Vallier’s argument is nicely structured, but isn’t, in my view, sound. The first part goes something like this:
- For any X, if we cancel X, we (must) reliably know that X deserves it.
- But we don’t reliably know that any (given) X deserves it.
- Hence we should not cancel.
That argument is a little too neat to capture what Vallier really has in mind, but I think it gets the basic point across. Claim (3) is stronger than what Vallier intends: his point is not that we should never cancel, but that we should rarely cancel. So throw out (3) and replace it with this latter, weaker claim (3*), i.e., “we should rarely cancel.”
Vallier’s post isn’t just about canceling, the activity; it’s about cancel culture, the culture devoted to the activity. And I think Vallier gets from the activity to the culture in something like this way:
- Given 3*, heavy reliance on cancellation expresses (and reveals) epistemic hubris.
- Membership in cancellation culture entails heavy reliance on cancellation.
- Hence membership in cancel culture expresses (and reveals) epistemic hubris.
- But epistemic hubris is a thing (a vice) to be avoided.
- Hence cancel culture is a thing (a vicious phenomenon) to be avoided.
Not a perfectly valid argument as it stands, but close enough. Vallier doesn’t talk about “membership in cancellation culture,” but I think he implicitly presupposes it throughout his post. Without something like (5-6), his post would be a criticism of cancellation, the activity, not cancel culture. But he clearly intends the latter.
As I said, I don’t think the argument is sound.
Objection 1: One problem is less a matter of the falsity of any particular premise than the problematic character of the concepts at the center of the argument–“cancellation” and “cancel culture.” Maybe I’m really out of touch with the contemporary zeitgeist, but in all sincerity, I have no idea what these concepts refer to. I have a fairly good sense of their rhetorical function in contemporary polemics, but that’s not the same as knowing what they mean, or knowing that they mean anything in particular.
This may be an uncharitable reading, but as I see it, “cancel culture” is not a real, unified phenomenon. It is, instead, a right-wing confabulation designed to be the target of a certain kind of right-wing polemics.* To form the relevant “concepts,” one observes instances of left-wing political activism, fixating on its most irrational exemplifications. One then treats these exemplifications as paradigmatic of the whole category, “left-wing political activism.” One then drops the underlying rationale for leftist political activism, ignoring the reasons why left-wing activists might ever feel righteous indignation about anything. One then swirls the residue formed by this essentially ad hoc inquiry into a single confabulated phenomenon, which then goes by the fake name, “cancel culture.”
The resulting concept gloms together “all the bad stuff that stereotypical leftist activists do”: shout down speakers, dox innocent people, start fires, riot in the streets, make false accusations, topple statues, fight fascism, boycott Israel, call out rapists, refuse to use animal products, and engage in ethical investing. The first few items are inarguably bad; the last few are inoffensive; and the middle few are, in one way or another, controversial. Taken together, they constitute a vague jumble of disparate items united by little more than the fact that leftists engage in them. All of them potentially involve cancellation (in some sense of that vague term), but they don’t, in aggregate, constitute a “culture.”
So I’m skeptical of the very existence of the target of Vallier’s critique. It’s not that I wouldn’t agree that there are cases of “cancellation” that are morally problematic or wrong. Nor do I disagree that there are people on the left (as there are on the right) who seem addicted to a self-defeating and irrational form of righteous indignation. But these are truisms at a distance from what Vallier is saying, and in my view, are neither here nor there. So that’s my first criticism. Fundamentally, I doubt that there is any such thing as “cancel culture.” “Cancel culture” is not a legitimate concept, but what Objectivists call an “anti-concept.“
Objection 2: Though I didn’t make this an explicit part of the argument above, one reason why Vallier is so wary of cancel culture is that he finds it punitive. Since (retributive) punishment presupposes knowledge of the punished person’s intentions, and Vallier thinks that we generally lack this knowledge, he thinks that punishment expresses epistemic hubris. And since (in his view) cancel culture is primarily (or perhaps exclusively) motivated by retributive or punitive aims, it expresses hubris. (This is, in effect, the rationale for  above.)
Here, I think, Vallier runs afoul of one his own strictures: he is, in my view, overly hasty about ascribing bad motives (or indeed, motives) to others in the absence of reliable information about those motives. Claim (2) expresses moral skepticism (or humility) about motives: we should (it says) acknowledge that we lack genuine knowledge about peoples’ motivations. But Vallier seems certain that cancel culture is motivated by thoroughly punitive considerations. That seems inconsistent: you can’t consistently say that we lack reliable access to the motives of others while insisting that cancel culture is motivated by a desire to punish.
Consistency aside, I think the claim is overstated and false. I’m sure that there are cancel culture warriors out there who operate from thoroughly punitive motivations, but such motivations are far from exhaustive of the reasons for canceling people or institutions. One non-punitive motive might be the desire for clean hands–the refusal to be complicitous in morally or politically harmful enterprises.
