Long Arm of Cancel Culture Comes for Knitting

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The word “knitting” normally evokes quaint images of grandma sitting in her rocking chair by the fireplace, needles and yarn in hand, as she makes a pair of mittens for her grandchildren to wear while they play in the snow.

Less likely are images of self-appointed social justice warriors demanding fealty to a cause as they systematically expunge conservatives from online forums. Even less likely are images of physical confrontations occurring at in-person knitting gatherings.

In 2019, a blog post about a knitting enthusiast going to India exploded into a debate about “colonialism” and “white supremacy” in the pastime. A series of commentaries posted on the website Quillette detailed how the online social justice squabble bled out into the real world, resulting in real-life altercations between knitting enthusiasts in England.

Jon Kay, a senior editor at Quillette and editor of the new book, “Panics and Persecutions: 20 Quillette Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age,” has his own thoughts on this epic yarn.

“It’s tragi-comic,” explains Kay. “It’s hilarious because these are people who knit, but it’s also tragic in the sense that a lot of these people, like, this is their life and their community. Their social community is other people who knit on these Instagram groups and other social media, and they’re getting thrown out.”

Kay joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about the absurdity of the knitting incident as well as cancel culture more generally.

We also cover these stories:

  • During a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, asks Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas whether he was warned about the flood of Haitian migrants arriving at the southern border.
  • After a phone call between President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, France’s ambassador to the United States, Philippe Etienne, who had been recalled, will be returning to Washington next week.
  • Former President Donald Trump files a lawsuit against his niece and The New York Times over tax documents of his that she leaked.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Doug Blair: Our guest today is Jon Kay, a senior editor at Quillette as well as editor of the new book “Panics and Persecutions: 20 Quillette Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age.” Jon, thanks so much for joining us.

Jon Kay: Oh, thanks for your interest.

Blair: Yeah. So, first I’d like to know a little bit more about you and the publication that you work for. So, for some of our listeners who maybe aren’t aware of Quillette, what is it, how did you get involved with the publication, and then, what’s your journalistic background?

Kay: My journalistic background is, I worked at a conservative newspaper in Canada, which was a little bit too conservative for me. Then I went to a very progressive magazine here in Canada, and that was way too progressive for me. And so, I was sort of journalistically homeless, and this is 2017, which was just two years after Quillette was created.

I think like a lot of people who write for Quillette, I was at a point that I didn’t think my future was in journalism or in writing because I saw a lot of tribalization. I saw progressives becoming really cultish. And on the conservative side, I didn’t consider myself a Trump fan. And I saw even in Canada, you saw some conservative publications going in that direction.

And Quillette was this thing that just, wow, that’s something that hits me right where I’m at politically, it’s classic liberalism and against what I would call political cultism on either side and I got swept up in it. I submitted something and then next thing you know, I was an editor and now I’m doing a podcast. It’s been great.

Blair: That’s awesome. Moving on from you a little bit more, let’s talk about the book. So, “Panics and Persecutions: 20 Quillette Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age,” quite an evocative title. And from the back of the book, we kind of get an impact of, or we get an idea of what we’re talking about. So, here’s what’s on the dust jacket: “In an age when telling the wrong joke or using the wrong pronoun can cost you your career, Quillette magazine has provided a forum for thinkers of all political stripes to push back against the forces of intellectual conformity.”

So, my question for you is, where did this idea for the book come from and why write it now?

Kay: So, we published, I mean, we’ve published thousands of articles, but some of our most widely read articles were first-person accounts, people describing what it had been like for them, say, in the world of theater or the world of literature, or they were at some [nongovernmental organization] and they witnessed, I mean, we now call it cancel culture—a lot of these stories were written before that term was popularized.

And those often became some of our most viral articles because it showed people inside the sausage factory. It showed people exactly how tormenting this can be for people in these institutions or these subcultures if they don’t tow the party line.

I got to say, things have changed radically just in the time that Quillette has been around. I mean, it’s now fairly common. Newsweek—you can’t imagine a more mainstream publication. Newsweek just, I think it was yesterday, published a piece by a woman who was a municipal politician in the New York City area, talking about how she had censored herself about supporting J.K. Rowling’s views in regard to gender. That piece appearing in Newsweek even like a year ago, or certainly two years ago, would have been really controversial.

So, now you have a fair number of outlets who are publishing these kind of cris de coeur when it comes to people’s experience with cancel culture. Quillette was, we were a little earlier to that game and we were doing as early as the mid-2010s is what we became known for. And a lot of those stories, we consider them fairly foundational for the Quillette identity and certainly for the people who wrote these things, it kind of defined who they were as writers. We collected them between two covers in this book.

