From left at top: Senator Michael McDowell, Louise Byrne and Ebun Joseph, of UCD, on last night’s Prime Time; Eamonn Kelly
The RTÉ One Prime Time discussion last night on cancel culture, hosted by Louise Byrne, involving the removal of four statues from outside the Shelbourne Hotel, was a timely demonstration of how perplexing cancel culture can be. The row appears to have been ignited by Niall O’ Dowd of Irish Central, the Irish American website.
The contention, put forward by Ms Ebun Joseph of UCD Black Studies department on Prime Time, was that the statues represented white privilege and black servitude.
Senator Michael McDowell, representing white privilege, I guess, and it was fair casting, it has to be said, held that the statues were of two Egyptian women with ankle bracelets, whereas Ms Joseph held that they were two African women in shackles.
Ms Ebun challenged Senator McDowell to consult with Egyptian archaeologists to support his contention that the ankle chains were bracelets.
But in an equal world it was equally incumbent on Ms Joseph to consult with experts to confirm if the chains were shackles. Though she appeared to believe that the responsibility to consult experts was McDowell’s alone.
Since neither had consulted with experts it was now a clear difference of opinion by two non-experts; the epitome really of cancel culture.
Though, given the implicit understandings of cancel culture, this particular argument seemed unfairly weighted in pitching an African woman against a white middle-aged, heterosexual man who, as everyone knows by now, by the rules of cancel culture, is usually the villain. You sense a woman’s touch in the rigging of the debate.
Interestingly, in a film montage before the debate, various individuals accused or convicted of sex crimes were shown; Woody Allen, Louis CK, Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski; but not Bill Cosby. This had the effect of suggesting, in guilt by association, that white men in particular were on trial.
Over these images the voice of Tina Sikka, a lecturer in media and culture from Newcastle University, described cancel culture as public censure and, in the case of people working in the creative arts, may result in, as she put it, “a little bit of a media blackout.”
This attempt to downplay the destructive effect of cancel culture is totally counter to the warning issued in the Harper’s letter of a few weeks ago.
Louise Byrne’s introduction to the segment appeared to share this view of cancel culture as a perfectly legitimate practise, insinuating that those opposed to cancel culture, ie, all the signatories of the Harper’s letter, were being a bit precious.
The subsequent discussion ended…nowhere really.
All we know is that following a suggestion by someone in the US who consulted Irish Central, that the statues outside the Shelbourne Hotel are now “cancelled”; albeit voluntarily, since the Shelbourne management removed them, in fear, apparently, of transgressing the new codes imposed by cancel culture.
The Harper’s letter a few weeks back, warning of cancel culture’s threat to freedom of speech was like coming across a street fight that causes you to avert your eyes and hurry on past thinking, it’s got nothing to do with me.
With the Harper’s letter the fight seemed to be about J.K. Rowling who appeared to have gotten herself into a squabble with some transgender people; and Salman Rushdie who, as far as you can recall, got into some kind of bother some years back with Islamic extremists who wanted to kill him.
This is not a fight that you want to be involved in.
You notice that the mainstream press also seems disinterested, careful even, inclined to only mention Rowling and Rushdie as being among the signatories of the Harper’s letter.
The Irish Times and the Irish Indo report the existence of the Harper’s letter but offer no opinion on the matter. Are the mainstream press intimidated? As the Shelbourne management apparently were?
If a view is volunteered, as The Guardian dared to do, it tends towards the idea that the signatories of the Harper’s letter are piqued because everyone has freedom of speech now via social media, and the elite simply want their exclusivity back.
This is cancel culture’s argument, based on the feminists’ idea of a patriarchy controlling social structures. But you find it hard to imagine someone of the status and vintage of Noam Chomsky, another signatory, being overly preoccupied by such petty concerns.
John Banville, an Irish writer of impeccable quality and international repute, but notably lacking in the general Irish public cheer-leading that often accompanies Irish international success stories, appears on RTE’s Brendan O’Connor morning radio show to talk about the Harper’s letter.
Banville is a signatory of the Harper’s letter too and he says he knows personally of writers who have had works cancelled by their publishers fearing that the content might stoke the anger of the cancel culture watchdogs who might turn on the publishers.
A paragraph from the Harper’s letter reads:
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
Did Shelbourne management, by removing the statues, do so in fear of retribution? It seems clear that they did.
