Cancel Culture Doesn’t Exist, Followup

10 minute read


Thanks all for the engagement on my last post about “cancel culture” (I’m not an #influencer or anything, I just like discussion). In light of a few points that were raised, I’ve written a follow-up that I think clarifies some of my position, incorporates some peoples’ comments, and speaks more directly to some folks’ concerns.

When it comes to “cancel culture,” it seems like there are three related but distinct situations that come up: celebrities, ideas (academics), and individual people (witch hunts). Last time I talked a lot about how apologies and personal growth seem to completely mitigate bad behavior by celebrities. Here I’ll be talking about the latter issues. And, I maintain and will tie in how the phrase “cancel culture” is weaponized to sow fear.

I’ll talk first about the “de-platforming” of particular academics. Largely, my stance on this is the same as in my last post: we don’t owe anybody a platform. Academic spaces are being characterized as “intolerant,” but I think the only thing that has stopped being tolerated is intolerance and exclusive focus on the white/male/hetero/able-bodied/neurotypical/etc perspective.

[[I won’t talk here about views that espouse tolerance vs. intolerance i.e. I don’t want to have the discussion here which equates de-platforming a speaker whose platform is racial equality vs. whose platform is explicit white superiority, and I also don’t want to talk about niche oppressive communities that explicitly disallow outside information]]

For instance, I would be upset if I found out that part of my conference fees went to paying for a keynote from someone whose platform is “parents should be able to euthanize disabled infants,” because I find that view remarkably out-of-touch with current cultural discussions that have us talking so much more about quality of life for disabled people who have been historically neglected, and I feel like that person hasn’t examined their views since the 70s and I don’t want my money going to them. I would consider not attending a conference if that conference were paying that person. That person’s views run contrary to my values, and I don’t want to support them, and I have absolutely no obligation to. Likewise, a group of people representing an organization have no obligation to support views that run counter to their core values. Or, for a more capitalistic reason, would lose money from supporting that person.

Furthermore, people aren’t banned from coming to events to learn or share their ideas in small circles, or participating in online forums or reading journals. They are banned from getting paid to speak and propagate their views to specific in-person audiences. They aren’t censored on twitter, often are held up as shining examples of “free speech,” and defended by staunch purists, and overwhelmingly they aren’t stopped from publishing, either privately or in journals.

Then, because they had huge platforms to begin with, their voice booms out of their cultural microphone when they say “what a shame, the liberals are being closed-minded,” when in fact they are simply not listening or responding to the valid concerns of new and changing cultural perspectives. They complain they are being “cancelled,” when in fact they are just being held accountable, by a wide audience, perhaps for the first time. Without gaslighting here, to them I would say that it is common among arguments to say “you’re not listening to me” when in fact you are not listening to them, either. De-platforming is enforcing social accountability.

However, witch hunts DO happen. I’m going to spell this out at the top: harassment is not ok – not even for genuinely bad people – and de-platforming and holding others accountable is completely different from harassment. The term “cancel culture” aims to equate the two, and is strategically designed and deployed to paint a picture where holding people accountable is the same as harassing them. Harassment happens, and that is bad. Harassment is not the same as holding people accountable.

As far as I can tell, witch hunts either happen because of misinformation and perhaps deliberately lying about the contents of someone’s statements (as in the Rebecca Tuvel case), or because of person-to-person miscommunication (the Smith college case). A common denominator in these cases, and I suspect many other “witch hunt,” situations, is that some overseeing, moderating party completely failed to moderate and scapegoated the person who ended up being unfairly characterized, blamed, harassed, etc. They may have failed to provide adequate support to an aggrieved person who then went on to start the witch hunt, or failed to provide any platform at all to defend the person being targeted. The anger of a witch hunt is often righteous, although I agree it can be misdirected.

