I realize that I’m very late on responding to comments, but my plan is to press forward with all the cancellations on my initial list (still a handful left), then double back to respond to comments. I wish I had the time to do both things at once–post and comment–but I don’t. Cancel me.
In a pair of earlier posts on cancellation, I described “cancellation” (as currently used in specifically ideological disputes) as an “anti concept” designed to cast unwarranted aspersions on the concept and practice of moral accountability outside of legal contexts, and defined “cancellation” (in a broader, and to my mind more legitimate sense) as “the nullification of a prior arrangement or expectation on grounds of justice.” The existing understanding of “cancellation,” as conceived by its critics is, in my view, tendentious and question-begging: it identifies ill-conceived or badly executed cancellations with cancellations as such, then insists, by repeated iterations of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, that no cancellation qualifies as a “true” cancellation unless it’s ill-conceived or misapplied by the critic’s standards.
Even apart from questions about the standards themselves, I simply reject this whole approach to the topic as ideologically-driven semantics par excellence. In its generic sense, “cancellation” is an everyday phenomenon with an ordinary name. I just canceled a hotel reservation. Last night, many of the trains from my workplace to my hometown were canceled. I’ve previously written about the disruptions that arise from cancellations in the context of health care. Each of these sorts of cancellation is a nullification of a prior arrangement or agreement on grounds of logistics or convenience. They’re all in some sense regrettable, and in many cases, lead to abuse, or even spiraling chains of abuse. Once you accept the idea that promises and agreements are defeasible, people can come to cancel them for entirely frivolous reasons, and often do. Sad but true.
Frivolity aside, certain cancellations point to the inherent pitfalls of a certain institution or practice. Forty percent of marriages fail, and half of all business ventures fail. By my definition, divorce is a cancellation, and the closing of a business involves a series of cancellations. But no one could legitimately regard those facts as reasons for never getting married, never starting a business, or condemning either venture as inherently irrational.
Similarly, a remarkably large number of scheduled medical procedures, including some major ones, get canceled for reasons ranging from the clinical to the logistical. There’s an entire field in health care logistics devoted to the transmission of HL7-SIU and HL7-ADT messages, computerized messages bearing on scheduling and cancellation issues. Though I sympathize with academics who lose their jobs to “woke mobs”–having lost one myself under similar circumstances–I don’t think they suffer anything comparable to medical patients whose procedures are repeatedly canceled and re-scheduled for reasons having to do with, say, hospital staffing. Yet no one thinks that the adverse consequences of ordinary cancellations entail that cancellations necessarily involve a death spiral of catastrophic consequences.
Suppose that a given patient suffers a premature death because her surgery was canceled, but not re-scheduled in time. This would be tragic, but no reasonable person would infer that such a death would prove that surgeries should never, ever be cancelled or that “cancellation” named an intrinsically or inherently immoral act that implied malpractice on the part of medical practitioners. It bears repeating that many ordinary cancellations have adverse consequences that far exceed the severity of the kinds of ideological cancellations that make the news. Ideological cancellations make the news because people–or rather, intellectuals–prefer expressing their outrage on ideological matters over logistical ones.
Here, as elsewhere, we accept the phenomenon of double effect: the same act-type, cancellation, has both positive and negative consequences in different contexts. To abstract entirely from aim and motivation is to guarantee distortion.
I’ve defined cancellation in the generic sense as the nullification of a prior expectation or agreement. I think of cancellations so conceived as having different species, differentiated by aim and motivation. Broadly speaking, we can divide cancellations into two species: there are cancellations that arise from considerations of logistics or convenience, and cancellations that arise from explicitly moral considerations having to do with justice.
We have, admittedly, been focusing on the latter in our conversations here at PoT, but the claim that I’m making is that justice-motivated cancellations ought to be seen as a species of the generic phenomenon, not as some sui generis phenomenon that can be detached from our ordinary understanding of ordinary cancellations. Once we put the specific phenomenon (including its most problematic instances) in its broader context, we’re forced–as in the ordinary cases–to weigh pros and cons, not simply to fixate on cons and treat them as “the real topic.” We’re also forced to broaden our understanding of what counts as a “cancellation” in the first place. If someone asks why I insist on doing this, my response is that we already have a word to denote the relevant phenomenon, and there’s no good reason to invent a homonym totally unrelated to it simply because doing so serves the ideological purpose of delegitimizing political activism.
That’s a long preface to a simple point. For whatever reason, critics of cancellation have come to think of “cancellation” in the context of the labor market to refer exclusively to unwarranted, ideologically-driven terminations of employees by hiring managers. usually for some transgression of left-wing norms. I don’t dispute that that occurs, and (when clearly unwarranted) is problematic when it occurs.
But focusing on that phenomenon misses the cancellation forest for the trees. We are in the middle of what has come to be called “the great resignation“: a mass voluntary exodus of employees from jobs they regard as unsatisfactory, not simply on grounds of logistics or convenience, but on grounds of justice. People are quitting their jobs because they feel that they deserve more or better than they’re getting. That, by my definition, is not just an instance of cancellation, but the single most poignant instance of cancellation taking place in the United States at present (and indeed beyond the United States, in Canada, Europe, India, and China).
Unlike the sorts of ideological cancellations that are common currency in discussions of “cancellation,” we have hard numbers here, and the numbers are huge (see the preceding link). They eclipse “cancellations” in the ideologically-motivated sense by orders of magnitude. And yet, for the most part, they have produced none of the adverse consequences that critics of “cancellation” have held against cancellation. Whatever you think of it, it simply is not plausible to say that the Great Resignation has had the air of an ideological auto da fe, or of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. If you do think that, I’d say that your tolerance for social conflict is excessively low, and incompatible with the pursuit of human progress. (For an excellent discussion of this general topic, see Sarah Schulman’s book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair.)
This is not to say that the resignations in question haven’t created disruptions, sometimes serious ones. Nor is it to deny that some of the resigners are chronic whiners and malcontents who would quit anything when the going got rough. But to the extent that the quitters are right about not getting what they deserve, those disruptions are not their responsibility. In those cases, the resignations would end if working conditions and pay improved–and resignation is as good a goad to inducing improvement as anything is likely to be.
There is no way to know or generalize about how right the quitters are, at least in any precise way. The numbers we have convey very coarse-grained information that doesn’t permit inferences down to the level of individual employees, jobs, employers, work sites, salaries, benefits, and work conditions. Like all cancellations, these ones have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But it is plausible to say that many, many of these employees have a point, and in quitting, have forced the issue with many employers who need, at long last, to get a clue.
Bottom line: quitting is as much a cancellation as being fired. Quitting your job because (whether rightly or wrongly) you regard your treatment there as unfair is a matter of quitting from considerations of justice. Any quit is a cancellation, but quitting from considerations of justice is exactly the kind of cancellation whose legitimacy critics of cancellation are disputing. They may insist that what they really have in mind are leftist over-reactions to ordinary behavior, but this move is simply ad hoc. “Leftist over-reactions to ordinary behavior” are a misapplication of justice-oriented cancellations, not the thing itself.
It’s one thing to argue against a misapplication, and another to argue against the legitimacy of the category of the act being misapplied. The latter move would entail that quitting your job over bad work conditions was somehow unjustified or irrational, and a fortiori imply that the Great Resignation was a society-wide act of irrationality. None of these things is true. Their falsity is, so to speak, a strike against the critique of “cancel culture.”