Cancel Culture and the Discourse of Ad Hoc-ery

Consider the following social phenomena:

  • Public denunciation or accusation
  • Boycott
  • Termination (in the context of employment)
  • Litigation
  • Regulatory proceedings (e.g., audits, sanctions, and the like)
  • Arrest (in the context of criminal proceedings)
  • Assassination

I’ve organized them in ascending order of intensity for the person on the receiving end.

Two obvious points about the items on the list: First, it’s taxing to be on the receiving end of any of these. Second, while each can be abused, no action on the list denotes abuse by definition.

When used to denote abuses, we describe each action differently:

  • Defamation or false accusation
  • An unwarranted boycott
  • An unjustified termination
  • Frivolous litigation
  • Over-regulation
  • False arrest
  • Murder

Granted, “defamation” and “murder” bake wrongness into the act itself, but that’s because we have more neutral terms, like “accusation/denunciation” or “killing,” for more neutral purposes. If every assassination entailed murder simply by definition, it would be nearly impossible to have a rational conversation about the assassinations that don’t count as murders. The supposition itself would be difficult to make. Mutatis mutandis, same with “defamation.”

No one, I think, would argue that the sheer existence of the second list entails that we should altogether do away with the actions on the first list. Even anarchists and libertarians opposed to the state (hence opposed to regulation) would have to agree that “x can be abused, hence x should be abolished” is a misinference, and not the basis of their wholesale opposition to regulation.

It’s worth noting that we don’t generally hear talk about “the culture” of any of the things on either list. At best, people sometimes describe the United States as a “litigious culture” (aka “compensation culture“). But that’s understood to be loose talk. We may live in a culture that litigates a lot, but the fact remains that most people have not been party to any significant litigation. If a literal numerical majority of the American population were to engage in litigation, the judicial system would collapse from the strain. So “culture of litigation” is at best an exaggeration or metaphor (and a classist one: how many people have the money to initiate litigation, even when they have a just and adjudicable claim?).

It’s a puzzle why “cancel culture” is an exception to these general rules. Given how its critics use it, “cancellation” is not the name of a neutral activity. Like “murder” or “defamation,” it’s the name of a wrongful act. In the case of “murder,” the neutral word is “killing.” For “defamation,” it’s either “denunciation” or “accusation.” What is the corresponding term in the case of cancellation? We don’t seem to have one. And yet those wedded to the term seem to refuse for it to be used in a morally neutral sense to denote both wrongful and rightful cancellations. They also haven’t clarified what counts as a cancellation of any kind, whether wrongful or rightful. “Cancellation” just means “wrongful cancellation,” and is by intention supposed to conjure up frightful images of speakers being shouted down by mobs. “Cancel culture” gives a further impression of ubiquity: “My God, the mobs are rampaging everywhere! No one is safe!”

Well, no one is safe from frivolous litigation or over-regulation, either, and yet you don’t see academics or journalists comparably exercised about that.

According to FBI statistics, there were about 16,000 cases of murder or manslaughter in the United States in 2018. I don’t know if anyone has taken count of the annual number of cancellations in recent years, but put it this way: suppose that there were 16,000 cancellations a year. We don’t take 16,000 murders to refer to something called “murder culture.” So why would 16,000 cases of cancellation refer to “cancel culture“? And I’m being charitable here. Who really believes that there were 16,000 morally significant cases of cancellation in 2018 (or 2019), anyway?

I don’t regard this as a coercive argument against critics of cancellation or cancel culture, but I do think it’s got to raise the price tag of the view they’re defending. There’s a trade-off between semantic ad hoc-ery and intelligibility to people outside of some very narrow social circle. Critics of cancel culture, for whatever reason, seem to have adopted the first gambit over the second. If so, they can’t blame the rest of us for wondering what they’re talking about.

I’ve got one more “cancel culture” post coming, and then I’m going to cancel myself for awhile.

And yes, I was tempted to call this post “Cancel Culture and the Culture of Ad Hoc-ery,” but I resisted the temptation. Thank me in the combox. Tips welcome.

5 thoughts on “Cancel Culture and the Discourse of Ad Hoc-ery

  1. A killing culture (a culture with lots of killings) would probably be bad or wrong and many folks would even mistakenly think of all (not just, say, most) of the killings in the killing culture as bad or wrong. But one might use ‘killing culture’ to refer not simply to a culture with lots of killings, but to a culture that, for certain suspect motivations, condoned lots of killing (or more to the point lots of impermissible killing). I suspect that ‘cancel culture’ is used in something more like this latter way (and hence might be inherently pejorative). I suppose one might use ‘canceling’ in a similar partially-motive-individuated, perhaps inherently pejorative, sense (though I’m pretty sure this is not how the term is used). But, in any case, yes, we need to have ways of talking about behaviors such as moral shaming, boycotting, etc. such that they can be either good or bad, justified or not, permissible or not.


    • Well, Catholic intellectuals often refer to the ethos of the modern world as “a culture of death” as contrasted with their preferred “culture of life,” but most non-Catholics have little trouble seeing the tendentious polemical quality of such claims.

      I think there’s greater potential for abuse than there is genuine descriptive value in “culture of X” discourse. If the proponents of this discourse can connect it to competent, rigorous work in sociology or anthropology, fine. But I’d have to see it to believe it.

      Every military is a culture of killing, and most military establishments condone killing on suspect grounds. Yet it would be absurd to ignore why it is that countries have militaries, and simply insist that they should avoid having them.

      There actually is a literature on the problematic features of “culture of X” discourse in cultural studies and post-colonial theory. The basic line it takes (which I find plausible), is that a great deal of “culture of X” discourse functions to conceal the fact that its users are substituting unwarranted stereotypes for genuine knowledge. They’re reifying a tiny, biased sample into a “culture” so as to be able to generalize about it more easily by invoking the supposed prestige or authority of the concept of “culture.” The classic example is “Western Culture” as contrasted with “Oriental Culture,” whether understood to refer to the cultures of the Near or Far East. The classic work on this is Edward Said’s Orientalism, which though flawed, is worth reading.


  2. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  3. Pingback: Cancel Culture: A Recantation | Policy of Truth

  4. Pingback: Cancel Culture and the Arc of the Moral Universe | Policy of Truth

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