be retweeted, adding fuel to the fire and giving onlookers the chance to get involved by picking a side.
An online call out bundle in which multiple users jump on a person then ensues. It's all too easy to express anger online but, unlike real life, the danger of the mob feels somehow remote so you're fight or flight response doesn't kick in and stop you from doing serious damage to yourself or to others by saying things long after you might have walked away IRL.
More than this, some people do not feel like they can say anything at all. Indeed, as this comprehensive survey of students conducted by The Atlantic found, young people in the US fear posting online for fear of being shamed for being wrong, for being called out or shamed for their views. Somewhere along the line, the call out has stopped being a tool with which to fight abuse and become a social media morality performance.
Call out culture isn't the problem in and of itself but the way we currently approach it has undermined its importance. Calling out is a necessary way of highlighting oppressive privilege (see those shitbag anti-abortion protestors hiding behind free speech) but there is a danger that in doing so we shut down further conversation. If that happens, how will we ever resolve anything? We all - whatever our beliefs - like to flatter ourselves and believe that we base our views on objective facts. The truth is that everything we know is the product of our own experiences which means that we are all, whether we like it or not, more than a bit biased.
This is perhaps seen more than anywhere in the divisions between the trans community and TERFs. Are the aims of feminists and needs of transwomen really as mutually exclusive as either side makes them out to be? Of course they are not but if you scroll through Twitter this debate which, ironically, is about the very existence of binaries has become perhaps the most polarised and polarising of them all.
It is rare that any individual or idea is ever wholly good or bad but debates are, by their nature, set up so that one party seeks to win, convincing the audience that they are right. Call out culture as it now exists is fuelled by the need to win, to be right and claim the moral high ground.
And, just like the pseudo intellectual arguments of the organisers of that deliberately provocative union debate when I was a student which, IMHO, should never have happened, I wonder, how often do the people who so fervently want to call others out or have them #cancelled do it because of the attention they gain by presenting themselves as though they are constantly in the right? Often, the glory of being right seems to be pursued at the expense of actually solving or bettering the issues on the table whether that's transphobia or cultural appropriation.
Hate speech and critical discussion are not two sides of the same coin. We need the space to disagree and discuss conflicting ideas. With it comes the possibility of being wrong and acknowledging that we must change. If we shut that down, if we close off the opportunity to be challenged and challenge ourselves because we're too busy firing off negative condemnations of others how can we ever expect to progress?
With one flick of a thumb, we can too easily retweet of echo chamber of people who agree with us. If call out culture's legacy is the #cancelling of anyone who questions or disagrees with you then we are all in serious trouble. Only they who have never held an unpopular or problematic view may throw stones our fragile and shared online glass house.
Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.