Much ink has been spilt over this or that writer getting ‘cancelled’ or otherwise shuffled off. Andrew Sullivan is the latest high-profile case, but there are hundreds, probably thousands, in the same boat. I’ve often written about people — especially ordinary members of the public — being sacked for their views over the last five years.
Behind the cancellations is something more concerning, at least to me. I’ve taken to calling it ‘The Silo Effect’. Both social media (by dint of algorithms) and now conventional media (by dint of deliberate hiring and firing) are herding their viewers and readers into ideological silos. Once there, they are unlikely to encounter anything other than intellectual comfort food with which they already agree.
The first piece I wrote about cancel culture appeared in April 2015, in the Guardian. Yes really. Its publication represented an admirable editorial desire to expose left-leaning readers to a wide range of perspectives, including those on ‘the other side’. It meant courting not only me, but other centre-right and right commentators. The Guardian was not alone in doing this, either, and not just with me.
And yet, in the Year of Our Lord 2020, I’m confident when I say I’ll never write for the Guardian again.
Wilfully closing the door on ‘the other side’ accelerated — like everything else — in 2016, with Leave’s win in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election victory. After I left my job as Senator Leyonhjelm’s Senior Adviser and returned to London, I started to do the lawyer thing and keep detailed notes on who could no longer write for whom, and why — at least among my friendship group.
In March 2017, a leftie friend told me she was worried about publishing a piece critical of a currently popular left position because she was frightened of losing all her other writing gigs. ‘You can’t disagree with your own team any more,’ she said, ‘or offer nuance’. She made a point of noting she needed the income, which ensured her silence.
Then — as now — right-leaning outlets were less doctrinaire. When a rightie friend with regular spots in Tory outlets wanted to argue that economic inequality matters more than most conservatives and classical liberals think it does, his work was safe, but if he wanted to write on that topic, he was directed to ‘publish it elsewhere’. He tried, but none of the lefties wanted to know. Guilt by association (he’d been published in National Review) made him damaged goods.
In 2017 and 2018, I had leftie friends — personal friends — who didn’t know I had new books out because, well, I wrote about them (or other people wrote about them) in the Australian, The Spectator and Quillette, or was interviewed on commercial television rather than the ABC. This isn’t cancellation, or anything like it (although the ABC’s behaviour does rankle; it’s supposed to be the national broadcaster, and I’m a Miles Franklin Award winner).
No one has shut me up, although there’s been the odd damp squib. Buzzfeed and the Guardian both had a crack in 2017. Individuals have written to the editors of various newspapers and magazines telling them I’m a bad person with bad opinions and shouldn’t be published. Nothing has happened, though. If anything, my bank balance suggests my audience has grown larger and more international. So not everyone who disagrees with the woke Left is cancelled. But I have no left-wing readers any more, apart from friends and people who deliberately seek me out.
The idea of a mild classical liberal like me (or Andrew Sullivan or Bari Weiss) writing for any leftie outlet is now fanciful. Even people on the centre-left who disagree with ‘the wokies’ — Helen Pluckrose comes to mind — are finding it difficult to get a fair hearing. ‘I really don’t want something lefties need to read running in the Telegraph,’ she told me once. It does seem the wokies are trying to kill off what remains of the old liberal-Left, which is why they’re so furious with J. K. Rowling. They can ensure no leftie ever has to read me or Helen Pluckrose. They’ve no chance of holding back the tidal wave of people who want to read everything Rowling puts into print.
Conservative outlets have tried to retain more ideologically diverse stables. It’s more a slow drawing down of blinds on our side, when good faith attempts to engage are rebuffed with accusations of being ‘racism-adjacent’ or whatever wank-term is en vogue this week.
This bonkers behaviour is rooted in belief in a form of word magic. Wokery, with its view that words, ideas and arguments can cause ‘harm’ in the same way a punch does means safety is only possible if one refuses to engage. The logic is impeccable: when you think language makes the world, you are frightened of words.
Worse, Mill’s ‘harm principle’ is no defence against people who insist on equating spiritual or psychological ‘harm’ with physical violence. This distorted thinking was behind the campaign that succeeded in forcing Coon Cheese to change its name. It’s no more and no less than a claim that this particular branded cheese, named for its inventor (Edward Coon was a real person, with a real patent for his recipe), leads to black deaths in custody.
That is classic pissing in a wetsuit policy. Feels good, but doesn’t show.
Mind you, renaming the cheese for cricketer David Boon (he of 52 tinnies on a long-haul flight fame) has potential.
People don’t naturally audi alteram partem (listen to the other side). We’re tribal. We’ll eat comfort food and stop thinking any old day, especially when accused of evil simply for engaging with opponents. You have to make a conscious decision to hear both sides. You have to look. And that’s now being made harder.
This is a recipe for stupid policy and broken politics if ever I saw one. Running a country from the inside of your silo is impossible.
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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her latest novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize. She lives in London.
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