If I were into clickbait, I’d call this a story about cancel culture vs. a culture of cancellation, but I’m not. Also, to be honest, I am writing this while insomniac, stressed and exhausted. I am going to make sweeping oversimplifications (“left” and “right” being the most egregious, perhaps). I hope you find some nuggets of wisdom here to inform your thinking nonetheless.
This is a barely structured collection of notes about people and institutions, about good and evil, about the messy processes of progress and harm reduction, and about navigating our way through.
A flawed greater good
The Guardian newspaper & media institution is in financial trouble, and is asking its readers and supporters to support it in ever greater numbers (spoiler alert: I have). This, by itself, is not newsworthy given our time of decline in journalism, and the context of economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
What has impressed me, though, is sheer the amount of pushback from the left. Starting from its days as the “Manchester Guardian”, the Guardian has a long history as the main newspaper of the UK left (even though it endorsed the Liberal Democrats in 2010, hoping for proportional representation to follow — this was of course betrayed by the Liberal Democrats supporting a Tory austerity government, and the decline of the UK to its present state. This betrayal continues to this day, in the form of Nick Clegg supporting Facebook’s uncritical mass diffusion of climate denial. But I digress.). For many, the Guardian’s main sin was a lack of wholehearted support for Corbyn, and they reacted with scorn at even being asked for support.
I am not saying that all of these reactions are unfounded: in particular, the experience of Nafeez Ahmed, who was fired in 2014 after publishing a story on the Israeli ambitions to exploit gas in Gaza, makes a strong case for a flawed institution: one where the political prejudices of influential editors sometimes trump the independence of journalists to cover their beat.
But the Guardian is still the media organization most likely to support investigative journalism that the left needs to succeed in its campaigns, to expose corruption, profiteering, and the intertwined geopolitical, technological, economic and environmental dangers of our time. Think of just a few stories: the exposure of Cambridge Analytica at the heart of both Brexit and Trump campaigns; the Windrush scandal where the UK government illegally expulsed thousands of Black citizens of Caribbean origin; the Panama Papers and the dark international network of tax evading politicians and business leaders; and its immense 2019 series The Polluters where it investigated the firms & politicians supporting the fossil fuel industry. Without the Guardian, we might never be aware that these scandals exist in our midst. Is political purity more important than awareness of crucial news?
Similar reflections could be had about the BBC, another media institution whose public standing and funding is threatened by the Tory government: again, on the left, many see its flaws overwhelming its central position as a (flawed) bulwark of democracy, and rendering it unworthy of support.
The left’s unforgiving attitude towards flawed institutions, media or otherwise, can be seen as an extension of its emphasis on purity and integrity: either you’re with us, a solid & true comrade, or you’re a traitor, forever unsound and untrustworthy. Today, we can see its extensions into what people call “cancel culture”, where prominent figures are supposedly dethroned because of single missteps. Many words have been written about this, and I don’t really want to write more here. I’ll just say that I tend to side with those who explain that “cancel culture” is really a bottom-up call for accountability that prominent figures dislike (and hence call “cancel culture”), because they are unaccustomed to have to fully account for their past actions and statements.
Nevertheless, the quarrelsome purity fights on the left are real, and one of the more unlovely parts of participating in its politics and campaigns. One can speculate as to where these come from. A history of centuries of trauma and violent attacks and betrayals, from the illegality of trade unions to the wars waged on socialist organizing, could be one root cause. Another could be the noble purpose of human emancipation, equity and chances for all on the left: these worthy and all-encompassing aspirations can lead to intolerance for any perceived deviation.
These leftist attitudes of insistence on purity stand in stark contrast with positions on the right. Several times in past weeks, I have heard figures on the right articulate directly that we should consider a person’s (or media organization’s) statements each in its own right. Never mind that a person is a known liar, has a track record of climate science denial, or that a media outlet is an established Russian propaganda instrument: we should still listen to them courteously, and always extend them the benefit of the doubt.
[Even more puzzling, the leftists who zealously denounce the Guardian and BBC are sometimes the same ones who happily state that individual Russia Today and Spiked-Online pieces redeem these news outlets as a whole! This contradiction is seldom explored, and I fail to understand it myself. Moving on.]
In this alternative perspective, the individual statement, sentence by sentence, is the unit of consideration: not the person’s whole worldview, or the institution’s whole contribution. It is very common to hear commentators on the right applaud each others snippets of statement, and congratulate each other on their mutual tolerance and agreement — even though they might (and often do) disagree on far larger and more fundamental points. It is as though, on the right, people have internalized and accepted the fact that they do not agree on a greater good or greater goal, and hence do not expect their allies to be fundamentally aligned with them. They expect betrayal and disagreement as normal, perhaps, but seize on each morsel of agreement to build their case and their coalition.
