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Sinead O'Connor, Cancel Culture, and Consistency
Sinead O’Connor has died at 56. Though a cause of death has not been formally confirmed, the presumption is suicide.
In the public mind – particularly the American Gen X mind – O’Connor is famous for two things. First, her stunning, moving, (and in 1990, inescapable) cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Second, ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1992. The reaction to the latter was immediate and predictable: O’Connor was booed at subsequent appearances. She was threatened and shamed and lost gigs. To use a term that would not gain currency for another twenty years, Sinead was cancelled.
On my Facebook and Instagram timelines, there is an outpouring of grief of the sort that is typical when a beloved artist dies too soon. Many of these tributes refer with anguish to the way Sinead was treated in the aftermath of that SNL appearance. I know these friends. I have argued with some of them about cancel culture, as they have defended the callouts and the firings and the deplatformings of artists whom they regard as having behaved badly. They think we need more cancellations, not fewer. They long for a winnowing fire of justice that will remove the abusive and the mediocre and allow the oppressed and the truly talented to be heard and seen at last.
These friends have drawn the connection between the way Sinead was shamed in 1992 and the way her life ended in 2023, and I suspect they’re right.
But what if Sinead had ripped up a photo of Dr. King instead of the Pope? What if she had shouted, “Free Palestine,” or “Meat is Murder,” or even “Sieg Heil?” What if she had been on SNL last week, shouting “I stand with JK Rowling!” and ripping up a photo of Lia Thomas, the trans swimmer?
I know the answer. So do you. My friends empathize with Sinead because they empathize with the reason she ripped up St John Paul’s photo. They don’t like the Catholic Church, or at least, don’t like the way the Church (especially but not exclusively in O’Connor’s native Ireland) covered up the abuse of generations of children. In the vocabulary of the Woke, Sinead was “punching up.” She was “speaking truth to power.” My lefty friends would say that if she had ripped up Dr. King’s picture, or Lia Thomas’, she would have been “speaking power to truth.” For that, she would deserve no defense.
Of course, many of my conservative friends -- who decry the silencing of right-wing speakers on college campuses and who stand with J.K Rowling – think what O’Connor did was appalling, vile, and deserving of enduring opprobrium.
When “our” side says what we regard as inconvenient truths in ways that offend and confront, we call it courageous and worthy of celebration. When the other side offends and confronts, we call for censure and cancellation. We mutter something about respecting free speech, but then loudly declare that we’re not really cancelling anyone, we’re just presenting them with some richly deserved consequences. What’s in a name? Cruelty by any other name tastes like blood.
I have tasted public humiliation. I have lost all my livelihood and my bylines, lost friends, received death threats. I have been mocked and shamed. I freely admit that my political views are as informed as much by trauma as they are by philosophy, as much by bitter lived experience as by empathy with those different from myself. Because I have been candid about my trauma (both my brain injury and the aftermath of my fall from grace in 2013), it makes it easy to dismiss my free speech zealotry as a manifestation of private pain rather than a coherent moral stance. I suppose being patronized as an ill person is preferable to being cancelled for being a bad one, so I’ll take what I can get.
But I will say I am pretty damn consistent: I joined the ACLU as a boy because they stood up for pornographers and Nazis, and in later years, I have stood with everyone from drag queens to Proud Boys. I want a public square where physical violence is impermissible, but every other imaginable provocation is permitted. I fear the heckling mob and the censorious state far more than I fear the obscene or the hateful. I think that’s not just a view rooted in trauma and adolescent contrarianism, but in a consistent vision of what it means to be free. Different people will come to different conclusions not only about how best to live, but about truth itself. Part of living in society is accepting that other people will say and do things we find bizarre, hateful, vulgar, and perhaps even dangerous. We defend their right to do so not out of sympathy for their views but out of a desire to retain our own freedom.
I realize that this kind of laissez-faire liberalism is out of favor with almost everyone. Both sides tell me, with exasperation in their voice, that I have made a fetish out of defending the indefensible. “These people want to erase us. This isn’t an academic exercise, Hugo. This is life and death.” Both my conservative and lefty friends have been saying that for years. I think they’re wrong, they think I’m a good egg but a bit cracked, and on we go.
But here’s the thing: it is life and death. Cancel culture almost certainly did kill Sinead O’Connor. And my friends, if you can, look beyond her story to the larger one. Think about what your calls for deplatforming, for accountability, for reckoning really look like in practice. Think about what it means to shout down what offends you. It is life, and it is death, and the example is right here in front of you.
I implore you, in the bowels of Christ or in the deep roots of Gaia, think it possible you may be wrong.