rod mclaughlin

Why John Cleese is right about cancel culture… and the Left just doesn’t get it - Telegraph (26 aug 21)



25th August 2021

In Cancel Me, commissioned by Channel 4, John Cleese vows to investigate 'all the aspects of so-called political correctness'

When it came out in 1979, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was considered blisteringly controversial. On reflection, though, perhaps its creators got off lightly. Had the film been made today, the outrage might have been greater still. Although this time, the source of the scandal wouldn’t have been the jokes about religion.

In an early scene, the proud proto-socialists known as the People’s Front of Judea are holding forth, as always, about the iniquities of colonial rule – when one of them, named Stan, unexpectedly announces that he wants to become a woman.

“From now on,” he declares, “I want you all to call me Loretta.”

This development is not, it’s fair to say, treated with the kind of sensitivity we would expect today. Instead, Stan is ridiculed by his comrade Reg, particularly over his hopes to bear children. “You haven’t got a womb!” splutters Reg in disbelief. “Where’s the foetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?”

Another comrade, Francis, is more sympathetic, arguing that Stan’s plight is “symbolic of our struggle against oppression”.

“Symbolic of his struggle against reality,” mutters Reg.

Would those who wrote that scene, more than 40 years ago, dare to write something like it today? Perhaps we’ll soon find out. Because one of them – indeed, the very man who played Reg – has just revealed that he’s making a documentary series all about the giving, and the taking, of offence.

In Cancel Me, commissioned by Channel 4, John Cleese vows to investigate “all the aspects of so-called political correctness”: the jokes and opinions we deem unacceptable today, and the ways we respond when anyone voices them. Cleese believes that political correctness began with a noble aim (in his words: “Let’s all be kind to people”), but has mutated into something rather less laudable.

Inevitably, the announcement has been derided, at least on the Left. “Don’t Mention the Culture War,” scoffed the Independent website. “Will Someone Tell John Cleese that ‘Cancel Culture’ is a Meaningless Term?”

This was typical of the online reaction. It has become widely agreed on the Left that cancel culture doesn’t actually exist, and is simply a self-pitying myth spread by the Right. Sure, on Twitter a few celebrities may come in for a bit of flak for their views now and again – but what damage does it really do them? In what meaningful sense are they “cancelled”? They still have their wealth, they still have their fame – and, as a bonus, they’re invited to do endless interviews on TV and radio, loudly parading their victimhood. The more they’re silenced, the more we seem to hear from them.

Or so the argument runs, every time a public figure like Mr Cleese speaks out. Unfortunately, however, it overlooks a small but vital point. Which is that the victims of cancel culture aren’t necessarily its targets.

Take the attacks on JK Rowling for her comments on the language of trans activism – or, if you prefer, her defence of women’s rights. She was subjected to a furious torrent of abuse, four authors quit her literary agency in protest and at her publishing house, some employees reportedly threatened not to work on her books. Nonetheless, Rowling remains surely the richest author on Earth, and continues to sell books by the truckload. She is, in short, too big to cancel.

True enough. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that her opponents failed. They may not have managed to silence Rowling – but they may well have managed to silence countless others. Having witnessed the onslaught Rowling was forced to endure, some of those who share her views may have decided that, from now on, they’d better keep this fact to themselves. After all, they wouldn’t want to face a similar onslaught – or even risk losing their jobs. Unlike Rowling, few of them possess an estimated personal fortune of £820 million. Safer, then, just to keep quiet.

Sir Tom Stoppard, the great playwright, recently gave a name to this form of diffidence. It was, he said, “self-cancellation”. In fear of being cancelled, some people essentially cancel themselves. Or at least, cancel any plans to express their genuine opinions. Instead, they say nothing, or nod anxiously along with the only opinions they can be sure are publicly acceptable: that is, the opinions of the cancellers.

In effect, therefore, the victims of cancel culture are not the rich, famous and powerful, but the opposite. Ordinary members of the public, who wouldn’t be protected by riches, fame and power if the cancellers ever came for them. I hope Cleese makes this point in his series. Ideally, he won’t only speak up for such people, but speak to them. Then again, that may not be easy. Because chances are, they won’t want to talk about it.

Portland London