Bruce Bawer in his 2012 book “The Victim’s Revolution: The Rise of Identity Politics” contains a very helpful overview of the history of women’s studies through what is called Second Wave feminism, featuring people like Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, among others, and Third Wave feminism, notably not featuring Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, among others.
In fact, Gloria Steinem is one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter. As is the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood. It seems that Third Wave feminism is even intolerant of some outspoken Second Wave feminists.
Bawer writes that:
“Many Women’s Studies students are taught to be suspicious of strictly intellectual endeavours – or endeavours, in others words, that don’t prioritize feelings.”
Which means that Bawer’s book, this article and any other ideas generated by people, whether male or female, in an intellectual, objective manner, are deemed invalid as “male constructs”.
That has to be the best cancellation of the lot, built right into the ideology of identity politics: all critiques are constructs of the “enemy” and therefore inadmissible.
In “Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systematic Discrimination Against Men”, Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson argue that ideological feminists even regard science as a cultural construction, a mirror of maleness.
“They believe that Western culture in the seventeenth century was fatally contaminated by the ultimate poison of patriarchy…”
As a consequence, the goal, for extreme feminists, is to undermine science, or the concept of objectivity and objective truth that is the hallmark of science – and journalism for that matter – as dubious male constructs, and replace these parts of the culture with subjective truth, along the lines of women’s intuition and gut feelings. Qualities, it is argued, that women excel in.
“Andrea Dworkin… [late radical feminist]” write Young and Nathanson, “…claims that her own intuition or insight supersedes any other form of evidence.”
Such a claim is not unlike the dictator who claims that he has only to look into his own heart to know what the people want. Often what the people apparently desire in such instances is for state assets to be lodged into a private Swiss bank account.
Young and Nathanson write that:
“once the subjective voice of women (or minorities) has been established as a new standard…no dissonant voices need to be taken seriously; women can presumably ‘know’ things by virtue of being women and affirming their own subjectivity, things that men cannot know by insisting on the ostensibly universal standard of objectivity.”
Bawer, writing of the goals of Women’s Studies groups, remarks:
“…on the surface, there’s plenty of pretty rhetoric about women’s mutual support and nurturing and openness to diversity; the underlying reality however, is one of hard-core ideological indoctrination and enforcement.”
The Harper’s letter says:
“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
It seems as if the same rules of enforcement and indoctrination are now operating in the wider community.
Strategies and Narratives
The conclusion, as I understand it, is that Women’s Studies groups that have flourished in the universities of the West, gave birth to a culture of silencing opposition with a range of strategies from simple elusive argument using post-modern terminology.
This allows the user, if losing an argument, to simply “recontextualise” the question and start again – right down to the threat of reputational destruction of opponents through the very female aggressive tactics of spreading gossip and innuendo against dissenting individuals.
These strategies have now evolved into political correctness and cancel culture, effectively endangering free speech and instilling the type of fear that caused the management of the Shelbourne Hotel to remove four decorative statues from outside its premises because some anonymous person in the US claimed they were celebrating white privilege.
The signatories of the Harper’s letter recognize that they themselves, being professionally above the fray, are unlikely to be destroyed by cancel culture.
They wrote the letter on behalf of less famous people who are being routinely side-lined and silenced by advocates of this apparently closed-minded and pernicious ideology.
Men who oppose the ideology are often framed as potentially violent, sexist and racist; while women who oppose the ideology are characterised as blind puppets of the patriarchy.
But even the idea of the patriarchy itself also seems problematical, as an academic postmodern deconstructionist might say.
If masculinity is as toxic as extreme feminists claim, how did women’s studies groups gain so much so quickly in the universities?
Bruce Bawer cites an anthology from 2000 called “The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from the Thirty Founding Mothers.”
Having discussed the various essays in the book he goes on to say:
“Although the founders of Women’s Studies are routinely portrayed as brave pioneers who struggled valiantly against the patriarchy to carve out a space for themselves in the male-dominated academy, they would in fact have never gotten so far, so fast, if not for the readiness of liberal male administrators and faculty to approve and fund Women’s Studies. Indeed, the very rise of Women’s Studies belies its own rhetoric about the ruthless hegemonic power of the patriarchy.”
This apparent exaggeration of male hegemony, combined with the dismissal of the scientific method as a patriarchal construct, might leave you inclined to wonder what the difference is between the idea of the patriarchy and any other conspiracy theory doing the rounds.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet
Yesterday: The Naked Truth