Suppose that I think that someone’s political aims are very harmful (whether culpably so or not). If so, I may refuse to contribute to their effectuation simply out of a desire to keep my distance from them. Further, my threshold for “make a contribution” may be very low: when I say I don’t want to make a contribution, I mean that I don’t want to make anything that even has the appearance of making a contribution. If I bear a connection to the person that might be construed as contribution-making, I might for that reason cancel the person/group/institution in question in the sense of severing my connection to them. If severing my connection in the relevant way means that they get canceled, maybe that’s just their problem. In doing so, I’m not punishing the person (etc.), or not intending to. I’m just making sure that I have nothing to do with whatever it is that they’re doing, where this can sometimes mean refusing them access to resources that I (partly) control.
To use a relatively non-political example: you might tell a friend that he can’t smoke pot in your house or car. One day he brings some and starts smoking. You stop the car, or open the front door of the house, and throw him out. (I certainly would.) This isn’t necessarily because you think that he’s culpable for smoking pot, or even because you fear the legal repercussions of his doing so. You may simply regard pot as harmful and not want your car or house to be the place where it’s consumed. This may sound (and may be) either paternalistic or prissy, but I don’t see how it’s punitive. Granted, the target may wrongly interpret it as punitive. But ex hypothesi, he’s wrong. It isn’t.
A more political example: Suppose that Smith defends views that I regard as racist. Suppose that Smith is a member of my profession, and invokes the prestige of our common profession to defend his racist views. He does this so often that outsiders come to believe that Smith actually represents the profession itself. To avoid this implication, I go out of my way to say that he doesn’t represent the profession; in fact, most of the profession opposes views like this.
I then decide to put my money where my mouth is. When Smith achieves a certain prominence in the profession, I do what I can to take him down a few notches. When he goes up for chair of my department, I vote him down. When he goes up for president of the professional association, I launch a campaign against his candidacy. If he’s not tenured, I vote against tenure for him. When he uses the university’s auditorium for a white nationalist rally, I suggest to admin that this be disallowed. When they allow it, I help organize a protest outside. Etc. Notice that nothing about this campaign of cancellation requires me to want to punish Smith, or even to regard his views as culpable. I just have to regard them as sufficiently problematic as to merit public rejection. I don’t see why that’s wrong, so I don’t see the rationale for what Vallier says about the punitive, hubristic qualities of cancel culture.
Objection 3: I find claim (2) excessively skeptical or perhaps epistemically humble to the point of self-abnegation. Culpability is not lightly to be ascribed, but it’s not as hard to detect, or in as short supply, as Vallier seems to suggest. If you want clear instances of it, spend a few hours at white nationalist websites, or even on ordinary social media. If you engage with a wide variety of people on a wide variety of subjects in a sustained way, it won’t be long before you realize that some people really do hold their beliefs in culpable form. In fact, if I spent enough time racking my brain about it, I could probably think of a few libertarian academics whose discursive behavior lapses occasionally into the culpably hubristic, narcissistic, gratuitously insulting, hypocritical, dishonest, and/or defamatory. It’s out there if you look.
I suppose we might argue about cases, or about criteria, but most philosophical work on moral desert takes some cases of moral desert (whether re praise or blame) as fairly clear cut. I’m not sure whether Vallier regards these paradigm cases as more ambiguous than I do, or regards them as less often exemplified in the real world than I do, or has some higher-order objection to the very idea of claims of moral desert. It could just be that he and I have very different experiences of people. I’ve been victimized often enough in life to know culpability when I see it, and to have no illusions about its ubiquity. So on the face of it, (2) seems overstated, at least to me.
Objection 4: Re (4), I think there’s a problematic ambiguity in Vallier’s critique on the idea of a heavy reliance on cancellation. (He doesn’t use the phrase “heavy reliance,” but I think the idea is implicit.) How heavy does the reliance have to be? In saying that cancellation is to be avoided, Vallier seems to be assuming that the moral costs of cancellation have to be reckoned with, but that the benefits can be ignored. This latter assumption seems to rest on some substantive but inexplicit assumptions, for instance that there aren’t that many things around us that deserve cancellation, and/or that canceling does no good. Both claims need far more argument than he gives, and both strike me as extremely implausible.
It may be that if you live in a basically fair and just society, there won’t be all that much to cancel. But if you live in a deeply unjust society where nefarious things are happening all the time, and nefarious movements are slowly but surely gaining ground, it seems to me dogmatic and self-defeating to assume that there aren’t that many things around us worth canceling. I could make a full time job of it. And for the right wage, I would.
The efficacy of cancellation is a complex matter, but if the point of it is simply to avoid complicity in injustice, that seems like a fairly low bar that’s easy enough to satisfy. If canceling is sufficient to avoid complicity, then when I cancel what deserves cancellation, I avoid complicity in it. Voila: efficacy.
My rejection of (4), incidentally, is connected to my rejection of (2). Because I think we can judge who deserves to be canceled, I have no a priori judgments to make about how much we (whoever “we” are) should be relying on cancellation. How much you rely on cancellation depends on highly contingent facts about the society you inhabit. There’s no way to declare that cancellation is unnecessary per se.
