Writers are taking a fearful risk in the ‘cancel culture’ world

Writing, publishing, or even liking anything online these days should come with a health warning. People can be imprisoned, fined, lose their jobs or have their reputations ruined for the slightest transgressions. A general awareness of this has kept my own foray into the public space decidedly stilted until now.

There have always been a few nay-saying voices to discourage me from writing. One is a fear of public denouncement, coupled with an apparent lack of forgiveness in the world. Another is a fear that perhaps I have nothing of interest to offer, or no purpose at which to aim. Another is a simple ignorance about just how to do such a thing viably, and the vices of laziness and cynicism to boot. I am going to explore the reasons for my own hesitancy to write, laziness and cynicism aside. I believe they are justifiable concerns, and not mere fiendish rationalisations for my own fears and vices.

In his essay, ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell biographically outlines his motives for becoming a writer. In trying to abandon the idea of becoming a writer, he knew that he was outraging his true nature. The word ‘outrage’ resonates. One thinks of those who are embedded in professions for which they have no love; a thing which suppresses, exhausts and eventually crushes the spirit. As Orwell puts it, “After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery.”

After this, Orwell speaks of the resolve that “sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.” He writes that one “would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand.” I have had a similar voice in me, as I imagine all who attempt to write for a living do, and yet I have hesitated and procrastinated from doing so publicly with any resolve until very recently. This is no virtue. “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” Amen. And yet the world is infinitely better for him having listened to that voice. And so I shall try to listen to that voice too.

Why should one write? Aside from making a living, Orwell explores four main motives which exist in all writers of prose in varying degrees, depending on historical context and the writer’s own idiosyncrasy. They are: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.

The first two motives are quite clear. Writers are egoistic and enjoy, and desire to be, wellsprings of beauty in so far as they intend to highlight the things they recognise as valuable and ought not to be lost.

The second pair of the four motives for writing may feel inseparable, but the distinction is plain enough. Historical impulse is the desire to find and preserve the truth for future generations. Political purpose is intended to “alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” So historical purpose is a note to future readers who may look back to judge and compare the moment of the author with their own. An exemplar is Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est.  Political purpose, on the other hand, is mostly intended to influence contemporary readers teleologically. When Lenin penned the Call to Power on October 24th 1917, he wrote “The government is tottering. It must be given the death-blow at all costs.” He was intentionally willing his readers to action.

Nevermind the dictum of John W. Garner, that history never feels like history when you’re living through it; there is no doubt that we are living through a ferocious historic period.

What is the apparatus of our age? For students of history that question has predominantly been answered through the written documents and physical artefacts left behind by the period being studied. The twentieth century saw that source-material enlarge slightly to include broadcast media, accessible to some but controlled by an elite minority who were literate and of sufficient stature to enter the profession. The twenty-first century adds to that historical source-material the digital footprint of approximately 5 billion people as of April 2020, or roughly 60 per cent of the global population. What is recorded by and uniquely tethered to each individual ranges from the most trivial to the most profound moments of our time, and, with the prevalence of video, even literacy is not a prerequisite for leaving one’s mark for future historians. Our age is saturated in information.

In this context, a mostly unchecked power dynamic exists between individuals and the companies who control the ability to operate on their services. The user wants to share information in the form of words or images, or to send currency. Because of the unchecked power dynamic, individuals and organisations can be banished from these platforms by the owners without warning and for opaque reasons. There is some fightback, but the direction of traffic is overwhelmingly one-way, and it is not apolitical.

Quite how these coincident facts manifest in the world is still being reckoned with, but the writing on the wall is something like as follows. If you do not wish to be judged and potentially cancelled for what you publish in digital form now and for all time, tread very carefully as you go. As it is, people can lose their livelihoods or put their lives at risk for opinions they publish online. The price of intellectual honesty can be high. As can the price of sheer stupidity, as NBA reporter Chris Palmer found out to his comeuppance in a moment of irony during the BLM riots of 2020. Palmer became angry and fearful when a mob tried to enter his gated community after he had encouraged the very same mob to “Burn it all down.” His payment of lip service to behaviour with which he disagreed nearly cost him his property and security. Even discussions of matters which seem entirely trivial, such as knitting, can result in delirious cancellation wars. And once something has been published, and havoc is wreaked, the resulting exposure and damage is difficult if not impossible to undo.

What has been said is enough to demonstrate that it is wise to be cautious of sticking your head above the parapet unless you have some understanding of the landscape and an awareness of the potential fallout. Publicly identifying oneself in doing so is not a trivial risk to take. Without the self-esteem to take vicious public criticism, writing for political purpose may be suicidal. Even documenting facts for historical impulse can endanger one’s life, as Andy Ngo has recently discovered.

To offer something in terms of positive assertion (or purpose) relies on a sufficiently matured view of the world and one’s place in it that is grounded in reality. My own thinking is slow, yet the time we live in is fast, complex, and turbulent. If every quip, faux-pas, or earnestly believed statement is immortalised online for eisegesis, scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, or misrepresentation, then the world is perilous indeed, especially when apologising does not seem to help. Indeed, apologising is often seen as an admission of guilt.

I have not yet written because I had thus-far insufficiently understood my own political period and because I have been afraid to unapologetically voice an opinion. I hope I have now gained enough purchase and resolve to do so going forward. As I do, I hope to remain an individual and yet live for others, without being smothered under drudgery.

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