Blair: Excellent. With that in mind, would you be able to maybe share one or two of the stories from your book that you find to be particularly indicative of this issue of cancel culture?

Kay: One thing that really strikes you about what we call cancel culture is just how obscure and often subcultural these milieus are where it happens. And one of the reasons I love being an editor for these stories is you don’t just learn about the political and cultural war aspects, you learn about the social dynamics.

And I’m going to pick something that’s like, when I describe this article to people who haven’t read it, they think I’m joking. It’s called “Knitting’s.” Knitting, that’s what you do. You know, what your grandmother did. “Knitting’s Infinity War on Instagram.” It’s a lengthy—actually we wrote, we published it originally in three sections because it was so long. And it was about how the knitting community in its online form fell into this complete social panic over issues of anti-racism.

It started with the most ludicrous—I mean, it started with someone talking about how they were excited about their trip to India and they used the wrong word or something. And it became this crazy thing which spilled over into real life. People were confronting each other at knitting meetups in Britain. …

It’s tragi-comic. It’s hilarious because these are people who knit, but it’s also tragic in the sense that a lot of these people, like, this is their life and their community. Their social community is other people who knit on these Instagram groups and other social media, and they’re getting thrown out.

Social media communities, their whole identity, it took them like years, sometimes decades to form these relationships and because they used the wrong word, they were getting thrown out.

That to me was fascinating because it shows there is no limit to how tiny and subcultural a world can be that it cannot be consumed with completely irrelevant considerations of skin color and gender and stuff like that. …

Blair: Right. I think we’ve heard a lot of these different types of stories where some movement or another gets eaten up by a purity spiral where … you’re not for the cause enough. And then all of a sudden it’s like nobody can do anything anymore without giving the side-eye to somebody else.

So, given that we kind of acknowledge that there are problems, I want to hear your thoughts on, like, what are the specific concerns about what cancel culture can bring? Why should we be concerned about cancel culture?

Kay: Well, it’s interesting you say that because on our own podcasts, we just published it today actually, we spoke with Peter Boghossian who just quit Portland State University. He was a philosophy professor there. And we talked about this very question. And he talked about how one of the reasons no one took cancel culture seriously is a lot of these stories. Well, knitting is particularly obscure, but it was like gender studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies.

This is the kind of stuff that even people in that field will recognize. It’s somewhat disconnected from the everyday world of building bridges and managing health care and stuff like that, but what he’s noted and I’ve noted it too, certainly here in Canada, is that it’s starting to get into engineering and physics and certainly the medical schools here in Canada.

I just spoke to a radiologist who said that something like 30% of his course load consists of some kind of anti-racism training. I mean, this guy … five years from now, he’s going to be reading X-rays and other images to see if I have cancer and his head’s going to be full of all sorts of nonsense by, like, Ibram Kendi instead of actual science that helps advance society.

So, now that this stuff is getting into the military, as I said, the heart sciences, health sciences, this is really important. I mean, you’re starting to see the threat. We’re going to roll back things like our commitment to empiricism and science and rationality and in place of that, it’s just, I mean, you see it already, it’s sort of a bunch of slogans and mantras dealing with matters of identity.

So, a lot of the stories here are sort of the canary in the goldmine because knitting, who cares, right? Literature, theater, some of these are obscure, but several years after a lot of these essays were originally written, you see it going into fields that really, really matter in terms of the everyday functioning of our society.

Blair: It sounds like there’s a very distinct impact on the old sort of guard thinking, “Oh, it’s just going to be on the college campuses. They’ll grow out of it.” And then in reality—

Kay: So, this is why my boss, Claire Lehmann, who founded Quillette, the reason she focuses a lot and we focus our journalism on campus trends, what’s happening in the academy, is because what’s being taught today ends up being in boardrooms tomorrow and in politics. And certainly you see it here in Canada.

I mean, we’re in the middle of a federal election campaign and I’m getting campaign materials from people listing their pronouns. And I look at some, especially the left-leaning parties, like some of their campaign platforms, it’s just a bunch of campus gibberish with very little that actually touches on stuff that influences regular Canadians and how they get services and stuff like that.

And the United States maybe is a little bit further behind on that trend because there’s more of an active conservative presence there. But certainly, when it comes to elite college, educated demographics, art, activism, journalism, sort of the commanding heights of intellectual culture, what happens on campuses, no matter how obscure and jargony it sounds, it’s going to affect the lives of ordinary people. And that’s one of the reasons we keep a close eye on campus trends.

Blair: Moving on from that topic, I want to discuss sort of the aftermath of a cancellation, the question being, is there any way to recover once someone has been canceled? I feel like I’ll see stories basically every day about this guy or that guy that got canceled for something, but I don’t really ever see a follow-up about, “and now they’re doing X,” or, “now they’re completely unemployable.” So, can you ever get back to society once you’ve been canceled?