I believe this fundamental difference in perception: insistence on purity & integrity on the left, focus on individual snippets of agreement on the right, is one of the reasons why the left fails to understand how people on the right think. On the left, we believe that fact-checking, exposing politicians and pundits as liars and frauds, and generally matching up statements vs. actions should matter: that if we demonstrate, publicly, the betrayal of principles, we will convince others to think and vote differently next time. And then, we’re surprised when they don’t. But on the right, betrayal has a different meaning. It’s not considered as important. What’s important are little aligned signals of agreement: the repeated dogwhistles of racism to white supremacists, reiterated of mantras of national security, belief in economic dynamism, and the like. Integrity plays little role here, because it is simply not expected.
Atoms or systems
“The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser
The point I wanted to get to is that of understanding different worldviews and perspectives. I think it’s particularly important for those of us who think in terms of big ideas and principles, and how those are personified in individuals, and carried forward by institutions, to understand this alternative worldview of atomized statements and ultra-individualized perception.
The core purpose of right-wing thought, as I have come to see it, is to comfort people in a sense that the individual is the only unit worth considering. This is often couched in terms of individual freedom, through expression, action, economic entrepreneurship and so on. And according to Ayn Rand, and many, many on the right, the enemy of individual freedom, its opposite, is coercive state control: communist dictatorship in the Soviet style. Ayn Rand held individual freedom and individual selfishness in such high regard that she could only conceive of friendship and altruism as coercive, a road to dictatorship. Her books are notable for having to excuse the romantic relationships in them on grounds of mutually convenient predation (and, unsurprisingly, the sex in them is rarely consensual). Each individual should be considered on its own, without relation to its society, culture, history, anything (with the only exception being the eugenics focus of the individual as a representative of its superior/inferior DNA, of course).
The extension of over-individualisation to the world of thought is that each idea is considered as an individual atom, unrelated to previous thoughts or sentences. This holds true as well for neoclassical economics, which underpins and justifies neoliberal economic & social policies: it views each consumer/producer as pure independent agents in the market (see also Felix Creutzig’s groundbreaking article “Limits to liberalism: considerations for the Anthropocene”). But more importantly, neoclassical economics is designed, through its atomistic construction, to avoid any systemic consideration of economic superstructure: class, power, ownership, dynamics of wealth and profit accumulation. No scientific naivety can excuse the ignorance of these aspects, which Marx masterfully explored well over a century ago. The individualisation of economics (which, after all, is by definition something which only makes sense in a collective setting) is more than ignorance: it is deliberate blindness, blindness with a purpose.
Comfort and evil, at one
My argument here (and apologies for getting to it so late. As I said, I am very tired.) is that individualization is blindness with a purpose. That purpose is twofold. On the one hand, it is comforting. It is comforting to those prominent people who want to evade the accountability of “cancel culture”: if each statement is judged on its own, they can pick & choose which should be remembered by whom. Individualization is comforting to people with some modicum of privilege: economic, racial, gender etc. It allows them to enjoy whatever benefits they currently have without questioning where they come from, at whose expense they were created, and whether they are in any way deserved. Individualization is a comfort blanket for a soul in troubled times: it deliberately shields its holder from the disquiet a wider lens perspective could bring.
On the other hand, individualization is deliberately evil. It insists on separating one connected thought and statement from another, on severing the historical bonds of trauma and exploitation between the inheritors of slave-built wealth and the communities of those dispossessed and exploited to this day. Individualization is the ultimate evasion from accountability. It demands of us that we consider the world through eyes that refuse to learn from experience. Through this lens, we can only allow the rich, powerful and brutal to victimize the poor, weak and gentle, over, and over and over and over and over again — in a time of species-shaking climate crisis, no less.
A universe of flawed stories
In contrast, I would like to offer a systems approach. One that focuses on interconnections and patterns. Donella Meadows and Karl Marx are masters of thought here. In this perspective, we understand history, thoughts, people, principles, ideas, technologies, power, revolutions all to be interconnected. We can learn to see each other as bearers of thoughts, actors in history, shakers of structures. We can understand how we work within and beyond institutions, and how progress, when possible, often contains flaws of past structures in its midst.
A systems perspective is not pure. It does not insist on one single view, one single purpose. It helps us explain, understand and work to overcome our misunderstandings and flaws. It enables us to see how revolutionaries, armed with little more than dreams of different futures, were able to build enough support to change the world forever — and also why their utopian dreams faced such difficulties and were never truly realized. It helps us to see ourselves as constant creators of different tomorrows.
And I hope it helps us to move past demanding purity from each inevitably flawed instance of people or institutions, while constantly working and dreaming to ensure that much better ones come to pass. This existence of struggle and dream within a flawed and complex reality is the work of our lives. We will never arrive at a perfect place, a consumer glossy magazine spread of social and environmental justice. We are not individual consumers of a possible better future, somehow to be stumbled upon: we must be its creators and caretakers. And to do this, we have to learn to think in systems.