Everyone who hasn’t spent the last six months under a rock knows about Israel Folau and how he’s raised northwards of two million dollars to fund his religious freedom case. Bully for him. Already a millionaire, he’s not going short while litigating all the way to the High Court. Have you heard of Brian Leach, Andy Ngo, Noah Carl, or Beth Patch, though? All four are “little people” — in Ngo’s case literally as well as figuratively — and all have been “cancelled” in such a way as to put Folau’s situation in the shade.
Brian Leach worked as a “greeter” for downmarket UK supermarket chain ASDA in Dewsbury, Yorkshire. He was fired for sharing a well-known Billy Connolly stand-up routine poking fun at religion, including Islam’s fondness for suicide bombing. “Now that’s a bright idea,” Connolly said in between his usual swears. “Every time there’s a bang the world’s a wanker short”. This “sharing” was on Leach’s personal Facebook profile. Terrifyingly, the complaints came from seven work colleagues — people he thought were his friends. Leach is 55 years old and disabled.
Noah Carl was a junior academic at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge who had — perhaps unwisely — done research into stereotype accuracy. He had (consistent with most work in this area) found that common stereotypes are statistically accurate. In one paper, for example, he found that opposition to immigrants of different nationalities correlates strongly with their arrest rates in the UK. This was completed while he was still a student at Oxford, but once he won a prestigious academic fellowship at “the other place”, cancel culture went into overdrive. First targeted online (particularly on Twitter) by open letter and accused of promulgating “racist pseudoscience”, St Edmund’s later experienced weekly protests against his appointment. It advised Carl to stay away from college grounds and not speak to the press. In the end — despite offering up the figleaf of two internal inquiries — it sacked him. Carl is a 28-year-old scientist with an Oxford doctorate. He is currently unemployed.
Andy Ngo is a photojournalist for The Wall Street Journal, Quillette, and The Australian. He’s also a beady-eyed senior copyeditor for Quillette. In late June — while covering an “antifa” rally in his native Portland, Oregon — he was beaten and hospitalised, and had his camera stolen. Local police stood idly by. The beating seems to have come about in part because his employers have his back. “Antifa”, meanwhile, bears comparison with football firms and other manifestations of gang culture that give hopeless, underachieving men an outlet. There have always been people for whom violence is exciting; “antifa” lets them clothe this deeply unattractive attribute in politically noble clothes. Ngo is a physically small, placid man; he’s going to be on “light duties” for a while.
I’ve observed before that I could write about people “cancelled” thanks to offendotrons on a weekly basis and often have to resist the impulse. I have given way this time because two of the people whose stories are sketched out above are friends. I took Ngo around the British Museum last year (my standard offer to US visitors in Blighty) and observed the seriousness with which he takes his art. I too went to Oxford and knew Carl before any controversy emerged. I assisted him in obtaining legal representation to bring a claim against St Edmund’s.
Writing about both of them using only their surnames feels strange.
Closer to home, Beth Patch — a senior editor in publishing company Penguin Random House’s Melbourne office — tweeted in support of bookshop staff keeping their Sunday penalty rates. While Patch is a member of a different union, the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA) rather than the Shop, Distributive, and Allied Employees (SDA), her tweet was lawful under the Fair Work Act. Indeed, the FWA is designed to protect employee (and trade union) speech in precisely these circumstances.
Despite this, Patch was called into a disciplinary hearing and given a “first and final warning”. She deleted her tweet and has locked her Twitter account. The MEAA will be challenging her treatment in the Fair Work Commission. Meanwhile, someone — presumably Penguin Random House’s in-house counsel — needs to sit down and explain to Patch’s employer that disciplining someone for engaging in legal industrial activity is the very mischief the FWA was drafted to address.
The hard-won trade-union-derived right to engage in religious or political activity with which one’s employer disagrees is being carelessly cast aside.
Patch’s story is important because it exposes how social media has completely broken many employers’ ability to appreciate that they cannot direct their employees’ minds out-of-hours. PRH’s Human Resources Department presumably thought it was disciplining someone for tweeting in violation of the publisher’s corporate social media policy. In that sense, what’s been done to Patch is classic “cancel culture”, like Brian Leach, Noah Carl, or Israel Folau. But even when incorporated in an employment contract, social media policies cannot overrule fundamental rights and duties embedded in the FWA. And somehow, PRH’s HR department has failed to realise this.
If it’s any consolation, most people have failed to make the connection, something that’s led a number of lefty commentators — people who should know better — to sing the praises of Israel Folau’s employment contract with Rugby Australia simply because they don’t like the religious boot with which he kicks. The hard-won trade-union-derived right to engage in religious or political activity with which one’s employer disagrees is being carelessly cast aside.
