Courage and Cancellation: Winston Marshall Exits the Stage

Winston Marshall, formerly of the band Mumford and Sons, announced in June of this year that he’d be joining the pandemic-swollen ranks of the unemployed. News like this normally comes with some salacious detail. “Who’s the Yoko,” boomers wonder. “He’s going to rehab,”  millennials assume. However as Mr. Marshall’s letter to his fans unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a different phenomenon. Gen Z is being blessed (cursed) with something new: Mr. Marshall is canceling himself.

The reason, he says in his article, is:

At the beginning of March I tweeted to American journalist Andy Ngo, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Unmasked. ‘Congratulations @MrAndyNgo. Finally had the time to read your important book. You’re a brave man’. Posting about books had been a theme of my social-media throughout the pandemic. I believed this tweet to be as innocuous as the others. How wrong I turned out to be.”

His innocuous praise of a book which is critical of the far left was interpreted (or willfully misinterpreted) as praise of the far right. The tweet went viral and Mr. Marshall and the rest of Mumford and Sons were caught in the maelstrom. In spite of the pressure the band stood by him. Which is itself respectable. When the mob comes for your friends, true friendship shines forth. He issued an apology and the band looked to move on together. So far, so much modern PR management theory. Then Mr. Marshall’s essay takes a surprising turn. He asks himself: why did I apologize?

In the mania of the moment I was desperate to protect my bandmates. The hornets’ nest that I had unwittingly hit had unleashed a black-hearted swarm on them and their families. I didn’t want them to suffer for my actions, they were my priority.

Secondly, I was sincerely open to the fact that maybe I did not know something about [Andy Ngo] or his work. ‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak,’ Churchill once said, ‘courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen’. And so I listened.”

There is a voice when confronted by an offended party that whispers in every sane person’s ear: Apologize, it whispers, an apology costs you nothing. The force of the social pressure to conform, to make yourself become with the others, is often overwhelming in these cases. We are all a bit guilty and most of us don’t mind confessing from time to time to release the psychic pressure. The apology can bring peace, your parents teach you. And they are right to do so. Children really can act violently against siblings. The wisdom of the father or mother must step in to act on the child’s behalf. Peace is a human good and a just peace is a treasure of great price.

But there is another possible scenario. Knowing about the whispering voice, one could accuse in order to gain mastery. Indeed children, particularly older and cleverer siblings, know of this too. 

When confronted with a problem, that my sibling won’t share a toy, I simply cry and tell mom that the other kid was hitting me with it. Now he has to apologize and I get the toy. “Justice” has been served. 

Of course Mr. Marshall is not a child and I doubt you are. As adults, we have no parent to turn to, so we must figure out justice on our own to the best of our abilities. We must judge. It is a solemn responsibility. Do you take it seriously or do you offload it to the algorithms? The Law steps in to help in many cases, getting it right to the best of its ability. When it fails, well there we are having to step in again with the solemn responsibility of judgement. But what of the million other slights which befall us in the hem and haw of life? The word that slips out. The tweet that offends. The nonresponse which is misinterpreted.

A wise mentor once told me to begin every response to any accusation with “I’m at least as bad as you think I am, but you may have the details wrong.” This allows space for the accuser to know his accusation is being taken seriously, but it simultaneously establishes a healthy critical distance from the content of the accusation. Self examination must be taken with the utmost seriousness, and when I am the accused it is a part of the solemn responsibility. The wise man can benefit even from unjust criticism. However, being benefited does not always mean apologizing. Mr. Marshall proves to be just such a wise man. He continues:

I have spent much time reflecting, reading and listening… The truth is that reporting on extremism at the great risk of endangering oneself is unquestionably brave. I also feel that my previous apology in a small way participates in the lie that such extremism does not exist, or worse, is a force for good.” (emphasis mine)

It is enough to send a chill down the spine. He credits Solzhenitsyn’s essay “Live Not by Lies” as an inspiration for his decision. When a friend forwarded me Mr. Marshall’s resignation letter I was in the midst of writing something of my own on that same essay for this publication. I hope to bring that to press shortly, but I paused that work to meditate on Mr. Marshall’s letter. In stepping down from the band in order to preserve his freedom, Mr. Marshall is one of the most striking images of courage in recent memory. He shines. I hope his letter is read far and wide and that he inspires a generation to such levels of self examination–no, self realization. In recognizing there is something true he will not compromise come what may he has distinguished himself from the bovine life of the herd and discovered the nature of humanity.

Joseph Pieper once wrote of a meeting held between citizens of then-communist East Germany and liberal West Germany. This was early in the Cold War. The conversation turned to a novel which represented the Soviet Union as stifling the possibilities of the individual. The two groups disagreed sharply about the thesis of the novel and suddenly Pieper claims that two things became evident. First everyone realized the absolute need for there to be spaces free from politics so that people can gather to determine “what are the facts.” Second, and more importantly, the group realized that this free space, while it needs to be safeguarded by laws and the political power of the state, can never be established by the state. The freedom of speech is a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient

The possibility for such a free space comes from an irrepressible human desire to know the truth. Someone has to speak up and say “I think Mr. Ngo is brave even though you all think he is evil.” This desire to know more than to be liked bursts out under incredible internal pressure in particular men. Even just a momentary desire in a single soul is enough–so long as the man who desires it responds with courage and acts on it. In doing so, he gives birth to a moment in which he can live in the truth–can live as a man. The truth sets him free. It is the seed that gives birth to courage. It is what the ancients meant when they wrote that the city was preserved not by the strength of the men’s weapons but the courage to stand and wield them. This courage is absolutely essential to being human. As Pericles says “happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

Mr. Marshall has defended his judgement that Mr. Ngo is brave. It is a sign of our social sickness that this would require him to quit his job for his co-workers’ safety. Resigning from his job in order to preserve his judgement as true is an image of the very fount from which flows all freedom and all happiness. Mr. Marshall is a blessed man. I judge them both brave in my turn.

*Image credit: Unsplash

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Colin Redemer

Colin Redemer Colin Redemer is the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a founder of the Davenant Hall graduate college and co-host of the weekly Ad Fontes Podcast.