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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

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How To Make Money By Getting Everyone To Hate You

British media personality Piers Morgan believes he will be “canceled” for his asinine opinions. In fact, there’s always an audience for this type of arsehole.

Piers Morgan is best known in the United States, if he is known at all, as the man who briefly took over Larry King’s timeslot on CNN and drove its ratings further into the ground. He also did a stint as a judge on America’s Got Talent (where his reputation was mostly as “the mean British guy who isn’t Simon Cowell”) and won the first Celebrity Apprentice, on which his longtime friend Donald Trump praised him as “ruthless, evil, arrogant, and obnoxious.”

In Britain, Morgan has been famous since 1994, ever since Rupert Murdoch made him the youngest editor of a national tabloid newspaper, putting then-28-year-old Morgan in charge of the News of the World. (The paper would eventually implode in a nationwide scandal over the hacking of celebrities’ phones. Morgan had left long before amid his own scandal, in which he’d published photographs of a countess leaving an addiction treatment center—an act deemed too slimy even for the British newspaper industry.) Morgan has been a constant presence in British media since then, appearing on TV shows ranging from The Dark Side of Fame with Piers Morgan (celebrities’ trauma) to Killer Women with Piers Morgan (interviews with female murderers). His reputation for intrusive sleaze and offensive remarks has made him something of a national hate figure (Stephen Fry once defined the word “countryside” as “the murder of Piers Morgan.” John Cleese tweeted: “Piers Morgan writes that I didn’t recognise him in a restaurant in New York. I did. I just didn’t want to speak to someone I truly detest.”)

Morgan, like Trump, knows that when you get people mad, they talk about you, and your fame increases. (“Piers Morgan Would Rather You Hate Him Than Ignore Him,” runs a Vanity Fair headline.) He has a seemingly endless string of public feuds and a knack for causing television viewers to send in flurries of complaints about things he has said on air—most recently, he had to leave Good Morning Britain after saying he didn’t believe Meghan Markle’s claim of having had suicidal thoughts. While Morgan never succeeded in getting Americans to watch him on CNN, he did succeed in getting many to dislike him, by choosing “lecturing the country about gun control” as his signature issue.

Morgan’s new book Wake Up: Why The World Has Gone Nuts is a manifesto against “cancel culture” and in favor of “common sense.” It is a #1 bestseller in Britain, and is a useful example of what we might call the “Am I Being Canceled?” business model. Examining it can help us understand (1) how the concept of “common sense” is used to keep prejudices from being rationally scrutinized, and (2) how opponents of “cancel culture” get people angry over trivial matters and reinforce the very tendencies they claim to stand against. 

Morgan’s pitch for the book runs like this: 

It’s time we get back to common sense. It’s time to cancel the cancel culture. It’s time to Wake Up. If, like me, you’re sick and tired of being told how to think, speak, eat and behave, then this book is for you. If, like me, you think the world’s going absolutely nuts, then this book is for you. If, like me, you think NHS heroes and Captain Tom are the real stars of our society, not self-obsessed tone-deaf celebrities (and royal renegades!), then this book is for you. If, like me, you’re sickened by the cancel culture bullies destroying people’s careers and lives, then this book is for you. From feminism to masculinity, racism to gender, body image to veganism, mental health to competitiveness at school, the right to free speech and expressing an honestly held opinion is being crushed at the altar of ‘woke’ political correctness.

Morgan claims to be an ambassador for common sense in a world gone mad. A sample of one of his common sense opinions is his belief that vegan versions of meat products should not be made. Here, he describes his reaction when British high street bakery chain Gregg’s introduced their vegan sausage roll: 

“I was incredulous. Who the hell had been waiting for a vegan sausage roll? And how can a sausage be vegan anyway? The very notion of a ‘vegan sausage roll’ makes no sense. Sausages are meat products… And anyway, why would vegans want to eat something named after a meat product if they hate meat so much? As a meat-eater, I take exception to the use of meat labels in this way. The whole thing is a total sham, a con on the public designed to make people feel vegan-virtuous. The companies behind it are just virtue-signalling their spurious vegan credentials trying to make money from a small but noisy minority of their consumer base. I tweeted back at Greggs, ‘Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage roll, you PC-ravaged clown.’ ‘Oh, hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you,’ they instantly replied… all hell broke loose as the world’s vegans rushed to abuse and shame me, playing right into Greggs’ greedy little hands.” 

It turned out, in fact, that plenty of people had apparently been waiting for a vegan sausage roll, because the huge popularity of the rolls contributed to substantial profit growth for Gregg’s. Morgan had been convinced that common sense meant something that was fundamentally a sausage should not be vegan, and only a tiny minority of the consumer base would want it. But the reality is that British people are going vegan in record numbers

“Why would vegans want to eat something named after a meat product if they hate meat?” is an incredibly easy question to answer, of course. Many people like the way meat tastes but don’t like the fact that its production involves industrialized mass slaughter. I grew up loving sausage rolls, and I missed them terribly when I went vegetarian; I was thrilled when I got to try the Gregg’s roll, which was delicious. 

