There is much to learn from last month’s extraordinary general election. But one of the forces that took Johnson to No 10 is the backlash against cancel culture and those who seek to destroy others for jokes they make.
At the time of his death, Sir Roger Scruton was celebrated not just as one of the greatest philosophers of his lifetime but as someone who was able to defy – and expose – the mob. A Twitterstorm had erupted over words of his that had been maliciously twisted, and within hours he had been fired from his role chairing a government commission. But his treatment led to uproar, and his eventual reinstatement. Yet again, he made history: for once, the mob did not get its man.
Now we have Alastair Stewart, dropped by ITN for making what it called “errors of judgement” on social media. He had been quoting Shakespeare, citing lines from Measure for Measure that included the words “angry ape”. The person he had been debating with was black, and a daft row ensued. It ought to have ended, at most, in an apology – where Stewart would have made the obvious point that no offence was intended. Instead, it ended his 40-year career.
Over the years, we have seen the rise of what Americans call “woke capitalism”, where private companies are infected by the madness that started taking hold in university campuses some time ago. Typically, there will be a zealous Human Resources department that decides to become a cultural police force. Employees might be issued with rainbow-striped lanyards to celebrate Pride, or be invited to Black History Month. And if you hate identity politics, best keep quiet. You risk being painted as a bigot and, in the era of moral panic, to be accused is to be guilty.
Marketeers, too, panic. Last year, Nike dropped a line of trainers after complaints that the design – an early flag of the United States – had been adopted by white supremacists. A shopping centre in Reading evicted Chick-fil-A, an American fast food chain, after complaints that it was somehow homophobic. Among the supposed evidence that it donated to the Salvation Army.
The common theme, from Nike to the newsroom, is a complete failure to argue the case or to defend the truth. Does Nike regard the old Betsy Ross flag as a symbol of racism? Does anyone at ITN believe that Stewart is, in the slightest way, racist?
But when moral panic takes over, truth never matters – and social media trolls take control. You can see them on Twitter picking targets all day, seeking companies gullible enough to respond to digital pressure.
For example: “Acme Inc, are you okay with supporting the work of a bigot like Alastair Stewart?” The idea is to terrify Acme Inc into pulling their advertising. Or have them waver long enough to persuade the employer that the journalist is too much of a risk to have around, and ought to be let go. Or, in the parlance, “cancelled”.
Throughout the election campaign, there were attempts to “cancel” Boris Johnson. The Spectator’s online archives were deluged by Corbynites trawling 25-year-old articles for a quote here or there that could be taken out of context. Not so long ago, he was investigated by the Conservative Party itself on charges of Islamophobia after a joke he made in these pages about the niqab: a garment banned in several Muslim countries. But, again, facts didn’t matter. His critics just wanted to smear and destroy him.
It doesn’t seem to have done him much harm. Indeed, an important part of his support will be from those who admire how he speaks freely, how he is unafraid to make jokes and use satire. And that he doesn’t apologise, or run scared of any digital mob.
Of course, a politician who restricts his opinions and language to the rigorously-policed parameters of social media will never speak to the country. Failure to recognise this led Labour down a digital rabbit hole (along with much of the media) while the Tories won a historic majority.
This is politics, of a new and potent kind. There are a great many voters who might not care about Brexit but who do care that the jokes they crack might be used to destroy them, or those they love. That without voting for it, we have somehow entered a world where everyone is one off‑colour joke away from career death. This matters more than a marginal tax rate or the fate of HS2. It’s a force against which targets have no defence: to be accused is to be guilty. And victims are everywhere.
It can happen to Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate forced to resign for an offhand remark about working with women. Or it could be Brian Leach, fired from Asda last year for sharing a Billy Connolly video which a colleague thought was Islamophobic. An American racing car driver recently had his sponsorship pulled because of remarks that had been uncovered from the early Eighties – but made by his father, not even by him.
The irony is that this time, there was no army of social media trolls demanding Alastair Stewart’s head. His Shakespeare quote generated a bit of fuss, but not much. Perhaps ITN overreacted to a handful of complaints. In any event, it was a calamitous misjudgment because the fury is now directed at them – and the way one of their longest-serving journalists has been treated.