What 'cancel culture' and its critics get wrong
The problem with "cancel culture" has nothing to do with the act of cancelation.
That's something those behind the trend and those standing against it need to recognize. The effort to excommunicate from public life insufficiently "woke" (morally progressive) journalists, writers, comedians, and other prominent figures, including trying to get them fired, is likely to backfire. But not because the act of social and cultural cancelation itself is illegitimate or egregious.
All cultures "cancel" certain actions and opinions, and often the people associated with them. Ruling certain actions (and even thoughts) morally out of bounds is, in fact, a good part of what cultures do. Even liberal ones. Cultures are repositories of and communal enforcement mechanisms for upholding moral norms, and they do this by valorizing certain moral views and directing opprobrium at others. Doing so reinforces what "we" believe, thereby fostering social cohesion and helping to set moral standards and expectations for the political community as a whole.
In most cases, we tacitly acknowledge this and consider it perfectly uncontroversial. A neo-Nazi who made a point of publicly defending Hitler's Final Solution would be treated as a pariah, and hardly anyone would rise to his defense. Likewise with Stalinists, members of the Ku Klux Klan, child molesters, and practitioners of (even voluntary) incest and cannibalism. Nearly all of us consider these acts and belief systems evil and have no doubts about the wisdom and justice of excluding those who uphold them.
Which means that nearly all of us practice and approve of "cancel culture" an awful lot of the time.
But then what is it about the specific form of cancelation practiced by progressive activists over the past several years that raises so many hackles? If it isn't the act of canceling itself that's the problem, what is?
The answer is that critics of cancel culture are reacting to its partisan character. I'm using the term partisan in the precise sense, to mean an expression of the views of "a part" of the political community, as opposed to the views of the whole. The kind of cancelation I described above — about Nazis, Stalinists, violent racists, child molesters, and practitioners of incest and cannibalism — is affirmed, once again, by nearly everyone on nearly every side of every dispute that divides us as a society. It is transpartisan, an expression of the convictions of almost everyone. It is, for the most part, beyond dispute.
But today's "cancel culture" isn't like that. On the contrary, it's precisely the lack of an overwhelming consensus in favor of ruling morally out of bounds certain views and actions — especially about race, gender, and sexual orientation — that provokes the activists to demand that transgressors against these nascent norms be cast out. The activists have leapt ahead of public opinion, in other words, and are attempting to shape it using tactics derived from street politics and amplified by social media.
This gets the normal cultural mechanism backwards. More standard forms of cancelation take place because people accept received norms of right and wrong, good and bad, noble and base, beautiful and ugly, pure and impure, sacred and profane, and then enforce them communally in the present, usually with little conscious reflection. It's just "what we do." Some actions and beliefs are simply considered to be unacceptable.
That doesn't mean these norms are static. Like everything human, they change over time. And at moments of significant social and moral turbulence — like during and immediately after crusades for the civil rights of women, blacks, and gays and lesbians — they can shift rapidly, as ideals about equality and freedom collide with the reality of them being denied in the world. When this happens, norms about what's acceptable to say and laugh at in public can change dramatically in a relatively short time, as can convictions about who and what should be subject to cancelation.
What's happening now with "cancel culture" is different. A small number of online progressives have appointed themselves a moral vanguard, upholding and attempting to enforce, through the methods of a digital mob, a form of puritanical egalitarianism that is affirmed only by a few. Any writer, entertainer, or other public personality who diverges from this moral standard by demonstrating insufficient sensitivity and deference to the feelings of members of certain protected classes will find himself canceled. The progressives have thereby skipped the step of broad-based persuasion and jumped right to the end point of attempting to enforce a new public moral norm.
It's this dynamic — a small minority of ideological activists ganging up on an individual, attempting to compel media companies, book publishers, television shows, movie studios, and corporations into casting the individual into outer darkness — that has prompted columnist Peggy Noonan and others to liken cancel culture to the totalitarianism of China's cultural revolution. In many ways, comparing the experience of being (metaphorically) canceled in the 21st-century United States to a social and political upheaval that may have (literally) killed more than a million people is ludicrous and offensive. But it is valid in at least three narrow respects: both attempt to achieve their moral and political ends by way of public bullying, accusation, and humiliation; both demand public expressions of remorse and contrition by those deemed guilty by the mob; and both ultimately aim to force a thoroughgoing revaluation of public values through their strong-arm tactics.
Will it work? We have reason to doubt it — and even to suspect that the moral browbeating is contributing to the very political backlash the activists are reacting against.
To see this, it's instructive to turn to the political realm. Unlike authors and entertainers, who are dependent on niche audiences and the support of powerful business interests that can be swayed by the fear of bad publicity, politicians respond to public opinion more broadly and directly. And there we can see the real limits of the push to cancel moral transgressors. For one thing, Donald Trump is in the White House, having run a campaign fueled in part by fury at the moral finger-wagging of "political correctness." For another, Democrat Ralph Northam is still governor of Virginia seven months after a photo purporting to show him wearing blackface in his medical school yearbook was made public. Polls at the time the story broke revealed that white voters were more likely than blacks to favor him resigning over the controversy — showing, perhaps, that views on the episode were more conflicted than activists would allow. It may be that, while most people now realize that wearing blackface is bad, they also doubt it's an offense worth cancelation, at least when it took place decades ago (at a time when the act was much less widely considered harmful) and the guilty party apologizes for it sincerely. It will be instructive to see if a series of recently publicized photos and videos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface end up having a greater impact.
Encouraging moral change is a tricky business. Push too slowly and injustices will remain entrenched. But push too aggressively, and without adequate leverage in public opinion, and people will get their backs up, dig in their heels, and begin resisting just because they don't like being told what to say, think, and feel.
That is why the "cancel culture" is a problem — not because it cancels certain people and ideas, but because of how it seeks to do so.