Kevin Vallier has an interesting blog post on cancel culture at his blog, Reconciled. Check out the post and the blog itself if you haven’t.
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.
I think in this sentence:
“Fundamentally, I doubt that there is no such thing as ‘cancel culture.'”
the “no” should be “any.” (Unless this is a clue that we’re intended to give your entire post a Straussian reading. In which case, you are hereby cancelled.)
Thanks, fixed. Alas, another chapter out of Persecution and the Brain Fart of Proofreading.
“Nothing in, say, The Fatal Conceit …”
While I agree that Hayek isn’t especially helpful here (though extensions and developments of his thoughts might be), The Fatal Conceit is not in any meaningful sense by Hayek in any case.
OK, fine. How’s this?
I just stumbled on this article that could have been written for this post:
I sympathize with Thompson’s rationale for quitting: the editors’ decision was exploitative, cynical, and lacking in moral integrity. We don’t usually think of a quit a cancellation, but it’s not clear why not.
Vallier describes cancellation this way:
I don’t really see how trying to make someone less influential than they are is punitive in the sense associated with retributive justice. Maybe there is some weaker sense in which it’s punitive, but how does this sense differ from any competition in which one wants to reduce the influence of one’s competitor? If I drive my competitor out of business, am I punishing him?
The issue of knowing the editor’s exact motives strikes me as a red herring. It seems clear enough that the headline was misleading and unfair. When confronted with this (to me, obvious) fact, the editor engaged in transparent evasions–a defensive refusal to engage the relevant issue in a meaningful way. If that’s really what happened, why aren’t the editor’s evasions sufficient to justify Thompson’s quit? The editor’s culpability strikes me as clear enough. If so, his action is a betrayal. But even if it isn’t culpable, it’s extraordinarily clueless. In that case, it’s a disappointment. Even a mere disappointment, I’d think, should be sufficient for “cancellation” in some contexts.
The editor then responds to the whole controversy with yet another well-worn evasion: “We don’t comment on personnel decisions.” Well, why not? The editor works for a newspaper. Most newspapers feel free to solicit comment on personnel decisions when those decisions are news. Hard to imagine a newspaper editor who would say, “Oh, we refuse to ask questions about personnel decisions! That’d be a low blow!” In that case, why the reluctance to offer comment when comment is called for?
Hypocrisy aside, why should anyone ever accept this excuse–“we don’t comment”–from any employer in a context where no exchange of confidential information is involved? It’s as though they’d said, “We don’t customarily permit our decisions to receive the rational scrutiny of impartial observers. That would ruin everything!”
Thompson says he’s exploring the idea of creating an alternative media outlet. Imagine that in exploring this option, he calls for a boycott of The Kenosha News. Suppose he does so with the explicit rationale of taking business away from them and winning it for his own outlet. And suppose that strategy works. Would that be wrongfully punitive? On the contrary, it strikes me as poetic justice.
The only thing that saves the anti-cancellation thesis in this case is the supposition that Thompson’s decision to quit isn’t really a “cancellation.” But that just seems like a No True Cancellation fallacy.
For why I say The Fatal Conceit isn’t really by Hayek, see this (and in fact I’d already picked up earlier on what struck me as a serious inconsistency in tone and approach between The Fatal Conceit and Hayek’s other work):
For what I mean by extensions and developments of Hayek’s thoughts being possibly helpful in this area, see the discussion of varieties of spontaneous order in:
Click to access women-and-the-invisible-fist-2013-0503-max.pdf
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I had actually read Friedman’s piece when it came out, and followed the controversy back then, but clearly, forgot about it. Is his claim about Hayek’s non-authorship widely accepted?
I hadn’t seen Charles’s piece before, so thanks for that.
I just looked, and Friedman is neither mentioned in Bartley’s Editorial Foreword nor in Hayek’s Preface. Unbelievable.
I remember being suspicious when Hayek’s hostile remarks about Rawls in The Fatal Conceit were so much at odds with his previously saying he was largely in agreement with Rawls (a claim that I think Kevin V. makes good sense of here: https://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/05/hayek-enemy-of-social-justice-and-friend-of-a-universal-basic-income/ ). Of course he could have changed his mind, but still I was puzzled. And still more puzzled by his hostile remarks about Foucault, for the different reason that I was surprised at his reading Foucault.
Off topic, but: I find myself wondering how Friedman would have fared had he edited the posthumously released works of Ayn Rand. Imagine an essay in which Rand expresses surprising agreement with, and admiration for, Rawls, Hayek, and Foucault. Produced under the joint editorship of Leonard Peikoff and Jeffrey Friedman.
Well, as Rand wrote in “Zen and the Art of Laissez-Faire Capitalism”: “under capitalism, the market is continually in a state of indeterminate flux – just like the world.” (And don’t forget her “Open Letter to Jesus Christ.”)
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I shared a link to your post on facebook. Folks there are lamenting your absence. (Yes, I know, you’ve cancelled facebook.)
“Folks there are lamenting your absence.” That’s good to know. On the other hand, those who had previously lamented my presence are probably expressing their gratitude in silence.
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Against objection 1: much of what you say here seems to apply just as well to ‘rape culture’, ‘racist police culture’ possibly also e.g. ‘masculine culture’ and I think you’re begging the question a little by including reference to ‘ignoring the reasons why left-wing activists might ever feel righteous indignation about anything’. If left wing people were complaining about ‘patriot culture’ and right leaning people said they were ignoring reasons why we should be patriots, it’d be an unconvincing way to show that patriot culture complaints are overblown..
Against objection 2: I think you need to pick a less clear-cut case, as everyone agrees harmful things are bad and grounds for restricting a would be harmer’s freedom, but everyone can’t agree on what ‘harm’ is. Suppose your professor made a racist joke one time. If you then start picketing him talking about things that have nothing to do with race, that response seems overly disproportionate and hence punitive. Many deplatorming examples deplatformed people who were speaking on completely benign issues on the basis that they once said something on a separate topic a long time ago.
Objection 3 seems unfruitful unless you can pin down specific examples with Vallier. If you keep pointing to the cases where cancelling is obviously justified, that doesn’t itself show that there haven’t been lots of cases where the cancelling wasn’t justified, which is presumably what Vallier is worried about. You might reply the burden of proof is on him to provide the cases, but then upon seeing those cases cancel culture sceptics might just reply ‘that is only anecdotal’ and then it’s not clear what kinds of evidence could ever convince them (leading us back to my first point).
Thanks for your comment. I guess one overarching response I have is that all three of your objections displace or misplace the burden of proof. Vallier is offering the novel positive claim here: we should avoid cancel culture because there’s something wrong with it. I’ve semi-systematized his argument, and taken issue with it. He has the burden of explaining what cancel culture is, and why we should avoid it because of whatever’s wrong with it. I simply have the burden of showing that he fails to do any of that. I don’t think my burden of proof extends much beyond that. After all, my post is longer than Vallier’s, despite the modesty of my goal.
Re (1): I take it that you regard your objection as a reductio. In other words, if one found “cancel culture” problematically vague, one would have to find “rape culture” and so on vague. For one thing, that doesn’t follow unless “cancel culture” and “rape culture” are parallel cases. But my whole objection is that it’s not even clear what “cancel culture” is. So anyone making your objection would have to clarify its meaning, at least minimally, before we could proceed.
But suppose it did follow. In that case, I don’t think that the conclusion is a reductio. It’s not obvious to me that there is any such thing as “rape culture,” or “racist police culture,” and so on. Maybe there is, maybe not. It’s partly a conceptual matter, requiring clarification of what counts as a “culture,” and partly an empirical matter as to whether the candidate cultures satisfy the criteria. There’s no reason to sit in an armchair and pronounce on the latter even if we had the former in place–which we don’t.
Re (2): I don’t think what you’ve said here is an objection to my claim. Your objection is that I’ve picked too straightforward and unsubtle an example. But that seems appropriate, as I was making a straightforward and unsubtle point: surely there are times when canceling is straightforwardly appropriate? Vallier’s over-subtlety and skepticism about desert seems to imply that these straightforward cases can be ignored or set aside or perhaps put in doubt. The claim I’m making is clear enough: there are times when it’s perfectly appropriate to cancel. What he says is not incompatible with what I’ve said, or with my comment.
I guess I have a simple question: surely Vallier can agree that the ratio is at least 1:x, and that the case I’ve given is an instance of the 1? One problem here is that he never quite comes clean on that. But there’s another problem, which I’ll address below.
Re (3): I have a similar sort of response as I did with (2). You say I should produce more and subtler examples, but I’m not sure that Vallier actually agrees with my straightforward and unsubtle example. As a first gambit, I’m inclined to offer a simple example, and then take matters from there. Some of what he says is so skeptical about motivation that he seems to imply that we can never truly know when someone has done something sufficiently culpable that he deserves cancellation. I don’t see why. But beyond that, I don’t think culpability is a necessary condition for cancellation. And I think my racism example is subtle enough to illustrate the latter point. If he agreed with it as written, he’d have to disagree with his post.
