Cancel culture is not the same as accountability

(Photo: Unsplash/Jason Leung)

The era of freedom-loving rebels has now passed. No more 'rebels without a cause'. James Dean is so last century! Now our progressive celebrities have declared that this is the era of accountability.

No less a prophet than Graham Norton has told us so. Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival recently, he went viral for claiming that cancel culture was really just accountability – and that we all had to be accountable for what we said. It has consequences.

It's worthwhile examining his comments in more detail. Let's 'fact check' them.

1) You are not cancelled if you I can read your article

False. If JK Rowling is cancelled from certain festivals, the BBC and universities then yes, you are cancelled - even if you can publish on the internet or to your own circle. It is true that someone as famous, stubborn and courageous as JK Rowling is difficult to cancel – but us lesser individuals are all too easily silenced by the rich and powerful such as Norton. He has his own chat show on the BBC and will certainly not be cancelled.

2) You are not allowed to say whatever you like. Free speech is not consequence-free

True. Words have consequences. Norton for example has seen that his words have had consequences. Such was the pushback that he felt compelled to withdraw from Twitter. However, Norton seems to be operating from the paradigm that you are not allowed to say anything which goes against the Establishment zeitgeist of the day. If you choose to disagree with trans ideology, then on your own head be it. Norton is representative of an elite who are so self-assured that their opinion is the self-evident truth – that anyone who dares to speak against it must face the consequences. In other words, JK Rowling deserves the death threats and abuse she has received, and John Cleese is just a silly old man, out of touch with contemporary society.

3) JK Rowling should talk to trans people, parents, doctors and 'experts'

Half true and like most half-truths, profoundly dangerous. Norton is pre-supposing that Rowling has not spoken to these people. He is also highly discriminatory in his groups and experts. No mention of the de-transitioners or the thousands of teenage girls who have been mutilated because of this ideology; nor the parents whose families have been devastated; nor the women who have been abused and tormented because of the destruction of their spaces in society. The trouble with The Graham Norton Show is that it is all so self-congratulatory, self-righteous and smug. Norton never talks to anyone who does not share his shallow and vacuous celebrity view of the world – that's the whole point of the show.

4) We don't need a middle-aged man mansplaining

True, but self-contradictory and discriminatory. John Cleese many be a middle-aged man mansplaining – but then so is Norton, a fact he seems to recognise when he says: "I'm painfully aware that my voice adds nothing to the discussion ... Can we rustle up some [expletive] experts and talk to them, rather than some man in a shiny pink suit?" 

And yet Norton knows that because he has a voice, then it does inevitably add to the discussion – if only in the sense of confirming the bias of Billy Bragg, Pink News and others who rushed to publicise their prophet. And again, we come to the 'experts'. I wonder if Norton would be prepared to have Jordan Peterson or Abigail Shirer or Mark Yarhouse – all 'experts' in the field? I suspect that by 'experts' he means those who agree with his ideology.

Nick Cave, in Faith, Hope and Carnage, shows the weakness in Norton's argument.

"People can question the existence of cancel culture or they can rebrand it as a culture of accountability, but I don't think anyone can question the stifling and deadening effect of the fear of cancellation – or even just getting it wrong – on art, writing, public discourse and even comedy. It has made the world of ideas so relentlessly uninteresting" (p.222).

The Norton version of accountability is deadening and stifling.

The trouble is that while all reasonable people would agree that we need to be accountable, the question is: to whom? Each side in the culture wars thinks that it should be self-evidently them.

One of the fruits of our society's rejection of Christian principles is that the principle of accountability has just become another tool of power. Have you noticed how the great fruits of Christianity in our society - equality, diversity and tolerance - have been turned into exactly the opposite? Equality has become inequality. Diversity means that everyone thinks the same. Justice becomes injustice. Intolerance is the new tolerance. And accountability is the new word for bullying and intimidating people.

Think of how important accountability is. The late Queen believed that ultimately, she was accountable to God. Brian Houston of Hillsong is supposed to be accountable to the Hillsong board, but has apparently started up a new independent ministry. Are we accountable to the mob? Should Graham Norton determine who we are accountable to?

The Bible has a very different perspective. "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God" (Romans 3:19). "So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12).

We are also in different ways accountable to God's representatives and servants. A child is accountable to their parents, a pupil to their teacher, an employee to their employer, a Christian to their church, and a citizen to their government. But that accountability is always derivative and limited. However, ultimately we are all accountable to God alone: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

What a difference it would make to our politics, industrial relations, relationships and churches if we really believed that.

"But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken" (Matthew 12:36).

Perhaps Graham Norton should have that hung on a plaque on the wall of his studio! Those of us who use social media a lot should perhaps have it stuck on our phones!

Yes, we are free to speak. But ultimately, we will have to answer to God for every word spoken. Maybe we should be more urgent in praying "set Lord, a watch before my mouth" (Psalm 141:3)? And seeking forgiveness for our lack of accountability.

David Robertson leads The ASK Project in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.