Nick Cohen on a creepy case of cancel culture

Like me, every once in a while Nick Cohen has to display his bona fides and assert that no, he’s no right-winger. That’s because—also like me—his interest is largely in identifying and decrying the excesses of the Left, which he considers damaging to our side. And so, in September, he wrote a piece in the Guardian asserting (and I’m with him here as well) that the far right is a much greater danger to Western societies than is the far left.  We both have to do this from time to time lest we be labeled as Nazis for criticizing our own Left. (While I’m on Cohen, I highly recommend his book on this issue, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, as well as his book on modern censorship, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom.)

So far, so good. But I was pleased to see that, in a new piece in the Spectator (click on screenshot below), Cohen is back beating up Cancel Culture, which is good because a) he does it so well and b) he’s an old Leftie, and thus could be said to have extra credibility on such issues.  What happened to the victim, the Scottish poet Jenny Lindsay, is horrific, but the good news is that Lindsay refuses to truckle to the social-media mob, for she did nothing wrong.

The upshot: in 2019, Lindsay objected on Twitter to a piece by a writer for The Skinny (a cultural magazine), when the writer called for “violent action” against TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminists: feminists who don’t fully accept trans people as equivalent in every sense to biological women). The people for whom violent action was recommended were “lesbian activists at Pride”, and I have no knowledge of that group beyond what Cohen says.

At any rate, Lindsay tweeted this:

‘Hello! One of your commentators here advocates violence against lesbian activists at Pride. I find it extraordinary that such views are given an airing in The Skinny.’

And that was all it took to incite the Outrage Brigade against her. Mind you, according to Cohen, Lindsay has been supportive of transwomen all her life. She is no transphobe. But, as Cohen says,

Although the magazine privately admitted to her it had made a mistake, Lindsay was publicly accused of transphobia. As in so many other witch crazes, Lindsay found the extremes had been sanctified. No criticism of an extremist could be permitted. The religion or ideology in this case must be accepted in its totality. The all-or-nothing character of the ideology guarantees that the extremes define it. Raising doubts about the tactics of one militant was enough to damn her as an enemy of all trans people.

Note that, like John McWhorter, Cohen sees Cancel Culture as a form of religion.  Cohen also notes that Linday’s feelings about trans people somewhat resemble those of J. K. Rowling’s:

And indeed on the extreme reading, which is to say the only reading that matters, Lindsay has a phobia. She believes in showing trans women every kindness but does not think that anyone can be a woman, and that there is no material basis for being female. As she and others point out, women’s oppression becomes impossible to fight if the material reality of the female body is wished away.

Then the following happened:

1.) Lindsay was accused of transphobia

2.) She was roundly assaulted on social media, with demands that she “prove her commitment to trans people” and was accused of “colonialist” thinking. (How colonialism comes into play here defies me.)

3.) People scoured her poems and found other supposed instances of “anti-trans” sentiments, like using menstruation as a metaphor.  Colleagues were warned to avoid her, and one poet publicly declared she wouldn’t share the stage with Lindsay, a declaration for which that poet was praised.

4.) When pressed, her critics admitted that her condemnation of violence wasn’t the reason she was ostracized.  But no reasons were explicitly given. The reason, of course, was that she had indeed condemned violence against a group that had reservations about the status of trans women.

5.) The Scottish Poetry Library (SPL) issued a statement supporting Lindsay last February. Though it didn’t mention her name, it was prompted by her ostracism and bad treatment, and said, among other things:

We support freedom of expression. We are a values-led organisation that embraces inclusivity, collaboration and a respect for pluralism – of languages, cultures and faiths.

What we do not support, and will no longer ignore, is bullying and calls for no-platforming of writers in events programmes and in publishing. This does not mean that we are taking sides in any particular debate but we will not be passive if we are made aware of behaviours within our community that do not align with our values.

6.) But Scottish PEN, which like the American PEN is supposed to support freedom of expression, issued a statement not supporting Lindsay at all (American PEN has also shown some cowardice on issues like this). From the Scottish PEN statement:

Unfortunately, the statement by the SPL fails to address equality issues, particularly in relation to bullying, non-platforming and preventing “pile-ons”. The statement offers no definitions or criteria to support identification of when these behaviours have reached a threshold to warrant punitive action by the library. Without clarity, accessible definitions, transparency and broad engagement with all stakeholders, questions remain as to how free expression can be protected for all who engage with the library. It is important that there is always a space for responsible and legitimate criticism. Addressing this would not weaken the library’s commitment to tackling these issues, instead it would demonstrate a commitment to ensuring the principles and policies adopted by the institution are equally distributed across the community, without bias or prejudice.

