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Don’t believe the hype: The powerful wield 'cancel culture'

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Peter Dutton has recently threatened to sue Twitter users (image by Domrafferty via Wikimedia Commons)

Recent outcries of "cancel culture" are red herrings that should be dismissed, writes Dr Rashad Seedeen.  

CONFECTED OUTRAGE over so-called "cancel culture" is a common tactic of the Right at the moment. Dr Seuss, J.K. Rowling, Peter van Onselen and even Waleed Aly have been the latest so-called "victims" of online mobs. The argument goes that these individuals have been de-platformed by keyboard warriors.

However, the reality is far removed from the outrage over "cancel culture".

Dr Seuss’ books are widely available in libraries and bookshops around the world. His estate just chose to stop publishing books that were both unpopular and racist. Wedding planners can rest easy: Oh, the Places You’ll Go can still be used as a lame alternative reading for that special day.   

J.K. Rowling, whose transphobic comments were widely criticised – including from stars of the Harry Potter series – continues to be a best-selling author with an estimated worth ranging between $670 million to $1.2 billion.

Peter van Onselen ignored his conflict of interest and continued to defend his close friend, former Attorney-General Christian Porter in relation to rape allegations. This included the highly unethical act of publishing the diary entries of the alleged victim to discredit her account, continues to write for The Australian, is a host on The Project and remains an academic for the University of Western Australia.

Waleed Aly, who drew criticism for undermining the credibility of Héritier Lumumba in an extended interview on The Project in 2017, continues to be the show’s host, a columnist for Nine Entertainment and an academic for Monash University.

Despite the hype, widespread criticism has not translated into any "cancelling". People like to blame the online mob for turning on people and ruining lives.

Prime minister, Scott Morrison attempted to use the false dichotomy between the rule of law and “mob process” in rejecting calls for an independent inquiry into the Christian Porter rape allegations. However, the simple reality is that an independent inquiry is the polar opposite of a mob that involves an investigation, a careful review of the evidence and findings from an independent third party.

And that’s the nub of it: these "online mobs" more than anything seem to be demanding some form of accountability and justice from people in power who in many ways act above such processes.

And when we flip the coin, we can see where the real cancelling has taken place.

J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans comments have helped legitimise the reversal of trans-rights in the UK and the U.S. The ILGA-Europe equality index report made special note of the harmful comments of Rowling, as well as others in the media and that anti-trans hate crimes had increased in the UK by 16 per cent in 2020. 

The work of van Onselen and others in the media have justified concerns of victims of sexual assault that their entire character will be under scrutiny and attacked if they make a report. The National Crime and Safety Survey found that over 80 per cent of sexual assaults are unreported for reasons including that they 'do not think they will be believed'.

Reliving the trauma of past sexual assaults is hard enough but enduring character assassinations is a process of public cancellation that is truly unbearable.

Héritier Lumumba’s public profile took a massive hit following The Project interview. It took another three years until his account was actually verified and Collingwood faced their problems of institutional racism, mostly due to the tireless advocacy of Lumumba and his friend, Aamer Rahman.  

The cancelling that comes from those in positions of power is a mechanism used to discredit and marginalise their intended targets, whilst simultaneously acting as a warning to others to remain silent or at the very least maintain the status quo.

Hence, we have seen the conga-line of Liberal politicians using defamation lawsuits against journalists and others.

Joe Hockey won a Federal Court defamation case against Fairfax Media in 2015 for their ‘Treasurer for Sale’ headline. His victory was soured by the fact the $200,000 payout was only a fraction of legal costs.

In 2019, the Prime Minister’s Office threatened defamation against Channel Ten and Waleed Aly over his editorial following the Christchurch Terrorist Attack in 2019, where Aly revealed that in a past cabinet meeting, then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison suggested there were“votes in [an] anti-Muslim strategy”.

Christian Porter’s defamation case against the ABC and the Four Corners journalist, Louise Milligan over her article, 'Scott Morrison, senators and AFP told of historical rape allegation against cabinet minister' will begin in a few months but it has already been pre-emptively dubbed the "defamation trial of the Century".

The article in question does not name Porter at all but the defamation case in itself is a very public warning to all commentators and journalists on what could happen to them if they dare to cast aspersions upon this Government. And most commentators and journalists aren’t as well-established or as legally protected as Milligan.  

Peter Dutton has jumped on this defamation train by going after Twitter users who took umbrage with his "he said/she said" characterisation of the Brittany Higgins alleged rape case.

On 2GB, Dutton was unambiguous in his contempt of his Twitter critics:

“I’m not going to be defamed in that way, and people should know that if they want to do that, there’s a price to pay for it.”

Such actions encourage a culture of self-censorship where writers second-guess and curb their writing in order to avoid derailing their career or potential defamation cases in the future.

Cancel culture exercised by those in power has a direct impact upon the capacity for the public to engage in a necessary discourse in democratic processes to make informed decisions, as the media is hamstrung by a culture of fear and intimidation.

Unlike Twitter mobs, people who hold institutional power can exploit their position to actually destroy the lives of their targets.    

When we examine this on a global scale the stakes become much higher.

Reporters without Borders reported that 50 journalists were killed in 2020, with most in countries ‘at peace’, meaning that they were not in a warzone but rather murdered purely for the fact they exposed corruption and wrongdoing.

U.S. President, Joe Biden, still has not directly applied sanctions upon Saudi Arabia over the cold-blooded assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Istanbul consulate in 2018.

Google, previously known as one of the best workplaces in the world, has developed a history of pushing out union organisers and internal critics.    

In 2018, Google workers organised a worldwide walkout to highlight their concerns on:

‘... sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency and a workplace culture that is not working for everybody.’

The organisers of this walkout, notably Clare Stapleton and Kathryn Spiers, were systematically pushed out through either termination or denial of career advancement until resignation became the only option.

And in 2019, four Google union organisers were fired for their efforts in unionising their workplace and their participation in a union rally outside of Google’s San Francisco office.

Just last week, the National Labor Relations Board in the United States ruled that Amazon illegally terminated two long-term employees who were known critics of workplace and climate policies.

As insecure work becomes increasingly common, punishing workers that demand better conditions is an act of widespread intimidation and a true form of "cancelling".  

So while the Right rage over the end of times because their Twitter feed is full of angry hashtags, let’s stay mindful of the real game: solidarity with those who dare speak truth and challenge power. 

Dr Rashad Seedeen holds a PhD in international relations and works as a high school teacher. You can follow Rashad on Twitter @rash_seedeen.

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