Insofar as it seeks complete control and modification of the minds of individuals the cancel culture is an expression of tyranny. That might sound rather extreme, but it is clear that with every new cancel configuration we are no longer talking about monuments, books, University professors, university courses, entire departments but indeed anyone who dares to move off script or question what has been determined as ‘acceptable’ speech.
These persons are immediately tried by the mob, cancelled, rejected, scorned and shunned. The point is to isolate, blacklist and banish—to inflict on named perpetrators as much psychological injury, financial harm and character defamation as possible. It is the sort of show trial that one might assume happens to the apostate in the cult religion or the dissident whistleblower in a repressive totalitarian political state. However, today’s cancel culture is something that, in part, arises out of a social-media-addicted and celebrity-obsessed culture. Far too many of those who call-out others, themselves crave to be noticed, praised and admired for their moral integrity as they boldly root out and shame the blasphemers among us.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with holding a famous person or anyone else to account when they inflict harm on others, either knowingly or not. We all make mistakes and we can all redeem ourselves if we take responsibility for our words and actions. If you are a powerful person or a loved celebrity with a very extensive social media platform, you might, for a time, be ‘cancelled’. But if you are J.K. Rowland, Bill Maher, Ellen Degeneres, Chris Pratt, Scarlett Johansson or Milo Yiannopoulos, being cancelled for a time will not profoundly affect your life or your bottom line—after all, you can always make a comeback! From this perspective the cancel culture of self-appointed judges of speech achieves the kind of self-aggrandisement they crave.
Unfortunately, however, many of the people who have been cancelled are not famous celebrities but ordinary people who say the ‘wrong thing’ and then suffer devastating harm and even loss of employment. These are the easy targets for the cancel bullies of the world. For the most part cancel culture enthusiasts stay away from cancelling known racists, white supremacists, anti-Muslim bigots like Rush Limbaugh. Neither are they terribly concerned with social or economic justice; and they certainly are not cancelling murdering police officers, corrupt politicians, governments who engage in never-ending wars or corporations that despoil the planet.
Cancelling someone on social media is intended as a distinctly public humiliation—an effort to call them out, broadcast their iniquities and shame them. One can imagine situations where this kind of calling out might be warranted. It may even have social value if the person called out owns up to what they did—i.e. acknowledges that what they said might have profoundly harmed someone. When calling-out is done out of genuine concern for both the transgressor and the transgressed, there is a kind of concernful reciprocity. Unfortunately, concernful reciprocity is not what the cancel culture is about.
However, there is another, arguably better way, to handle people whose speech crosses the line—and it is not through public humiliation. An example might illustrate this. Let’s say someone in the workplace or a friend makes a racist or sexist comment or says something that is disparaging toward someone or some group. You take them aside and privately attempt to get across to them that what they said was injurious. This is not done from malice or a desire to be heard by others, but something you do out of respect and love for them. In a real sense you would want to be treated in a similar fashion if the situation were reversed. The point is to make people aware that sometimes a bit of self-censoring is a good thing.
That is quite distinct from the goal of cancelling and public humiliation. In the latter case those singled out (especially the celebrity) might own up to what they did, or, what is more likely, refuse to acknowledge that what they said was wrong. At that point, calling them out or attempting to ‘cancel them’ achieves nothing of social value.
The Politics of Cancel
One of the ironic truisms in politics is that those who are least entitled to protest about something are most often the loudest assholes in the room. A perfect example of this is Republican outrage regarding liberal cancel culture. Just search back through the McCarthy era or the 60s, 70s and 80’s when right-wing culture purists wanted to ‘cancel’ books, music, atheists, war resisters, civil rights, voting rights, or socialist ideas they didn’t approve of because the latter were 'unAmerican'. Now the right fumes and bellows about left intersectionality, wokeness, and the cancel culture.
Of course, it is all meaningless spectacle, because Republicans actually love the idea that they might be seen as the poor victims of nasty leftie cancel-mania. The reality is that they are not all that worried about woke liberals or concerned about losing their jobs because of some racist or sexist tweet—what they are much more worried about are people who threaten the corporate, neoliberal economic status quo.
To be sure, there is much about the so-called liberal cancel culture that is superficial and a distraction from the very real and difficult issues of poverty, war, lack of affordable health-care, and so on. That said, if part of the agenda of woke culture is to raise awareness about gender discrimination or continuing racist attitudes, then that is undeniably a good thing.
It is beyond question that most of us welcome inclusiveness and would be more comfortable with a world where there was no online bullying, no partying white people wearing blackface, and where bigots and chauvinists like Rush Limbaugh would just STFU. The need for vigilance when it comes to continuing colonial attitudes towards Indigenous peoples, taking down confederate monuments of historical figures who upheld brutal slavery and the torture of black people, feeling distinctly uncomfortable with racist and misogynistic jokes—all of these are reasonable concerns and defensible perspectives.
But the culture of intolerance against anyone who even slightly veers off the PC script is now both extreme and epidemic. Excess is, I think, the real problem. It has resulted in otherwise good people being hounded, ostracized, and even fired for saying something stupid that they later regretted or no longer believe. However, the kind of mob mentality involved in woke cancel culture is one that simply has no room for tolerance or forgiveness. This is moral bigotry that quickly morphs into unquestioned moral dogma—the intention of which is to fire or tarnish the reputation of anyone who might offer a controversial opinion, argument, or idea deemed to be distasteful or disgraceful by a cabal of self-appointed ‘liberal’ thought-police.
You do not defeat a wrong or bad idea or opinion by canceling it, but rather by engaging with it, showing its illogic or its lack of factual or experiential support. You may not win out over the bigot, sexist, or committed fascist, but in publicly engaging in an open-minded way, you are, in principle, setting reasonable standards for dialogue in the social and political community as a whole, and not merely pontificating from a narrow partisan perspective.
There simply is no wide consensus on many cultural phenomena, or even on ideas about gender or sexual orientation, even if the liberal cancel culture wants you to believe there is. That fact tells you that the latter is not speaking from out of the majority, but rather, attempting to shape and reconfigure the world and its opinions according to their own partisan ‘woke’ perspectives.
There are indeed many opinions out there that are plainly unfounded, ill-informed, or discriminatory. But rather than outright canceling those who offer ideas or opinions not in sync with the latest politically correct expression, perhaps a small measure of tolerance is required. The problem is that the cancel culture is entirely self-defeating because it relies on aggressive intolerance in order to force conformity. That is not the way to encourage progressive views or educate people about the value of tolerance and inclusivity.
Far from inspiring people to listen or open themselves to new ideas, woke cancel culture encourages people to defy and dig in their heels—in a very real sense subverting rather than emboldening the virtues of tolerance and liberalism.