Monday the New Republic published a piece about cancel culture which basically argued that it hasn’t been very successful in actually canceling anyone and, therefore, we probably shouldn’t worry about it or pay attention to its critics:
“Cancel culture,” after all, is a phrase deployed widely outside the world of comedy to describe an all consuming, social media-fueled climate of outrage—a dark cloud hanging over not only comics, but also a wide range of public figures and entities, some of whom where helpfully named by a New York Times piece last year, “Everyone is Canceled”:
Bill Gates is canceled. Gwen Stefani and Erykah Badu are canceled. Despite his relatively strong play in the World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo has been canceled. Taylor Swift is canceled and Common is canceled and, Wednesday, Antoni Porowski, a Queer Eye fan favorite was also canceled. Needless to say, Kanye West is canceled, too.
Significantly, all of these figures are alive, well, and prosperous today…
Statements like this are routine in cancel culture discourse—any particular cancellation, no matter how trivial or narrow it may seem to the casual observer, evidently carries within it the seeds of something much more grave. In a March column, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan also made reference to torture and indoctrination under Mao. “I don’t want to be overdramatic, but the spirit of the struggle session has returned,” she declared. “Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence. The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter.”…
Yet it seems at least possible that tweets are just tweets—that as difficult as criticism in the social media age may be to contend with at times, it bears no meaningful resemblance to genocides, excommunications, executions, assassinations, political imprisonments, and official bans past. Perhaps we should choose instead to understand cancel culture as something much more mundane: ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people across new platforms.
Today, Jesse Singal wrote a lengthy response (11,000 words) to the New Republic piece which makes the convincing argument that Nwanevu has failed to grapple with any of the real issues presented by cancel culture in his haste to dismiss it as much ado about nothing. First, Singal does away with the strawman that being “canceled” always means losing your job or status:
Every single article he links to and quotes from acknowledges that there are various gradations of ‘cancellation’ and rejects the simple idea that the word ‘cancellation’ and its variants always mean having one’s career or life permanently disrupted. Who is being argued with here? When Nwanevu says “we’re told urgently,” who is doing this telling? Who is comparing guacamole to Louis CK? This all feels like the equivalent of me telling a friend, “You know, I heard you say you hate onions, and I also heard you say you hate Hitler — you’d really put onions on the same plane as Hitler?” My friend would roll his eyes, and justifiably so…
And here’s Singal on the idea that being canceled is just “ordinary public disfavor” on new platforms.
Mobs aren’t new and outrage isn’t new, but what is new is the way a non-public figure can be captured forever at their worst or most misunderstood moment, and have that define them forever. Technology has permanently amplified one of the uglier and more primal and difficult-to-wrangle parts of human nature…
Imagine if — and please indulge me as I wander off into another completely wild hypothetical — it were at least possible to conceive of a way of writing and thinking about technologically mediated and amplified forms of outrage and shaming that landed, say, somewhere between “No reasonable person should be genuinely worried by or interested in any of this” and “Mean tweets are literally the Holocaust.” If only!
There’s a great deal more to Singal’s critique, all of which is worth reading. But I’m going to jump over to another piece that appeared at The Week last Friday. Author Damon Linker makes a point about cancel culture which I think is a fairly good one. He argues that, yes, we’ve always had the impulse toward socially ostracizing people we disagree with. But in the era before the internet, culture changed fairly slowly and so at any given time a large percentage of people around you probably had roughly similar ideas about what was right and what was wrong. What’s different now is that you have a vanguard of woke people who make judgments about right and wrong despite the fact that they are really just a small percentage of the population:
What’s happening now with “cancel culture” is different. A small number of online progressives have appointed themselves a moral vanguard, upholding and attempting to enforce, through the methods of a digital mob, a form of puritanical egalitarianism that is affirmed only by a few. Any writer, entertainer, or other public personality who diverges from this moral standard by demonstrating insufficient sensitivity and deference to the feelings of members of certain protected classes will find himself canceled. The progressives have thereby skipped the step of broad-based persuasion and jumped right to the end point of attempting to enforce a new public moral norm.
It’s this dynamic — a small minority of ideological activists ganging up on an individual, attempting to compel media companies, book publishers, television shows, movie studios, and corporations into casting the individual into outer darkness — that has prompted columnist Peggy Noonan and others to liken cancel culture to the totalitarianism of China’s cultural revolution. In many ways, comparing the experience of being (metaphorically) canceled in the 21st-century United States to a social and political upheaval that may have (literally) killed more than a million people is ludicrous and offensive. But it is valid in at least three narrow respects: both attempt to achieve their moral and political ends by way of public bullying, accusation, and humiliation; both demand public expressions of remorse and contrition by those deemed guilty by the mob; and both ultimately aim to force a thoroughgoing revaluation of public values through their strong-arm tactics.
Here I’m going to stick up for Peggy Noonan. It’s true that online cancel culture doesn’t have the body count of the Cultural Revolution so any direct comparison won’t hold up, but I’d suggest that’s at least partly because of the social dynamics Linker is pointing out in his piece. We’re not nearly to that point because cancel culture proponents are still a small percentage of the population, though it may not seem that way on Twitter at times. I think the point Noonan was making is that the two phenomena are coming from the same impulse even if they aren’t comparable in impact:
So I ask you to entertain an idea that has been on my mind. I don’t want to be overdramatic, but the spirit of the struggle session has returned and is here, in part because of the internet, in part because of the extremity of our politics, in part because more people are lonely. “Contention is better than loneliness,” as my people, the Irish, say, and they would know.
The air is full of accusation and humiliation. We have seen this spirit most famously on the campuses, where students protest harshly, sometimes violently, views they wish to suppress. Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.
I think it’s a fair criticism that the impact is what matters most and therefore this isn’t a fair comparison even if there are similarities. That’s what Linker seems to be saying. But it’s a bit hard to take that kind of criticism when so many on the left have engaged in comparisons of Trump (and before him Bush) to Hitler, Republicans to brownshirts, and the present moment to 1930s Germany. If you’re someone who doesn’t blink when people suggest we’re “losing our democracy” and “sliding toward fascism” then the complaint that some in the cancel culture far left are channeling the Cultural Revolution shouldn’t bother you on grounds of historical accuracy.