Is Any Self-Respecting Statue Safe These Days?

“So what’s your take on this Cancel Culture everyone is talking about?”

As always the question put by Ziggy to his mentor Zara, aka Zarathustra postmodern-day prophet of renown, was posed in a manner which appeared innocuous enough.

“Who’s this ‘everyone’ you’re talking about?” came back the retort. Did Ziggy detect a tinge of defensiveness in the tone? “The whole business seems to be an invented term to give credence to the whingeing of a bunch of thin-skinned right-wing ideologues who resent having to face up to the consequences of their thoughtless and inconsiderate behaviour.”

Having so pronounced, Zara took a large swig of ale and put his glass back down on the bar. Anyone else in the pub listening in might have thought the conversation pretty much over at that point. But not if they knew anything about Ziggy. Indeed, the promptness of his follow-up almost suggested he had anticipated just such a response.

“I get what you’re saying. So Cancel Culture is a response to a certain kind of behaviour? Specifically ‘thoughtless and inconsiderate’?”

“Yes…but more specifically causing offence to vulnerable people with diverse characteristics.”

“Right, so these diverse, vulnerable people get their own back by initiating a cancel campaign against the perpetrators? I follow.” He turned back to the bar and took a swig of his pint. The explanation this time seemed to have been to his satisfaction. But unusually it was Zara who now saw the matter as requiring further elucidation.

“Well, it is not necessarily the victims who do the cancelling. It is more likely activists who are naturally more alert and sensitised to the kind of offensive remarks made and to the disguise of inoffensiveness in which they are often cloaked.”

Ziggy’s attention ostensibly remained on his pint glass. A pause in his friend’s narrative ensued, clearly intended to allow acknowledgement by him of the adequacy of the clarification offered.

“Right. As, for example, when the offender seeks to claim that the remark was made on social media many years ago?” he eventually ventured.

This was not at all what Zara had in mind. How was it his friend always managed to be so obtuse? The task of explaining was so much simpler when he spoke to the less sophisticated folk in the village he frequented to offer up his social justice-themed sermons. He drew a deep breath and was about to embark on the necessary further elucidation when there came an interjection from behind him, apparently addressed to the pair of them.

“If we’re calling people out on bad behaviour in the past,” the voice boomed, “there are a lot worse things than comments on social media.”

Zara turned promptly to see a tall stranger sporting motorcycle leathers and a large black facemask perched on the barstool next to him. He might have asked himself what this guy’s business was in the bar wearing a mask which clearly precluded his partaking of any of the beverages on offer. But the intervention was clearly being made on his side of the argument, so why should he quibble?

“I was just reading a story in this newspaper here,” the stranger continued. The evidence was held up momentarily for the pair’s perusal. “Only last night there was a reported cancel operation enacted up in Highgate, on a monument to an economist whose reprehensible behaviour even by the standards of his own time was considered shameful, but who has remained acknowledged and revered in the public imagination to this day.”

The self-confidence with which the stranger spoke showed he needed no assistance in making his point. Nonetheless, Zara felt there was no harm to offering a bit of reinforcement.

“Indeed Cancel Culture is a vital means of calling people out on their anti-social behaviour, irrespective of how far in the past it might have been.”

The stranger showed little gratitude for the moral support offered and continued: “This guy was a shameless drunkard. Didn’t do an honest day’s work in his life, but lived off money he scrounged from a friend who enjoyed unearned income from shares in a family business, namely a mill made profitable by the use of child labour and inhuman working conditions. And he was a misogynist, making no provision for his wife or the seven children she bore him, all but three of whom died. Not to mention the child he fathered with their housemaid. It is quite disgusting that we retain monuments to such disgraceful specimens of humanity.”

This guy was good! Zara couldn’t resist turning round to his friend and adding “You see, that is precisely why we need to strengthen Cancel Culture and widen the net.” He turned back to hear the remainder of the tale, but the stranger had mysteriously upped and gone. Only the newspaper was left, folded up, on the bar. “Did you see where he went?” Zara asked.

Ziggy looked a little evasive. “Not really. I was listening to your comments about widening the net and such.”

What could have been the reason for the stranger’s precipitate departure, leaving the newspaper behind? He picked it up and cast a glance over the page which had been folded open.

Meanwhile, Ziggy was gazing studiously into his now empty pint glass. “Does this economist guy by any chance have a name?” Now it had been asked, it seemed an obvious question to raise. Zara scoured the page to find the story which had been cited. His eye was drawn to a photo of a monument at which some unsavoury types wearing leather jackets and masks were clearly throwing objects. On it he noted were inscribed the words “Workers of All Lands Unite!” Atop the monument was a bearded visage which was immediately familiar.

Ziggy seemed to spot it at just the same time. “Hey, isn’t that old Charley Marx in the picture there?” Karl Marx it clearly was. Surely the stranger hadn’t meant… Zara avoided responding to this last question deftly folding up the newspaper and putting it back on the bar. He would have dearly loved to have ended the discussion at this point or moved it on to a different subject, but he knew Ziggy better than to expect that would be possible.

“So he’s the misogynist these activists were cancelling!” Well, I’d have to agree with you this time. It certainly sound like he deserves any criticism that is coming his way.”

This was not helping the situation. “You really don’t get it, Ziggy. This story dishonouring the good name of Karl Marx is clearly fake news.”

“But there is a picture of the attack on the monument. Surely you’re not disputing that it took place.”

“No, no, no! With fake news, it’s not the facts that are the problem, but the interpretation.”

“But I thought you agreed with the guy that it was a good thing.”

Zara, becoming increasingly red-faced, remained his usual calm, patient self. “No, that was because he misrepresented the facts.”

“You mean the stuff about his misogyny and indolence was all made up?”

Clearly his message was not getting through. He raised his voice slightly to assist his friend’s comprehension and shouted: “What I meant was that I didn’t know he was talking about Karl Marx. How many times do I need to explain to you, Ziggy, Cancel Culture is not about highlighting bad behaviour but suppressing anti-progressive ideas. Nothing anti-progressive about Karl Marx. End of. Now put that newspaper in the bin where it belongs and let’s go.”

With that he gulped down the last of his beer, slipped off his bar stool and marched to the exit, without a backward glance. So it was that he did not see his friend ripping the offending article out and sliding it surreptitiously into his inside pocket, before following him out the door.

Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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