Vegans and vegetarians are common targets for Morgan. Wake Up spends a page and a half complaining about the time Google took the egg out of its salad emoji to be more vegan-friendly. He acknowledges that he “Actively dislike[s] a lot of things that many might think are trivial and inconsequential, from papooses to vegan sausage rolls… but I genuinely don’t like either of them—and I should be allowed to say so… I just want to exercise my freedom of speech to say I think they are abhorrent.”

And exercise it he does. The irony of the anti-“cancel culture” warriors is that they are pretty noisy for being the victims of a supposedly silencing culture. It’s also the case that, beyond being mocked on Twitter, it’s not clear how Morgan’s dislike for vegans (or papooses) is in any way being punished by the Woke Cancel Culture Authoritarians. In fact, he admits that “my diatribe against papooses ended up as a two-minute segment on NBC Nightly News, America’s most prestigious daily news broadcast.” When the Society of Editors nominated him for its “columnist of the year” award, Morgan (“apparently getting impatient for the arrival of a mob”) declared “I am canceling myself” by taking his name out of the running. 

Morgan says in the introduction that he wrote the book specifically with the thought that as soon as it was published, the PC snowflakes would come for him with torches and pitchforks (or at least, emojis of them). 

“When I first began writing this book in late 2019, I assumed it would lead to me being publicly ‘cancelled’ the moment it was published. I’d be shamed, vilified, mocked, abused, bullied, and no-platformed. My book signing would be met with protests, possibly even threats of violence, and my media appearances to promote the book would be weirdly contentious. In fact, even the announcement I was writing a book on liberalism would be the catalyst for an immediate outpouring of ‘liberal’ rage on social media and accusations that I was just another middle-aged white conservative bad guy—many would refuse to believe I could possibly be a fellow liberal.” 

In fact, what happened was just the opposite. Morgan might continue to get the same amount of social media mockery as usual, but the book is a bestseller. The “howling mob of purple-haired, ring-nosed, Trump-loathing, meat-hating, men-detesting lunatics” he is at war with do not seem to have noticed he is at war with them. 

Or perhaps the very existence of a “mob” is a paranoid delusion, an imaginary enemy conjured up in order to make people frightened and angry. We can actually get hints from the text itself that this might be so. Not every observation Morgan makes in the book is idiotic—Morgan, like Trump, is a shrewd publicity-hound, and these men have certain smarts—and he notes at one point that many of the tendencies he’s talking about seem to exist solely on Twitter. He says that 20 percent of the adult population is on Twitter, and of those, 10 percent post 80 percent of the tweets, meaning that the discourse under discussion is being driven by only a small number of people. We live on a “two-worlds planet—those who are on Twitter and those who aren’t.” On Twitter, people: 

“…work themselves into a frenzy of self-righteousness that seeks to tell everyone how to live their lives, and shame, abuse and cancel them if they don’t follow the exact rules laid down by the PC police. The latter, those not on Twitter, have no idea this is going on, and care even less, but when they’re told, usually by mainstream media, that a bunch of mad-eyed PC cops want to ban them from laughing at inappropriate jokes, they feel angry. Very, very angry. And that anger manifests itself in a vote for Trump or Brexit. The perverse irony of all this modern hysterical illiberalism is that it propels people who might otherwise consider themselves liberal into the arms of nationalists and authoritarians, who themselves like to exercise illiberal control over people.”

I think this is an important passage, one that makes it worth paying attention to a plea for attention from a man most Americans have long since forgotten about, if they ever knew him at all. Morgan is correct that when people are told there is a mob coming to take away their freedom to laugh, they tend to get angry about it. He is obviously right to say that authoritarians like Donald Trump try to stoke backlash against “political correctness”—the entire 2020 Republican National Convention was themed around stopping “cancel culture.” But he doesn’t pause to contemplate a quite obvious question this paragraph raises: if the non-Twitter world has “no idea” that this mob exists and couldn’t care less about it, then how much does it actually matter? 

I once tried to devise a sentence that would capture the essence of the problem with every anti-political correctness commentator. The one I came up with was this:

“Why can’t these noisy morons be polite and listen?” he shouted with his fingers in his ears. 

In fact, what looks like “common sense” can be highly irrational, and the rhetoric about cancel culture is usually just as hyperbolic and deranged as any embarrassing PC excess to have come out of a Berkeley student group. Morgan says that the world “had become a place where common sense was ignored, weakness celebrated, strength denigrated, failure replaced by ‘participation prizes,’ accountability abandoned in the rush to blame others, dissenting views instantly crushed by a howling self-righteous mob and signaling one’s dubious virtue was absolutely paramount.” The world, mind you. Not just a portion of it. Dissenting views are crushed by mobs, which is why Piers Morgan is currently serving a stretch in a reeducation camp… oh wait, no, he has a best-selling book and is about to appear in an exclusive interview with Sean Hannity on America’s most-watched cable news network. And lest you think his departure from Good Morning Britain over the Meghan Markle remark proves he has indeed been punished for his speech, The Sun reports that Morgan is now the subject of “a £10 million bidding war among TV bosses after receiving a flurry of job offers.” Being canceled is pretty lucrative. 

