Cancel Culture and the Arc of the Moral Universe

I’ve heard so many whining, incoherent complaints about the evils of “cancel culture” over the past few years, usually from the same old suspects saying the same damn thing over and over. I wouldn’t offer a blanket endorsement of every cancellation or every cancellation-oriented group or movement. But I’m curious (once again) to hear what anti-cancel-culture warriors have to say about Trafficking Hub’s campaign to cancel human trafficking in porn.

Either the pressure exerted on MasterCard (and other vendors) was an instance of “cancel culture,” or it wasn’t. If not, why not?

Suppose it was. Was there anything wrong with it? Were the aims unjust, or the means immoral?

If there’s nothing wrong with the Trafficking Hub campaign, what’s the rationale for the blanket attack on “cancel culture”? Why don’t cases like this prove that if we’re to use the phrase at all, “cancel culture” has both legitimate and illegitimate instances?

Set aside your views, pro or con, about pornography itself. Wherever you stand on that, basic decency would (I’d think) compel you at the very least to oppose human trafficking in the abstract, better yet to abstain from contributing to it, better still to encourage those who actively oppose it, but best of all, to act in a systematic way, by legal and peaceful means, to shut it down. The way contemporary discourse is set up, however, “cancel culture” is exemplified by arbitrary terminations and the intimidation of unpopular speakers, but not by bona fide activism for justice–against, say, human trafficking, the Israeli occupation, signature drone strikes, police malfeasance, or fascism, or in favor of abortion rights, migrants’ rights, voting rights, or economic freedom.

Why the double standards? Why the tendentious, one-sided rhetoric, gerrymandered definitions, and empirical hand-waving? Why the pretense that justice is realized by genteel talk appropriate to a tea party or echo chamber, rather than the relentless full-time jihad it actually demands in real life?

Now that capitalism has been enlisted in the cause of justice via cancellation (often, as in the preceding case, pitting one business against another), capitalists themselves are wringing their hands and crying foul. Polemicists who unblinkingly tell us that employment-at-will is the best labor policy ever–serenely oblivious to the jobs it ended and careers it destroyed before it was enlisted in the cause of the Woke Olympics–suddenly find themselves aghast at the idea that people might abruptly be terminated without cause. But employers have been terminating employees without notice and without cause for more than a century now, rarely if ever provoking the outcry of these anti-cancel warriors.

Simple, obvious fact: justice is something you have to fight for. It doesn’t come for the asking. It doesn’t come about at all by the methods of quietistic academics, sitting on their asses and criticizing the human scene from the imagined heights of Mt Olympus. It comes about by methods like those employed by Laila Mickelwait & Co. If you reject her aims, have the candor to say so. If you reject her methods, have the ingenuity to come up with better ones. And if you really think you’ve come up with them in theory, try putting them into practice with equal or better results. Until then, however, maybe try staying out of the way? The arc of the moral universe is already long enough. There’s no need to make it longer.

9 thoughts on “Cancel Culture and the Arc of the Moral Universe

    • Done. That doesn’t seem to have increased the post’s popularity, however. A conjecture as to why:

      (1) Many people would rather stick to the right-wing narrative to the effect that “cancel culture” is a big, bad artifact of left-wing “woke culture” than adopt a more nuanced view of things.

      (2) Porn is so ubiquitous that any criticism of any aspect of it, including the porn industry’s ties to human trafficking, seems to come across as sex-negative. Since sex-negativity is the root of all evil, we can’t criticize porn, even if it’s based on slavery.

      (3) TraffickingHub’s parent organization, Exodus Cry, is an explicitly Christian organization which takes a critical view of pornography and sex work generally.

      Since Christian piety is embarrassing, Christian activism is best ignored, regardless of its aims, methods, or efficacy. Unless of course Martin Luther King, Jr is involved and it’s January or February. That’s different.

      (4) If activists can pressure Visa and MasterCard into submission for political reasons, my God, where will all this rabble-rousing for justice end? Is all of life to be politicized? Is nothing exempt? Is nothing sacred? Not even a powerfully arousing money shot of a slave girl trafficked, exploited, and abused for the delectation of a couple million lonely masturbators a night?

      So I have no hope that the readership of this post will ever exceed 100.


      • There’s also the fact that I posted it without a comment. It probably would have gotten more engagement if I had posted it with a comment.


        • Well, you’ve posted things without comment, and gotten some pretty adamant responses. In any case, as far as hits are concerned, this post has flopped by the standards of my blog, as well. I think the content itself is hard to process in the current milieu–anti-trafficking activism from Christian anti-porn activists. That said, I got an email today from the ACLU, which has (implicitly) taken a position against Exodus Cry and MasterCard on this. I’ll post it below. I think the ACLU’s position is more in tune with the zeitgeist.


  1. So I got this in my inbox today from the ACLU. I’ll comment separately.

    Irfan –

    Mastercard put into effect a new policy regulating adult content sellers that makes it extremely hard for sex workers to make a living online.

    Let me be clear: Laws and policies like Mastercard’s criminalize and stigmatize sex work in ways that disproportionately harm the safety and wellbeing of Black trans women, chills free speech, and invade our privacy.

