Harvey Weinstein walks into a bar … this is not a joke but a cautionary tale for our times


Harvey Weinstein … heckled when he dared to show up at a New York bar. Credit:AP

Weinstein faces allegations of sexual misconduct from 90 women. The evidence of his sexual predation, which happened virtually in plain sight, is overwhelming and sickening.

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But he hasn’t faced trial yet – that will happen in January, when he will plead not guilty to five different rape charges brought by the Manhattan District Attorney.

So technically, he is still innocent, and surely we can’t let mob justice overrule due process? A man should have the freedom to move through the world minding his own business, unmolested by strangers, shouldn’t he? (Irony 100 per cent intended.)

Perhaps the harassment of Weinstein is an example of the totalitarian madness of cancel culture, where people, especially those in the public eye, are “cancelled”, or ostracised, due to moral infractions decreed by a social-media mob.

Personally, I think the incident is more natural consequences than cancel culture. Weinstein had it coming. I find it more telling that the woman calling him out was herself booed and shouted down.

Because if cancel culture is killing free speech and procedural justice, then it better watch out, because cancel culture itself is in danger of being cancelled.

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Last week, no less a progressive luminary than former president Barack Obama criticised cancel culture, and its close cousin, call-out culture, saying they left no room for nuance.

“The idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” he told a group of young activists at an Obama Foundation summit.

“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws,” he said, and explicitly linked the culture to young people.

Other examples of a cancel culture backlash come from the pages of this newspaper, with cartoonist Michael Leunig decrying the strong reaction to his (in my opinion, sexist) cartoon depicting a neglectful mother absorbed in her smartphone.

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And on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed to confront the practice of activists “cancelling” the resources sector with so-called “secondary boycotts”, where environmental groups target businesses providing goods or services to mining companies and other businesses “they don’t like”. How the Prime Minister will manage this went unexplained.

The relationship between cancel culture and free speech cuts both ways. While cancel culture may silence other points of view through ostracism and trolling, it is itself the product of the democratisation of speech via the populist channels of social media.

It seems to me that lobbying a company to withdraw services from another company is a perfectly civilised form of activism, damaging though it may be to the people employed by the targeted company.

Mining companies and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world are big and ugly enough to look after themselves, and the idea that cancel culture is hurting them terribly is debatable anyway.

The world is messy … People who do really good stuff have flaws.

Former US president Barack Obama

Mining companies still post huge profits, and I note that Buzzfeed reported the owners of the Downtime Bar, tipped off in advance that Weinstein would be attending, gave performers explicit instructions not to mention him in their acts. The powerful are still protected.

Much more concerning is the effect of cancel culture on its participants, the young people who are victims of it, and those who perpetrate its worst injustices.

As Obama noted, the world is messy and there are ambiguities. The propensity to see life in absolutist terms is closely correlated with anxiety and depression. Other types of “faulty thinking”, linked by medical research to mental illness, include catastrophising, emotional reasoning (if you feel something, it must be true), jumping to conclusions and mental filtering (leaving out the good, only focusing on the bad).

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All these things also happen to be integral to cancel culture, which can be dogmatic, bullying, and totalitarian, leaving no room for mistakes, uncertainty, doubt or frailty.

In October, The New York Times published a fascinating article, “Tales from the teenage cancel culture”, comprising interviews with high school and college students who had cancelled and been cancelled over infractions including playing a song by R Kelly (a rapper charged with sex offences against women and girls) and supporting Donald Trump.

One 15-year-old had been cancelled for reasons that were obscure to her. “We all do cringey thing and make dumb mistakes and whatever,” she told the Times. “But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then, and make it who you are now.”

I don’t care too much about the feelings of Harvey Weinstein, but as a society we should care very much about the feelings of such young people, who report rates of anxiety and depression far higher than previous generations.

It can’t be easy finding your own morality in an online culture that polices moral transgressions so brutally, and it must be difficult to take comfort in the silence of your own company when you’re being shouted at by fools on the internet.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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