Cancel culture is as old as political association. The Athenians were practitioners of their own form of cancel culture. The Athenians cast ostracon, shards of pottery on which a name was inscribed, to reach a consensus as to which citizen should be exiled for a period of ten years. If voted against, the citizen had ten days to vacate the city. Ostracism was a form of social shunning which sought to guard the fledgling democracy of Athens against tyrants, populists and revolutionaries. The Romans exiled troublemakers; the other ‘Romans’ of the Catholic variety excommunicated free thinkers who thought too freely. Social and political shunning has always been a tool of the powerful to dictate acceptable discourse. Sometimes it was misused as in the cases of Aristides and Galileo, but social shunning remained a legitimate albeit tertiary tool of political life throughout the centuries. Then Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet, and Jack Dorsey founded Twitter.
The advent of the internet, a vast compendium of information which immortalises phrases and photos, has had disastrous consequences to the quality of our public discourse. Instead of being limited to individual cities, universities or religious networks, as cancel culture has been in the past, the internet has connected all the torch wielding zealots from around the uncivilised world. Cancel culture has truly gone global. At a whim, this global force can be united against an unsuspecting individual. The internet has provided the ammunition these people seek: a decade old tweet, a picture from the distant past, one wrong move is enough to arouse the ire of this technologically literate mob. If we seek advancement in any form of public or professional position, we are now put under the same amount of scrutiny only a politician running for high office would have to endure. Twitter is the forum, the kangaroo court, which gives voice to the malicious actors who in the physical world could simply be ignored.
If Twitter acts as the judge and jury, then the executioner of cancel culture are the employers and sponsors who genuflect to the artificially cultivated outrage of the internet mob. Cancel culture seeks not only to defame its object, but to destroy their livelihood and render them unemployable. Kevin Hart’s dismissal from the hosting of the Oscars ceremony for the resurfacing of old ‘unacceptable’ tweets is but one example of many. Since the Hart debacle there has been no host for the ceremony. There is no personality sinless enough to withstand the scrutiny of the mob.
In recent months cancel culture has reached another level of absurdity, you can now be targeted by the mob for thoughts you do not think and sins you did not commit. Now you are liable to be punished for the actions of those you associate with, or by no choice of your own, those you are related too. Last fortnight the Killing Eve actress Jodie Comer was targeted by the cancel mob for her choice of boyfriend. Her boyfriend was discovered to be an alleged member of the Republican Party and even a supporter of the current President of the United States. The new woke mob demands, on pain of unemployment, not only that you submit 100% to their ideological beliefs, but that you only associate with those who believe the same. Two years ago, Nascar driver, Conor Daly lost many sponsors because of being related to someone who said something naughty before he was born. In punishing a son for the apparent sins of the father, our society turns its back on an established foundational ethic of our Judeo-Christian Western Culture.
Truth, context, fair play, and humanity do not matter to the mob. They did not matter to Maximilian Robespierre as he conducted the execution of thousands by guillotine in the name of liberty and fraternity, and they certainly do not matter to today’s mob. Power is all that matters to the mob. G.K Chesterton writing in the early 1900s predicted the eventual unpopularity of rationalism, ‘we shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.’ Cancelling is used as a method of intimidation to silence free thinkers into intellectual obedience. Employers, HR departments, and sponsors have the ability to destroy someone’s livelihood and they often show no commitment to freedom of speech. We must fight for the principles of Liberalism, and against the forces of authoritarianism in public life. In private life, we must see people’s humanity first, and ideology second. As the quote attributed to Voltaire says, we must be ready to say: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’