On your very last point:
That’s exactly what I would say: the burden of proof is on him to provide the cases that he regards as unjustified. But the prior burden is to define our terms with more precision than we currently have. The point is not that the evidence is merely anecdotal (anecdotes are testimonial evidence, and testimonial evidence is sometimes truth-tracking) but that it’s not even clear what we’re talking about.
To repeat something I’ve already belabored: “cancel culture” is a right-wing journalistic term that moral philosophers have now plucked out of the air and started to use as though it were an established part of the philosophical lexicon. My point is that it’s not. The one real contribution that philosophy could make is one that it’s not making: conceptual clarification. If we probe the concept hard enough, we may discover that it’s mud all the way down.
Thanks for your careful reply. 1) You say you don’t know what it is, but you successfully identified many examples of it after “all the bad stuff that stereotypical leftist activists do”. Since you agree those events happen, I took the next question to be whether the frequency of these kinds of events, the kinds of actors involved, the way that those events manifest or the causal factors causing them to happen warrant attributing there to be a culture. I wasn’t using rape culture etc as a reductio so much as establishing that since these other ‘cultures’ seem to be things people and academics readily refer to and talk meaningfully about, it seems like Vallian has met a reasonable burden of proof in identifying that such events occur and can meaningfully be referred to without confusion of what we are talking about. If you’re ok with saying those other things aren’t cultures either, then this point is moot philosophically. But the ‘what even is cancel culture?’ seems to be a very common response by left-leaning people lately, and I think it’s important that we don’t require of political opponents that they meet higher epistemic standards than us regarding acceptable use of concepts.
(As a slightly facetious point, if you’re confident that cancel culture isn’t worth worrying about, would you pen an article arguing that rape culture and racist police culture are meaningless terms that left wing journalists have plucked out of the air and which is now unjustifiably being used by philosophers as an established part of the lexicon, and send it along to a few philosophy mailing lists?)
2) It wasn’t that the example is just too straightforward, it’s that your toy example isn’t representative of the cases cancel culture critics are talking about. The cancellees are being blamed for their beliefs, and they are often individuals who are trying to give talks to audiences who we have no reason to believe have less than average moral character, many of whom are academics or journalists and have spent quite a lot of time trying to work out their ideas, who engage in discussion of their ideas and defend them, and in many cases are supporting conclusions that are held by many otherwise reasonable people. In contrast, the cancellers are people who are carrying out various actions e.g. very publicly and loudly condemning the speaker’s character, calling for them to be outright fired for their views, harassing the speaker’s entourage, implicitly threaten ostracision for parties who don’t reflexively show their support, and gleefully cheering when the speakers suffer unrelated forms of misfortune. We seem to have quite different kinds of evidence available as to the likely motivations of each party.
If you don’t think this is what characterises most cancellations/cancellers at all, I’d add that it seems relevant that many calls to cancel now carry an implicit threat of media storm and other disproportionate costs if cancelling does not occur. So even if someone goes about cancelling in a non-punitive way, the frequency and severity of cancelling may still at least be very undeserved for the speaker. If you still think this is an unfair framing and the ratio of appropriate to inappropriate cancellations is high, then this leads back to (3), which is that I think everyone needs to specify the particular cases they’re talking about. But I don’t quite see why the burden of proof is on Vallian to show that the cancellings were unjustified. If it’s just that he’s making the novel positive claim, arguably it’s a reply to the claim made by the cancellers that such speakers should be cancelled, which seems rather novel and positive.
As a quick sanity check: if a BLM protestor claims that we need to get rid of (‘cancel’) the police who are shooing citizens, and it’s an open question what ratio of shootings were acceptable:not acceptable, it seems to not quite be the point to reply that well sometimes the police needed to shoot that person and sometimes we can identify those cases and really the burden of proof is on the protestor to show that all these shooting weren’t justified before we should be worried and do much, these are just the worst excesses of the police and shouldn’t be thought to be indicative of anything further. I’m inclined to think the more apt response is that there are too many shootings for them to all be justified, we should be concerned and trying to reduce the number of shootings, and even if in some cases we agree they are justified, we might still think that that kind of response is too often being used as a disproportionate go-to instead of other methods and this is impacting on other social goods (e.g. citizens feeling free and safe).
So, here’s my response–maybe a surprising one to some readers. Just as an opening thought, I don’t regard myself as a leftist, and I doubt any leftists regard me as one, either. I think of myself as a pragmatist. I suppose that makes me appear, pretentiously, to stand above the partisan fray, but I actually think I do. My aim here is to convince you of that, because from the perspective of a non-partisan observer of these debates, almost everything being said on both sides in a variety of contexts strikes me as outright nonsense. I really do think that I’m practicing an equal opportunity form of skepticism.
On (1), overlapping a bit with (2): Yes, I did say that I don’t know what “cancellation” or “cancel culture” mean in the mouths of those who use it, but I did say that I understood its rhetorical function in partisan debates. So what I did was ascribe my own meaning to it, one inclusive (I guess) of theirs (insofar as theirs makes sense to me), but subsuming what I take to be obviously related phenomena. If the critics of cancel culture want to insist that I am talking about something completely different than what they are talking about, I think that I’m well within my rights to profess a certain incomprehension about what they mean, and ask them to clarify. So far, none of them have. And yet my request doesn’t seem overwhelmingly demanding.
Incidentally, many of my responses to Michael Young nearby are relevant here. I’m trying to avoid repeating things I said to him.
I agreed right from the outset that “cancellations” can be grotesquely abused. They can be done for the wrong reasons, in the wrong ways, at the wrong times, targeting the wrong targets. So let me reiterate that. I am not disputing that that happens, nor am I defending it when it happens. I’ve probably been on the receiving end of more of these than most of the people complaining about them. But the occurrence of such things is hardly unique to “cancellations.” It’s true of any action-type you care to name. Unless we semantically pack an action-type with “rightness when performed, regardless of occasion,” any action can be abused. If a person, on observing instances of abuse, then insists on talking about “X culture,” professing agnosticism about the frequency of abuse (or the ratio of abuse to non-abuse), and remaining mum (even after repeated challenge) about what X’s are, and how they constitute a “culture,” I think it’s safe to infer that the concept is too indeterminate for meaningful use, and that it’s been co-opted by partisans uninterested in clarity or coherence. That’s my view of the entire discourse about “cancel culture.”
These two pieces, one in Vox and one in Jacobin, seem to confirm what I’m saying. Consider the preposterous origins of “cancel culture” discourse, and the ridiculous twists and turns by which it’s become current terminology.
It’s a terminology ripe for misuse. But it doesn’t follow that the action-type, “cancellation,” is itself an abuse.
Since I’m not a leftist, I don’t think your point about “higher epistemic standards” applies to me, as though I accepted the legitimacy of “rape culture” or “police culture” as axiomatic, but just happened to be disputing the legitimacy of “cancel culture.” I don’t claim to have read the literature on those other two topics, so I don’t want to prejudge a literature I haven’t read. It may be that contributors to that literature have identified some determinate phenomena that can be described as “rape culture” and “police culture.” I’m a priori skeptical, but then, I’m a priori skeptical of everything. If they can meet the relevant burden of proof, I would have no problem with those concepts, but I don’t begin with any allegiance to them, either. So I don’t think it’s relevant to bring them up. If discourse about “rape culture” were as ad hoc and nonsensical as discourse about “cancel culture,” I’d say the same thing about it as I say about cancel culture. In any case, I would say that the applicable epistemic standards are the same in each case.
You ask whether I would pen an article arguing that “rape culture” and “racist police culture” are meaningless terms. I certainly would, if I became better acquainted with the positions of those who use those terms, and concluded that they were misusing them. But because I’m not all that acquainted with them, I haven’t reached that conclusion. I myself never use those terms. Even if better warranted than “cancel culture,” they’re extremely fuzzy and stereotype-laden. They remind me of the sorts of concepts that non-academics use when trying to characterize academia from the outside.
Would I send such an essay along to a few philosophy mailing lists? Well, it didn’t occur to me even to send my post on cancel culture to any such lists, but it’s not a bad idea.
More directly on (2): I don’t think it’s possible to accuse someone of not talking about a representative sample of cases if one hasn’t identified the scope of the phenomenon in question–and I would say that the critics of cancel culture haven’t. Surely the cases I have in mind bear some similarity relations to the ones they have in mind? And surely their doing so implies that many of the various cases fall under some common concepts? So the question is: what is the distinctive work that “cancellation” is doing within this family of concepts (adversarial political activism, call outs, shaming, boycotts, doxxing, etc.)? And that question they’ve so far refused to answer, from which I infer that they’ve failed to meet the burden of proof required for mounting elaborate criticisms of “it.”
