How delightful that John Cleese will present a series for Channel 4 about cancel culture. You can never get enough of grumpy old comedians grouching on about stuff.
According to a report in the Guardian, John Cleese: Cancel Me will explore “why a new ‘woke’ general is trying to rewrite the rules of what can and can’t be said”.
There are a few problems with the notion of ‘cancel culture’, but before we put a toe in that stagnant pool, here’s a WhatsApp exchange with my mother …
“We have been wondering what woke means. Can you tell us!”
“It started in the US as a way of describing liberal people who are sensitive about how others feel. Now it’s been turned around as an insult for liberals. It’s basically become a lazy shorthand used by right-wingers to be rude about anyone who disagrees with them.”
I hope that’s roughly right, as it can be hard to keep up.
My mother isn’t alone in being in the dark. According to a YouGov poll in May, most Britons (59%) don’t know what woke means. And yet the media is obsessed with something their readers half understand at best.
Such phrases are a cultural tic and can be horribly addictive. Just think of how ‘political correctness’ put on big boots and stomped all over the world, before finding its life partner, “gone mad”.
You could put a cigarette paper between ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘wokeness’. Or you could if you could find one. Perhaps we need a new measure of ideological thinness.
As you will recall, to be politically correct suggests using words that avoid insulting or offending people who belong to oppressed groups. A decent desire, you might have thought, but soon everyone was chuntering about ‘political correctness gone mad’ before they tired of that and switched to droning on about ‘wokeness’.
Such responses become a reflex, so instead of pausing to think about something, you just hit the buzz-phrase of the moment. Trouble is, these phrases – could we allow the neologism ‘tongue-jerk’ phrases? – take on a life of their own to the point where what they are complaining about becomes more myth than reality.
And that’s the problem with ‘cancel culture’. That and the possible double meaning in those two words. Is this an instruction to ‘cancel culture’ or a description of an alleged movement that wishes to cancel all debate?
Well, it’s the second, in theory. But cancel culture, along with its fellow under the tangled bedclothes ‘culture wars’, seems to be mentioned all the time with few actual examples of what is happening.
There is a weird victim culture wrapped up in this, whereby the Conservative Party (nearly always in power) and their friends in the media play-act being poor, defenceless waifs in the face of a mighty left-wing gale. Only it’s more of a breeze at best.
Also, this government seems keen on cancelling those who disagree with them, by pushing anyone presumed to be left-wing from museum bodies (as banged on about here previously more than once), while packing institutions such as the BBC with its own supporters. Richard Sharp, the multi-millionaire who says he has donated around £400,000 to the Tories, was Boris Johnson’s choice as chairman of the BBC.
Sir Robbie Gibb, a member of the BBC’s governing board and formerly director of communications to Theresa May, seems to be behind attempts to block Huffington Post UK editor Jess Brammar from taking up a senior editorial role at BBC News.
This has led to hysterical reporting in the Mail and elsewhere about why such an alleged left-winger shouldn’t be allowed to have such a role.
And you could call that cancel culture.
As for John Cleese, maybe he will discover something interesting as he sets out to meet those who claim to have been ‘cancelled’ for their actions and statements. The show’s not even been made yet, so we should give him a chance.
But I can’t help worrying it will be a dreadful exercise that could have been more interesting with another presenter. But the choice of Cleese got everybody talking, I suppose.