Witch hunts also aren’t new. Obviously the etymology of the word hints to society’s long history of working off of incomplete or incorrect facts. Witch hunts also are absolutely, 100% not distinct to one political ideology, or even one field. Highlighting witch hunts is a fear-mongering tactic that, again, absolutely works because humans are completely attuned to respond to social threats, especially in the current global context. The political right in the US absolutely dominates at using this term, from Trump declaring the Meuller investigation “the greatest witch hunt in American history” (and having no consequences from the investigation supports this claim), to the RNC calling to “STOP THE WITCH HUNT” in the Kavanaugh hearing (again, his ascension to the SCOTUS backs up this claim). Similarly, #MeToo is labeled a “feminist witch hunt,” and lots and lots and lots of men I know feel like they must look over their shoulder in case they “have ever done anything wrong.” US conservatives have convinced the public, regardless of where you stand on these issues, that witch hunts happen, that they are meritless, and that they target innocent men. And they use the term “cancel culture,” to equate social accountability to witch hunts and unmerited harassment.

To the fear of one day being the target of a witch hunt, I reiterate this: it is very difficult to paint a nasty caricature of someone who genuinely wants to understand another’s position. If I feel I am unfairly characterized for an innocent mistake, it is likely that either a miscommunication has occurred, or I have unknowingly made an innocent mistake. In either case, the first step towards de-escalation is listening to the aggrieved party – either to see if we’re working on the same facts (“she called the police” when in fact I did not) or if I could have misstepped (“she racially profiled me,” you know what, that is possible). Psychologically, when someone feels heard, they are more willing to listen and less likely to dehumanize the person listening to them. Furthermore, if my institution throws me under the bus, I also hope I’ll have the wherewithal to hold them accountable as well (“Why didn’t you protect me from harassment? Why is there no policy against posting personal information?”).

And finally, on that, I want to make a note that is extremely important for me personally. Emotion does not run counter to logic. Emotion is a mitigating factor that affects many bodily and cognitive processes. It does not affect our ability to see facts, but rather influences which facts we pay attention to. If you ask me in a heightened emotional state what’s an equal split of $100 between two, I will always say $50. However, depending on the facts I have, that is very different from what I might see as a fair split. If you owe me $10 from before, I might say “actually just give me the $10 you owe me now and give me $60,” but you might say “that has nothing to do with this, let’s split this 50/50 and I’ll still owe you $10.” If we’re on good terms, that might be fine. But if you just insulted me, I might insist that actually it’s fair for me to get the $60 now. With this example, it’s easier to see how many miscommunications between the left and right are based not only on working with different facts as ground truth, but also how heightened emotional states and hurt feelings play into escalating situations.

The phrase “cancel culture” (and more generally, “Culture Wars”) is designed to get people into heightened emotional states – to get you to feel like YOU, YOU PERSONALLY, are being attacked for having done nothing wrong.

When I say “cancel culture isn’t real,” THAT is what I mean. “Cancel culture” is a boogieman, and if the term scares you, the tactic is working. This isn’t an insult at all – social fear is natural, it is everywhere, and it is being explicitly cultivated by malevolent actors.

Real changes are afoot, though. Equality and equity are uncomfortable for those who flourish under the status quo, so it will take time to adjust to new norms. There will be growing pains where we all reconcile “what is equal” with “what is fair.” Social media literacy is weird and bad and has led to unjustified harassment, and we all bear responsibility for doing due-diligence on issues that matter to us and teaching those around us how to do the same.

At the end of the day, we have to make philosophical peace with what we believe we owe to ourselves, what we owe to others, and what others owe to us.

My take on this is remarkably unbalanced: that I owe myself a right to be treated fairly and respectfully and to be taken seriously, and a right to protect myself; I owe others a right to be protected and heard, up until they violate the right of others to be protected; others owe me nothing, and their kindness is a nice bonus and a choice that they actively make for me.

Explicitizing this has been a useful exercise for me in understanding why I feel the way I do about this issue. I hope it’s a useful exercise for you, too.