In fact, Morgan’s career offers a useful lesson on how to flourish as a public figure, provided you don’t mind causing large numbers of strangers to fantasize about committing “countryside.” Here is the plan: 

  1. Say things specifically calculated to irritate people.
  2. When they are irritated and say so, accuse them of trying to “cancel” you.
  3. Hurl insults at them, and when they hurl insults back, tut at their rudeness and lament the decline of civil discourse. 
  4. Write a best-selling book about how free speech is dead. 

I once tried to devise a sentence that would capture the essence of the problem with every anti-political correctness commentator. The one I came up with was this:

“Why can’t these noisy morons be polite and listen?” he shouted with his fingers in his ears. 

The first rule of complainers about cancel culture is that they plead for civility and reasonableness while being distinctly uncivil and unreasonable themselves. Morgan’s sausage roll rant is sheer idiocy: he hasn’t given the least thought to the ethical arguments made by vegans, but he’s completely convinced that his opinion is common sense in a world of craziness. In fact, he specifically cites a UK judicial decision that ethical veganism qualifies as a protected belief under the law as an example of the “bafflingly insane standards of ‘woke’ absurdity.” “Kale-munching is no longer a lifestyle choice, it’s a right,” he grumbles. Well, yes, it’s a right, and anyone who actually tried to make an argument for why ethical veganism should differ from religious belief in its legal status might struggle. But you don’t need to make an argument when you can just call your prejudices common sense.

Of course, there are plenty of small incidents of “political correctness gone mad” that one can gather to make out a brief for the absurdity of the Woke Left. Morgan is right that it was absurd when an Asian-American ESPN announcer named Robert Lee was not allowed to do commentary for a University of Virginia football game—though this had nothing to do with a “woke mob” and probably occurred because ESPN wanted to avoid any chance of a “distraction.” Morgan catalogs a number of daft things said and done by celebrities, which are indeed annoying. I too found the Gal Gadot cover of “Imagine” to be a painful listen. I too find media interest in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to be disproportionate to their objective significance, though Morgan actually seems to have a weirdly personal vendetta against Markle that makes him unable to stop talking about her. Regardless, Morgan’s cited examples are often not “the Woke Left has gone too far” and instead more like “corporations and celebrities have too much power, and we pay them too much attention.” 

In fairness, Morgan is slightly more interesting than some of the American versions of his type, in that he reserves a lot of ire for people who break COVID-19 health guidance, praises the (socialist) NHS, and harshly criticizes the Johnson government’s pandemic response. He also harshly criticizes London mayor Sadiq Khan for not ensuring that transit workers had adequate PPE. Despite Morgan’s long-standing friendship with Trump, and his praise of Trump in the book, he eventually broke with Trump over the Capitol riot, which he claims he “never thought Trump was capable of.” He claims to be a liberal in the book, and he sort of is, in that he precedes every rant about feminism or Black Lives Matter with an explanation of how he supports their goals but not their methods. On feminism, he concedes that “some men remain unreconstructed misogynist dinosaurs who think feminism is a profanity” and “the very last person many women wish to hear define feminism is a man, and especially if that man is me.” However, he immediately adds: “But that isn’t going to stop me…”

Anyone who wants to publish a book showing that the “world has gone mad” will always have plenty of examples to choose from, because the world at its most normal is a planet of absurdities. It is also possible to mount a serious critique of certain aspects of social justice politics, such as the tendency to get overly preoccupied with inconsequential things and the reluctance to empathize with transgressors. But anti-“cancel culture” types generally aren’t interested in having a serious discussion with the left. 

The word “cancel” is so vague that it’s possible to classify any amount of online backlash one’s views receive as “being canceled.” Of course, if you are receiving an insufficient amount of backlash, you can always come up with something even nastier to say until people start paying outraged attention to you. Being unapologetically appalling, and claiming one’s bizarre personal opinions to be simple common sense, are fantastically effective ploys for attention, and in the United States can even form the path to the White House. Whipping up fear of a “mob” that is coming for the reasonable people, and telling people that they are the reasonable ones but will soon find themselves being hounded out of public life is, as Morgan says, a recipe for manipulating the public. It is also a recipe he is happy to use for his own ends. You will not cancel me for my opinions on papooses may sound absurd, but books like this sell. If you find yourself being paid insufficient attention by an indifferent public, and could use some extra cash, consider making your opinions worse and becoming much more indignant about them. You will not be fun to be around. But you may get famous.

Photo by Cow PR via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

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