Is cancel culture a thing? Is it new and distinct? And is it always wrong?
IT’S A THING !!!!!eleventy!!!!!!!!
Several Glibs have revealed strong feelings about cancel culture, and I had admitted confusion over the various definitions. Looking back, I got my first synopsis of the situation when I asked:
bacon-magic had keenly summarized:
Cancel culture is a tribal tool used to subjugate and wipe out individualism. Wrongthink at it’s finest.
So cancel culture is a thing, a thing to be despised.
NOT THAT I CAN PROVE IT
Thereafter followed many illuminating comments that still left me unsatisfied. Many Glibs said cancel culture was wrong, but I couldn’t get a simple definition to which one might apply first principles. As with many things these days, I chalked this up to my grand confusions around buzzwords and the unlimited notions that each can project onto them . . . to say nothing of the slants and perversions foisted upon us by partisan narratives and the vagaries of generation gaps. I kept an eye out regarding the subject, and then, recently, it seems to have become a more important issue.
Cancel culture is a tactic, a weapon of sorts, and here’s a contemporary (if redundant) definition:
The act of canceling, also referred to as cancel culture (a variant on the term “callout culture”), is a form of boycott in which an individual (usually a celebrity) who has acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner is boycotted.
Then David French alerted me via a recent The Dispatch podcast (20 minutes in) to Nicholas Christakis.
a/ forming a mob to
b/ seek to get someone fired (or disproportionately punished) for
c/ statements within Overton Window.
To this French added that cancel culture might include “overt cruelty and malice.” I’m not necessarily going to take on these definitions; I list these only to point out that it’s a nebulous notion.
OKAY, EVERYONE ELSE REALLY REALLY KNOWS IT’S A THING
To add to the tumult, there recently was a free speech letter of conscience published in Harper’s. It’s vague, not necessarily aimed at cancel culture, and more than a little lefty, but it’s signed by a hundred disparate notables and includes a couple of interesting, relevant lines (emphasis mine):
resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion . . . free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.
I add this last tangent because it runs in the same space as cancel culture or at least manifests bits of it: pundits and editors seemed to be losing their jobs over political disagreements. A larger question of who should be able to say what where was emerging, but, I must say, I couldn’t necessarily follow any of the arguments to first principles. I’ll list here that the contemporary cases of record seem to be Bari Weiss’s leaving the New York Times and James Bennett’s dismissal from same, but there are probably better examples in the real world of normal folk being hounded out of their formerly normal positions (and livelihoods) for revealing barely unpopular opinions.
I’d collect my relevant speech notions as follows.
- I’m already on record as a free-speech purist: you should be able to express any thought any time without meeting violence.
- No government has a role in this discussion whatsoever other than announcing that it has no role in this discussion whatsoever.
- Speech is not violence, and violence cannot be legitimized as a response to speech. But property is property, and economic access to the property of the second part does not constitute coercion on the party of the first part: employment is an arm’s-length transaction.
- Platform content remains at the sole discretion of the platform owner, although I would prefer that facebook, twitter, and ISP did not editor, censor, or comment on user content in any way. I regret to hear of de-platforming or even demonetizing, no matter how egregious the offending content, but I keep coming back to the old pearl: if you don’t like it, write your own newsletter, start your own social medium . . .
That’s how I see the marketplace of ideas.
THAT DIDN’T HELP AT ALL, DON
After trying to understand if cancel culture were some new, special, and different thing, I remain at the same place, summarily: it’s just another one of those situations where a slightly different take on some timeless issues is captured under some newly-named umbrella instead of simply distilling the take to first principles and disposing of it in a dispassionate, disinterested way. There is noise and sexy drama afoot, but it’s mostly partisan mud-wrestling over whose ox has been gored.
Which is not to say that I don’t regret to hear of some actions described as cancel culture. And I don’t emotionally criticize the many decent and well-intentioned Glibs who have waved their hands over this case or that and objected to some guy’s ease in earning a living being severely affected.
OTHER THINGS YOU ALREADY KNOW
But I want to set aside the emotional arguments and stick to the transactional . . . without abandoning the philosophical. Let me apologize here for a technical education: I haven’t read much beyond Locke and Hume and tend to write like the technocrat that I am; I misuse words that have been absorbed and adopted to mean specific things in political discourse that Faulkner and cummings failed to keep me current on. As always, I look forward to any Glib help correcting such bumbling. Now: Back to the plot!
I seldom disagree with bacon-magic, and he’s not wrong in this wise: wrongthink should be resisted. But speech and action are parts of a wider market; the cauldron of notions, votes, subscriptions, purchases, hirings, and firings boils on. Just as our economy improves as new products gain favor and ascend, the necessary friction of this is that others fail; the transactional fact is that, no matter our philosophy, we make discrete choices; the sum of these choices is our economy and our culture, and some ideas like Shakerism, scotch snuff, and Bill Cosby 8-tracks simply die off.
