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Laurence Fox Getty 1.jpg

Laurence Fox, the Contrarian Attention Economy, and Another Reason Why Cancel Culture Doesn’t Exist

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | September 30, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | September 30, 2020 |

Laurence Fox Getty 1.jpg

Sometimes, you really don’t want to write about something. You know it’s an important topic and that all those ‘don’t feed the trolls’ cries you’ve heard over the years have never worked, but still, your instinct is to not give attention to the soul-sucking mess that so clearly desires it. Alas, here we are. So, let’s talk about Laurence Fox.

Laurence Fox is an English actor who you may recognize from the TV series Lewis and White Lines. He’s a member of the prominent Robin Fox acting dynasty and used to be married to Billie Piper. Sometime over the past year or so, Fox decided to remold himself into a talking-head, mostly through uninformed Twitter rants and appearances on UK political panel shows. He jumped on the anti-Meghan Markle bandwagon by claiming she was not a victim of racism, but he was because someone called him a ‘white privileged male.’ He ranted against the inclusion of a Sikh soldier in the movie 1917 and claimed it was ‘forced diversity’ until he was forced to apologize after it was noted that, yes, there were many Sikh soldiers on the frontlines during the First World War. He’s a big lover of ‘All Lives Matter’ and claiming that you just can’t say anything these days without people getting offended, which is hilarious because Fox gets upset over every sliver of criticism he’s ever faced. This month, it was reported that Fox had attracted a sizeable amount of funding to start his own political party, described as ‘UKIP for culture.’ It’s yet another instance of a prominent white dude with money and clout in his corner deciding that the incremental shifts our culture has taken over the past few decades towards equality are a personal slight against him.

Figures like Fox are ten a penny in the UK. Every newspaper has at least one columnist whose sole job seems to be to offend as many people as possible in less than 2000 words. Talk radio has become more prominent here as well, and there’s always room for a bigot or two on the couch next to the cozy hosts of morning television. They need something to quietly shake their head in disapproval while doing literally nothing else to stop the violence. It’s not hard to see why Fox would want to join the ranks of this dubious field.

There are many reasons why ‘cancel culture’ as the media describes it doesn’t really exist, but the main one is that our society effing loves bigotry. There is nothing less radical or dangerous than to be a race-baiting misogynist with a newspaper column or regular spot on Question Time. It’s not in the slightest bit surprising that the people who whine the most about being censored for their opinions are the ones able to bellow this nonsense from the most amplified platforms possible. J.K. Rowling can be vilely transphobic to her millions of Twitter followers and the British press will still clamor to position her as a silenced underdog, even as they ensure she’s utterly impossible to escape. This is how we got stuck with people like Katie Hopkins and Milo Yiannopolous: They were useful cogs in a larger machine, one that created the false allure of ‘fair and balanced’ discourse under the guise of incoherent screaming matches, racist hostility, and the insidious notion that free speech is interchangeable with violent rhetoric free of accountability.

This is an entire economy and one that has thrived for decades in some shape, way, or form. Now, however, it’s clearer than ever how these narratives are formed and how those willing participants keen to line their pockets through being rewarded for their own nastiness can join in. Laurence Fox is but one example of this. A relatively unsuccessful one, mind you, but one who is still clearly playing from the same rulebook as his predecessors. What fascinates me most about Fox is that he’s sort-of terrible at this. He backtracks really quickly on some of his most incendiary claims, as he did with the ‘forced diversity in 1917’ nonsense, and he’s exceedingly thin-skinned for a guy trying to make a living by being a forced contrarian on issues he’s wholly unqualified to discuss. You would think an actor of all people would understand what it means to be the heel or a panto villain, but he truly seems to think he’s a beleaguered hero on the rise. He acts as though he has scratched and clawed his way to the top of the political ladder rather than stumbling upwards based on his name, his family connections, and the fact that the British media will fling a microphone at any old white dude willing to cry ‘reverse racism’ for the right price.

So, why is Fox able to succeed despite a blatant lack of skill at his new chosen profession and the lion’s share of the public seemingly aware of his shoddy theatricalities? This is a market that is highly over-amplified, far beyond the national desire for it and demand to consume it. Regular life can contain its fair share of debates and difficult political conversations, but they seldom unfold in the deliberately stylized and hostile manner that they do with these kinds of figures. These discussions aren’t the wannabe Pinter plays that they are on TV, and that’s just as well, but what this model does is normalize a deeply broken version of human interaction. Disagreement is common but there’s something so very wrong about seeing so-called news media try to replicate it with flashier names and wider audiences. They never resolve matters or rely on the truth of a specific issue. It always ends with a mealy-mouthed form of ‘let’s agree to disagree’ as if the very act is one of immense nobility. In reality, it’s just another way to stoke pre-existing tensions and prey upon the marginalized people whose voices are seldom given the same level of attention as your typical right-wing mouth-for-hire.

We live in deeply conspiratorial times, with some of the most devious tin-hat theories now the stuff of government rhetoric and the very notion of journalism dismissed by the powerful as a tool of bias and mistrust. It’s easier and more profitable to ignore deeper-seated issues and the often-discomfiting reality of privilege in favor of an endless Thunderdome of bigotry and dull outrage that can be found for free in almost every internet comments section. As has always been the case, a hell of a lot of people (especially those in the upper echelons of power) are more afraid to call someone racist than to deal with racism itself. The same goes for misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. It’s just another matter they can spin as a ‘spirited debate.’

All of this is many things: Offensive, misguided, deeply cynical. It’s also f**king boring. Laurence Fox isn’t saying or doing anything unique. He just parrots the same list of talking points that Hopkins, Dan Wootton, every Fox News host, Nigel Farage, and that one guy screaming in the corner of the pub used for all their conversations. The rhetoric is near-identical across the board and so are the responses. Fox or one of his twins says something deliberately offensive. People respond in kind. He laughs at how he triggered people then gets mad when they laugh at or dismiss him. The media claims he’s being canceled. They elevate him to a status he has not earned or deserved. Same as it ever was.

Now that he’s starting a vanity political party, he’ll certainly soak up more TV and newspaper time, much in the same way that Farage did with UKIP and the Brexit campaign despite his pitiful poll numbers and long-time absence from the work of actual politics. That’s why Fox is doing this, make no mistake. His attempt at a music career floundered so now he’s leaning in hard to the contrarian attention economy that has plagued us for too long. He’ll probably get a solid couple of years out of this shtick until he either gets bored of it, faces major legal troubles, or says something so abysmally awful that even the British press will have to condemn it. The line he’ll need to cross, sadly, is getting further away with each day. It took Graham Linehan calling a trans woman professor a child groomer to get him kicked off Twitter. J.K. Rowling’s currently shilling products from a shop that sells stickers calling trans women men. Katie Hopkins kept getting regular media work even after she called refugees ‘cockroaches’ and called for a ‘final solution’ following the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017. Being a vile bigot is the easiest way to make money right now. Cancel culture, you say? Try again.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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