Further to this, no method of redress or appeal has been identified, offering no way for users to challenge the decisions made by the library. Free expression is complex and any policy that ignores such complexity can stifle the free expression of a range of stakeholders, most notably members of marginalised communities. We are disappointed that the library, prior to the launch of this statement, failed to reach out to partners, stakeholders and the broader community to help build this policy in a manner that responds to different points of view, defends legitimate criticism and protects everyone seeking to speak out through poetry.

This is just a “we like free speech but. . . ” statement, is cowardly and unnecessary, and doesn’t deal with the fact that the whole kerfuffle was about criticizing the threat of violence. Scottish PEN’s behavior was shameful.

7.)  A group of people then accused the Scottish Poetry library of “transphobia” on an open letter signed by “friends of Lindsay’s and writers she had mentored”. Some of the petition’s boilerplate (again, have a look at the SPL’s unobjectionable statement) From the petition:

 We are worried that current communications may reflect serious institutional transphobia, and a failure to understand the Library’s obligations regarding trans people’s legal protections from discrimination. We have all heard extensive distress from our trans friends, both readers and writers, as a result of your recent communications. Despite the Library’s previous work supporting LGBT+ writers and events, many trans people do not now think the Scottish Poetry Library is a welcoming and supportive space. We also write in solidarity with writers combatting racism, misogyny, ableism and other structural oppressions, so that oppressive action can be freely spoken about. We are asking for clarification on your Code of Conduct, your grievance processes, and the work you do to support and respect trans writers. We hope you will take seriously the need to rebuild trust.

Is anything missing from this virtue-signaling litany? Cohen makes a point here that I’ve brought up before:

Scottish PEN and the authors of the open letter made one decent point. They said Lindsay and the Scottish Poetry Library could not say they believed in freedom of speech and ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’. If you believe in the inclusion of trans people, you had to exclude anti-trans poets. The logic is impeccable until you ask who decides whether a writer is anti-trans. In Lindsay’s case it is the most extreme figures in the movement.

If offending a group counts as “exclusion”, then no, you can’t have free speech and inclusivity, for every bit of progress that has been made through free speech has offended somebody. That’s why free speech should be completely free save for exceptions carved out by U.S. courts, like speech that is calculated to produce immediate violence, harassment, defamation, and so on. “Inclusivity” is a worthwhile goal, but has been stretched so far that it’s simply not compatible with the goal of free speech.

8.) Finally, Lindsay wrote an essay in the latest issue of the literary magazine Dark Horse about her experience. Cohen recommends the essay highly, but you’ll have to buy the magazine to read it, and it’s not online.

Remember, all the opprobrium that came down on Lindsay originated with her tweet against violence, leading to a scouring of her work and life to the point that the Scottish Poetry Library had to defend her right of free speech, whereupon the Library itself  became demonized. It’s a bloody mess, and shows that rational debate about trans issues has become impossible. “Transphobia” is now the term for anyone wanting to debate the wisdom or validity of regarding trans people as full members of the sex to which they transitioned, just as “Islamophobia” is now used for anyone wanting to debate the wisdom and social effects of Muslim doctrine. Both words are substitutes for rational discussion, and are used to smear your opponents.

Cohen is rightfully angered about all this, and finishes with a flourish:

Witch hunters will tolerate only two possible outcomes to their chase. Either they destroy the heretic by driving her out of work and making her name a by-word for ignominy. Or they force her into a total capitulation. The artist, politician, journalist or left-wing activist must engage in public self-flagellation. They must make an obsequious apology. They must accept that their critics were wholly right and beg forgiveness for the offence they caused.

I am always struck by how no one cares that the apology is fake and has been forced from the target. Sincerity is not required. Rather the accusers demand that their victims bend the knee and acknowledge their mastery. If rape is about power not sex, then witch-hunts are about power not truth.

Lindsay to her immense credit won’t grovel. She will not accept an art world where the first lesson a writer must learn is how to self-censor. Banal work will be the inevitable consequence – indeed, you only need to look around the arts to see that in many cases it already is. Poets may not be Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the world, Lindsay concludes, ‘but let us ensure the Twitter mob is not either’. It may be late in the day, but that remains a slogan worth rallying to.

h/t: Jeremy

28 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Posted October 9, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Cohen: “Scottish PEN and the authors of the open letter made one decent point. They said Lindsay and the Scottish Poetry Library could not say they believed in freedom of speech and ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’.”

    I’m baffled that Cohen thinks this is a “decent point”. It is very easy to support both free speech, and equality, diversity and inclusion.