Kay: The answer is yes, if you can make a ton of money for people. Louis C.K. is an example of a comedian who … people listening to this know was canceled. And by the way, he wasn’t canceled for saying the wrong adjective. I mean, he was canceled for some genuinely concerning sexual behavior.

If he were a lesser-known figure, his career would have been over, but because he can command ticket prices of $100 or $200 at a comedy club—and I know this cause he came to Toronto, I think it was … two years ago, and much to the consternation of cancel culture aficionados. [He] did a bunch of solo shows. He’s hard to cancel because he makes so much money for everybody.

J.K. Rowling, … perhaps the most successful living author in the world right now, some of her contemporaries in U.K. at publishers they tried to cancel. There were some young employees that said, “Well, we don’t want to work at a publisher or a talent agency that has anything to do with J.K. Rowling.” And the people in charge said, “Well, that’s too bad because she pays your salary and my salary, and there’s absolutely no way we’re going to fire her.” And that was it.

So, if you’re famous, yes, you can survive cancellation. A lot of the stories we have in this book are of much more obscure figures and often they are in government-subsidized fields, like here in Canada, it’s sort of literature and stuff. And … even when they were successful, they never made a lot of money for anybody.

I mean, what poet makes money for people, right? The reason they’re successful is because they have the acclaim of their colleagues or they’re an assistant professor at a good university and maybe there’s some grant-giving foundation that pays them a stipend or something like that.

And as soon as those people get enmeshed in this kind of controversy, that’s it. They are not like J.K. Rowling in that they’re making money for people, just the opposite. In many cases, they’ve been living off other people’s generosity and once they get canceled, that’s it because these subcultures have a lot of gatekeepers. They are tiny. … To get a job in a field where you’ve been canceled, forget it. There’s like 17 people who control the field and they all hate you. And those people have to reinvent themselves.

And we have people in the book who basically what they’ve done is they’ve stayed in the field, but in a different faction of it. Maybe they haven’t become conservative, but they have certainly picked, shall we say, like, a different tribe because the people who were on the other tribe who canceled them will never ever forgive them. That never really happens unless you really, really prostrate yourself. Once you’ve been canceled—and again, you’re not a huge moneymaker—that’s kind of it. People don’t like to admit they were wrong about canceling you in the first place.

Blair: Right. So, one of the things that I found very interesting that happened recently up in Canada where you’re based, there’s a controversy surrounding book burning that recently came to light.

Kay: Yeah.

Blair: Yeah. It was quite a story. I highly encourage our readers to look into this. But there was this story about some pretty radical leftists that took 4,700 individual books, burnt them in a “flame purification event,” and then used the ashes to fertilize a tree in a symbolic act of reconciliation. These books were things like “Tintin” and “Asterix” and these very, like, old comics that sort of portrayed Native Americans maybe not in a 2021-acceptable light.

So, my question then would be, is book burning and these sort of other authoritarian-style removals of undesirable stuff the inevitable endpoint of this censorious left that we’ve kind of cultivated through cancel culture?

Kay: I think the book burning actually went too far, even for leftists. I think they apologized for it. And I think even the progressive media had to admit this was a terrible idea.

One thing that was amazing about this story was that this was done ostensibly on initiative of Indigenous activists working with school board officials. And shortly after the scandal of this book burning—because as I said, this was, even for progressive Canada, burning a bunch of books in this, I mean … they should have focus grouped this term, purification ceremonies. It was just like absolutely out of a dystopian science fiction novel, this terminology they use.

After this was done, then emerged that one of the women who presented herself as an Indigenous leader, a leader of actually the Indigenous commission for the ruling Liberal Party of Canada, it turns out she’s not actually Indigenous. She’s just, she sells Indigenous earrings at $200 a pop at museums.

And she’s on this, heads up, this Indigenous liberal commission. And she’s gung-ho for book burnings to promote reconciliation for the historical crimes perpetrated against Indigenous people. But she herself doesn’t have a drop of Indigenous blood going back to the 18th century, according to an investigation by Radio Canada, which is the French branch of our CBC.

It couldn’t have been a more symbolically fitting story because a lot of the people leading these, in most cases, it’s not actual book burnings, they’re smart enough not to actually do that, but purging libraries and demanding that this or that book not be sold and stuff like that, a lot of them have extremely tenuous connections and in this case, a nonexistent connection to the communities they purport to be advancing.

And often it is people like this. It’s privileged people who are either white or, if I can borrow the phrase from social justice enthusiasts, white adjacent who are essentially indulging in upper-middle-class, academic fixations in regard to identity in what they present as an effort to promote social justice, but it’s not. … It’s their own sort of virtue signaling stunts, which doesn’t really benefit anybody—I mean, burning a bunch of books isn’t. If anything, it just puts social justice in a bad odor. It doesn’t help anybody.