    It’s long past time major companies were held accountable for such destructive actions – and I’m reaching out to ask you to join me and the ACLU in making sure that they are:

    Please sign our petition telling Mastercard to reverse its new discriminatory policy now.


    Irfan, we talked with Mastercard and warned them of the harm this policy will have on sex workers and Black trans women. They went forward with it anyway.

    This new policy imposes strict requirements on adult content websites that use Mastercard’s credit card or payment options – including pre-approval of all content before publication. The stated intent of this is to prevent child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual content. But the policy only applies to websites that host adult content – despite all available evidence indicating these problems proliferate across the web.

    So in reality, all Mastercard’s policy really does is threaten sex workers’ access to the financial services and online platforms that they depend on for safety and livelihood – making them even more vulnerable, especially those who are trans women of color.

    We need to call practices like this what they are: financial discrimination. They attack free speech, stigmatize sex work, and endanger sex workers by pushing the industry deeper into the shadows. That’s what Mastercard is doing right now and it’s time to put it to an end.

    Sex work is work. Period. Let’s make sure Mastercard knows it: Sign our petition now.

    Thanks for taking action,

    LaLa B. Holston-Zannell
    Pronouns: she, her, hers
    Trans Justice Campaign Manager, ACLU

    P.S. This June, the ACLU joined 22 other civil rights groups in demanding PayPal and Venmo stop practices that harm vulnerable communities. Sex workers’ rights activists recently pressured the platform OnlyFans to suspend a planned policy to ban pornography. Activism like yours works, Irfan. So please sign our petition to Mastercard today.



    • My basic point in the original post was that if Exodus Cry/Trafficking Hub (EC/TH) is right on the facts, their campaign is an instance of cancellation, but morally unobjectionable. The ACLU communication raises the outside possibility that EC/TH is wrong on the facts. Their suggestion seems to be that EC/TH has overstated the extent to which trafficking and underage/non-consensual interaction is a problem within the porn industry. If the ACLU is right, then my conceptual point stands, but the EC/TH campaign will turn out to be problematic on factual grounds.

      That said, the ACLU communication mostly proceeds by insinuation rather than argument. It suggests that trafficking is a non-issue in the porn industry, but doesn’t really deal with any empirically verifiable facts one way or the other. And unless it turns out that EC/TH has literally been misstating the facts, the rest of the ACLU’s argument is weak tea. Suppose that EC/TH is even partly right. Then there undeniably is a trafficking/underage sex problem in the porn industry. If so, that problem needs a resolution. EC/TH has offered one sort of resolution. The ACLU has offered none. There are limits to a moral stance that holds up a stop sign in the name of respect for the rights of sex workers while minimizing the rights of people forced into sex work.

      It’s incoherent of the ACLU to pose as a defender of civil liberties while abstracting entirely from the rights that are violated by trafficking and underage sex. Sexual relations, pornographic or otherwise, require consent. If they proceed without consent, rights have been violated. The ACLU’s communication makes no attempt to deal with this basic moral fact.

      It may be that EC/TH’s policy preference raises the price of business for sex workers. But that isn’t conclusive in and of itself: failing to have a functionally equivalent policy of consent-verification “raises the price of business” for people whose rights are violated.

      It may be that EC/TH’s underlying motivation is anti-porn in a sense that goes beyond the abolition of trafficking and underage sex. If so, I’d say that absent real evidence of a more deeply nefarious intention than that, they’ve adopted a debatable view, but not a disqualifying one.

      The weakest and lamest of the ACLU’s argument is this one:

      The stated intent of this is to prevent child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual content. But the policy only applies to websites that host adult content – despite all available evidence indicating these problems proliferate across the web.

      So in reality, all Mastercard’s policy really does is threaten sex workers’ access to the financial services and online platforms that they depend on for safety and livelihood – making them even more vulnerable, especially those who are trans women of color.

      The claim that the coercive practices “proliferate across the web” seems to concede (without quite making the concession) EC/TH’s claim that they proliferate in porn. But then the question arises, what’s wrong with targeting them–even some of them?

      The further inference that “all Mastercard’s policy really does is threaten sex workers’ access” is obviously invalid. That can’t be all that it does. At a minimum, it prevents abuse from taking place in one sector where it’s taking place.

      Nor is it legitimate to demand that activists take no action against any sector where abuse is taking place unless they target every sector where it’s taking place. That’s an impossible and pointless demand. No activist organization follows it, or can follow it, including the ACLU, which is itself extremely selective in the cases it takes on, and the topics it addresses. Every activist knows that there is a division of labor in activism, as there is in most domains of human activity. No ethical principle demands that political activism demand the avowal and (attempted) practice of Hegelianism.

      Beyond that, it’s hypocritical and silly of the ACLU to accuse EC/TH of making people “vulnerable” when its own disavowal of EC/TH’s policy also makes people vulnerable.

      Having said that, it seems to me that there’s a bit of talking past one another on both sides of this divide. But regardless of how that pans out, the larger conceptual point remains.


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