Interviews Media

Cancel culture and pandemic prevention with The Cosmic Skeptic

Many young people are drawn to the idea of starting their own YouTube channel. Not so many follow through on that idea. Even fewer start a channel that goes on to amass 350,000 subscribers, and start a podcast off the back of its success. Alex O’Connor is one of those few; through his channel, CosmicSkeptic, he has become one of the most prominent figures in the YouTube philosophy community. But the Cosmic Skeptic is keen to downplay his online fame. “Relative to where I wanted the channel to be, it’s a massive success,” he says, “but relative to other people on YouTube, it’s a drop in the ocean.” That much is true, but, having seen his subscriber count grow so significantly and consistently during his four years of making philosophy videos, most people in Alex’s position would dream of someday taking it into the millions. That, however, would require a lot of time and commitment, and does not seem to be something that interests Alex. “If your goal is to grow your channel to be as big as it can be, then it’s going to be a grind; you have to keep putting in the effort, keep coming up with content, all that kind of stuff,” he tells me.  “I don’t really care about the growth – I care about what it’s doing to my real life.” Some would argue that this grind is worth it for the kind of fame and success it could yield – the life of a famous YouTuber is one many aspire to – but Alex’s response suggests that he has his sights set even higher: “the goal certainly isn’t to be a YouTuber. I’d hate to think that the word ‘YouTuber’ would be on my gravestone somewhere.” 

That Alex does not want YouTube to form any significant part of his career is a testament to his ambition, given that his videos have already been viewed more than 30 million times in total on the platform. Aside from having his own podcast and blog, the Cosmic Skeptic has given speeches and participated in debates all across the world, and has appeared on national radio and television. Not satisfied with being an influential vegan and atheist within the YouTube community, Alex intends to become an influential vegan and atheist in society as a whole. Such a task will not be easy, but he is certainly not lacking in drive.

Alex’s vegan activism in particular has become especially relevant under the current circumstances; he has been very outspoken on the correlation between meat consumption and the risk of pandemics. This link has been widely reported on, for example in a study published by the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, which concluded that over 60% of new infectious human diseases originate in animals. “We’re still not entirely sure of what caused the coronavirus pandemic specifically,” he concedes, “but what we do know is that the greatest threat to causing another pandemic right now is factory farming. There’s a book by Jonathan Safran Foer called Eating Animals: Should We Stop? in which he basically predicts the coronavirus. The specific diseases he talked about could still become a massive human health catastrophe, even after coronavirus.”

Jonathan Safran Foer is among the growing number of people speaking out against the meat industry. Photo by Elena Torre.

So will the pandemic be a wake-up call for humanity? Based on the reactions of individuals to Alex’s activism so far, he is not optimistic. “When we warn about it before it happens, we’re alarmists, and when we try to identify the causes of pandemics after they happen, we’re hyperbolising and we’re politicising a tragedy. We can’t win. I used to think that people wouldn’t give up meat because they’re selfish, but now, even when it’s in their best interest to give up meat, they still won’t do it. So it’s not even selfishness; we’re addicted to this stuff.” 

“Addicted” may seem a very strong word – perhaps too strong – but Alex does not use it lightly; in fact, he gives an impassioned speech in defence of this claim. “The risk of future pandemics, which is the most important issue on people’s minds right now; antibiotic resistance, which is one of the greatest medical emergencies at the moment; and contribution to environmental catastrophe. All of these things can be addressed by one simple life change, and people aren’t willing to do it. Why? Not because of some reasoned defence about why meat isn’t actually causing these things; they’ll accept that all of these things are true, and they’ll say, ‘but I just love cheese. I can’t give up cheese.’”

Only time will tell whether this is pessimism or realism on Alex’s part, but for now his message is unequivocal: “I can tell you that if you care about pandemics, the single best thing you can do to eliminate your contribution to that risk is to stop eating factory-farmed animal products.” These words, indeed, are even stronger, and some would criticise such a severe and absolute judgement of a pandemic that is still ongoing and still confounding scientists. There is an important debate to be had, and it is very clear which side Alex will be taking in that debate.

Another topic on which the Cosmic Skeptic has been vocal in the past is free speech, having once had the title “free speech activist” bestowed upon him by Channel 4 News. When asked about it, he laughs off this label, though the firmness of his belief in freedom of speech has not waned. “If someone asked me about it, I wouldn’t hesitate to defend those same positions, that the expression of ideas is one of the most important rights that a human being can have,” he says, his jovial demeanour giving way to a more earnest tone. 

