The Curious Case of Damian Barr (Or, why Cancel Culture needs a reset)
A week, as we are no doubt finding out, is a long time in the Twittersphere.
Imagine the scene: you are laying resplendent in your (tastefully shabby) armchair, one hand on your smartphone, the other cradling a beverage of your choice. Your thumb rolls idly over various mentions and likes; some praises, some condemnations. Somebody’s calling you a twat. But it’s fine, because to be outspoken on Twitter is to invite criticism. To be involved in literature is to invite criticism. Hell, that’s how half of us fill our time. Critiquing, analysing, discerning. It can be boring. It can be exciting. But mostly, it is the bread and butter of online life, from a scathing Yelp review to self-important blog posts such as this.
Anyway, back to the scene: it's perhaps a little past teatime and you’re getting tired. The TV’s a bit shite. So your eyes wander back to Twitter, pausing on a thread about someone using a now-verboten term. Scrolling, liking, silently tutting, God, who speaks like this anymore? Who even thinks, let alone says, such rubbish? These Tweet replies are really laying into the fellow, and quite rightly too, you agree. T-words, hooker-talk, T-words-who-try-and-fail-to-commit-suicide, T-words who are failures for said suicide attempt, mad T-words, T-words so poor or mentally ill they have to rummage through public bins. It’s relentless. How disgusting, you think. In fact, you wonder, who is this person? Who are they affiliated with? Would their employers be proud to be linked to such a bigot? Your heart swells, beats faster, as you click on their profile, hoping beyond hope that their workplace is listed....
This is exactly what happened to Scottish author Damian Barr. Well, I say exactly - sadly I cannot confirm if he owns a tastefully shabby armchair. Either way, there were many that argued that Mr. Barr, for want of a better word, had it coming. Mr. Barr had previously campaigned hard on Twitter, allying with other huge names such as Munroe Bergdorf, in order to get Honorary Vice President of the Booker Prize, Baroness Nicholson, removed from her post. The reason being was that Baroness Nicholson had voted against Gay Marriage in the historic 2013 vote. This, he argued, made her ineligible to judge and support literary fiction. The Booker Prize acquiesced, and Baroness Nicholson was removed. Woke Twitter rejoiced. Gender Critical Twitter wailed, and then retreated to their caverns, licking their wounds and shaking their fists.
And then, it emerged, late one afternoon, that Mr. Barr had tweeted the word ‘tranny.’ Multiple times.
You can imagine that the combination of feeling beleaguered, feeling unfairly targeted and the absolute stinking blatant hypocrisy drove the Gender Critical corner of Twitter into overdrive. TERF’s up, as it were. A literal tsunami of Tweets cascaded over Mr. Barr, his employers and collaborators over the evening, throughout the night, and into the morning. I myself was hooked, witnessing my first real-life cancellation. I liked a few tweets here and there. I dithered over retweeting or getting in fully, feeling that yes while it would be delicious irony if the cancel-er became the cancelled, it just didn’t sit right with me. The tweets were horrible, in my opinion - but it was the hypocrisy that I objected to the most, rather than the content.
I must make it clear that Mr. Barr is not beholden to tweets made a solid decade ago. None of us are. If anything, I would politely request that, if you are worried about previous tweets, use the ‘Advanced Search’ function and search your own timeline for buzzwords you may have tweeted back when times were simpler. This is, I feel, one of the main issues of so much of our lives being led online. What would have once been a private text to a friend, or an offhand comment, has seen Mr. Barr delete all offending tweets and lock his Twitter account. I believe that Mr. Barr’s tweets contained some reprehensible content - but I believe passionately in his right to say it.
What I do not believe in is this ‘woke’ religious fervour being directed unfairly. I believe that the recent furor over J.K. Rowling’s tweets and later blog post regarding women’s rights to sex-segregated areas needs no explanation. I will say here that the wider Twitter community, and much of the media, have reacted to her with unwarranted venom. I believe that if Baroness Nicholson is able to be ‘cancelled’ due to past actions, then Mr. Barr should, in the interest of fairness, be treated the same. An apology, as we are constantly told, simply isn’t enough. But is that really fair? Of course it’s not. Sadly, it is a predicament we often find ourselves in - condemn or be condemned. You can imagine that had Mr. Barr not instigated such an intense campaign against Baroness Nicholson, it would not have led others to scour his Twitter feed looking for wrong-think. That, I can hear some of you crying, skirts dangerously close to victim-blaming. Perhaps it does - but I think it also highlighted the idea that nobody is ideologically pure. You can either accept others as they are, or be consigned to a life of looking over your shoulder for the ‘bad guy.’ Sometimes the ‘bad guy’ is you. And, if this current culture keeps up, your allies will eat you alive.
The cancellation of Damian Barr (if it ever happens...it’s still, as of this moment, actively happening) should act as a warning to all of us, left or right, woke or woefully asleep. It is incredibly easy to become intoxicated by vindication. Being right feels amazing, especially with Twitter heavyweights behind you. And, of course, you have a right to express your distaste. Let’s just not ruin any lives in the process.