sisterhood protest toronto
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Supporters of the trans community protest outside the Palmerston Public Library in Toronto following a talk by controversial speaker Meghan Murphy on Oct. 29, 2019.
In the many op-ed denunciations of cancel culture that get churned out (of which I suppose this is one), a common theme is that we've all become too quick to take "offence." But having spent the last few years interviewing cancel-culture victims, from Steven Galloway to Meghan Murphy to James Damore, I can attest that the real driver of mob-run silencing campaigns isn't "offence." It's a desire to demonstrate power. When a heretic's agonies (and eventual confessions) play out on a public medium such as Twitter, the spectacle serves to warn other thought criminals. It's all about offering a show of force "pour encourager les autres" (as Voltaire once put it).

This explains why cancel-culture mobs often channel the tribalistic language and imagery of territorial warfare, with activists seeking to prevent the forces of "hate" penetrating the secular-sacred confines of a campus, library, literary festival, public event or online discussion group. What they truly fear isn't the substantive content of the heretic's message (of which many mob members will be ignorant), but the symbolic effect of a heretic speaking freely in a space seen as traditionally controlled by dogmatists. Mob censorship only works when the mob is feared. Let a single heretic go unpunished, and the mob loses its power.

Even so, we free-speech types often exaggerate the censorial powers of modern outrage mobs. As Meghan McArdle wrote in the Washington Post this week, J.K. Rowling's recent decision to go public with common-sense views on gender and biology show that we've reached a tipping point on cancel culture. South Park and Ricky Gervais have both survived their own heresies. And even Louis C.K. has been able to go on a sold-out public comedy tour amid a torrent of columns and hashtags demanding his cancelation. Yes, there are some recent examples of mainstream figures such as Don Cherry losing their jobs over controversial statements. But for the most part, cancel culture truly suffocates thought and discussion only when it takes root within gated subcultures such as academia, literature and arts journalism, whose structures permit a small number of ideologically motivated players to monopolize power.

By way of example: I can say pretty much anything I want in this column (within reason), and the mobs won't come at me demanding my "cancelation" by the National Post, because they know they won't succeed. When I worked at a left-wing arts magazine years ago, by contrast, cancel-culture trolls were my constant companion, because they believed (rightly) that targeting a smaller publication operating within an ideologically monolithic, government-subsidized subculture offered them a greater chance of success. Mobbers may be annoying and vicious. But they're not dumb. They usually channel the same ruthless logic as speculators, applying their available assets (Tweets, likes, blogs) so as to achieve the highest expected rate of return.

Ironically, this means that progressive cancel-culture enthusiasts now spend a lot of time attacking each other — since their social and professional affiliations within activist, academic and artistic milieus render them uniquely vulnerable to mob pressure. Witness last year's bizarre fight within Canadian recording circles, when one group of Indigenous artists boycotted the Indigenous Music Awards because two other Indigenous artists — Ayalik and Kayley Mackaya — had "appropriated" their particular style of Indigenous music. There also has been a vicious (and unsuccessful) attempt by second-tier Canadian writers to deplatform Margaret Atwood because she had the temerity to suggest that the University of British Columbia should provide Steven Galloway with due process. In a particularly jaw-dropping case, a Toronto-based book publisher pulped the original run of a book by Indigenous poet Shannon Webb Campbell because, according to the (white) publishers, the book was "causing pain" to other Indigenous people.

"Like Saturn, the revolution devours its children," Jacques Mallet du Pan wrote in 1793, amidst La Terreur. Thus has come to pass that even giants of progressive leftism come under mob suspicion. This now includes George Elliott Clarke, an impeccably progressive Africadian (his word) giant of Canadian arts and letters, whose work as poet, playwright, editor and critic have earned him the Order of Canada and a dozen other prestigious awards besides. This week, the University of Regina found itself fending off calls to cancel Clarke's upcoming lecture about Indigenous poetry on the basis that he had edited verse by Steven Kummerfield, who killed an Indigenous woman, Pamela George, in 1995.

Kummerfield's crime was premeditated and horrendous: He and Alex Ternowetsky beat the woman and left her to die on the city's outskirts. And I found it objectionable that he was paroled in 2000, only five years later, even if he followed this by reforming himself and dedicating his life to writing what is (by Clarke's expert appraisal) extremely good poetry under the name Stephen Brown. It is true that, in formal terms, he has served his debt to society. But some crimes truly do stain the memory of a whole community, and this was one of them.

Yet the ranks of well-known poets are full of truly horrible and wicked people. Lord Byron was a predatory lothario and occasional pedophile. Swinburne went in for child sex and bestiality. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite. Gabriele D'Annunzio was a fascist crackpot. Shelley's pregnant teenage paramour killed herself when the poet abandoned her. (The poet's half-sister took to the grave under somewhat analogous circumstances.) Of course, none of these men can be compared directly to Kummerfield, because his crimes occurred within recent, living memory. But then again, it won't be Kummerfield who'll appear at the University of Regina. It will instead be Clarke, a black academic and writer with both Cherokee and Mi'kmaq heritage, whose only crime is of a strictly ideological nature — i.e., his failure to disavow Brown, whom he describes as not only a collaborator, but also a friend. Clarke is perfectly correct to complain that his critics are judging him "guilty by association."

(Clarke issued a statement Thursday evening saying he would not recite Kummerfield's poetry out of respect for his victim's family.)

To their credit, the faculty members who invited Clarke in the first place have announced they "will stand by the invitation and looks forward to hearing Clarke's strong message against violence and racism." But the U of R Faculty Association equity committee voted unanimously to urge cancellation of the talk, on the basis that "there is not sufficient time to ensure that this (event) has the potential to (offer) the spirit of reconciliation."

Given the nature of Kummerfield's vile crime, I can see why some members of the university community would opt to stay away from Clarke's lecture. And they might fairly cast such a decision as a principled rebuke of Clarke and the event organizers. But that choice should be left to individual attendees. And it's wrong to pretend that the campaign to shut the event down altogether is about "healing." It's an effort to punish an acclaimed artist and intellectual on the basis that he has prioritized a fellow poet's art above the dictates of ideology.