fair play and cancel culture, men and women

superficially, at least, the old-fashioned rules of fair play resemble the rough and tumble of sports, combat, and other forms of traditionally male competition. one seeks to defeat one’s opponent—brutally, if need be—but the violence, crucially, is limited to the field of play. as a concept, this wasn’t hard to extend to the realm of ideas and letters. reasonable people can disagree, after all, but it’s offside to go after someone’s family or livelihood. the public square not only tolerates debate and dissent, it depends on them. unfortunately, that notion has grown quaint, and this, to my ear, is the central lament of the harper’s letter: as a culture, we no longer seem able to ‘leave it on the field.’

because the field is now everywhere. so -called cancel culture reminds me of an unpleasant experience my younger sister had many years ago, before the internet. in grade school she fell in with a group of girls whose primary recreation, it seemed, was identifying the next girl to be singled out, humiliated, and ritually shunned. an altogether different kind of combat sport. when it was my sister ’s turn, for some reason, the abuse turned weirder and darker, with threats, stalking, and phone calls to the family home at all hours. no one laid a finger on her, but the episode terrified her. my parents and her teachers agreed it would be best if she missed the last six weeks of grade seven.

ask jk rowling about the pile-on, shaming, and character assassination, in her case amplified exponentially by the internet . of the thoughtful things written lately about cancel culture, many ask when young liberals became so dogmatic and censorious. my question is this: if we can readily identify examples of the old-fashioned brutality and awfulness of patriarchy, might we now, in the post-patriarchy, be seeing an emerging new brutality—one less violent (physically), but vastly more totalizing? might cancel culture’s essential character be feminine?

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