16 February 2022

Conservatives trying to play the cancellation game are falling into a trap


Something that Conservatives don’t quite seem to have picked up on is that the rules of cancellation are not symmetrical. Ostracisation relies on the dynamics of an in-group being willing to punish its own. A corollary of this is that you can only really be properly ‘cancelled’ by your own side; it’s generally expected that the right will dislike the left, and the left will dislike the right. It’s when you alienate the people who provide your support that you’re really in trouble.

Attempting to look for consistent rules in these matters – other than that everything is ultimately governed by the distinction between friend and enemy – is pointless. This is why CNN could publish a headline proclaiming that ‘Joe Rogan’s use of the n-word is another January 6 moment’ and insisting he violated ‘a civic norm that has held America together since World War II… a white person would never be able to publicly use the n-word again and not pay a price’, while also having hosted white commentators using that very word in  discussion about Donald Trump.

The political right has a nasty habit of falling into one of two traps when fighting cancellation. The first is to mistake the internet for real life. In Britain, at least, hardcore progressives make up about 13% of the population but account for nearly 50% of those who post political content on social media. What seems like an overwhelming social consensus against a position can turn out to be the subtler form of internet echo chamber; while you’re definitely exposed to views other than your own, you miss out on everyone who isn’t frantically posting about politics.

The second trap is to try and argue that a cancellation is in some way hypocritical. This falls down because it treats ‘cancellation’ as the punishment for breaking a norm or taboo, when often it’s an attempt to enforce a line or embarrass a political opponent.

When the TV presenter and comedian Trevor Noah joined the pile-on against Joe Rogan, it served no purpose to bring up his own brush with controversy, or to argue that Noah himself benefited from forgiveness over a series of ‘jokes that didn’t land’, or even that Rogan stepped up to defend Noah at the time. There’s not much mileage in arguing that favoured left wing show The Young Turks have used the N-word either; the standard is not universally applied.

And the last time I checked, despite a procession of blackface photos, Justin Trudeau was also still Prime Minister of Canada. He had, after all, the perfectly reasonable defence that he had only blacked up in order to sing Day O (Banana Boat Song) at a talent show. 

The point is that attempting to draw attention to bad behaviour on the left or to highlight hypocrisy runs into the fundamental point that you can’t turn the tools of the enemy against them. Drawing attention to other episodes of behaviour or asking for the rules to be consistently applied means playing their game rather than rejecting it entirely. 

The trap – and it is a trap – runs like this: ‘Aha! By your own system of rules you, the accuser, are similarly guilty. Surely now you see they are flawed, and will either cease their use, or step down as you call on us t-…wait why aren’t you vanishing in a puff of logic?’.

Conservatives who try to turn rules they dislike back on the other team find that they’ve merely accepted another principle in the armoury against them. That the rules are inconsistently applied is baked in. 

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is the Director of Studies at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.