April 22: The deadly dangers of cancel culture

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There’s a fine line between holding people to account for past and present views and deeds, and the vigilante mobs that close in on them and seek to nullify and erase them via cancel culture.

And it can have, literally, deadly consequences: just last week, after a series of his brilliant professional accomplishments as a choreographer were variously put on the ‘cancel’ list after accusations of compromising behaviour towards dancers had been made, the 35-year-old choreographer Liam Scarlett was found dead.

But an independent investigation by the Royal Ballet, who had suspended him after the accusations were made, had actually cleared him of wrongdoing, concluding that there “‘were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of The Royal Ballet School’. Nevertheless, they formally ended their relationship with him in March 2020; so did the Queensland Ballet in Australia, for whom he’d made Dangerous Liaisons in 2019. And last week, the Royal Danish Theatre announced they were dropping all performances over his production of Frankenstein [pictured above] for the company. The next day, he was found dead.

As Alexei Ratmansky, a Russian dancer who is American Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence, posted:

He was effectively being denied the chance to work again in a field in which he had clearly excelled.

As Jon Bausor, the designer who worked on several of his ballets, commented, he had been subjected to a “medieval trial by cancel culture and media-shaming.”

An obituary in the Daily Telegraph concluded,

“Despite the unresolved opacity of the allegations surrounding hm, the damage to Scarlett’s legacy as a choreographer was remorseless. The severing of his Royal Ballet position last season annulled a hoped-for Covent Garden revival of his lyrical Symphonic Dances – cerated as a 2017 farewell for the ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky — and the Royal Danish Ballet’s cancelling last week of Frankenstein, scheduled to be staged next year, appears to be the final blow.

Liam Scarlett’s remaining testament is his romantic 2018 Swan Lake staging at the Royal Ballet, which on the grounds of cost, audience popularity and generally positive reaction is likely stay on view for several years.’

But at the same time, there had also been very real breaches of professional boundaries in some of his reported interactions with students, with one telling The Times he was coaxed into sending him an intimate photograph when he was 18, and also alleging that he’d shared sexual messages with ten other male students over Facebook. Another alleged that he would comment on their genitalia, touch their backsides and walk in on them changing; and he said, “As a dancer you are trained to say yes to everything. Because it’s so competitive you can’t lose an opportunity, so when someone with a lot of power asks you to do something you are pre-programmed to do it.”

These stories are similar to the swirl of accusations made against Kevin Spacey, during his tenure as artistic director at the Old Vic and in other work environments, though he is yet to be held to account publicly for any of these; he has, so far, only been convicted in the court of public opinion, though if it was to be litigated, at least some of those accusations might be deemed illegal.

As is well known now, producer Harvey Weinstein was indeed convicted and is now in jail. And the last couple of weeks have seen Weinstein’s main rival as a film producer Scott Rudin standing accused of multiple accounts of extreme bullying, including acts of physical harm, to employees; he’s actually acknowledged his culpability, and stepped aside from both his theatre and film interest, saying that he would be “taking steps that I should have taken years ago to address this behaviour.”

There’s sometimes another fine line between behaviour which is clearly illegal and that which is just plain wrong; physical assaults that leave assistants heading to hospital for treatment are both, of course. But the tough-love approach of a highly volatile, if not entirely unhinged, boss was often spoken of as a kind of badge of honour in Rudin’s case.

Then there’s the just-desserts kind of cancellation. When Christian actor Seyi Omooba (pictured above) accepted a job playing a role in The Color Purple at Leicester’s Curve whose characteristics she had previously publicly spoken out as entirely renouncing, it was right and proper for the theatre to withdraw the opportunity for her to play the role, though they did offer to nevertheless pay her out for the full fee she would have been due. Instead of invoicing them as requested, however, she litigated the theatre for religious discrimination in an employment tribunal, and lost the case.

This kind of cancellation was one she actively brought upon herself. And by the same token, there’s an extraordinary social media troll called Alex Belfield, whose YouTube channel Celebrity Radio — where he broadcasts live radio phone-in programmes and also posts videos of extended riffs on subjects that are currently exercising him, including open and extended attacks on the BBC (for whom he once briefly worked) and people who he takes against — is now claiming that there are attempts afoot to cancel him.

He has indeed been arrested a number of times by Nottingham Police for his continuing harassments, and has also used video of them arriving to do so to post attacks on them, too.

In the warped alternative universe he inhabits, he has cast himself as the victim — and on Monday, he publicly named me in a video he posted to his channel as one of the people who are obsessively coming after him. He’d previously insisted that he’d discovered I had created an alternative twitter account that relentlessly trolled him multiple times a day; despite my assurances that it was not me, he claimed to have other evidence. In fact, what he’d done was seek a password retrieval on that Twitter account; and the registered number returned shared the same final three digits as mine. That was hardly conclusive proof, but he insisted it was.

In his Monday video he (somewhat outrageously, given the outcome) compares himself to the case of Liam Scarlett, and says, “Nobody has seen the power of cancel culture more than me, and that is what this has been all about with me for the last year, that people have phoned the police relentlessly. We have names and we will be suing them…. There have been hundreds of calls to 101 about me, about this show, every single day these sad losers are calling up, trying to get me cancelled.”

He goes on, “They don’t understand that I’m doing a job here to entertain you with my opinion, which is totally lawful under free speech…. What these people want to do — there’s an example of Mark Shenton, a morbidly obese mentally ill man who has relentlessly called the police about me, saying I’m doing this, that and the other thing…. He’s a bitter and twisted, mentally ill man by his own description who is on a whole pile of pills who has turned his venom to me. He doesn’t realise that the mentally ill man who talks about being kind to mental illness could be pushing me over the edge.”

He then circles wider, and claims that his accusers are “so lost they want to do anything they can to get rid of people who are better than them, more successful than them, or are indeed just going about their own business, minding their own business, which is what I do here. I don’t care about what these people are doing, but they can’t switch off from me. Why? Because they’re mentally-ill, they’re obsessed.”

All of which, of course, is a monumental act of projection — and full of false allegations. I’ve reported him to the police precisely once — not relentlessly — when he’s made that false allegation against me that I was behind the other Twitter account. He also repurposes my private photographs on his videos to make points against me, including to support that claim of a “whole pile of pills”, which was actually following my spinal fusion last September, not for the state of my mental health.

But then I’m not quite sure why he insists on weaponising the state of my mental health against me, either: I’ve been very public about my bouts of depression, and even created a Twitter hashtag, #ShentonStageMentalHealthDiary, so that people could find them together more easily.

But more than any of this, he claims he’s only going about his own business. But that business seems to be obsessively concentrating on me, and other people he dislikes with a passion, like TV presenter Jeremy Vine. I hesitate to say it, but could it be because it’s WE, not him, who are better and more successful than he is? The level of projection is astounding.

I don’t want him cancelled. I just want him to stop attacking me for no reason at all.