What ‘Cancel Culture’ Conceals

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Beneath the narrow focus on policing offensive speech lies a wider loss of belief

Depending on where you stand, ‘cancel culture’ is either deserved payback for those who have enjoyed their privilege for too long, or a serious threat to free speech and public life. In his lively and thoughtful book Canceling Comedians, Ben Burgis, philosopher, socialist and regular contributor to the US leftwing website Jacobin, analyses why cancel culture is, in fact, a political problem for the left, even if it appears to originate in progressive sentiments that take reactionary attitudes and rightwing politics as their target.

Burgis opens with a defence of comedians such as David Chappelle, arguing that comedy, when it becomes ‘art’, functions ‘to make our inner lives more interesting by making us extremely uncomfortable’. Some will object that what comedians say is offensive and even hurtful, but this says less about the nature of what is said than it does about how it is received. Burgis’s broad point is that the narrow focus on policing offensive speech hides a wider loss of belief in the possibility of really changing anything.

David Chappelle and Jon Stewart, 2018. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Raph_PH; Creative Commons

Canceling Comedians tries to understand the psychological investments that make cancel culture so histrionic and intolerant as a failure of the left to rally people to a politics that’s more material than it is moralising. Burgis draws heavily on the late British theorist Mark Fisher’s prophetic 2013 essay ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’, and his bleak analysis of the increasingly divisive and disciplinarian tone of leftwing politics, which anticipated the paranoid and censorious atmosphere that has come to dominate public life in the years since.

Quoting Fisher, Burgis points out that the inhabitants of the ‘Vampire Castle’ (those obsessed with cancelling others) pretend ‘to care about structural issues but “in practice it never focuses on anything but individual behaviour.”’ ‘If you don’t really believe in changing the world,’ Burgis argues, ‘and deep down you see your politics as a symbolic performance, a way of “taking a stand”’, then it’s only natural that you’ll end up ‘trying to prove your personal virtue and examining the virtue of others’.

Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left, by Ben Burgis, published by Zer0 Books

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