The naming of things

By July 23, 2020Australian Politics

Some days ago, I bumped into a term I have never heard before: ‘cancel culture’. It refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures or companies, usually on social media, after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive1. This struck me as something very positive in much the same way as is nobbling racists or misogynists when they raise their ugly heads on Twitter or Facebook. In those cases, I tend to report their offensive tweets or posts, in the hope that Twitter or Facebook will remove their accounts from the system. So why does something so positive get lumbered with a name used as a pejorative by all sorts of right wing nut jobs? It is because that is what they do as a matter of course. I’ll just go through a few of these treasured right wing pejoratives as examples.

The recent open letter to Harper’s magazine signed by a bunch of luminaries such as Salman Rushdie, Jo Rowling and Margaret Atwood complaining about ‘cancel culture’ has brought this topic to the fore in recent days. The open letter warned that the spread of “censoriousness” is leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”. Rowling, whose beliefs on transgender rights have recently seen scores of Harry Potter fans distance themselves from her, said she was “proud to sign this letter in defence of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech”2. This is a load of drivel. What is really happening is that established ‘influencers’ are grappling with the fact they are losing control over how their work is received. Among the alleged ‘cancellers’ are those who, previously, had no means of entering conversations about their own fates, and still largely don’t have the platform or access to shape such conversations. In that situation, it is unsurprising that they find a home for their activism on the internet. In a brilliant piece in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik said “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”3. It is hard to disagree with that. As Pankaj Mishra said: “Certainly, a closer examination of the critics of cancel culture confirms the suspicion that many of these self-appointed defenders of free speech prefer monologue over dialogue”4,5. Before I started this blog, the only way I could express my opinion on what I perceived as some political transgression by a highly paid spiv, was to write a letter (maximum 100 words) to the editor of the local newspaper. Many of these were published, but many weren’t. I was at the mercy of the ‘cancel culture’ of the letters editor of the newspaper. Now I am not.

Anyone who was around when John Howard was Prime Minister would have heard him refer to the ‘elites’ who, he said, were trying to undermine his program of shovelling money to the wealthy and scapegoating asylum seekers and indigenous Australians. The elites to which Howard referred were those who actually knew what they were talking about. Howard’s ‘elites’ included such people as economists, scientists and sociologists, but excluded those who actually were the elites in government and business. It was Howard’s way of engendering scorn among the populace by implying that these people didn’t know what it was like to have a real job. It was Howard’s way of deflecting attention away from those, like him, who were the elite and actually had the wealth, power and influence, and were misusing it for their own gain. The fact that CEOs earning several millions of dollars and government ministers with salaries between $300,000 and $550,000, are excluded from the ‘elite’ is simply laughable, as it is they who have the most power and influence6. The fact that Howard had the power to effectively marginalise those with expertise demonstrates precisely that he was part of the elite. Howard desperately needed to exclude those in business from his label because they formed a co-dependency with him. They relied on him to decrease their taxes, while he relied on them to help fund his election campaigns. It was ‘the Howard battlers’ who bought this drivel.

Another pejorative sometimes used is the ‘nanny state’. Conservatives and libertarians often moan about the ‘nanny state’ when they believe it prevents them doing something they would like to do. Whether that be smoking indoors, riding bikes without a helmet, driving a car without a seatbelt, driving as fast as you wish, drinking while driving, or wishing to own an automatic rifle. Libertarians often state that this nanny state is derived from groups who think many people are “too silly to know what is good for”. This is true; many people are too stupid to know what is good for them. Who in their right mind would drive without buckling up their seatbelt, as it has been demonstrated to save lives in car crashes. Who in their right mind would think that speed limits, especially around schools should be abolished, when it has been demonstrated that these limits save lives7. However, that is what libertarians want; to have as few constraints on their behaviour. They all seem to believe that their families will never have car crashes, their kids will never make a mistake crossing the road outside their school, or when someone flips out and starts shooting people if they had automatic rifles, they believe their family members will be safe. These people are terminally stupid and must be protected from themselves, just as we need to be protected from them.

The term ‘political correctness’ has become very often used in recent years. But what political correctness actually means is rarely brought into the national conversation. Its dictionary definition is: ‘avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalise, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against’. By this definition, the term should be viewed in a positive way. However, the phrase is usually used with negative connotations, especially by those with ultraconservative or libertarian political stances8. They use it on a regular basis whenever they want to rail against a perceived threat against free speech or something else which threatens their hegemony of abuse. In addition, they maintain it is a left-wing ideological creed that threatens the repression of free political marketplace of ideas, and it is undemocratic. However, political correctness isn’t a ‘creed’. It is a catch-all term that ultraconservatives apply to those asking for more sensitivity or consideration than ultraconservatives are willing to give. It is a way of labelling an issue by intimating it is frivolous, thereby justifying ignoring those promoting the issue. Even worse, the charge of ‘political correctness’ is often used by those in a privileged position to silence debates raised by people who have been marginalised — to say that their concerns don’t deserve to be voiced, much less addressed9.

