Whenever I talk to people who are suddenly concerned about “cancel culture” or “online mobs”, my first thought is always: “Where have you been for the last decade?” I’ve been online long enough and, like many others, been receiving criticism and abuse online for long enough, to know that what some see as a new pattern of virtual censure by moral purists is mostly a story about the internet, not ideology or identity.
If critics of “cancel culture” are worried about opinions, posts and writings being constantly patrolled by a growing group of haters, then I am afraid they are extremely late to the party. I cannot remember a time where I have written or posted anything without thinking: “How many ways can this possibly be misconstrued, and can I defend it if it were?” It’s not even a conscious thought process now, it’s instinct.
Has this made me a more cautious writer? Sure. Has it made me take fewer risks, with my eye constantly on the restive gallery? Possibly. But is it evidence of some new age of moral puritanical purge culture? Not really.
The people who are waiting to pile on you, dox you (spread private information about you online with malicious intent) and get you fired broadly have little in common apart from the urge to tear someone down. It’s an impulse that brings together all manner of specific sinister prejudice, keyboard activists and general garden-variety jerks. It’s a broad church. All of humanity is here.
But among the alleged cancellers are also those who, until recently, had no means of chiming into conversations about their own fates, and still don’t have the platforms or access to shape such conversations. It is natural that they find a collective activist home on the internet.
This is why, no matter how unpleasant the online world becomes for me personally, I could never condemn or deny the importance of social media. It is still pretty much the only way certain marginalised voices can be heard. It’s still the only way they can tell newspapers such as the New York Times that their op-eds are inflammatory and could potentially incite violence.
It’s still the main tool for challenging editorial decisions around publishing accused sexual harassers. And it’s often still the means by which racist incidents and police brutality towards minorities is circulated and amplified. Think of it as an unofficial ombudsman by groups who have little or no representation in newsrooms, boardrooms and political offices.
It can be hard sometimes to distinguish these groups from the general din of anarchic censure – but it’s naive at best, and disingenuous at worst, to claim they are the engine behind a new age of intolerant orthodoxy. Furores about such changes in orthodoxy have been around for as long as there has been any sort of challenge to mainstream conventions by new entrants.
In the United States, the panic about political correctness was triggered by a group of new identities – women and people of colour – that were starting to advance notions of sexual and racial equality. In a way, cancel culture has existed for a long time, but the panic around it is renewed every time walls between discourse-makers and discourse-consumers are lowered.
And this is a good thing. The less that elites are cloistered away, the better. So, much of the liberal panic about new ostensibly corrosive phenomena such as populism or post-truth politics is really old panic about the incursion of new forces into elite domains. Whether it’s Breitbart News or social media viral campaigns, these new forces are just the latest way political narratives are being wrested away from traditional actors.
It could be a letter in Harper’s by a variety of high-profile writers and academics decrying cancel culture (without naming it directly); or similarly minded writers and thinkers decamping to new journalistic platforms to get away from “enemies” of free inquiry. But what is really unfolding here is a cohort of established influencers grappling with the fact they are losing control over how their work is received. Something old, constantly threatened and triggered by something new.
And this latest something new is so vast, so varied – and unfolding at such great speed – that it’s impossible to classify under one ideological category. What the expansion and digitisation of the public space has done over the past decade is blur the lines between the public and the private, between personal liability and that of employers, and between what is politics and business. In just one example, the religious scholar and documentary maker Reza Aslan recently recounted how, after he used profanity in tweeting disparagingly about Donald Trump, he was dropped by CNN. He said he was secretly told there were commercial reasons related to CNN’s access to the White House, and potential mergers that needed regulatory blessing.
There is a certain narcissism in collapsing all these different jeopardies into one threat to hallowed liberal spaces. It’s parochial to witness the dramatic escalation in everything from the manipulation of elections to the industrialisation of authoritarian regimes’ social-media propaganda, and conclude that the main problem we have is an assault on free expression by a very particular angry mob of a certain political persuasion. It merely serves to expose the self-absorption of parts of the intellectual elite.
As a pandemic and a global anti-racism movement unsettle us and force us to think deeply about how our societies perpetuate an inequality that threatens the lives of those on the sharp end of law enforcement and poor healthcare access, our “thinkers” show us that their definition of a crisis is far removed from the real world. This solipsism about cancel culture proves in itself the need for more democratisation, and less reverence for those who look at a world fundamentally changing, but see only how it is changing for themselves.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist