Cancel Culture, Defined (Update)

After The Letter came the Counter Letter, which was largely ignored because it said nothing of substance and no one gave a damn about who signed it because they were insignificant (Hey, Noah Berlatsky signed it, right?). But the Letter started a number of battles, one of which was about whether “cancel culture” existed and, if so, what it meant.

Mind you, its non-existence was argued in a curious fashion by folks like Judd Legum and Charles Blow.

Blow’s rhetorical trick, sneaking in “you can say and do as you pls” under free speech will slip right by his fans because he called that thing that doesn’t exist free speech.

But if we’re to seriously argue whether “cancel culture” exists, we would have to know what it is. Ben Burgis offered a definition.

That’s not particularly clear or useful. The Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, tried his hand at it as well.

Certainly more cogent and usable, but still unsatisfying. There are myriad ways in which “cancel culture” is playing out, sometimes attacking big names who have the wherewithal to survive it and sometimes going after “little people” who its proponents never seem to notice because “little people” don’t make big waves in their echo chamber. It may involve fake negative reviews online or a thousand people calling up some random person’s boss to inform him that an employee is racist or a transphobe. It may be posting accusations on academic bulletin boards about a grad student to make sure he never gets a teaching job or protesting a tenured professor to preclude his giving an invited speech.

The phrase, “cancel culture,” is obviously a shorthand for the phenomenon that extends in too many directions and plays out in too many ways to be captured by an easy definition. Does that mean it doesn’t exist, because if it did, it should be definable? Maybe. Or maybe the problem is that the efforts to define it come at it from the wrong direction. Here’s an alternative approach.

Cancel culture is the breakdown of social norms that allow for the free speech of criticism but inhibit people from joining together with like-minded people to not merely disagree with words or ideas they find unacceptable (or perceive to be unacceptable on behalf of others), but then act upon them for the purpose of inflicting secondary punishment to their antagonists, whether based on fact, opinion or false accusation, without need for proof or due process and disconnected from the nature of the original “offense.”

In other words, if someone says something you find offensive, you have the right to criticize what they say, whether you’re right to do so, it’s disputable or you’re an outrage addict. But in the past, social norms inhibited you from calling their boss, their mother or their future employers to “alert” them that the person was literally Hitler and should be shunned. Likewise, social norms would prevent someone from imploring the similarly passionate to “amplify” their grievance through the echo chamber and engage in a boycott, a job action, a smear campaign to not merely air one’s disagreement, but inflict punishment and suffering for their offense.

Does this help? Probably not, as the phenomena tend to be circumstantial, finding a way to use the clout of the million gnats to bring down enemies, famous or unknown. One thing this is, however, is a circumvention of the mechanisms by which a civil society determines who is deserving of punishment and who is not.

The breakdown comes from all sides, the untethering of offense from definitions (what’s “rape” mean anymore?), the undermining of the presumption of innocence, the elimination of due process and the imposition of punishment without proportionality. Are they guilty? It doesn’t matter anymore, for it the mob says so, there is no appeal.

But the problem with the circumvention of the mechanism devised by society to resolve such questions presents problems of its own, even of the cancel culture mob doesn’t yet see it.

Charles Blow’s hardly a dope, so he’s either presuming that his tribe, the “good” tribe, will seize permanent control and impose its will on the “bad”tribe, or he isn’t worried that the useful idiots he’s whipping up will hold him accountable when the winds shift and the other tribe exacts its retribution.

But that we’ve gone beyond mere criticism, the “free speech” aspect of say what you pls, to the use coercion, or threats of force, to compel third parties to acquiesce to the mob by doing harm, is obviously happening. Whether it’s a bad thing depends on whether it’s your tribe doing the damage. At least for the moment.

There is a video I wanted to insert here, but I accidentally deleted it and can’t find it again. It’s a Brit vid, where a guy is holding a sign that says something to the effect of “All ideas are worth defending.” The guy is just standing there, holding the sign, as a mob surrounds him, starts chanting “Nazi go home,” and eventually starts pushing him, grabs his sign and physically forces him to leave. Too bad I deleted the video. It was a good video. The guy was not, as far as I could tell, rich or famous. Yet, he was most assuredly canceled.

Update: James McMahon was kind enough to send me a link to my lost video. Here it is. In case you have difficulty reading his sign, it says, “The right to openly discuss ideas must be defended.”

22 thoughts on “Cancel Culture, Defined (Update)

  1. Chris Van Wagner

    Challenge accepted. Is Cancel Culture not simply the digital era’s version of mob violence, used to silence voices of those who disagree, to punish them for having done so, and to use all available modern mob means to destroy them, kill them as it were, if not in the physical sense, then in the sense that they wish to preserve their own life as they have known it? It uses words of purported free speech not to debate the adversary through free speech but to wholly stop debate while also seeking to incite use of professional, cultural, physical and economic brickbats. What part of CC does this not include?

  2. W. Justin Adams

    How about: “Cancellation an attempt by officious intermeddlers acting jointly or severally to induce third parties to shun and otherwise deprive a person of social and/or economic intercourse in order to penalize that person for speech or actions the intermeddlers find offensive.“

  3. Keith

    You hold opinions, some of which take fare more words to decipher than others.
    You are capable of being persuaded to espouse other opinions.
    One can persuade you by offering an opinion you believe is better. One can also persuade you by harming you if you don’t.

    If I can convince you to abandon one idea for another on the merits, you have the benefit of understanding more about the previous and new ideas. You can even use the new principles learned to apply the ideas to other situations.
    If I force you to do it, you know nothing more than the might of the effort.

    The definition of cancel culture may not be pinpointed easily, but it
    1) seems to effect change of opinions without the work that makes anyone smarter for the effort
    2) seems incapable of having a logical basis that can be transferred to other areas

    Mobs, who knew?

  4. Hunting Guy

    Change a few words and maybe this applies.

    Justice Potter Stewart.

    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

  5. L. Phillips

    How about this? Cancel culture: idiocy, born of stupidity and nourished by narcissism.”

  6. KP

    Cancel Culture is the new system of justice by The People, for The People, the people who can’t afford lawyers and want to cut them out of the deal. Who needs those wordy parasites making too much damm sense when The People know what’s right.

    (its Tuesday here already!…. almost)

        1. Charles

          After KP’s excitement about Tuesday, I thought “Tuesday’s Gone” was an appropriate choice in light of how well last week’s Tuesday Talk post went.

          But that’s alright. I’ll just step away from the jukebox and go back to my table in the corner.

          1. SHG Post author

            It wasn’t that it was a bad choice, but when we reached the point where 20 comments on a post were all vids, it got out of control and so other than Dave and Howl, I’m trying to keep a lid on videos.

  7. Charles

    No matter how hard I try, I always forget that the view is much worse when you can see the dashboard. It’s way more fun in the back of the bus: GD’s strumming, Bruce is passing out Peeps, and Chris is doing stand-up. But I have this nagging feeling that we left someone at the last gas station. Schultz?

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