The Moral Panic at the Centre of Our Politics
The language of the mob is being used to delegitimse those using the power of social media to fight for social justice
The right have convinced themselves that the values that they hold dear are under threat from what is often described as a ‘woke mob.’
If I am to understand their argument, the claim being put forward is that woke acolytes want to supplant debate with an unthinking conformity to a set of group norms centred around the politics of identity. Should you resist, you will be threatened with reputational damage until you desist or face cancellation — either by being no platformed or by losing your job or social status.
The language of the mob is immediately instructive, because it serves — as much of this discourse does — to delegitimise in advance the claims being made. You don’t need to reason with a ‘mob’ because a mob is, by definition, an unreasoning mass seeking to exert its unthinking will through threats, violence and intimidation.
This use of this language isn’t new in the history of political conflict and its use is instructive as the language of the mob is almost always used by those in power to object to those holding power to account. It is how the British elite spoke of the American revolutionaries and it is how the parliamentary elite spoke about the Chartists. To use the language of the mob is to seek to delegitimise a cause, typically when that cause is being furthered outside of mainstream politics.
The language of of the mob is also used to suggest, explicitly or otherwise, that there is an attempt to impose a particular view without argument — hence why those who are the alleged victims of the ‘mob’ are ‘cancelled’ rather than debated, disagreed with or challenged.
Now, I’m the first to admit that social media can be a nasty place — I’m sure we’ve all experienced this nastiness first hand. Argument online are often in bad faith, there are constant personal attacks (ad hominem), people constantly misrepresent your position (straw manning) and so there can be a tendency to assume that all or almost all of the arguments had online have this character. But, this unfortunate fact, doesn’t lend credence to the idea of a ‘woke mob,’ because the online world confronts us in this way no matter where we fall on the political spectrum.
The particular claim being made by those who perceive the threat of ‘cancellation’ is that you have to worship at the alter of group identity, or you will be subject to censure.
I’ve argued before that these claims are often rendered absurd because their articulation is often made via the megaphone afforded by a national newspaper column or by virtue of many hundreds of thousands of twitter followers.
But, I would add to this that nobody is entitled a platform or to the status that it affords. If you walk away from your talk show spot or resign from your gig presenting breakfast television, or even if you were sacked, you are losing something that most people will never have any hope of having, so you can hardly complain about silencing when everyone else is mumbling to themselves in comparison.
But what of the broader claim about woke ideology? Is it true that those who are woke want to supplant debate with an unthinking conformity to a set of group norms centred around the politics of identity?
Well, it is true that I want to change your mind. It’s also true that I don’t want you to do or say things that are grossly offensive to groups of people who are marginalised in our society. I want you to understand that the authority of the state and other structures of power don’t confront us as abstract individuals as liberals have often claimed, but are disproportionately directed against minorities and those who question the power of the state. But, I can’t force you to think this and wouldn’t want to try.
I suspect that what is really going on is that people whose role in politics was to shape public discourse are now finding that their power is less than it was and that the radical democratisation of the public sphere, with the growth of social media, is enabling voices that otherwise would have been sidelined to be heard. In other words, ‘cancellation’ is simply a rebalancing of power that should be broadly welcomed.
Note, as I argue above: this is not a costless transition. The rise of online abuse is framed as ‘cancellation’ as if it is those on the right who are victims, but the true victims of online abuse are often minorities. For example, in the run-up to the 2017 UK General Election almost half of the online abuse directed at Members of Parliament was directed at Dianne Abbott, one of the UK’s first black MPs.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about public discourse and how it operates. But, in a media landscape dominated by the right-wing press, where discourses on the left are routinely disparaged and marginalised and where minorities are openly attacked on the front pages of our newspapers the charge that it’s the right who are being silence by a ‘woke mob’ would be a sick joke if so many ordinarily intelligent people didn’t believe it.