Another way to put this is to say that while I’m less humble than Vallier about (2), I’m more humble than Vallier about (4). Unlike him, I don’t claim to have a priori knowledge about the extent to which people should or shouldn’t rely on cancellation. If cancellation coheres with their (justifiable) political goals, I’m not in a position to tell them not to rely on it.
Objection 5: To bring my criticisms full circle (since this objection overlaps with the first one),** I think one can be committed to cancellation without being a member of any culture of cancellation. As I’ve said just above, it seems to me dogmatic to advise people to avoid canceling things while saying nothing about the general tenor and direction of their society, i.e., how much of what’s out there (specifying where) deserves cancellation. But coming the other way around, it seems to me a stretch to think that people committed to canceling whatever needs canceling belong to a culture that should be avoided. Even if I doubled or tripled the canceling I do, most of my life wouldn’t be about cancellation; it’d be about other things. Surely those other things constitute my cultural affiliations more so than my commitment to cancellation.
One thing I find puzzling about the whole discussion of cancel culture is its narrowness and lack of generalizability to anything beyond the social media culture of the (American) present. The whole recent discussion of cancel culture (like much recent academic discussion of grandstanding) strikes me as time-bound polemics masquerading as moral philosophy. We might ask how the claims made against cancel culture apply to historical instances of things that look a lot like cancellations of one sort or another. The American Revolution began as a boycott movement. So did Gandhi’s anti-imperialism, and Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights activism. The campaign against apartheid was a cancellation movement, as are BDS, BLM, and Antifa today.***
Is that what the critics of cancel culture are criticizing? It’s not clear. They seem obsessed with the minutiae of campus politics at elite North American institutions (a minority of institutions even in North America), or the latest blather about the latest gaffe by some half-assed talking head on TV, but oddly silent on issues of larger historical and political scope.
Would they retrospectively oppose the American Revolution? How about Gandhi’s anti-imperialism? The Montgomery bus boycott? The movement to divest from apartheid South Africa? Speaking of epistemic hubris and humility, how many critics of cancel culture are in an epistemic position to pass judgment on the aims of BDS, or know anything about life in Gaza, Hebron, or Nablus under the Israeli occupation? Is Antifa to be criticized for canceling white nationalists? Should neo-Nazis be allowed a foothold in our culture, so that their views are normalized and accepted with equanimity?
I don’t think Vallier and I disagree on the answers to these questions, but in that case, I don’t get what he has against cancellation. I think it’s worth adding that both Rawls and Hayek, whom Vallier favorably cites, are extremely limited guides to moral reality. (Try to find a single reference to “Hebron” or “Gaza” in either of them.) Nothing in, say, The Fatal Conceit, and little in A Theory of Justice, sheds much light on why people justifiably feel the need to cancel in the name of justice.****
I agree that cancel culture sometimes involves grotesque excess, but so do a lot of things. (The culture of spectator sports, for example…yet consider the reluctance to avoid it.) Excesses aside, I actually think we’d have a healthier culture if people were more straightforward about cancellation, and engaged in it more often. That would certainly beat the saccharine inauthenticity that dominates so much of our public culture, the constant effort to remain “positive” and “upbeat” about everything as the world goes to hell in a hand basket. I say that as someone who’s been canceled out of a lot of things. In fairness, some of the canceling was mutual. But at least the mutually canceled know where we stand vis-a-vis one another. Which is more than can be said of a culture in which so many people lack the backbone to do that much.
*I don’t mean to imply that Vallier is right-wing. I mean that “cancel culture” is in its origins a piece of right-wing propaganda. That doesn’t imply that everyone who uses it does so under that description.
**The difference between the first and fifth objections may at first be hard to see, but where the first objection objects to the very legitimacy of the concept of cancel culture, the fifth says that you can do a lot of canceling without belonging to anything legitimately described as “cancel culture.” So they overlap, but they’re about slightly different issues.
***Obviously, too many groups to name here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Palestinian Popular Resistance, who’ve raised “cancellation” to an art form (Mousa Abu Maria and Mahmoud Zwahre being two great artists). For more Third Worldish cancellation, there’s Naila and Cousin Sa’ad, for starters.
****I say that with some hesitation in the case of A Theory of Justice, given Rawls’s fairly extensive discussion there of civil disobedience. But Rawls’s discussion of civil disobedience presupposes “a nearly just society,” and envisions civil disobedience as aimed primarily at the government, mostly in order to change its policies (pp. 319, 320). Cancel culture (insofar as it means anything) doesn’t presuppose a nearly just society, and doesn’t always target government (and not always to change policies, either). So, much of Rawls’s discussion strikes me as irrelevant to the topic.
I’ve read just about all of Rawls (though not every word), but only modest bits of Hayek, so it’s certainly possible that my generalization doesn’t hold, but on the whole, I stand by it. My point is, I wouldn’t be inclined to look to either author for particular insight on this topic, and would be surprised to find any if I did.