As for the particular sorts of example you have in mind, characterized as you characterize them, I’m the last to disagree with your verdict on them. It certainly is highly problematic for ill-informed people to cancel well-informed people without having a good, justifiable reason for doing so. But nothing I’ve said disputes that. So once again, I reiterate my agreement. Cancellations should not be done lightly, from a position of ignorance, or even relative ignorance, or from some reflexively ideological motivation. Nor should they be disproportionate in effect, or indiscriminate as regards targets. But it hardly follows that cancellation is a bad idea in itself.
In fact, it seems to me that we’re now in the vicinity of dormitive virtue discourse. What is “cancel culture”? Well, it turns out to be the species of cancellations that involve ill-informed people’s using disproportionate means to cancel well-informed and well-meaning people. How is that “representative” of cancellations as such? Well, because we’ve simply identified “cancellation” with that objectionable species of it. Fine, but what about the other species within the genus? Well, those are unrepresentative, so we won’t discuss them. Which species has the greatest frequency, the objectionable or the unobjectionable? Unclear, but we still won’t discuss the unobjectionable species, and won’t give a general characterization of the phenomenon of “cancellation” itself. We’ll just keep using the term “cancel culture” to refer to objectionable cancellations, repeatedly giving the impression that objectionable cancellations are the only kind, without even claiming to establish that that’s so.
Am I being unfair? That’s what the critics of cancel culture sound like to me.
Eric Schliesser, in a Facebook post generally sympathetic to my post, accused me of being “uncharitable” to Vallier, and insufficiently concerned about the dangers of cancel culture. But I was the one who semi-systematized Vallier’s argument, and give it more structure and determinacy than it actually had. Isn’t that charity?
As for being insufficiently concerned about the dangers of cancel culture, I’m one of the few academics who’s been arrested on false charges of murder in an attempt to cancel me (at an AAUP censured institution that doesn’t confer tenure). So I’m hardly insensitive to the problem. But it seems to me that anti-cancelers are insensitive to the reverse problem. There are people and entities out there who richly deserve to be canceled. How are we to deal with them? I don’t really understand Vallier’s response to this relatively straightforward question, assuming he has one. He thinks we should “argue” with them, but as I say to Michael Young nearby, you can’t argue with the powerful unless you have the leverage to get their attention. How does Kevin Vallier propose to deal with white nationalism? By reconciling himself to it and making his peace with it? Very obliging, but I don’t think it will work.
How, short of divestment and sanctions, do the opponents of cancel culture propose to deal with the Israeli occupation? Talk about a rhetorical question! They could care less about the Israeli occupation. That’s why they have the luxury of not dealing with it at all. In fact, BDS presents an interesting taxonomic issue. Do they want to say that BDS embodies “cancel culture” or that the opposition to it, enshrined in law, does?
Or do both?
On your BLM example: I’m actually not entirely sympathetic to BLM per se. Though I have sympathy for the underlying cause, an enormous number of BLM’s claims are at least as nonsensical as anything asserted by the critics of cancel culture. So if a BLM protester were to assert that we need to “cancel” the police who are shooting citizens, I’d say: in and of itself, there is nothing a priori wrong with the police’s shooting people, citizens or otherwise. The police carry guns for a reason, the reason being to shoot people. They do so because–in the US, at any rate–it’s often the case that the people in question are themselves dangerous and carrying guns. So it seems to me precisely to the point to get clear on the ratio of acceptable to non-acceptable shootings. Indeed, I would demand far more precision than that. If you want to cancel a police officer, be sure to have good reasons for why his particular shooting was unjustified. Absolutely do not start rambling on and on about his “membership” in “police culture,” as though that established anything of significance. That is precisely not to the point.
“There are too many shootings for them all to be justified” strikes me as trivially true, like “there are too many assertions for them all to be true.” In any case, I absolutely reject the idea that you can somehow infer the existence of “racist police culture” from the sheer frequency of police shootings, ignoring all other factors–such as why the shootings took place! The United States is an enormously violent place. It’s unsurprising that the police shoot a lot of people here. But I think it’s absurd to think that “high frequency of police shootings” entails “high frequency of unjustified police shootings,” simply because, from an armchair, there just seem to be way too many shootings out there. If the people who make such cavalier claims want a quick sanity check, I would suggest that they spend a few hours in a firearms simulator. Let’s see how they do. If they acquit themselves, then we might start to take seriously what they have to say about shootings. Otherwise, I would say that while anyone can judge the very clearest cases, only the specially qualified can generalize about the entire set of cases, or judge the harder ones.
Re particular cases of cancellation, I went back and counted the number of blog posts I had written on cancellations within the last year, September 2019 to the present. At a highly conservative count, I came up with more than 25, at least as I understand the topic. So in answer to your query about particular cases, I will (when I get the chance) create a blog post in which I collect those posts, organizing them by category. I don’t have time to go back beyond 2019-2020, but if 25 cases is representative of a single year’s blogging, then if I were to go back to the beginning of the blog, we’re talking about maybe 125 cases. Unfortunately, I often fail to tag my blog posts properly, so they’re hard to find. But they’re there.
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Incidentally, I’ve made somewhat similar points in response to a blog post by Lauren Hall at Radical Classical Liberals.
Thanks, Irfan, for making me think more (and hopefully better) about this stuff. Here are some thoughts (related to what you say, but nothing like a point-by-point commentary).
I haven’t read Vallier’s post, but the kind of argument that he appears to be making depends on: (a) being quite precise about what canceling (and cancel culture) is and (b) showing that canceling (or cancel culture) is normally decisively harmful or bad and hence something that should be engaged in only when it is pretty certain that it is correct. And yet he appears to define canceling (and cancel culture) in a very broad way that invites the response that it is not that bad and sometimes does a lot of good or is necessary, justified, etc. (i.e., some of your responses).
I think you are right that the terms ‘canceling’ and ‘cancel culture’ are pretty cognitively opaque weapons in partisan warfare, weapons crafted by the political right (perhaps good on them as advocates and partisans, but certainly not as theorists). Here is a stab at a serious characterization of an act or activity in the vicinity (that is, I think, an extreme method of moral/political contention that should be avoided in most cases): with intent, initiating or participating in a collective process of morally ostracizing or severely punishing someone for perceived moral infractions that are not clearly and obviously severe moral infractions. This kind of thing happens all of the time, in many time periods and cultural contexts, though, for obvious reasons, it is more typical of self-appointed moralists of various sorts. I suppose that such an intent might be mainly in the service of a clean-hands type of motivation, but I’m skeptical that intent to participate in such a collective activity would be necessary to clear one’s conscience or achieve clean hands. On the other hand, a clean-hands-motivated dissociative act might in fact contribute to ramping up to collective ostracizing or punishing, but without the intent, on this definition, such act would not count as an act of canceling.
Canceling in this sense can go bad due to epistemic error/over-confidence. And it is plausible that, in a broad range of cases including present conditions of racial and sexual injustice in the United States, being confident enough in one’s judgment of moral wrongness or culpability (e.g., that this or that person or institution is racist or sexist in some specific sense of these terms) is difficult enough to be a significant barrier to justified canceling. That’s a Vallier-like line of argument that I have quite a bit of sympathy with, though I think it would take a good bit of defending to formulate and argue for it properly (and you would have to look at lots of specific scenarios and cases). I don’t think you can just say “it is hard to know the motives and intentions of others and this is usually necessary for determining the requisite degree of wrongness or culpability with much certainty” to establish a near-universal anti-canceling presumption (and I take it that Vallier’s move is something like this).
What is at least as interesting to me is the ways that canceling (in something like the sense that I have defined it) can be blameworthy, not just objectively incorrect (or likely incorrect). One might be culpably epistemically sloppy in one’s moral judgment due to simple inattention or the like. That is not so bad, just a little bit so and in this case it is pretty easy to correct one’s own error, bring others around, etc. What is worse, and a bigger problem, is when the epistemic error/overconfidence in moral judgment (and behavior, the selection of means) is due to either morally or personally bad motives. Here is some morally bad motivation: enjoying designating ideological or partisan enemies, meting out punishment on them, making them suffer. And here is some personally bad motivation: really needing to be certain in one’s moral judgments, being so identified with or personally committed to the specific moral values or principles one accepts that one cannot see beyond them or brook disagreement, having an ideological or partisan “side” and needing that “side” to be right about everything.
If we want to define a pejorative sense of ‘canceling’, it would involve some typical complex of bad moral and personal motivation leading to cognitive distortion and the selection of especially extreme means of ostracizing, punishing, etc. It might also, as Vallier helpfully suggests in the characterization that you quote, have an element of (roughly speaking) class struggle or of contesting what the dominant norms of some larger group are to be. In the wild, many such cases will probably be mixed with admirable clean-hands sorts of motivations (and the line between dissociative and ostracizing behavior might be blurred as well).
