How “cancel culture” got out of hand

    11 October 2019

    Can anyone remember life before Brexit? In the years immediately BBB (Back Before Brexit), it seemed we were suffering from too much news. So much so that the National Anthem of Twitter was Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

    The conceit was that Joel’s song summarising the Cold War era would need to be rewritten each week to keep up with the scale of events that were happening on the world stage.

    2011, in particular, it was felt, had thrown up TOO MUCH NEWS. From the London riots to the Arab Spring, events were piling up too fast to process, and leading to bizarre juxtapositions like Bin Laden getting Signed, SEALed and Delivered on the same long weekend that Wills and Kate got hitched.

    Everything changed in 2016. Anyone wanting to evoke all the outrages and controversies of the current era, could do so with just two words. Donald Trump.

    All of a sudden, it wasn’t the scale of the events that was remarkable but the scale of the reaction to them. What was being said on social media was considered as newsworthy as what as happening in real life.

    And so, if you wanted a more fitting version of Billy Joel’s hymn to the news for 2019, it could easily be constructed from this phenomenon: cancel culture. Cancel culture, for those not in the know, is the phrase we now use to describe the phenomenon whereby well-known individuals are berated and erased from public life on account of something inappropriate that they have said or done in the past – sometimes a serious offence but often no more than a drunken tweet.

    In the last three years alone enough celebrities have lost their cherished status due to various mishaps and missteps to fill a full five verses of a Billy Joel song.

    They may lack the epochal majesty and heft of a Ho Chi Min or a Richard Nixon, or indeed Mar-i-lyn Mon-roe. But stringing together the names of #MeToo casualties like Louis CK and Kevin Hart could be a useful way to remember the giddying procession of those who have felt the snuffing pinch of the Woke Inquisition.

    Take the recent case of Aaron Calvin and Carson King. Aaron who? Most of you are wondering, to which the answer is of course, exactly. In these strange times, even a previously unknown small town journalist from Iowa can wake up to find themselves at the centre of an International twitter storm for something they said in 2009.

    Aaron Calvin achieved notoriety for a profile he had written for The Des Moines Register on Carson King, a local hero who was raising money for sick kids in the context of sport and beer, which is pretty much the American Holy Trinity. Before sending his copy off to the subs, Calvin made a brief – and, he claims, industry standard – trawl through the young hero’s social media history. Sure enough, he found a few tweets King had posted when he was sixteen, that contained enough teenage attempts at humour to debase and delegitimise anyone’s attempts to raise funds for a children’s cancer ward. And so Budweiser, understandably not wanting to be associated with a flawed individual who was trying to save kids’ lives, withdrew their funding from King and he was thoroughly dethroned.

    King’s team however did not take too kindly to having his social media past used against him and they decided to do some digging of their own. Sure enough, it turned out that Calvin’s own adolescent twitter feed had not consisted entirely of inspirational quotes borrowed from Maya Angelou and Helen Keller. Before a week had passed, he too was out of his job and out on his ear.

    So Aaron Calvin is now as fully cancelled as Carson King, both bobbing about in the ocean of indifference that such a fate implies.

    Something about those two names implies they could be a great double act, taking to the stage to tell the hilarious story of their joint demise. Except they might struggle to sell tickets. Tonight – Calvin and King – Cancelled! Oh well. At least they are forever enshrined in my ongoing Billy Joel tribute act.

    Two possible futures lie before us. One in which we gradually eliminate from the public sphere anyone who ever cracked an unwise wisecrack in public before they were fully grown. And another, in which common sense prevails and we give people the benefit of the doubt.

    It goes without saying that I wouldn’t hold your breath.