    All you need do is accept that members of the Scottish Poetry Library, or any similar organisation, will have a range of different views, including views that other members might be offended by, and yet everyone should still accept everyone else as members.

    That’s inclusive, that gives a diverse membership. That — agreeing to disagree, yet accepting others as members and citizens — is the very basis of a liberal democracy.

    Sadly, “inclusion” — in the mouths of the Woke — has come to mean “excluding everyone who might think differently from you”.

    As Orwell didn’t quite say: “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and exclusion is inclusion”.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I read this as a rhetorical tactic to point out flawed premises of the woke extremist point of view. I think he was saying that it makes sense if you assume the woke extremist premise that any criticism is unacceptable (violence even) and therefore, “If you believe in the inclusion of trans people, you had to exclude anti-trans poets.”

    • Posted October 9, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      If offending someone must be avoided at all costs, the result will be leptodermocracy – rule by the thin-skinned. (Thanks, Google translate.) So yeah – what darrelle said.

      • Curtis
        Posted October 9, 2020 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        You must not offend “us” but you must offend “them.” If you remain silent or ask for civility, we get to put words in your mouth.

    • eric
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree. In the same vein, I disagree this part of his opinion:

      If you believe in the inclusion of trans people, you had to exclude anti-trans poets.

      What’s missing here is the notion that an organization can welcome trans people to participate without embargoeing anti-trans poets. Also missing is the notion that poetry should be judged on the merits of it’s content, not the personal views of the author. Anti-trans poets who write poetry about other subjects are being banned for, essentially, thoughtcrime.

      This doesn’t mean PEN need accept or be uncritical of anti-trans writing. It’s IMO perfectly fine for them to reject a poem because they think it’s bigoted crap. But making that sort of judgment is a very far cry from Cohen’s depiction of the far left’s desire – i.e. that any anti-trans person not be allowed in PEN and their words not considered, no matter what the quality of their writing or even what they write about.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      If “anti-trans” is defined as “people who keep shouting ‘We do not want transgender-identified people in the library!’”then there might be a conflict between freedom of speech and equality, diversity, and inclusion in the library.

      But otherwise, no, you’re right.

      • flayman
        Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        How IS anti-trans defined? This is something that needs to be fleshed out. The reactions of people who are monstering the likes of Lindsay and Rowling would be reasonable if in response to someone threatening them with actual physical harm. (Can we feel the irony?) People who are skeptical of some of the claims of trans activists but otherwise wish them and other trans people no harm are not threats in any real sense. It is intellectually dishonest to say that one feels unsafe as a result. The safety that they crave is one that they have no right to demand. It is to be safe from challenge. Some will point to the high rates of suicide among trans people as an argument that refusal to accept every aspect of the trans identity is threatening. That’s more than a bit melodramatic and entirely consistent with the new Victimhood Culture.

        • Mike
          Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

          “Some will point to the high rates of suicide among trans people as an argument that refusal to accept every aspect of the trans identity is threatening.”

          Sort of like Sheriff Bart holding himself at gunpoint to escape the “good people” of Rock Ridge. Except that Cleavon Little was the good guy, whereas the trans activists claiming they are being threatened are not so much.

  3. daniaq
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    That is really sad to read…

  4. darrelle
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    ““Inclusivity” is a worthwhile goal, but has been stretched so far that it’s simply not compatible with the goal of free speech.”

    Yeah, and it seems to me that free speech is one of the tools that been successful in greatly increasing inclusivity and equality in many societies. It seems to me that the woke movement is based more on a desire for retribution than a desire to increase equality and inclusivity.

    The methods they are using are actually contrary to those goals. Their behavior is such a common human response, it’s ancient, and we know from history that such behavior is unlikely to yield the results they claim they want. Unfortunately, if their goal is retribution, as it often seems to be, then they do often get what they want. But the more they succeed in that the less likely it is they will make progress towards the their stated goals of inclusivity and equality.

    The irony is that we have never in all of human history been closer to the goals they say they want to achieve than we are now. We’ve identified some tools that work fairly well. It stands to reason that a better way forward is to continue to use those tools that have been shown to be effective, to improve them and to apply them better.

    • EdwardM
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      It is about retribution, you’re correct, but that is because retribution is the handmaiden of power over others, which is their main motivation.

    • eric
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and it seems to me that free speech is one of the tools that been successful in greatly increasing inclusivity and equality in many societies. It seems to me that the woke movement is based more on a desire for retribution than a desire to increase equality and inclusivity.

      Retribution maybe. Could also simply be “I got mine, I’m done with this freedom thingy.”