Though I don’t have a characterization of cancel *culture* in either a value-neutral or pejorative sense, I suspect that the right bad sort of social phenomenon would involve something like an implicit consensus of morally and personally bad motivation in a group of people and this supporting likely erroneous moral judgments and the condoning of likely-excessive (as well as inapt) ostracizing, punishing, etc. Features of position in moral/social contention over dominant norms in a salient group might be part of the phenomenon as well. In any case, we should be able to apply precise concepts characterizing these forms of error to both the blustery-righteous canceling behavior of many right-wing U.S.A. patriots and the dead-serious righteous canceling of our left-wing “social justice warriors” (not to mention all of the present-day and historical religious fanatics).
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I don’t think Vallier offers a definition of “canceling” or “cancel culture.” He simply claims that if X is canceling Y, X must regard Y as (a) morally culpable, and (b) the culpability has to merit or deserve cancellation. Most of his post is an expression of skepticism or the need for humility regarding (a) and (b). In other we rarely know when people are morally culpable, and rarely know that their culpability is bad enough to merit cancellation.
As I said to a previous commentator, this doesn’t really come clean on whether Vallier accepts the legitimacy of cancellation in the clear cases, or whether there are clear cases. Officially, his view is that cancellation is justified “if the cancelee is reasonably thought to hold the forbidden position based on some kind of moral vice, rather than an innocent mistake.” That implies that some cancellations are justified. But his overall criticism of cancel culture doesn’t make sense unless we assume that cancel culture largely, generally, mostly consists of unreasonable people who are canceling unreasonably.
I am skeptical that this reflects any actual as opposed to notional or handwaving calculation of the ratio of apt to total cancellations. He says that the ratio is hard to determine. But I think his argument presupposes a ratio that’s unfavorable to cancellation (in other words, a high rate of non-apt to apt cancellations). What would become of his argument if the ratio of apt to total cancellations was 50:1? What sense would it make to insist on that assumption that generally, we should avoid cancellation?
The presupposition behind Vallier’s post is that the ratio is more like 1:50–1 apt cancellations for every 50 cancellations, meaning that 49/50 of them are bad, or non-apt. But if Vallier really wants to be agnostic about the ratios, his injunction against cancellations make no sense. What sense would it make to say, “Hey, most cancellations might well be apt, but avoid them! Because if they are, there’s a really good chance that your cancellation will be apt, too! So avoid it!”
Anyway, read him, so you can judge whether I’m misreading or not.
Your proposed definition is not a definition of “cancellation,” but a definition of the wrongful species of cancellation. That’s not just a throwaway logical point, or just a matter of merely tweaking the definition. It suggests to me that you’re fixating too narrowly on the wrongful species without looking at the broader picture. The issue here is not,”Let’s come up with a vocabulary by which to bash cancelers on the head.” The issue is, “What is cancellation, and why do people engage in it, whether rightly or wrongly?” The problem is not just that your definition bakes wrongfulness and false belief into the definition of “cancellation,” but that it seems to me that you’re restricting your focus to those sorts of cancellations as though no others existed.
Beyond that, your definition sets the bar way (way) too high for something to count as a rightful or apt cancellation:
That italicized phrase, tho. Why do the perceived infractions have to be “clearly and obviously severe”? Why can’t they just be plain old infractions, sufficiently severe as to merit a response, but not “severe” relative to the worst things out there? And why “clearly and obviously”? Why isn’t it sufficient for the cancelers to be epistemically justified in their beliefs?
In other words, if me and my cancel-buds see something immoral out there, and it’s not just some petty thing, but something relatively serious, and we justifiably believe that action has to be taken with respect to it, why isn’t that enough to cancel it? Since this is entirely abstract, I haven’t specified what we’re going to do. Just assume a principle of proportionality, and throw it into the mix.
In that case, what’s the problem? It seems to me that a problem only arises if one conceptualizes “cancellation” as the kind of thing that isn’t or somehow can’t be subject to a proportionality constraint. The rationale for thinking of it that way consists of very broad generalizations about the kinds of people who populate “cancel culture,” i.e., mean and uncivilized people (mostly leftists), who operate by no known rules of engagement. But this just seems like bad sociology driving bad moral theorizing in the service of bad propaganda. Judgmental, I know, but I’m open to other suggestions.
As I’ve said, I don’t think cancellation requires an ascription of culpability or a desire to punish in the retributivist sense of punishment. You can have cancellation if you publicly withdraw support from something harmful. One person can initiate it on her own, or she can join others and do it collectively. Imagine that I go to my local diner and discover that the waitresses (aka “servers”) are required to wear really revealing outfits with silly bits of flare attached to them, like a hybrid of Hooters and Office Space. This offends me, so I speak to the manager. He tells me it’s a free country and I can go fuck myself. So I say, “OK, fuck you then!” and publicly call for a boycott of the diner until it changes it ways.
I take that to be a cancellation. The offense is not particularly severe; it doesn’t have to be. The response isn’t particularly severe, either, especially on my budget; it doesn’t have to be. The manager may or may not be culpable; it doesn’t matter. I simply want, publicly, to withdraw my support from the establishment, do so, and proclaim that act to the world so that they’ll join me. What makes the act a “cancellation” is its public quality. A purely private act that you keep to yourself is not a cancellation. But public withdrawal of support from a harmful or wrongheaded practice is sufficient for cancellation, usually accompanied by a public explanation of what’s harmful or wrongheaded about the practice.
As for the clean hands motivation, I think it’s very common. Think of how often people will say, “I don’t want my tax dollars to be used for X.” That’s an expression of a clean hands motivation. Now take a situation in which cancellation is a tactic in a campaign to stop funding X. There you go: cancellation in the service of clean hands. Half of BDS works that way.
Here’s an example. Suppose I’m against the common practice of local police departments getting SWAT training in Israel through the Israel Defense Forces. Suppose that my local police department participates in such a program. Now suppose that the local PBA or PAL asks me for a donation. I say, “Well, I can’t support you unless you stop training with the IDF.” They say, “Sorry, that’s policy. We can’t change it. Like it or not, we’re training with the IDF.” Suppose that instead of merely refusing their solicitation, I mount a campaign to convince my neighbors not to contribute to the PBA and PAL. I readily admit that the police department isn’t culpable. They’re just wrongheaded. Still, I’m not going to support something that wrongheaded. Maybe, once they see how serious I am about what I’m saying (taking how successful my campaign is as a rough proxy for that), they’ll take my arguments more seriously. But for now, I want to keep my moral distance from them, and induce others to do the same.
Incidentally, in saying that an ascription of culpability isn’t a necessary condition for cancellation, I don’t mean to imply that culpability is never relevant. Obviously, some things are culpable, and it can be entirely legitimate to up the ante when they are. As I said, I’m not as skeptical as Vallier about culpability. I live in New Jersey. All I have to do is get in the car and drive for five minutes, and I’ll encounter culpability.
You could insist that cancellation should come as a last resort, or at least after some concerted effort to mount an argument. I can live with that. But Vallier’s claim is stronger, and strikes me as very ingenuous about how arguments work in political life:
People in power have no incentive to listen to your arguments until you give them an incentive to wake the fuck up and listen to you. Sometimes canceling them is the only way to do that. Valllier’s advice here strikes me as exactly back to front: he’s urging us to be “wary” of the least powerful people in our polity, while urging on them a mode of political engagement that plays right into the hands of the powerful. “Argue but be wary of canceling” is like saying, “Argue and be prepared to be ignored forever.”
That’s not how politics works. Political activism is a thankless-enough endeavor when practiced a lot more aggressively than Vallier suggests. Practiced as he suggests, it’s a recipe for endless frustration and ultimate failure. You might as well advise workers to “argue” with bosses but deprive them of the right to strike. Or tell litigants to argue one another into settlements but forswear lawsuits. Or send argumentative letters to your local US Army recruiting station–rather than picketing it and advising people not to go inside–to avoid conveying the impression that the US Army might in some sense be culpable of something. I’m not advocating violence, but in the clutch cases, every weapon short of violence has to be on the table. The Owl of Minerva can afford to take flight at dusk, but if you’re not the Owl of Minerva, you need better alternatives. And most of us aren’t.
I’ve granted that there are problematic forms of cancellation–cancellation gone wrong. So I take your point about badly motivated cancellations. I agree that they exist, and agree that they’re wrong. But I think the focus on that is severely overdone. My objection is that the discussion of “cancel culture” now seems to revolve around cancellations gone wrong, which are then conflated with “cancellation” as such, which are then discussed in terms of some phantom thing, “cancel culture.”
But there is, I insist, such a thing as cancellation gone right. I’ve done some. And I look forward to doing some more.
