When I put this book in the Convergent newsletter recommendations list last month I could never have guessed that around a week later the internet would be obsessed with the ‘slap heard around the world’.
This review is not going to make any other mention of the Will Smith & Chris Rock incident. But if you squint a little, then it’s kind of related to the book.
Ben Burgis wrote Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns in 2020/2021 and it is a stinging critique of how the contemporary left acts and reacts (to comedians and others they disagree with), and how these actions are unlikely to garner popular support.
Since being published, comedians in the US and UK (Dave Chapelle and Jimmy Carr among them) have come under fire for their latest stand-up specials. Many people have been offended and have demanded they be cancelled – they haven’t been.
Without going into the intricacies of the situations with those particular comedians, the book poses an interesting point:
‘If we denounce “problematic” comedians, and thus make ourselves look like some secular version of evangelical preachers ranting about the blasphemous undercurrents they take themselves to have detected in popular TV shows, and we demonstrate that all our huffing and puffing doesn’t even blow these comedians’ stupid little careers down, then we’ve succeeded in making ourselves look spectacularly unappealing and completely powerless. Both halves of that are a problem if we’re interested in presenting a vision of the world that a great mass of ordinary people can get excited about and giving them confidence that it can be achieved.’
I think it’s important for people to note that ‘cancel culture’ isn’t really a new thing, nor is it only a feature of the left. Whether it’s the cultural right or cultural left, the act of trying to shame or pressure people into silence is something that’s always been done. And that’s not to say this should continue to be the case.
While this book focuses on the left (because Burgis is himself on the left and thinks the left can do better), we can easily argue that both the cultural left and cultural right need to find better ways to engage with ideas/actions they disagree with, especially if they want to get support from the wider population.
So, the book presents a way of engaging with the politically ‘undecided’. It encourages us to move away from “click-tivism” and what it describes as performative social justice – where we are good or bad depending on what we say, what we don’t say, or who we denounce for what they have said.
Burgis poses interesting questions, and I already know from the work that I do and the people I have encountered, that there are those who are very deeply ingrained in their views of what is right and wrong. So bringing a level of nuance into such difficult conversations where we actually listen to people we disagree with, is unlikely to be unpopular (just look at social media and other platforms like Reddit to see how toxic these conversations are).
But it is exactly because these conversations are so difficult that we need to get better at having them.
The book itself is a difficult read at times, particularly the parts about logic, decision theory and how we think about ideas we agree with versus how we think about ideas we disagree with. Yet this might be the most important part of the book, because inconsistency in our thinking gets us into messy places. And, if nothing else, perhaps to engage with people who we disagree with, both sides could try to get better at not interacting in a reactionary way.
As Shane Ryan says, “Cancelling Comedians is, above all else, an investigation into misplaced priorities”. Yet there will be people who balk at just the title of Burgis’s book because of the harm they believe insensitive comedy causes. If that happens to be you, I understand because I also think some comedy can be harmful. But I’m not sure that moving the lines of what is acceptable or not acceptable is something that should be arbitrated through social media pile-ons.
Not least because the people who are so readily (and often inconsistently) demanding lines to be moved right now, may one day find those lines will be more easily moved against their beliefs and used to silence them in the future.
Links to other reviews about this book that you might find interesting: