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Friday essay: Joanna Bourke, the NSW arts minister, and the unruly contradictions of cancel culture

Defenders of free speech are often the same people who seek to silence those they do not happen to agree with.

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Scold's bridle, a torture device used to prevent women speaking. Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA

An earworm has gnawed its way into my brain, looping the same melody over and over. It is Italy’s most famous resistance song, Bella Ciao, which I recently heard played as a high-decibel dance remix in an exclusive Balinese bar overlooking the Indian Ocean. Well-heeled patrons of diverse nationalities bopped to the catchy tune in the glow of a glorious sunset and, fuelled by exotic cocktails, chanted the chorus. I wondered how a sacred anthem of radical credentials could have strayed so far from its original meanings and contexts.

Bella Ciao began as a partisan anthem, possibly with roots in folk laments sung by exploited workers in the north of Italy. It is associated in Italian minds with the resistance of 1943–45.

The song’s popularity peaked when it was used as a soundtrack for the popular Netflix series Money Heist (2017). It was sung from balconies in Europe during the pandemic; it is de rigueur at political rallies by groups of all political leanings. It is used to sell burgers in Korea and to celebrate quashing an opponent in football matches (“Messi Ciao”). Unanchored from its local habitation as a protest folk song, Bella Ciao is now a tune that can travel anywhere and represent everyone and everything.

The less benign phrase “cancel culture” (and its cognate “cancelling”), which has roots in oral Black vernacular traditions, has suffered a similar semantic drift.

“Cancelling” originally referred to a practice among the disempowered of “calling out” socially unacceptable behaviour and discrimination. It has now become a catch-all phrase, imprecisely applied to all manner of people, places and things. It is used to signify everything from vigilante justice, hostile debate, intimidation and harassment, to levelling statues and de-platforming books and lectures in universities and school syllabi.

Cancel culture is often conflated with adjacent phenomena such as outrage culture, boycotts and backlashes. It is linked to debates about censorship, free speech, decolonising the curriculum, “wokeness” and “political correctness”. The noisy doxxing and bad faith piling-on feels, to many, like a rudderless surrogate of the judicial process, at once chaotic and ritualised, and has invited comparisons by some commentators to ancient, ritualised practices of scapegoating.

A real phenomenon

While cancel culture may be a hot topic among journalistic and intellectual elites, a recent UK YouGov survey found that only around a third of Britons (35%) think they know what “cancel culture” means. Of the two-thirds who don’t know what it means, close to four in ten claimed never to have heard the expression in the first place (38%).

That many people have not heard of “cancel culture” doesn’t mean the phenomenon isn’t real. On August 19, the NSW Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin, demanded that Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas cancel a talk about bestiality by eminent historian Joanna Bourke. After being contacted for comment by 2GB talkback radio host Ben Fordham, Franklin’s office said he was

deeply concerned by the contents of Bourke’s scheduled talk entitled “The Last Taboo”, and is demanding festival organisers remove it from their program.

Festival curator and Ethics Centre director Simon Longstaff refused to comply with the request, stating Bourke’s views have been misunderstood. “If somebody was to provide a history of cannibalism or slavery,” said Longstaff, “does that mean they are therefore encouraging us to eat each other or enslave our fellow man?” As a result of this media attention, he added, Bourke has been “trolled by lowlifes”.

In 2019, the Macquarie Dictionary committee named “cancel culture” Word of the Year, noting it captured an important aspect of the zeitgeist. According to its definition, it describes community attitudes that

call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from [for] a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment.

Franklin’s attempt to cancel Bourke falls squarely within this circumscribed definition.


Read more: Cancel culture, cleanskin, hedonometer ... I'm not sure I like any of Macquarie Dictionary's words of the year


The strikethrough option

Is this attempt to “cancel” Bourke simply another example of the anti-intellectualism evident across the political spectrum? Is vitriolic misinterpretation really replacing thoughtful debate?

Attempts at “cancelling” often aim to inflict maximum reputational or economic damage to otherwise out-of-reach public figures and celebrities. But as the case of author J.K. Rowling suggests, the more famous you are, the more difficult you are to topple. Rowling appears to have suffered no significant career setbacks following calls for her cancellation after she tweeted controversial views on gender identity and biological sex.

Cancelling, in this sense, is a bit like executing the strikethrough option in the keyboard: a function that enables you to draw a line through a word while allowing it to remain legible and in place.

Cancel culture is not always discerning in its targets. The transnational #MeToo movement, to cite one example, has contributed to the exposure of high-profile sexual predators such as Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, leading to criminal convictions. But other cancellations enact a more casual cruelty on ordinary, innocent people. I am reminded of the US writer Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery (1948), in which a member of a small American community is selected by chance and stoned.