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The key thing is defining ‘canceling’. My proposed definition is an attempt to find something that fits the bill for what the right-wingers are complaining about, but is not just a grab-bag of partisan grievances. I don’t take the sort of canceling I specify to be inherently wrong or bad, just something that has high moral costs and should be engaged in only rarely. That’s the bill that needs to be fit and my definition is an attempt to fit it. That’s consistent not only with dissociative behaviors motivated by “clean hands” considerations often being justified, but also with other forms of disincentivizing or punishing moral misbehavior being justified (rightly, you focus on this — moral sanction, even severe moral sanction, often serves a good purpose). By my way of thinking, the idea is just that there is a way of filling in the specifics of ‘obvious enough’ and ‘serious enough moral infraction’ such that we get justified ostracism or severe punishment (but only rarely). I guess this would not be an interesting category if moral sanctioning were an entirely morally unproblematic affair? But since the antecedent here is false, the category is interesting. But we do need to fill in the schematic bits to apply it at all. I think you are using ‘canceling’ to refer to a broader category of social/moral regulation or sanction than I am. That’s fine. We just need distinct terms for the narrower and broader phenomena. (Also there might be a better way of fitting the bill that I am trying to fit here than what I have offered. Not at all wedded to my definition.)
I think that presupposes what I’m denying. It presupposes that what right-wingers are complaining about actually has some unity that ought to provide the basis of a definition. I doubt that. Since I regard the political right as a bunch of opportunistic whiners, I don’t see any reason to believe that their use of “cancel” tracks some consistent phenomenon in the world.
My approach is to say: forget them. “Cancellation” is a narrow, tendentious term that’s now being used to describe a much broader, perfectly familiar phenomenon: adversarial political activism. The only novel feature of cancellation (as far as I can see) is that the Internet has generated new ways of engaging in adversarial political activism. Maybe we need a new term to capture this fact, but the relevant way of understanding the phenomenon is not to ask, “What is the Right condemning, and how do we generate a definition that captures it?” It’s: “What in general are the features of adversarial political activism, and how has the Internet and social media changed the way it works?”
One thing that I find particularly problematic about the terms “cancel” and “cancel culture” is the unargued supposition (in the minds of those who throw these terms around) that we’re witnessing something totally novel. No, we’re witnessing an age-old phenomenon being implemented with new technology. How are today’s “cancel warriors” fundamentally different from, say, the feminists of a few decades ago (Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin) who wanted legal constraints imposed on pornography, and picketed stores where porn was sold? How are they different from Operation Rescue, which picketed Planned Parenthood every week, and tried to cajole women into not having abortions?
How are they different from any union organizing a strike, hauling out The Rat, creating a picket line, and picketing their workplace? How are they different from the anti-war protesters of the 1960s, who burned draft cards, picketed and occasionally vandalized recruiting stations, and wanted to boycott the military-industrial complex? If these activists had had access to the Internet in their day, they would just have had another outlet for doing what they were doing. Were they all part of “cancel culture”? In that case, cancel culture dates back to the 1960s. And yet “cancel culture” is supposed to name something distinctive to the twenty-teens.
I’ve heard people say that what’s distinctive to cancel culture is its focus on employment: cancel culture is about canceling people’s jobs. Right. So the paradigm of cancel culture is HR?
The first large scale political event to make essential use of social media was the Arab Spring. Does this mean that the Arab Spring was an instance of “cancel culture”?
The Arab Spring involved outright urban warfare. The people “canceled” in it didn’t just lose their jobs; they were killed. And it didn’t just involve a few marginal events on a bunch of elite university campuses, along with a few mostly ineffective attacks on celebrities. It was a mass uprising across several countries and two continents, involving millions of people. Yet no one discussing “cancel culture” in the contemporary debate regards it as natural to refer to the Arab Spring as an instance of cancel culture. Their idea of cancel culture is a momentary dip in Tucker Carlson’s ratings, or somebody knocking down a statue. The whole thing just strikes me as an institutionalization of right-wing parochialism, as though their latest whine-fests should become the basis of a whole semantics.
Here is Ross Douthat’s definition of “cancellation” (from the article linked below):
Again, why the narrow focus on employment? What about an attack on someone’s life? When the Iranians issued their fatwa on Salman Rushdie, wasn’t that “cancel culture”? Recall that someone killed one of Rushdie’s translators. I mean, I guess that was an attack on his employment. But it seems more natural to call it “murder.”
To answer my own question: as I see it, Douthat’s narrow focus on unemployment arises because he’s thinking in parochial and partisan terms. He’s taking the preoccupations of the American Right as his starting point, and trying to provide a semi-rational framework for running with it. But if you reject both the parochialism and the partisanship, you’ll want to put the narrow fixation into a broader historical and geographical context.
Hence my insistence that if we want to come up with a definition of “cancellation,” we focus as much on the apt as the non-apt cases. Your definition is consistent with the apt cases, but it takes the non-apt cases as paradigmatic of the phenomenon. It implies by default that the costs of cancelling are so high that cancelling should be “indulged” only rarely. It doesn’t take seriously the costs of political indifference or apathy, or the dangers that “cancel warriors” are trying to address. Imagine a debate among Germans in 1931 focused obsessively on the costs of firing and ostracizing Nazis, but unwilling to consider the possibility that in maybe two years, these people will take over and create a totalitarian state.
I suspect that reactions to “cancel culture” are a function of reactions to Trump. My relative sympathy for cancel culture (i.e., for people who cancel a lot) arises from the conviction that Trump is a fascist, and that under his regime, we’re headed for all-out fascism. The costs of cancellation are trivial as compared with the stakes of indifference to that outcome. They’re like the pointless squabbles of the nationalist Right and social democratic Left in Weimar Germany, focused on minutiae while the Nazis took over. And since “cancel culture” usually refers to the left, I guess I’ll just come out and say that I don’t regard the threat posed by the American left as remotely comparable to the threat posed by the right. I don’t say that as a leftist myself. I say it as someone apprehensive about being swallowed alive by the right-wing lunatics running this country.
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I like thinking of this in terms of adversarial politics (and how this can be a necessary, good thing if done well and for the right causes). Canceling would be a particular move in this — and a move that can be inappropriate and wrong in some cases that are worth spelling out. I agree that the focus on employment is too narrow. For one thing, institutions as well as people can be cancelled (at least I think this tracks the use of the term). I don’t think there is anything wrong with a circumstance-bound concept (as I take “cancel culture” to be). But such a concept will need a framework of more general concepts for sure. I think a good response to the butt-hurt right-wingers is ‘what do you mean?’ and ‘how is this different from civil rights boycotts, etc.?’. But I also think the butt-hurt righties are right about some of the attitudes (and tactics) being excessive — and that their butt-hurt-ness sometimes reflects being on the receiving end of a righteous arrogance that flies in the face of the mutual respect that citizens owe each other (and that is easily, and sometimes not inaccurately, framed in their familiar friend-or-enemy framing).
I’m not sure how well this tracks the language of cancellation, but what I find most objectionable about many present left-wing attitudes and strategies is premature assumptions of moral (and factual) correctness and using this to justify pretty extreme measures that go well beyond getting people’s attention, etc. (like getting people fired for using not-approved-of-by-them words on some occasion, demanding public confession and apology for such trumped-up sins, etc.). Not to mention rioting or excusing half-assed violent-revolutionary pretending that can get people killed. This is an obnoxious sort of moralistic error that can (and sometimes is) used to justify extreme measures, including violence. I’m more offended by this than most right-wing idiocy (which I laugh at — and sometimes partially excuse as a response from left-wing or elite arrogance). Of course, my personal moral reactions might not very well track which group is, right now, more likely to do more damage to our liberal democracy. And I don’t think anyone really knows the right answer to that question. We can make our best guesses, but I think these guesses are likely to be fatally colored by what offends us most (and this will inevitably reflect personal life-experiences and optional weightings of competing moral values).
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Yeah, I basically agree with that. I would, however, say two things about butthurt righties. First of all, nothing in so-called “cancel culture” compares to the outright legislative assault that right-wing legislators have mounted against BDS. So if righties are entitled to their butthurt, so are advocates of BDS–and then some.
Also, as this article points out, there is no dearth of right-wing cancellations out there.
In light of this, it’s a little puzzling (and suspicious) that “cancel culture” is automatically assumed to be a left-wing phenomenon. I don’t dispute that it comes in left-wing flavors:
But it comes in right-wing flavors, too:
As I think you know, my job at Felician was effectively cancelled by a Trump supporter, and my arrest on gun charges was not motivated by left-wing concerns. People like Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein have lost their jobs to right-wing mobs.
It’d be one thing if butthurt righties would acknowledge the validity of such cases, but I haven’t seen much evidence that they do.
