Organic Chemistry and Cancel Culture

An interesting debate appeared at Arc Digital between L.D. Burnett, a history professor at Collins College, and Cathy Young on the subject of Cancel Culture. Burnett was the target of cancellation a few months ago for an unpleasant but otherwise unremarkable twit about Mike Pence. Nonetheless, she took the position that cancel culture doesn’t exist.

Cathy Young disagreed.

While Young’s arguments are far more persuasive, Burnett’s arguments were more useful to crystallize a few of the distinctions that give rise to the cry of “cancel culture” now.

Burnett’s first point was that public stigmatization was historically used to enforce social norms, which is, to some extent, true. But that raises the question of what are social norms, and why are they worthy of condemnation. For better or worse, social norms arise organically. Some are big, such as don’t have sex with animals, and others are petty, such as men shouldn’t wear a hat indoors. Some ultimately manifest in law prohibiting them and others merely get a “tsk.”

How do they become social norms? There isn’t a meeting of the social norms committee. There is no Social Norms Czar in Washington creating a list. They just happen. And people accept them as social norms because, well, they’re what we, as a society, deem normal. Norms, get it? But they happen on their own, organically becoming accepted by society as the way things should be.

What they are not is a list of “dos and don’ts” handed down from High Priests of Righteousness, constantly writing and rewriting what others cannot do upon pain of excommunication from society. These aren’t norms at all, but mandates. Even less like norms, it’s often unclear who “wins” due to the inherent conflicts of an incoherent ideology, so we have to await the Ruling of the Woke as to who has the most victim points on the day’s list.

While this began as a progressive weapon for social control, the right has seized upon it as well, neither a stranger to hypocrisy or incoherence.

Burnett seizes upon a scene from Dangerous Liaisons to make the point that cancellation has always been with us, which brought the next observation. There is primary condemnation, your choice to associate with someone or not. But cancel culture is about secondary condemnation, enforcing your choice of association upon others who may not share your condemnation, or at least not to the extent of banishment. If someone you despise writes a book, you don’t have to read it. If enough people don’t read the book, it will fail and no one will publish that person’s books in the future. Fair enough.

But if you despise an “offensive” author and demand that the publisher not publish the book, that stores not sell the book, that the book be banned from libraries and schools, then you’re engaging in secondary action. For those familiar with labor law, it’s the difference between a strike, which the Wagner Act protects, and a secondary boycott, which is prohibited. It’s not because secondary action is ineffective. Quite the contrary.

But this “guilt by association” condemnation, the “complicity” problem by not adhering to the mandates of others and thus suffering the same punishment even though the only offense is not shunning as demanded, distinguishes the cancel culture from culture. Culture says you don’t have to invite someone you dislike to dinner. Cancel culture says that you can attack your neighbor for inviting that person to dinner.

Finally, there is the ex post facto aspect of cancel culture. where people parse past words and deeds in search of offense under the mandates of the moment that were acceptable when said or done. If you go searching for reasons to be offended or hate, you can usually find them, or manufacture them if need be, but this harkens back to Burnett’s social norms contention. If they were social norms, they would have been condemned at the time. Instead, cancel culture applies itself retroactively, turning what was benign at the time into a post hoc outrage.

Of course, one can’t conduct oneself in accordance with mandates that have yet to exist, so the notion is absurdly unfair. But more importantly, it assumes that the mandates of the moment are themselves so immutable that they won’t be the very targets of condemnation in the future. Hey, Senator Joseph McCarthy was feared and admired for a moment, until he and his blacklist was reviled. What makes you think that a future, more rational, more tolerant society won’t look at this irrational ideological moment as deserving of condemnation?

Cancel Culture, like so many things these days, exists in a world of vague emotion, undefined and yet passionately felt. Unlike Burnett’s Marquise de Merteuil example, it burns people famous and unknown for things significant or petty, or non-existent. J’accuse has replaced the burden of proof, and no offense has a statute of limitations. But it most assuredly exists, does grave harm and, worst of all, penalizes speech or ideas that stray from the orthodoxy. If we can’t say or think the moment’s heresy, what happens when it turns out it’s wrong?

15 thoughts on “Organic Chemistry and Cancel Culture

  1. Elpey P.

    Burnett had earlier said the college was “publicly throwing me under the bus.” If we substitute that phrase for “cancel culture,” it might put a pin in this whole “it doesn’t exist” nonsense. What’s next, hegemony doesn’t exist because it’s just culture too?

    From free speech to the deep state (i.e. unelected power) to corporate empowerment, the ideological transformation of the supposed “left” into a crypto-right has been fascinating to watch.

  2. delurking

    Thank you for this. It has always baffled me that people insist that cancel culture can’t be a thing unless it has some precise definition for when criticism crosses the line into cancellation. Anything with “culture” in its name won’t be precisely definable that way. It is however, blindingly obvious that the culture has changed over time, and there is nothing wrong with giving that change a label. That being said, this post succinctly highlights two more-definable characteristics of cancel culture, secondary condemnation and ex post facto judgments, in a way that is quite helpful.

  3. B. McLeod

    Semantic word games declaring that observable trends “do not exist” are unlikely to ever hold much sway.

    1. SHG Post author

      They don’t need to hold sway. They need to be sufficient to make players secure in their correctness. You old guys never get it.

  4. KeyserSoze

    Kiri-sute gomen was the samurai right to cut down and leave the body of someone of a lower class who offended their honor. Cancel culture seems to be the modern equivalent that today’s moral narcissists use if someone offends them. This is pathetic, pathological, and damaging.

  5. Sacho

    Burnett seems to have an issue with people using “cancel culture” without pinning down specifics, but their disagreement – “cancel culture doesn’t exist, it’s just culture” similarly conveys their point about as effectively as “defund the police” does. Stones and glass houses.

    Unfortunately the gist of Burnett’s argument isn’t that cancel culture is badly defined, but that it’s good because they like it being applied to their political enemies. In that sense, correctly defining cancel culture is a fruitless endeavour; Burnett’s problem is not with the definition, but the opposition against it.

  6. Rengit

    Burnett’s argument is the same kind of argument that defenders and advocates of the excesses of #MeToo (which I suppose kicked off cancel culture in earnest) and the Title IX/campus rape activism changes made: change is going to happen, it’s inevitable that there will be winners and losers, obviously innocent people will be hurt or people will be punished too harshly, we’re ironing out new rules and norms so there will be a lot of casualties and punishments that seem disproportionate, any time new rules and norms are set we punish people who transgressed those rules and norms before they were established as rules and norms in order to show that we won’t tolerate that conduct moving forward. It masquerades as a descriptive statement, but in fact is also prescriptive: this is the way things are, but with the strong implication that it is also the way things should be, because after all, you’d have to be crazy or evil to disagree with reality.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not only is it the same kind, but they are all deliberate variations of the same theme. This is not accidental.

  7. B. McLeod

    Harvard is reportedly trying to “revoke” the degree it awarded to Elise Stefanik, because of her public statements challenging electoral results.

    1. delurking

      The general US rule is that earned degrees are not revoked for post-graduation conduct (dishonesty used to obtain the degree is a different story), but honorary degrees can be revoked. In contrast, German universities will revoke earned degrees for post-graduation conduct that dishonors the field of the degree. I don’t know about other countries.

      There are no reports I have seen that Harvard is trying to revoke Stefanik’s degree. There are reports that someone claiming to be a student created on online petition asking Harvard to revoke Stefanik’s degree (and Cruz’s, etc.)

Comments are closed.