      There will always be people who are happy the ladder is there for them, only to pull it up after they’ve reached the top.

  5. flayman
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    “Witch hunters will tolerate only two possible outcomes to their chase. Either they destroy the heretic by driving her out of work and making her name a by-word for ignominy. Or they force her into a total capitulation. The artist, politician, journalist or left-wing activist must engage in public self-flagellation. They must make an obsequious apology. They must accept that their critics were wholly right and beg forgiveness for the offence they caused.”

    In other words, a Kafkatrap. You’re guilty if you deny guilt, and of course guilty if you accept it. Although denying guilt is a worse form of guilt because only through acceptance can there be redemption (maybe, if we’re sufficiently placated). But who is the arbiter of justice? There is none. The mob decides and the decision is final.

    “Despite the Library’s previous work supporting LGBT+ writers and events, many trans people do not now think the Scottish Poetry Library is a welcoming and supportive space.”

    Unlike the very welcoming and supportive space in which people are routinely burned at the stake for expressing mild disagreement.

    • neil
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t Cardinal Richelieu say something along the lines of “Give me six lines written by the most honest man alive, and i can find something in them to hang him”.

      If your inquisitors are already convinced of your guilt, everything is reinforcing “evidence”…

    • Posted October 10, 2020 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      Like the old law school joke:
      “When did you stop beating your wife?”
      D.A. NYC

  6. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m baffled where this aggressive ‘trans’ stance comes from.
    It appears that the ‘trans’ have kind of hijacked the woke movement (like the muslims did). Are the ‘woke’ going to lose the feminists -or any clear thinking human-,for that matter? Or have they already?
    There is no doubt though that they really are grist to the reactionary mill.

    • Posted October 9, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      The woke have certainly lost a lot of feminists — though people who reject woke ideas about trans issues can often still swallow woke ideas about race and other things.

      • Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Surely they should be called The Awakened? Better English! But maybe it’ll be like that Robin Williams film & they will fall back into comas?!

    • Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Imagine then a transexual muslim who has just got up!

  7. Posted October 9, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I wish more people would just tell these outrage mobs to go engage in recreational autofornication. They don’t even deserve a civil reply.

  8. Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I blame the water!

  9. A C Harper
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    It seems that every now and again there are gangs of people who deliberately split the world into two types of people — pro-us and anti-us. We’ve seen this in religions, economics, politics, philosophy, and social movements.

    And yet… there is a sizeable set of people who are neither pro-us or anti-us on any issue. They are indifferent-us or non-us. When the pro-us or anti-us people escalate their polarisations to absurd degrees then the middle often shun the extremists.

    Which is what I hope happens with the current set of loonies threatening violence and cancellation for ‘wrongs’ which spring from their own flawed beliefs. It could take some time though.

  10. kelskye
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    The accusation of colonialism is an interesting one. It feels like an intellectualised equivalent of the accusation of blasphemy or heresy.

    I don’t think those arguing it know much about the topic and how it relates to what’s being said, but it sounds like a good rhetorical put-down.

  11. Posted October 10, 2020 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    Didn’t this start a few (5-ish?) years ago when Christian fundies wanted to stop anybody with a complicated gender going to the bathroom?

    At the time I thought: “How hideous, how typical of the faith community.”

    Since then the whole juggernaut has careened out of control, trans is “trendy” even, and what started as a reasonable and sane proposition has become a …as you say.. a witch hunt?

    Part of it has to be the paying of the large cadre of “inclusion/diversity/etc” officers at universities? (Wonder why the tuition fees are so high? administrative boat).

    When you employ witch hunters… they will find witches.

    D.A., J.D., NYC
    ps – Helen Pluckrose is by far the best intellectual resource in this fight.

  12. Posted October 11, 2020 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    A minor quibble:

    That’s why free speech should be completely free save for exceptions carved out by U.S. courts, like speech that is calculated to produce immediate violence, harassment, defamation, and so on.

    Scotland has its own legal system and makes most of its own laws. I doubt if any Scots would be impressed with having the limits of free speech in Scotland defined by the US courts.

    They would probably also prefer the legislature – in whose appointment they have a say via elections – to set the limits and the courts to uphold them.

  13. Matthew Jenkins
    Posted October 11, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    The comment from a female colleague when I mentioned this was that somebody should point out to trans ‘women‘ that threatening to kill people you dislike is not what real women do

  14. Bob Scott Placier
    Posted October 11, 2020 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    This is a bit over the top. But sometimes I think that, if the “woke” folks had a theme song, it would be Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny”. Retribution indeed, in deed.


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