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I think the right has something more specific in mind. Maybe something like this: moralistic ostracism, mobbing, destruction of symbols and institutions in the service of moralistic extremism (exaggerated or false moral judgment, excessive moralistic zeal, excessive means). The more-specific present-circumstances-rooted concept, I suppose, would cite the specifics of left-wing ideology on race, sex, and identity politics and the familiar over-the-top thought-police-y, anti-free-speech tactics for inculcating/enforcing this ideology or its demands. I suppose cancel culture would be the acceptance and encouragement of such things in the leftist camp, though you’d have to fill in details here. I do think it is worth fishing out the legitimate concepts (and concerns) — especially the more universal ones that would yield right-wing as well as left-wing canceling-type mindsets and behaviors — from the undeniable partisan cherry-picking (and for this reason and purpose, one is much better off taking in some of the better IDW material than, say, PJ Media material).
I’m sure I agree with a lot of conservatives about cases, e.g., the Christakis incident at Yale, Charles Murray being shouted down at Middlebury, the demand for Bret Weinstein’s resignation at Evergreen, the demand for Williamjames Hoffer’s resignation at Seton Hall, etc. etc.. I had planned to invite Hoffer and Mark Bray (of Antifa) to have a conversation at Felician this fall about free speech and related issues on college campuses.
But that’s incidental agreement. I’ve lost all respect for the American Right, whether in its conservative or its libertarian varieties. And it’s not just their allegiance to religion, or their support for paternalistic legislation that I find problematic–the two stand-by criticisms from “the old days.” It’s the whole package. Apart from a tiny handful of genuine Never Trumpers, the American right collapsed into a groveling heap the minute Donald Trump made his appearance. They’ve had five years to get their shit together, and conspicuously haven’t. After bragging for so long that they would be the first to challenge any form of authoritarianism, left or right, it’s become obvious that the whole movement was basically full of shit from A to Z, and that every accusation the left had made about them turned out to be correct: they really were a bunch of incipient fascists. There’s just no other description for their acquiescence in the Trump presidency but opportunistic cowardice.
How hard would it be for conservatives to condemn something like this?
A university campus is not a shooting range. Leave the fucking gun at home. The defenders of “civility” have no problem with students bringing AR-15s to campus.
Coming the other way around, what have conservatives done on par with the leftists who have infiltrated white nationalist organizations, doxed their leaders, and canceled them?
You hear these conservatives banging on about the evils of Antifa, and about the death of “honor” and “valor,” and so on. But you don’t see right-wingers crusading to de-platform white nationalists, or trying to infiltrate their organizations. No, you see the Right wringing its hands about the horrors of leftist “cancel culture,” leaving the leftists the job of dealing with the hard right.
What about the horrors of a white nationalist movement intent on starting a race war and creating a white separatist nation in the American northwest? It’s through left activism–Antifa activism–that our old “buddy” Greg has been de-platformed, and spends half of his time groveling for money.
I guess what I want to ask the anti-canceller types is: fine, let’s agree to put cancel culture on the shelf, including the SPLC, an old and venerable cancel culture institution.
What is it that they propose to do? What plan of action do they have in mind?
Well, let’s see. According to Jason Brennan, most of us shouldn’t vote. According to Chris Freiman, it’s OK to be indifferent to politics–including, I suppose, the rise of fascism. According to Bas Van der Vossen, academics should confine their efforts to the ivory tower. According to Kevin Vallier, we should all avoid cancel culture: no doxing, no cancelling, no uncharitable attributions of culpability to the white nationalist movement, and, I guess, no secret infiltrations. We should “argue” Greg Johnson into Rawlsian liberalism. Yeah–good luck with that. Add it up, and the message might as well read: feel free to fall asleep!
Someone might say that these guys aren’t representative of the Right, but I’d say they’re better than most of the Right. And this is what they’re coming up with. Not one workable, feasible, realistic real-time proposal for actual resistance to a growing fascist movement. Just carping criticisms, and injunctions to apathy, complacency, and inaction.
A decade ago, conservatives like Jonah Goldberg were selling books to right wing readers, promoting the thesis that Sonia Sotomayor was the face of the coming “liberal fascism.”
Sonia Sotomayor, jackbooted fascist presiding over the Latina-run concentration camps. Yeah, that prediction panned out. And what is National Review worried about now? Biden’s links to…BLM.
So what does NR think about white nationalism? Basically, that it doesn’t exist, isn’t a threat, and nothing has to be done about it.
Basically, the Right wants to pretend that Antifa and cancellation are the problem we face, when Antifa and cancellation are the beginnings of a solution to the problem we face. The problem is our descent into right-wing, not left-wing fascism. The Right has nothing to offer in the way of a response except to advise us to take a plastic butter knife to a gun fight. With every passing day, the “ominous parallels” to Weimar Germany become more obvious and more convincing.
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Brief response to your Sept. 7, 3:20 pm post…
I think it is hard to figure out just which problems we face are the biggest ones. That is partly, perhaps largely, an empirical matter and I can only make my best guesses. I’m an expert at what offends me — and this will color what I think is likely to happen with white nationalism, bad versions of left-wing canceling or cancel culture, “fascism,” etc.
I think Trump has come and will go (maybe in four years rather than soon), leaving a Republican party that is more sensibly aligned with cultural and economic populism. I think the biggest problem we face is simply the country flying apart into different warring factions — the end result being utter dysfunction, partisan street-fighting, etc., one side eventually winning and imposing its vision. I think the fundamental psychological driver of this is somewhat-misplaced and definitely-too-pervasive righteous intolerance on the part of the left. The right is used to losing but also, in many important ways, being pulled along toward something better. But they don’t want to go too fast and they don’t want to be humiliated in the process.
Part of the problem here is the democratization of moralistic activism. Before, when the left picked its battles — when it was as much time to make a ruckus of some sort or another not have a debate — it did so within elite circles of journalism, politics, think-tanks, universities. There was a shared context, trust, interest. Today, everyone can be an activist — and get drunk on their own moral righteousness — and the crusading folks are often engaged with strangers that they can assume the worst of with impunity. The result is successive in-your-face moral crusades that you cannot get away from — and moral “flash mobs” if you say or do the wrong thing. This can as much stoke unnecessary strife as promote progress. Though there is some blame here, I don’t want to blame the left too much. Yes, they should see that they are caught up in a fundamentally intolerant, public-strife-producing dynamic, but this dynamic is powerful and a very natural thing for us humans to get sucked into. Moral outrage is fun! Punishing infidels is fun!
White nationalism? I don’t know the numbers here or their rate of increase, but things I’ve read and trust indicate that there are not very many such folks. Offensive, yes. Likely to become a big problem for the country? No. I do wish Republicans would more consistently and visibly police this stuff as it is broadly “on their side” and they need to speak better to the historical injustice of literal white supremacy.
I worry that the left has framed the important racial-inequality issues in the country in an unrealistic way.
I would put the good common ground as follows: to heal and make amends as a country from a history of vicious racial oppression, we more or less set out the goals, post-civil-rights-movement, of racial integration and of having a broad road to the middle class for black Americans. But not too many Jeffersons’ “moved on up” and our primary and secondary schools are still effectively segregated. We need to fix this, but we cannot agree on how or why this happened, its precise moral status, how to apportion blame, or generally what to do about it. We need to find common ground, get enough buy-in from enough groups or interests, and do something. Here is a boring schematic suggestion: rethink how local control and funding of secondary education (and authority over zoning) works and come up with changes that (a) promote opportunity for the least well off, (b) encourage residential and social mixing between races and classes and (c) provide equal, high-quality educational opportunity for each child, regardless of zip code. I can think of very Democratic and pretty Republican ways of working toward these sorts of policy goals. Instead, Republicans have their heads in the sand and get baited into white class-consciousness and resentment, while Democrats posture with generations-old symbols and framings, insist on the fantasy of “white supremacy” held in place by middle-class stereotypes and “microaggressions,” and unimaginatively preside over some of the very worst conditions that black Americans face.
And I pretty much agree with your points and your general take on the cited cases.
I don’t have time to respond to your Sept 9 comment, except to say that I agree with the proposal, disagree with the rest, hereby label you a running dog reactionary of proto-fascism, and will be directing a moralistic flash mob to gather in front of your door when I get the chance. Ideally one led by Derek Bowman.
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What day works best with your schedule?
So I sit down and look at my phone for a minute, and out pops the perfect example–cancellation gone right. Not hard to find, honestly. Just under-acknowledged.
Take just this one cancellation described in an Op-Ed in the New York Times today (link below):
This happened in 2017. In 2017, the CEO of the Disney Corporation was Robert Iger, a highly educated man worth millions of dollars, with a long career in media. I find it very, very difficult to imagine a non-culpable rationale for his wanting to trademark the phrase “Day of the Dead.”
But let that go. Suffice it to say that the idea is very wrongheaded, and that if I were a Latino parent (or any kind of parent), I would be mortified to have my child come home and demand that I buy Disney paraphernalia that contributes to an endeavor that includes the trademarking of “Day of the Dead.”
