[I]t is sheer caricature to portray the fight over cancel culture as left–right trench warfare.. . .
The case of J.K. Rowling is a good illustration. She is unabashedly a political progressive. Her transgender rhetoric may be acerbic, but the politics are feminist, not conservative. It belongs broadly in the gender-critical school of feminism that sees women’s oppression as anchored in the female body itself, the cultural assumptions that surround it, and how it is “vulnerable in specific ways to sexual violence, such as pregnancy from rape”, as Susanna Rustin put it in The Guardian. This goes back to Simone de Beauvoir, and stands in opposition to the later queer feminism of Judith Butler, which substitutes gender identity – the subjective feeling of being male, female or something in between – for the biology of being female. The attempts to cancel J.K. Rowling are therefore attempts to cancel a particular version of feminism and declare it invalid. The aim is to expel Rowling from the progressive fold in order to set the meanings of progressivism: it is a border war within progressive politics. . . .
[C]ancel culture is the story of a young, socially conscious generation trying desperately to remedy the injustices they see, but having been left with wholly inadequate tools for the job.
If liberalism is about freedom, cancel culture is about power. . . .
But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people.
This problem of using liberalism’s terms to fill the holes in liberalism causes wokeness to stretch these liberal concepts to breaking point. Hence woke politics’ wildly expansionary use of terms such as “harm” and “safety”.
Thus does cancel culture devolve into what moral philosopher Hugh Breakey calls “meta-argument allegations”, which foreclose debates on grounds of harm and safety rather than truth.