Like Folau, both Ngo and Carl have fundraisers — Ngo’s set up while he was in hospital by a colleague, Carl’s with the assistance of his solicitor. Meanwhile, Patch has an official campaign organised by her union. Initially, Leach tucked his tail between his legs, went home, and accepted his unhappy lot while Billy Connolly stayed safely ensconced (with his legions of fans) as a national treasure. Fortunately, UK charity the National Secular Society waded in — doing the sort of work trade unions used to do — and its in-house counsel were able to get him reinstated. It’s also perhaps indicative of the horrors of US healthcare that some of Ngo’s third party funds will go towards paying future medical bills — he suffered neurological damage during the assault (the technical term is “subarachnoid haemorrhage”).
What is particularly telling is the extent to which social media was the vector for all four individuals’ current circumstances. When people sign an employment contract mandating that they adhere (among other things) to a corporate social media policy or embody aspirational “brand values”, there’s always a clause (often directly underneath) that relieves the employer of the same duty. Yes, you read that right. You have to promise not to bring the company into disrepute but the company itself can shit all over its “core values”. That’s how bank employees get fired for miss-selling investment products while the only way to make the Big Four banks accountable for their egregious behaviour was to hold a Royal Commission.
Relatedly, unless a bank employee takes to social media to boast about shafting the customers, it’s entirely possible he won’t be fired — only disciplined internally. The net effect of this is that people are sacked or disciplined for minor social media breaches simply because they occur in public while employees who quietly (but seriously) breach their employment contract often face fewer consequences. Late capitalism’s social media and brand management mania is actively inimical to civil society.
It should go without saying that what “antifa” did to Ngo was worse than Leach and Carl getting sacked, or Patch being disciplined. Of late, however, I’ve been forced to restate in simple terms basic rules about interacting with political opponents, particularly journalists. Social media has so thinned the membrane between “the bad thought” all of us have from time to time and actually carrying it out that people need to be reminded that bashing reporters from politically opposed publications is unacceptable behaviour.
In that sense, “antifa” is as obsessed with brand management as Penguin Random House, Rugby Australia, ASDA, or St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. One of its principles is that unfriendly media organisations should not have the right to cover its activities, even on public property. This is why “antifa” doesn’t want journalists from centre-right or centre-left media (even staid CNN has experienced a hostile reception) covering its rallies. If you want to understand late capitalism, a so-called “resistance” outfit’s desire to massage its message is something of a headline case.
There’s also the basic reality that road rage is what happens when people act on “the bad thought”. Who hasn’t occasionally experienced a desire to take to mid-lane-merchants (“merchant banker” being Cockney rhyming slang for “wanker”) on the motorway with an RPG? The only reason road rage happens far less often than white-hot anger at being stuck in traffic is because drivers generally know to wind their necks in. “The bad thought” is confined to the roughly 90 cubic inches between most people’s ears in combination with leaning on the horn.
I had “the bad thought” about thumping journalists trespassing on my parents’ property during the controversy over my novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Unlike Ngo, I really am large and strong and capable of doing terrible damage to someone smaller than me, particularly if he’s burdened with photographic equipment. But I knew 20-plus years ago — instinctively, intuitively — that part of the price of living in a liberal democracy is journalists get a degree of latitude to act like bellends. If you don’t allow them that latitude, you’re really not far removed from Putin’s thugs or any other tin-pot third-world dictator you care to name.
Of course there are limits. The News of the World hacking murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone and derailing the subsequent police investigation limned the boundary of what the Great British Public would tolerate and nearly brought about a statutory press regulator. I’m glad that didn’t happen, but the Leveson Inquiry and subsequent debate about media behaviour drew a civil society if not a legislative line. Certain things (journalists wiring themselves up to record people secretly, staking out drug rehabilitation clinics frequented by celebrities, or editing interviews so their subjects appear foolish or contradictory) became beyond the pale. In this context, it’s worth noting that Ngo — an unusually careful practitioner of the reporter’s craft — has never given a hint of channelling the now-defunct News of the World.
It’s nonetheless true that getting someone sacked often operates as a handy substitute for violence. Australian legal academic Russell Blackford has written (in a book-length study of the phenomenon, The Tyranny of Opinion) how cybermobs set out to “destroy” opponents, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to deprive them of the means to earn a living. I have told four individual stories here; Blackford tells hundreds and admits his database is far from complete; you can no doubt think of several without much effort. In days gone by, bringing down a prominent politician or celebrity by dint of whipping up controversy and outrage was something that happened, if not particularly regularly. These days, similar campaigns are directed against people with little ability to defend themselves. Carl and Leach and Patch are in a genuine spot. All four are a reminder there’s a vast gulf between high profile cases like Folau’s and what happens to little people.
You don’t win at road rage, no matter how righteous the anger you feel in the moment. Getting someone fired because you disagree with his views isn’t a win either. You change no minds and do no good, least of all for your own cause. “Cancel culture” absolves us of the duty to recall that political disagreements are mediated by debates and elections, not by getting opponents sacked. “Cancel culture” suggests it’s possible to win at politics without bringing the electorate along.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her latest novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, was shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for science fiction. She lives in London.