Origins in social justice

The idea of cancelling or calling out transgressions has its origins in the creative spaces occupied by marginalised groups. Exemplified by hashtag-oriented social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, the strategy has been successfully deployed by activists to call out real harms and demand accountability.

Journalist Aja Romano notes the idea of cancelling a person, place or thing has long circulated within Black culture, and traces it to Nile Rodgers’s 1981 single “Your Love Is Cancelled”.

Writer and researcher Meredith D. Clark argues that “calling out”, which begat cancelling, is “an indigenous expressive form” of “useful anger” perfected by Black women. The practice was colourfully deployed to name individual transgressions. In its networked forms, it became a critique of systemic inequality.

It developed into a socially mediated phenomenon with origins in queer communities of colour. In the early 2010s, Black Twitter – a meta-network of culturally connected communities – made the language of being “cancelled” into an internet meme.

The term “cancel culture”, however, has become unmoored from its history and its original significations. In its clamorous current form, it has no coherent ideology: cancellations come just as steadily from the right as the left. Reframed by the dominant culture, and amplified by the media, it has come to be used as a term of approbation wielded against minorities to maintain the status quo.

In the attention economy of the 24-hour news cycle, journalists routinely extract and decontextualise rich traditions of collective resistance (or in Bourke’s case, scholarly research) to meet the demand for attention-grabbing content. In doing so, they often fail to explain why these debates should or shouldn’t be part of mainstream public discourse.

Franklin is on record as championing freedom of expression and diversity of opinion. Earlier this year, he stated an artist’s boycott of the Sydney Festival was “censorship” and that it risked silencing diverse voices and important perspectives to the “great detriment” of society.

Given free speech is a sovereign human right many liberals and conservatives claim to hold dear, attempting to cancel a reputable academic seems an awkward spot to be occupying. Bourke is a prizewinning author of 14 books and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is an expert on the history of violence in British, Irish, US and Australian societies. Her work includes histories of rape, fear and killing. Her most recent book, Loving Animals: On Bestiality, Zoophilia and Post-Human Love (2020), has been widely reviewed in scholarly journals.


Read more: Was the Sydney Festival boycott justifiable to support Palestine?


Mediated speech

How is it that the most ardent defenders of free speech and diversity are often the same people who seek to silence those with whom they do not happen to agree, without a sound knowledge of the ideas on which they are passing judgement?

Let’s be clear. Platitudes about freedom of expression, in the contexts we are discussing, are not about the abstract principle of free speech as such. They are about the greyer areas of where we draw the boundaries. What kind of discourse and actions are considered acceptable? Which are morally out of bounds? And, crucially, who gets to decide?

All societies place some limits on the exercise of speech, because it always takes place in a context of competing values. And in the case of cancel culture, this exercise of free speech is mediated by commercially owned social media platforms such as Twitter – the main arena of cancel culture – which, while free, thrives on the scandal that generates profit.

In this respect, it is useful to remember that the kinds of speech and actions that society deems acceptable are historically contingent and an effect of power relations.

Societies evolve; norms change; attitudes progress; the boundaries of moral acceptability are redrawn over time. It is also in the nature of linguistic meaning to be fluid and provisional, not fixed or rigid. As Judith Butler explains in Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1996), speech acts are constrained by a larger set of discursive rules. Those rules are negotiable. In this sense there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as free speech, in the sense of unlimited and decontextualised speech.

An idea deeply embedded in liberal democracies is that people are equally empowered to engage in debate and freely express their ideas. But is this really so? The public sphere is a fractured space of competing elites. Idealistic visions of equal access fail to acknowledge disparities of knowledge and resources between social elites and disempowered groups.

Right-wing politicians and commentators have claimed in recent years that a progressive cancel culture has silenced alternative perspectives and stifled robust intellectual debate. The pejorative label “cancel culture” has been misappropriated to discredit social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

The question that remains to be answered is why, even as pundits condemn cancel culture as the mob running amok, the injustices and systemic inequalities that cancelling strategies evolved to name remain largely in place. The example of Franklin and Bourke suggests hypocritical censoriousness remains part of the dominant political culture.

Understanding the genealogy of “cancel culture”, and how its language has been reframed and mobilised, may help us see such moral condemnations for what they really are: a reactive rearguard reflex by those in power, who are no longer congruent with the progressive liberal culture that dominates a fractured public sphere.

Jennifer Ann McDonell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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