I’ve seen a lot of libertarians (cough Jason Brennan cough) pooh-pooh the idea that cultural appropriation is a big deal. And I agree, sometimes it isn’t. But sometimes it is–as it is here. The attempt to trademark someone’s cultural heritage amounts to the literal appropriation of a piece of their culture, and (I would say) involves a very cynical use of the power of the state to safeguard one’s investment in that appropriation. But forget culpable motivations. Just imagine parents who want to keep their hands clean of what Disney is doing, and resent the fact that they’re constantly subjected to ad campaigns designed to stimulate their kids’ demand for Disney products. It’s not easy to be a parent and build a firewall against Disney, no matter how hard you try.
So what to do? The kid comes home and demands some Disney toy. You say no. It happens again, You say no. You talk to other parents; they’re facing the same issue. For awhile, you keep saying no, and keep meeting uncomprehending tears.
And so on. Not a healthy family dynamic.
You could view the issue in this narrow way: as a matter of each individual parent’s saying “no” on each occasion that the child demands a Disney toy. But you could also see the issue from the wider perspective that the Chicano activists took. So you go to Disney, and say, “With all due respect, Mr Iger, this is inappropriate; please stop. It is very insulting for you to trademark a piece of Mexican heritage…[followed by arguments worthy of publication in Ethics].” You give them great arguments, all subject to the provisos of Rawlsian public reason. And guess what? They don’t give a flying fuck about a word you’ve said. They listen politely. They pretend to care. Then they ask you to leave, and they proceed with their plan.
Now what? I literally don’t understand what anti-cancel types think happens next. Should the parents and activists just give up with a big collective sigh? Get themselves all twisted in knots about whether they have standing to judge the culpability of Bob Iger and his phalanxes of attorneys and advisers? Break down and buy the toys? Find a way to cancel their kids instead of Disney?
I don’t see why it’s wrong for some of these parents to think, “I’m not going to sit here and put up with this shit!” and then act accordingly. Thus begins a campaign of cancellation. I haven’t seen “Coco,” and don’t ever intend to, but in this case, the cancellation appears to have had a happy ending. Instead of crapping so much on cancel culture, maybe its critics should look more carefully at some of these success stories, ask why they arose, and ask why they succeeded. As it stands, they just seem to be expressing a lot of butthurt about cherry picked examples of mean leftists, and letting the Bob Igers of the world get away with anything they please. The American left certainly has its problems (existence being one of the bigger ones), but those problems are not comparable in scope, duration, or intensity to the problems created by the Bob Igers of the world.
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I agree that there are many cases of moral activism that use non-logical, non-argumentative tactics to get people to stop doing wrong things or notice morally salient things that they should notice. The question is the ethics of… moral practice. It’s not all “argument from moral intimidation” (though there is quite a bit of that), but, to the extent that respecting personal autonomy and free thinking is important (as on libertarian views, at least the ethically deep ones), the moral-social incentives we offer each other are always potentially problematic — at least when compared to rational argumentation. At the extreme, these are a genus of the species force-initiation because they by-pass our rational faculties and our executive decision-making. Now I think this line of argumentation is way too simple, but there is something to it. (Maybe the right answer is that this personal autonomy libertarian-esque standpoint is entirely bullshit? Maybe we are programmed by culture and the smart vanguard needs to control the process so that we are programmed correctly. Maybe we need to be made to respond to the right things in the right ways — regardless of our recalcitrant willfulness and need to be fucking individuals. I’m stating this in slightly crazy terms, but I think there is something to this.)
If I were a Latino parent, I would want Day of the Dead to be portrayed authentically — and not want the phrase to be usurped for financial gain (or for any other reason) via ridiculous copyright law. If Disney does a good, respectful job and my kid wanted to see their stuff, fine. But I’d have a personal stake in lobbying against copyright law operating this way and against this particular use of it. Whether or not we call it canceling, my lobbying behavior would involve things like moral condemnation (and this is not exactly fit for addressing anyone’s autonomous rational agency or anything like that). I wouldn’t particularly worry about minute financial contributions to Disney if the films were good (and accurately-enough portrayed my culture, certainly did not insult it) and my kid was excited to go see them.
(I found the Times article to have quite a bit of super-annoying identity-victimization-politics crap. Just-so stories about dominant-culture (“white”) oppression — present-day, not the historical clear injustices — assumed. Why not marginal, hard-to-correct issues in social power and unjust outcomes — and high moral and pragmatic costs to giving this center stage socially, in terms of undermined social unity (or common culture) and victim plus collective guilt mentalities and dynamics? Or why not some messy thing in between these two alternatives? I look for the pearls, I really do, but my brain just shuts off when I read such polemics-infused news stories. Still, yeah: Disney, boo, hiss!)
In order to lobby someone, you need leverage. If you lack leverage, they won’t listen to you. If they don’t listen to you, it won’t matter how good your arguments are. They won’t be heard. Arguments that aren’t heard are epiphenomenal, and in politics, some synonyms for “epiphenomenal” are “marginal,” “irrelevant,” “powerless,” and “victimized.” There’s nothing irrational or force-wielding about getting the attention of the people whose attention is instrumental to your ends. If you do it as part of a rational strategy, it isn’t irrational. And if you abjure force or deception, I don’t see how those issues arise.
But I don’t think you’re taking seriously the predicament of the activists from that story. You say that confronted by that scenario (Disney trademarking “The Day of the Dead”) you would “lobby” Disney to do otherwise. How? Why would Disney even field a phone call from Miguel Joven, much less one lobbying them to drop their highly lucrative, legally bulletproof plan to trademark “The Day of the Dead”? You need to give them an incentive for taking you seriously before you start lobbying them. Or else what would the lobbying even look like? You send Robert Iger an email? You call the front desk and ask for him?
If you’re going to take on a corporation with a net worth of $130 billion, and all the PR hustlers and attorneys that money can buy, you need the moral equivalent of an army. As in any negotiation, you need to convince the other side, up front, that if they don’t pay attention to you, they’ll suffer for it, but if they do, they’ll profit. You’re never going to have a net worth of $130 billion, so you need an asset that’s competitive with it. A boycott is an obvious asset: it calls attention to your cause, and potentially reduces their net worth. That evens the playing field, so a negotiation can get started. The parents’ resolution not to buy Disney isn’t some irrational fixation; it’s part of a general boycott strategy that only works if you eliminate or minimize free riders. Obviously, if you support the cause, you can’t be a free rider yourself.
I’m willing to overlook every problematic feature of that article for this one lesson: it is possible to take on the Disney corporation and win. You don’t need $130 billion. You just need to know what you’re doing.
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What I was getting at (perhaps a bit inaccurately) with ‘lobbying’ was more like standing up, to Disney, for my values. And signing on to any efforts to change copyright law in relevant ways. Perhaps there would be no effective action to take (as far as my values being realized in the world or not), but I would say my piece, issue appropriate moral judgments/condemnations, etc. I agree with what you say about how moral rhetoric, public embarrassment, boycotts, etc. are often necessary for bringing about change. The same strategies work, when you are wrong or overreaching, for running a successful extortion (of the “moral intimidation” sort).
If you think concretely and practically about your lobbying effort against Disney, I think it’s clear that it’s foredoomed to failure at step one. You say that you’d “say your piece” to Disney. How? If they have no incentive to listen, your lobbying effort will disappear into the ether and be forgotten the minute you hit “send.” In that case, what was the point of sending it?
I agree that the same strategies that can be used properly can be used improperly. And the same strategies that can be used with good motivations can be used with bad ones. But you could say that about anything.
Imagine that someone produced a notion called “discourse culture,” which identified “discourse” with lying and deception, fixating obsessively only on such things ,and advising people to avoid “discourse culture,” because given human fallibility, it’s hard to avoid asserting falsehoods, and a propensity to assert falsehoods can easily become a tendency to deceive. So he advises people to adopt vows of silence. Imagine that the same person professed to being agnostic about the ratio of true to false assertions, but felt such overwhelming horror at the assertion of falsehood that he doubled down on his advice: “My God, stop talking! Or at least avoid it!” And yet had no parallel worries about the dangers of voicelessness.
Sounds absurd, right? I hope so.
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Yes, quite absurd. The important thing is, in the case of each particular sort of moralistic maneuver (and we’ll need at least something of a valid categorization of these), to say when the use is good and bad, effective and ineffective, morally permissible or impermissible. (Also concerned here about individual motivation and action, not culture.)
As for my hypothetical “lobbying.” I’m imagining my interactions with Disney would be symbolic and expressive (but not thereby unimportant). Maybe I’d write a letter to the editor and a longer, less polite letter to Disney, stating my case and lodging my objections. Not fully in seminar-room mode! But without aiming for any practical effect here, I guess this does not really count as lobbying.
