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.
There is no such thing as “cancel culture” — there is only culture.
There are social mores, norms of public behavior and expression, norms and customs that both exert and absorb constant pressure and negotiation in the public square. One of the tactics of negotiation, one of the sources of pressure that shape these social norms, are public denunciations for shameful behavior.
It is quite true, of course, that every culture uses public condemnation and even ostracism to enforce social and moral codes. Every culture stigmatizes some behaviors, including ones that are not punishable by law, and even the most open and tolerant society will stigmatize some opinions.
The question is whether the punishment (or the banishment) fits the crime. Are people being condemned and penalized for truly bad, damaging behavior, or for minor slip-ups or miscommunications? Does the stigmatization of “bad” opinions target genuinely hideous views, or has it become so wide-ranging and aggressive as to stifle legitimate debate and inhibit the free exchange of ideas?
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?