JJ Charlesworth

writing on art, culture, politics

Political boycotts across the arts are freezing Normal People out

Comment piece on cultural boycotts and cancel culture in the arts, for the Telegraph, 8 November 2021

Using your cultural clout to control what people see or read has never been so popular. With Sally Rooney’s refusal to have her latest novel translated into Hebrew, and Netflix workers staging walkouts in protest at their employer’s release of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special The Closer, the politicisation of culture has reached a new low – one in which cultural and artistic life is manipulated by artists and “cultural workers” who want to shut down culture to punish those with whom they disagree.

Rooney, fêted chronicler of millennial atomisation, recently let it be known that she had refused an Israeli publishing house the rights to put out a Hebrew-language edition of Beautiful World, Where Are You. This, she said, was to show her support of the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Meanwhile, hundreds of Netflix workers, outraged at Chappelle’s latest comedic broadside at – well, all kinds of people, including but not limited to trans people – walked out of the company’s offices in Los Angeles and its headquarters in Los Gatos, to protest the comedian’s alleged transphobia.

Whatever one’s opinion on the issues at stake, from Israel-Palestine to trans rights, the idea that one should seek to punish or coerce individuals, institutions and governments by closing down the art and culture they consume has become all too acceptable. That artists and artworks can be shouted down or withdrawn by the artist themselves to “make a point” is having a corrosive effect on what it means to be an audience-member, reader or viewer, and whether we have the freedom to make up our own minds about what artists have made.

Today’s boycotts have little to do with the original radical sense of the term. In 1880, Charles Boycott, the English agent of an Anglo-Irish landowner in Co Mayo, was forced out by a campaign by the Irish National Land League, in which tenant farmers refused to work on the estate Boycott managed, while local businesses and tradesmen refused to serve him. Later, in British-ruled India, the “boycott” would become a weapon of Gandhi and other Indian nationalists, with ordinary Indians refusing to buy British-made goods, knowing how this would strike at Britain’s economic power.

But those mass campaigns of collective action have nothing in common with today’s conscience-salving cultural boycotts. The contemporary rhetoric may have the veneer of political radicalism, but it’s become another opportunity for those who think of themselves as more enlightened to exercise their intolerance. For many musicians and artists who lay claim to the legacy of the 1980s boycott of South Africa, withdrawing work and ostracising others has become a common way to signal their political commitments.

Ironically, though these are conducted in the name of oppressed minorities – Palestinians, for instance, or Uighurs – they’re another instance of privileged minorities telling everyone else what to think, lecturing delinquent regimes abroad and “correcting” opinions at home. 

It’s easy to make political gestures by withholding your work from a particular audience when you’re wealthy enough to do so. Nor is it particularly risky to use the platform of your fame to megaphone a particular cause, especially when those opinions fit the consensus of the chattering classes. Championing the “wrong” opinions is a different matter, even if you’re as big as JK Rowling or Dave Chappelle.

Rooney has suggested that if she “can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines”, she will. Should Hebrew readers feel grateful for this largesse? Or might they instead ask why an author feels she has the right to oblige a publisher to denounce its own government, just to please high-minded sentiments over a conflict in which that author has no direct investment?

Western artists seem obsessed with Israel. No other conflict around the world – not even the plight of the Chinese Uyghurs – mobilises such intense passions. Nor do the actions of our own governments abroad exercise the cultural set so acutely. At home, it’s the cultural wars of identity politics which demand allegiance to the “right” position. But that points to how far politics has become a matter of individual demonstrations of one’s own ethical correctness on issues which are now close to becoming groupthink, and how complicated and precarious situations in distant places can be reduced to the same currency of indignation.

When artists take the moral high ground with gesture politics, they’re the last to deal with any of the political consequences on the ground. In the Netflix walkouts, the staff of an entertainment company assumed the right to influence the editorial and commercial policy of the company, in order to suit their own opinions and “sensitivities”. Beyond the histrionic claims that Chappelle’s jokes led to actual harm, the protests showed that for some in the culture industry, producing content that their audiences want to watch is less important than imposing their views on that audience.

At the heart of such boycotts is a profound condescension towards the public. Back in 2018, the musician Nick Cave responded to BDS-supporting Brian Eno’s denunciation of his decision to perform in Israel. Cave concluded: “I simply could not treat my Israeli fans with the necessary contempt to do Brian Eno’s bidding.” This is the one thing artists can hold over us, their audience: the fact that we value their work. Rooney wouldn’t be able to flaunt her refusal if nobody cared for her books; normal people are fine when they buy your books or records or streaming subscriptions, but disposable when they disagree with you.

And denying others access to culture betrays how little these cultural “workers” really think of the power of culture itself. If art is anything, it’s an individual’s view of reality, one that can’t easily be reduced to soundbites, consensus opinions or prescribed perspectives. The flipside of this is that audiences should see, read and hear everything, and be able to decide for ourselves. But letting people decide is always disruptive – not conducive to conformism, or powerful conformists.

Contempt for “wrong-thinking” audiences equates to contempt for the value of art – even the artist’s own. It amounts to cancel culture as punishment for wanting culture, and it hints at the miserablist worldview of the cancellers. But then the contrast between Cave and Rooney couldn’t be more stark. In one, the passionate and desolate openness to love, suffering, grief and redemption, in which art and life are still worth living. In the other, a world of people puzzled by their own desires and oppressed by their sense of society’s vacuity. Guess which one is which?