The more-like-lobbying part would be donating to relevant copyright law reform causes. Perhaps I’d begin donating to the Institute for Justice (assuming they advocate the right reforms and do the right sort of work) out of such an experience. This is a minimal practical response. It is minimal, not maximal. But I think such a response is perfectly permissible (and maybe even in the circumstances morally best, though I’d certainly have to argue that). So I’m really just stating my morally permissible (and also I would say not morally bad) preference for minimal practical action. (The symbolic/expressive “standing up for myself” or “standing up for what I believe in” part feels more mandatory to me, though I’m unclear enough on what being mandatory in such a context is that I’m not sure I’d even say that doing this is mandatory. Maybe it is.) I think it is good that someone takes it upon themselves to get Disney to change what they are doing — and if they need to use tactics that are primarily tactics of moral embarrassment that would be okay. I would — and do — cheer.
I went back and re-read the NYT Op-Ed about Latinos and the culture war, and I have to say I’m totally baffled by your response to it. For one thing, it’s an Op-Ed, not a news story. For another, I don’t get what’s objectionable about what the authors say. I have some disagreements, to be sure. For instance, I don’t agree with their hiring proposals. And I have some uncertainties: I’m skeptical that it’s a good idea to go after the stereotypes depicted in a novel. But then, I haven’t read the novel they mention, American Dirt, so I can’t really say.
I fixated on the “Day of the Dead” example in my comment above, but on re-reading it, it occurs to me that they actually come up with some other, equally valuable examples, some of which, arguably, involve successful (and justifiable) instances of cancellation–at least on what strikes me as a plausible account of what it’s supposed to be.
One example is how TV crime shows misrepresent people of color. They point out that activists went after “Cops” and shut it down. That isn’t precisely why I would have gone after “Cops,” but I think it’s a win that they shut it down. Is Vallier objecting to that? If so, is his claim that “Cops” was unobjectionable? How would he propose “arguing” with its producers so as to induce real change? From what I can see, critics of “cancel culture” are better at punting on these questions than they are on even clarifying what they’re talking about. Their claims only make sense if socio-political change is a dispensable luxury. But it isn’t.
Another example is Presente.org’s campaign to get Lou Dobbs off of CNN for being anti-Latino. Lou Dobbs is anti-Latino. He’s also a dishonest piece of shit. I would challenge Kevin Vallier or any critic of cancel culture to do some research on Dobbs’s journalistic career–read his past statements, watch his show night after night in its entirety for, say, a whole month–and claim to be skeptical about his culpability.
I don’t think this is all that controversial or tough a call: Dobbs is a hack, and a propagandist for the Trump administration. No one should have sympathy for such a person, and no one should hire him in a journalistic capacity. If cancel culture warriors organized to fuck his career up beyond recognition, and make him unemployable for the rest of his life, I would support it. If they organized to dox him, and (within the limits of the law) protested by his house, every day, day after day, calling him a liar and a shill for fascism, I would support that. If I had the time and resources, I would do it myself. You can’t fight fascism by the methods appropriate to a graduate seminar. Whatever my disagreements with them, Berry and Ramirez (the authors of the NYT Op-Ed) get that. Far too many academics, like Vallier, don’t.
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Yes, Op-Ed not a news story. As indicated in a general way, what I object to are many of the framing assumptions about what collective or institutional social oppression is and how it works, how intense it is, who (which groups) are most to blame, the moral hazards of identity politics (at least as it is presently practiced) as a solution, etc. It is easier to motivate me with specific cases — since I think most of the sweeping claims about how racist society is, whether it makes sense to speak of white supremacist ideology or anything like that being at fault, etc. are at least hard to assess (and often false on likely dominant interpretations, certainly at the popular level). I like the case of the show Cops and that getting shut down by activists. I don’t know the details of this and would like to know more. I watched the show some back in the day and sort of enjoyed it. If someone had said ‘hey, doesn’t this reinforce negative stereotypes of black folks, or young black men, and isn’t that sorta bad?’ I probably would have agreed. I’ll have to Google the details of how it got shut down by activists. I suspect that I’d end up sympathetic with the activists on this particular “canceling” (though I’m not entirely sure).
When is something morally bad enough that it should be cancelled (say in the sense of removing from society, from the public eye, etc.) and why? When might canceling attitudes and actions be impermissible or bad, even if correct or ideally justified, due to reasonable-enough disagreement in society and the need to respect this difference?
I don’t agree with your take on the Op-Ed, but discussing those details would take us too far afield, so let me set it to one side.
I was an avid watcher of “Cops” myself. My objection to it is less specifically racial than procedural. In some ways, “Cops” was a good show: it gave viewers insight into a world at a distance from most of them. The problem with it was that while it postured as a “neutral” depiction of police work, it was clearly edited and produced to function as pro-police propaganda. It made no attempt to offer a critical look at what the police did wrong. That, after all, is why it had the eager support of the police departments who allowed its camerapersons to be embedded on patrol.
At a certain point, that becomes a dishonest enterprise. The show’s producers are pretending to have a certain independence of the police departments they’re depicting, and claiming to adopt a neutral perspective on police work, but in fact, the price of their access to police departments is a tacit agreement that they’ll do free PR for the police. At that point, it becomes justified for activists to complain that they’re misleading and miseducating the public (as I think they were, and knowingly so). If the activists demand changes, and none are forthcoming, it becomes time to move to cancellation.
I used to teach CJ classes at Felician, and it was really depressing how many students came to the table with a picture of policing gleaned from shows like “Cops.” The picture was incorrigibly fucked up. Having been indoctrinated by such shows, such students saw constitutional rights as a pointless “pro-criminal” obstacle to which they were supposed to give grudging acquiescence (if that). But with amazing persistence, they failed to see constitutional requirements as law on par with “the law.” You’d have a conversation with one of these budding cops, and they’d say things like, “As a cop, I just want to enforce the law. And someone’s sitting there remaining silent gets in the way of my enforcing the law.” Hmm (I’d ask)–well, isn’t remaining silent part of the law? “No,” would come the answer, “I mean, yeah, it’s in the constitution, but I’m talking about the law. Plus, as a cop, I have discretion.” Note to self: follow his career; it’s only a matter of time before he starts wrecking lives “in the name of the law.”
Fucking “Cops.” Once you get to your nth student of this ilk, you become sympathetic to the idea of canceling “Cops.” I’m only being half facetious here. It makes things worse that cops monopolize access to the K-12 schools. When it comes to talking about “law and order,” schools habitually invite cops to speak to students, under the guise of “community policing.” The idea of inviting another side to address students is considered too “controversial” to be pulled off. So it becomes uncontroversial for cops to indoctrinate students from an early age. That, in my view, is very, very wrong, and has to stop.
I don’t really have a worked-out answer to your last question. Something becomes cancel-worthy when it becomes sufficiently harmful to have to be stopped, and the people engaging in it are (for whatever reason) fundamentally unresponsive to ordinary persuasion. Obviously, it has to be undertaken within the context of a whole raft of ethical constraints, e.g., proportionality, discrimination, good motivation, etc. And one shouldn’t over-attribute bad motivations to the other side, absence evidence to that effect. Ideally, you want to sit at a table and have conversation that leads to negotiation and settlement. But then, there’s the non-ideal case.
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Planning to reread that Op-Ed. Often, my upon-reflection views are not quite the same as my initial reactions. That might be the case here. Though I think we disagree on background conclusions regarding different sorts of broadly social or institutional injustice and how these manifest in our society, this might explain only part of our different reactions, perceptions of salience, etc.
What you say about “Cops” makes sense (though it is somewhat surprising that pro-cop bias rather than racial discrimination/stereotyping seems to have the dominant spot on your moral radar screen; I’m more friendly to this priority than the other way around, at least in a lot of ways). However, this occurs to me: if a population is pro-institutional-X, this will inevitably lead to pro-institutional-X mythologizing, etc. And this might not be all bad. Maybe this is something that helps, perhaps indispensably, with social solidarity and continuity (not having too much change too quickly in the dominant expectations and norms in a population). If this is right, then we probably have to tolerate some level of inaccuracy, irrationality and difficulty in correcting problems with X.
The question then would be when do the problems with X get so important that you have to institute reform — and, straight-up seminar-room rational measures failing, when do you need to resort to attitudes and expressions of moral shaming/intimidation (that might well land as attempts at winning a parochial conflict over what the dominant norms or way of life in society are to be, not as an expression of general moral concern). Or even more extreme measures, including violence. I agree that the best not-straight-up-seminar-room scenario is using various moralistic tactics to get attention so that something at least vaguely resembling the seminar room (or public reason) can happen because enough people are noticing the salient moral problems (when many were not before). Publicly sign-posting a clear path, at least in aspiration, to the partial/imperfect seminar-room or public-reason stage (and sign-posting a universal moral concern expressed so as not to land as a parochial or tribal-warfare tactic of moralistic domination) is, I think, usually mandatory — but it is easy for the opposite message to come through (and be sent, wittingly or not) with some of the common attitudes and practices (e.g., the literal shouting down of speakers, especially those who are serious thinkers not simply advocates or agitators themselves).
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