Being an ardent and public defender of free speech as a university student is an interesting position to be in. Universities have become hotbeds for the debate over whether or not certain ideas should be given a platform for discussion, and Oxford is by no means free from these controversies. Recently at Alex’s own college, St. John’s, a member of the JCR was removed from their elected post because of comments they had made on social media, and Amber Rudd was uninvited at short notice from a speech she had been due to give at a UNWomen Oxford UK Society event, due to controversy over her actions regarding the Windrush scandal. 

While he does not comment on individual cases such as these, Alex does have plenty to say about this perceived “cancel culture”: “what is the aim of cancel culture? As far as I can see, it’s to deter other people from holding these kinds of views, it’s to say, ‘you’re not going to get away with this.’ Problem is, they do get away with it, because what it does is, it focuses on a single individual that they happen to have caught out, and gives them hell. But studies have consistently shown that certainty of capture is far more important when it comes to deterrence than severity of punishment. So I think cancel culture fails by its own standards, because it takes the punishment which deservedly should be spread across everybody that’s doing things wrong, and putting it on a single person. I don’t think that’s healthy; I don’t think it’s helpful; and I don’t think it’s moral.” Not only is Alex critical of this phenomenon, he’s also very wary of its dangers. “Humanity has never seen anything like the power of social media,” he warns, “only in the past few decades have we seen the ability for literally anyone on the planet to become the centre of the entire world’s attention. We’ve got to be careful, because we have a weapon of unbelievable power here, and we’re targeting it at individuals who made a bad joke on Snapchat.”

Alex’s view on this contentious issue is, unsurprisingly, contested. Cancel culture is, in the eyes of many, a means for otherwise powerless people to more consistently hold those in positions of power to account for their words and actions. To highlight only the dangers of this power, while ignoring its benefits, may therefore be viewed as unfair. This argument is not recognised by O’Connor, who argues that in situations where “the more extreme expressions of cancel culture are justifiable, what do people say of [the perpetrators]? Not that they should be cancelled, but that they should go to jail. A racist joke is in a different category. It’s a different type of holding people to account.” Just how separate this category ought to be is a matter that has not yet been settled, and it remains to be seen whether or not Alex’s opposition to this phenomenon will become the prevailing view.

Douglas Murray is a conservative author and political commentator. Photo by Andy Ngo.

Alex’s unwavering support of the freedom of speech was on display perhaps most clearly when, last year, he uploaded a video in which he debated Douglas Murray on a variety of topics. Murray has attracted controversy in the past over his views on immigration, Islam, gender, and a number of other issues, but Alex has no regrets over his decision to engage with him, saying, “I absolutely stand by my right to interview people who are culturally significant, and challenge views that they hold that I haven’t seen challenged elsewhere in other interviews that they’re doing.” He also points out that he was debating Murray, rather than simply interviewing him. “It wasn’t a comfortable interview,” he asserts in his defence, “it was cordial, because I didn’t want him to feel like he was being attacked, because I wanted to get genuine answers out of him, and I didn’t want him to be on the defensive. But I wasn’t there to be his friend.” On claims that engaging with a proponent of a harmful ideology may inadvertently legitimise that ideology, Alex said, “there’s a difference between legitimising a view and taking it seriously. Do I think that [a racist] view is legitimate? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously, because a lot of people are listening to what this person – and I’m not talking about Douglas Murray here, I’m talking about a general racist figure that we can hypothesise – is having to say.”

The above debate may appear an overtly political one, and Douglas Murray is a political commentator, but when asked if he can see himself venturing into political topics in the future, O’Connor replies, “I shouldn’t think so, no. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why when I’ve spoken about free speech in the past, I’ve talked about it broadly. I couldn’t be a politician, I couldn’t be a political commentator; I’m not very good at it. I couldn’t give you actual practical real-world answers to specific cases.” Philosophy, then, will remain the limit of the Cosmic Skeptic’s scope for the foreseeable future. Such an approach is understandable; he seems to have done fairly well for himself so far.

Watch the full interview here:

Alex O’Connor can be found on his YouTube channel, CosmicSkeptic, on Twitter at @CosmicSkeptic, and on his blog at cosmicskeptic.com.

Elliot Sturge

Elliot Sturge is Senior Interviews Editor at The Oxford Blue. He is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St. John's College, and is entering his second year. Outside of term-time, he lives in Bristol, where he plays American football and argues about politics on the internet.