Blair: One would hope that somebody looking at an actual book burning in the year 2021 would probably have to question whether or not they were on the right side of history.

Kay: It’s a crazy story—I mean, the fact [that] you said [they used the books’ ashes] for fertilizer—but it actually does speak to the climate here in Canada.

So, 2017 was Canada’s 150th birthday, but rather than being a period of celebration, it set off a lot of hand-wringing among the elites about what a racist place Canada was. And the word “genocide” started being thrown around with people with a serious face calling Canada … an ongoing genocide state, as if we were Rwanda in 1994 or the Nazis back in the 1940s.

This is the kind of language that’s been thrown around. And it’s created a kind of social panic among a certain kind of policymaker to the extent that, actually, apparently you can now walk into a room full of school board officials and say, “Hey, let’s burn a bunch of books and then fertilize the trees with the ashes.” And there is no one in the room who says, “That’s the creepiest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Because probably people in the room did object to that. But in the current environment, you’re not allowed to say that. And unfortunately, we have to wait for episodes like this just to see how crazy things have gotten. But this is America’s future, whereas Canada, we’re a few years ahead of you in terms of the social pattern.

Blair: And then the fact that you’re saying that it’s in our future, that kind of begs the question then, how do we get rid of this kind of stuff from society? How do we rid society of cancel culture?

Kay: … I think there’s two things. One is every generation throws off the pieties of the one before it. And … I already see this with my kids and kids who are teenagers now, they are sort of starting to roll their eyes at a lot of the stuff that’s being shoveled at them from their superwoke 25- and 30-year-old teachers whose social media pages are just like a riot of rainbows and hashtags and black squares and green squares and purple squares and just every imaginable color of square.

And teenagers are really good at sniffing out hypocrisy and cynical performance politics. It’s like one of their great skills. It’s exasperating as a parent when you’re trying to be earnest and teach them things but it comes in handy when stuff like this come around.

So, I think this is cyclical and you’re going to see teenagers pushing back on it. But it’s also like here in Canada, some of the biggest and most effective critics against progressive cultism are people of color, are lesbians, gay men, Jews like me, Muslims, who are basically saying, “Not in my name.”

Like, if you want to rend your garments because you’re a WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] who came here, your ancestors came here hundreds of years ago, and you feel paralyzed by guilt and shame about the things they did, the historical crimes they committed—which in some cases are very real and horrific things—that’s fine. But please do not inflict that emotional dysfunction you are suffering on people whose relatives came here relatively recently and who don’t have your privilege. And they have different races and religions and sexual orientations.

But a lot of us are just united by the fact that not only do we oppose a lot of the censorship and social panic, we doubly oppose the fact that it’s being done in our name, like, it’s being done to help people like me.

I happen to be Jewish, but you see gay men and women who resent the fact that the most absurd kind of gender theory nonsense is being shoveled at the public in their name. They said, … “This isn’t how I live my life. These aren’t things I believe in. This is stuff that a certain clique of people made up and want to promote but they shouldn’t do it pretending that the rank and file of my community actually believe this stuff.”

And you’re starting to see black people do this and Indigenous people do this and they have a lot more moral authority to say stuff like this than people like me, certainly. And good on them. I’m glad they’re doing it.

Blair: Right. Now, I think it is a very positive step when you see these sort of communities that are being told that this is what’s good for you, or this is to help you. And they’re saying, “Well, I don’t want it, please stop.” That’s very positive. So Jon, we are running a little bit low on time, but I wanted to give you the last word here. If our listeners want to learn more about the work you and Quillette are doing, where should they go?

Kay: Well, just go to quillette.com. And I always tell people it’s Gillette, but with a Q-U instead of a G, that helps with spelling and pronunciation. Subscribe to our podcast—Spotify, iTunes, wherever you listen to podcasts—and surf some of our content.

You can also follow us @Quillette on Twitter and other social media. And my boss, Claire Lehmann, is a great follow on Twitter. She’s very funny and incisive. I’m the second banana, I am @jonkay. And Jamie Palmer is my colleague and Colin Wright, who is also a great follow. There’s really four of us who kind of man the ship on a daily basis. So, we’re a small outfit, but I like to think we punch above our weight. So, thanks for paying attention to our humble little book.

Blair: Of course. Well, thank you for coming onto the show. So, that was Jon Kay, a senior editor at Quillette as well as editor of the new book “Panics and Persecutions: 20 Quillette Tales of Excommunication in the Digital Age.” Jon, thank you so much again for joining us.

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