For this part of the rant, I was going to take a bit of a dive into the bizarre concept of ‘cultural Marxism’, only to find that Jason Wilson had done a sterling job of looking into its history and its use by ultraconservatives to help them play the victim card10. A belief in ‘cultural Marxism’ is just another conspiracy theory. It goes like this. When the socialist revolution failed to spread beyond the Soviet Union, thinkers argued that culture and religion blunted the desire to revolt, so the Marxists should infiltrate universities, schools, bureaucracies and the media – so that cultural values could be changed from above. According to the conspiracy theorists, the problem was not only capitalism, but the family, gender hierarchies and normal sexuality; in short, the whole suite of traditional western values. The cultural Marxists are supposed to have promoted or enforced ideas which were intended to destroy traditional Christian values and overthrow capitalism: feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and atheism. And political correctness is a part of the same game. This is what assorted Murdoch hacks in The Australian, on Sky News, and people like the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik believe. With the collapse of European communism, ultraconservatives, especially in the US, needed a replacement boogeyman, and as there was no way they could convince anyone that a military threat was likely from a collapsed USSR (although they tried), the enemy became a cultural one. According to the conspiracy theory, its foot soldiers were academics, scientists, those in the arts, journalists (real ones, not Murdoch hacks), civil rights activists, environmentalists, feminists, unionists, atheists and anyone else with a vaguely progressive outlook10. It is a way for ultraconservatives to feel they are defending the bastions of the free world against the forces of evil. Of course, this is abject drivel. However; it allows those right-wing nut jobs smarting from their loss of privilege to don the cloak of victimhood, by pointing to a shadowy, omnipresent, elite who are conspiring to destroy all that is good and install a new world order. It gives them an explanation for the decline of families, small towns, their patriarchy, and unchallenged white power: a vast, century-long left-wing conspiracy. Ironically, cries of ‘cultural Marxism’ deflects attention from the most important factor in these changes: capitalism, which demands mobility, whose regular crises have eroded living standards, and which thus, among other things, undermines the viability of conventional family structures and the traditional rural lifestyles for which conservatives are so enthusiastic10.

The term ‘virtue signalling’ has been around for about 16 years, but was only popularised in the last five years or so in the conservative magazine, the Spectator. It was originally perceived to be making a statement you believe will garner approval, and not so much because you actually believe it. It was supposed to be a form of vanity dressed up as conviction. When we define ourselves, vanity is not something of which we want to be accused. Therefore, saying someone’s opinion is driven purely by vanity is a powerful putdown. In discussions such as those related to politics, the phrase serves two functions: to make your opponent look shallow, while at the same time indicating that your argument is more sophisticated. What started off as a sly way to win arguments has become a simple putdown. It’s mostly used to cast aspersions on opponents as an alternative to legitimately rebutting their arguments. Ironically, it has become indistinguishable from the thing it was designed to call out: smug posturing from a position of self-appointed authority11. While I like to call out vanity and narcissism wherever I see it, the problem now lies in the adoption of this epithet by ultraconservatives to deride what one has to say about almost anything in the political sphere; whether it be ending immigration detention, climate change action, black lives matter, decreasing indigenous incarceration, and anything else that has ultraconservatives foaming at the mouth because of their inability to rebut the arguments for them.

The epithet ‘identity politics’ has come to represent a wide range of political activity based upon the shared experience of injustice of members of certain groups of people. Rather than being centred around political belief systems, manifestos or party affiliations, identity political bodies typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific marginalised constituency. The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of large-scale political movements such as feminism, and gay and lesbian liberation, for example, which were based on claims about the injustices done to them, and is intimately connected to the idea that some social groups are oppressed. It maintains that one’s identity as a woman or as a gay man, for example, makes one vulnerable to ‘cultural imperialism’, by stereotyping, erasure, violence, exploitation, marginalisation or powerlessness12. It has become almost an article of ultraconservative faith that it is the left that are mired in identity politics and that conservatives don’t care what colour, race, religious belief or gender anybody is13, because they’re all about Australians. If this was the case, then why is it the centre left of politics which has driven the equality bus through Australian politics vastly more than conservatives? The epithet ‘identity politics’ has come to be used as a derogatory term by conservatives in much the same way as they use the term virtue signalling; to cast aspersions upon the motivation of those opposing their views. Indeed, in Australia, the term ‘identity politics’ was used by then Prime Minister John Howard at about the same time the dog whistle was used by him to scapegoat asylum seekers and indigenous Australians.

All these pejoratives are used by the conservatives to silence critics; to make it appear that the critics have ulterior motives, whereas it is the conservatives who have the ulterior motive; and that is to not be questioned or debated. All the terms discussed above are used as a way to win debates without having to rebut the arguments used by their critics13.

By using the epithet cancel culture, conservatives are accusing others of wanting the sort of thing they themselves wish would happen; the silencing of critics. By using the word elites as they do, they are attempting to exclude themselves from that group, as if to say ‘blame them not us’, despite conservatives currently having all the power. The irony of conservatives bemoaning the nanny state is probably lost on them, for it is they who are the people who want most to control people’s lives, especially when people’s underpants are off, or when they become pregnant or dying in agony. Their whining about political correctness is something they do because they are concerned it may impinge on their ability to exercise their bigotry and scapegoating of indigenous people, asylum seekers, the poor, the young, the unemployed, women and anyone else they do not like. Asserting that cultural Marxism exists is a way of replacing the enemy of cold war communism with another enemy to discredit all those whom they whine about being politically correct. They state that people are virtue signalling as if to indicate that those people are disingenuous, whereas it is conservatives who are disingenuous in calling such qualities as respect, compassion and egalitarianism false virtues. Conservatives use the term identity politics as a way of lumping those people they scapegoat into a them, to differentiate them from their purported ‘us’.

As the world becomes more progressive and less religious, the old power structures are starting to fray around the edges. This is not caused by the progressives or the apostate; it has been caused by the conservatives themselves in their churches, parliaments and boardrooms, because their behaviour has been disgraceful, in molesting children, scapegoating people, shovelling even more money to the wealthy and exploiting everyone else. Their time and their power is coming to an end and they are terrified of that future.




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