NOT GUNNING FOR ANYONE, I SWEAR
Everyone makes choices, and every purchase is a dollar vote; ideas and products really aren’t that different in that they make markets. I tried to explain this a last year when I noted that I normally avoid Chick-fil-a; my view is that their firm supports political actions that I oppose; they are free to continue doing so, and I am free to remain at Zaxby’s man. I rather suspect that the heat I took then was simply partisan: a good Christian company ox was being gored.
Conversely, when Goya’s ownership came under some scrutiny for political alignments, some Glibs announced that they had rushed out to patronize their products; they weren’t alone. Of course, everyone should vote as they please and buy the flavor they favor, but I think these two in-house examples capture the spirit of (what some consider) cancel culture: politics come home to roost when my team is on the line.
Mr Bacon used tribal. Christakis refers to a mob; I don’t think mob has any useful meaning since when mobs do good things they’re suddenly not mobs: they’re civic groups; mob is simply a pejorative characterization of populist masses and doesn’t address the underlying detail of right and wrong: it’s ad hominem writ large. Mob or grass roots, terrorist or freedom fighter, I sense the angle and justification of much of what I read outside Glibs is driven by identity politics, not any consistent treatment of principle. Cancel culture per se is how some normalize their witch hunts and is the name some give to ostracize others’ witch hunts; but witch hunts aren’t new, and neither is identity politics. The good news is that Glibs are much more dedicated to intellectual honesty than most; we would be the worst mob ever.
I AM NOT A PRAGMATISM APOLOGIST
But buying Goya didn’t cancel anyone! Well, as I’ve pointed out, if we all buy Toyota, won’t the Ford line shut down? Don’t those people have mortgages? Every coin has an obverse; most philosophy and politics is transactional: to choose for is to also choose against. For every choosy mother who chooses Jif, Peter Pan . . . its stockholders, suppliers, advertisers, neighbors, and employees . . . are a bit poorer.
And the NYT op-ed page has similar constraints. There is only so much space there for essays and letters, and its someone’s job to decide (transaction!) which ones get printed and which ones do not. They have, even after declaring a commitment to all the news that is fit to print and some philosophy of supporting open debate, zero obligation to print what they believe are discredited (or even merely distasteful) positions. Some refutations of cancel culture imply that all ideas deserve airing, but there’s only so much room at some outlets; certain people get paid to make those decisions according to the goals and policies of management and ownership.
Meanwhile, Overton’s Window is moving . . . everywhere . . . but it must be admitted that the NYT gets to decide where the windows are in their own op-ed room. Whether Tom Cotton makes the cut at the NYT on a given Sunday morning is strictly a business risk, a position that the market will weigh, a risk and reward proposition; for Team Sulzberger to oust Bennet is strictly a property decision: they are completely within their rights to dismiss a manager who they feel is not deploying their capital as they prefer, political and market ramifications notwithstanding.
Further, Bennet has no right to be a major editor or to even make a single dime in journalism whatsoever; if the market shuns him, he ends up driving a garbage truck, and his children end up eating hamburger helper helper, that’s his problem. This isn’t the Red Scare: Bennet wasn’t fired because of some HUAC testimony or a governor’s executive order; markets and property (not the government) have spoken, and, for the moment, he needs to retool, move on, or start over. In a world that has room for Ron Paul to publish newsletters that even Newt Gingrich argues raise “fundamental questions” and for Alex Jones to exploit people who are genetically pre-dispositioned to watch pro wrestling and retell conspiracy theories, it’s hard to say Bennet is out of options.
I THOUGHT WE WERE DONE WITH FRENCH AND FRIENDS
So where does this leave Christakis? He and French had a couple of bullets left. As to whether his mob “willfully misinterprets original statement or narrows window behind all recognition,” Christakis is just talking in circles: the Overton Window is a swamp ever oozing downhill and, like goalposts, is moved all the time by everyone anyway. Limits on discourse are almost always arbitrary and self-serving, and this is nothing new or interesting or helpful in defining bad guys or ordering society. No matter how high the speed limit is raised, there will always be speeders, and, as long as they don’t run into anyone, the speeders never were hurting anyone anyway: it’s just the way of the world to argue norms . . . and to change them.
French’s last shot was to add “overt cruelty and malice.” This is particularly helpful in our treatment of cancel culture in that it’s arbitrary and neither here nor there. On the one hand, Jesus was met with cruelty; on the other, he was guilty of treason. Style doesn’t move the needle on reason; aesthetics is its own discipline. That French adds his lagniappe tells us all we need to know: there were no firm and clear standards to define and clarify, so more emotional baggage is piled on instead; firm understanding could not be had, even from a Harvard law man, so sensibilities were deployed.
French may not be the last word on cancel culture, but he has helped me size it up. Ontologically, it exists (of course, ontologically, everything exists!). In terms of spontaneous order, like shit and antifa, it happens. But the idea of cancel culture isn’t a step forward in our way of understanding the world around us. Its bits aren’t new, and the employers of its tactics aren’t necessarily immoral. There simply remain markets of ideas, transactional facts of choice, winners, and losers.
Ideas have currency and traction, or they end up on the ash-heap of history, and, sad to say, people and firms who don’t wish to be judged for their opinions had best operate discretely . . . even in our world of free speech.