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.
Once more: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CANCEL CULTURE. There is free speech. You can say and do as you pls, and others can choose never to deal this you, your company or your products EVER again. The rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organize their dissent.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) July 11, 2020
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.
"Cancel culture" refers to an interrelated cluster of trends toward mutual surveillance and hair trigger denunciation and public shaming that has different levels of impact in different political (and other) subcultures and in the larger culture.
— Ben Burgis (@BenBurgis) July 10, 2020
That’s not particularly clear or useful. The Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, tried his hand at it as well.
How do you like:
against a person
by people with power over him
at the behest of a mob,
that would not have been taken absent the mob's action.
— Lamentable Writ Mink (@NoLongerBennett) July 11, 2020
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.
What if a company's values aren't progressive? https://t.co/9NWQ1DdxGS
— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) July 11, 2020
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.”