If you’re extremely online or plugged into the discourse at all, your blood pressure probably spiked just upon reading those two words. The topic’s heat-to-light ratio is heavily skewed to heat. A recent open letter in Harper’s, signed by over 150 public intellectuals of the centrist, liberal, and leftist variety, warns of excessive and growing censoriousness on the left. The debate ensuing from the letter, which now includes a counter-letter signed by many rankled journalists and academics, has only turned up the already considerable heat. I’ll survey the field a bit and try to shed a little more light.
First off, this is an intra-left debate. Despite a roughly common political grouping, the argument is plagued by the fact that so many have a different understanding of what’s happening: one side believes it’s a problem, the other that cancel culture either doesn’t exist or that it’s a trivial or perhaps even a good thing. The debate proceeds on top of this disconnect.
The skeptical voices scoff, mutter among themselves, and then demand necessary and sufficient conditions for the use of the term “cancel.” The voices on the other side receive this demand and respond with hurried attempts at definition, or otherwise provide lists of terrible goings-on that serve as examples of cancel culture. Objections are lodged. Corrections are made. This goes back and forth, ad nauseam. This is the parlor game.
At first glance, the desire for a common definition is understandable. It could help us avoid talking past one another. But definitions can only take us so far. It makes sense to come up with a sketch description, and to provide examples, but that’s often all we have to work with, and that process by itself does not guarantee that skeptics are even looking in the pointed-to direction.
We now have more than enough discussion on definitions, but a certain brand of skepticism seems to get by on the belief that definitions are burdened with drawing once-and-for-all lines around defined terms, and that definitions must come packed with a method of sifting through and correctly assigning all possible boundary cases to everyone’s satisfaction. This is misguided, in my view.
Nevertheless, a starting point would be helpful. No matter which account you look to, the first-glance definition of cancel culture is, roughly, a culture that imposes unreasonably harsh consequences, like firings and/or public shamings, simply for expressing views the cancelers don’t like. This definition is wide enough to drive just about any vehicle through, large or small, so has led to an uncountable number of futile arguments about application. Also, the fact that the term has mostly referred to behavior on the left, when bad behavior has always abounded on all parts of the political spectrum, has only intensified the debate around application of the term.
The definition, basic as it is, is not very illuminating. But this isn’t so unusual, as definitions go. Notice the first definition of something incredibly indispensable to our lives: “Goodness” found in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, defined as “the quality or state of being good.” “Good,” only gets us, “of a favorable character or tendency.” When I force myself to dwell on it for longer than normal, that feels unsatisfactory.
But, of course it does. We’ve grown used to that by now, and we typically understand that definitions are often just starting points, that we must look elsewhere for fuller accounts. Further, since you’re reading this essay right now, chances are you have a decent working understanding of what cancel culture is.
It’s a progressive data analyst fired from an analytics company apparently for tweeting academic research on the effectiveness of peaceful protests over riots. It’s The Washington Post recently deciding to run a story revealing the identity of a non-public person who attended their Halloween party almost two years ago in blackface, in a completely inadvisable and too-meta costume lampooning Meghan Kelly, (complete with Meghan Kelly name tag) who had recently made a comment minimizing the offensiveness of blackface — the person was fired from her job, which incidentally was not at WaPo. It’s an electrical worker in California getting fired for a quite-ambiguous hand gesture filmed by a passing driver on the road, ostensibly symbolizing white power, while the worker is Latino and protests that he’s completely apolitical. The white activist who filmed the gesture admitted that he likely misinterpreted it initially, but once the incident made the rounds on twitter, the worker’s fate was sealed, as he was fired within a week.
When people object to incidents like these, the firings and the viral punishments before complete context is known, they sometimes word their objections in absolute terms. So admittedly, it’s not only skeptics who impose categorical requirements onto accounts of cancel culture, but at times those concerned with left-illiberal behavior themselves. The concerned parties will sometimes say “No one should ever be fired or politically shunned over political or private statements,” but surely this is too sweeping. Every political culture creates norms of exclusion, what’s acceptable and what’s out of bounds.
I would venture a guess that some who advance these sweeping statements don’t realize that they’re doing it, while others actually intend to communicate an absoluteness, but haven’t thought through the myriad counter-examples and difficulties of rigid categorization. Still others are perhaps deeply serious about their far-reaching commitments. Perhaps Noam Chomsky, for example, who is surely closer to a true believer than I am when it comes to drawing hard and fast boundaries that protect speech on all sides of virtually any debate.
But that’s not the main problem in the disagreement. Rather, skeptics of the reality and/or importance of cancel culture often project or impose categorical absoluteness onto any statement of concern, and then demand that anti-cancelers navigate intellectual obstacle courses designed to catch any missteps of over or under inclusiveness in the stated definition. “Should the president of NAMBLA get tenure at Harvard?” “Why haven’t you objected to X’s firing from Y university?” “Are you sure ostracism isn’t an inherent part of any political culture?” and so forth.
It’s worth pausing here to get into what people mean when they say “categorical” in this context. In one sense, something is categorical if it’s total, absolute, unqualified, and having no reservations whatsoever. My own concerns regarding cancel culture do not involve reference to a category nearly as robust as this, and like most of my ideological ilk, I can freely admit that cancel culture is not the worst thing ever, nor fundamentally and totally unprecedented. Yet, in a second sense, the sense of “constituting a category,” cancel culture is not especially faulty or suspect.
The fact that we could lack robust lines demanded by the first sense of “categorical” shouldn’t stop us from believing in real phenomena and things. Unless, of course, we’re prepared to debate the reality of a phenomenon like pornography, with its famous “I know it when I see it” standard. Pornography is a fundamentally “weak” category when it comes to its boundaries, but plenty real in the actual world. It would certainly be odd, no matter where you fall on the topic, to respond to concerns about the accessibility and pervasiveness of pornography by being suspicious of its existence or willfully failing to grasp what it is, simply because of the difficulty of properly categorizing all possible cases using the definition alone.
The Harper’s letter is accused of using categorical reasoning, in the sweeping sense, apparently suggesting that no one has ever been censored until recently, or that shunning is out of bounds under all imaginable circumstances. If true, this would indict the letter as historically naive and render its concerns hysterical. I did not read it that way (neither apparently did the historians who signed the letter). It was a relatively short general statement, and as such had to assume some level of context. Apparently, we do not all share that context.
One place to look for how the underlying idea is conceived by the “anti-cancelers” is in the work of those who’ve specifically covered the topic for some time now, starting with Katie Herzog’s 2019 article, “Cancel Culture: What Exactly Is This Thing?” Herzog wrote, “… I think of it as a form of social and cultural boycott. The goal isn’t restoration or even analysis; it’s excommunication,” and “I suspect some of the problems with defining the term is that some people think of it as literal and others do not. I’m in the latter camp.”
Herzog suggests “I think of ‘cancellation’ as a catchier term for public call-outs, a principle that originated in activist circles to confront wrongdoing in their own communities,” adding “call-outs began as a utopian ideal, a way of extracting justice and change without cops or courts. But then came the internet.” A reader would presumably understand that something broader than literal, always successful attempts at cancellations (firings, shunnings) is captured by the term, and that whatever else came before in human history, the internet intensified matters.
Similar insights are offered by Jesse Singal, (Herzog and Singal both signed the Harper’s letter and are co-hosts of the podcast Blocked and Reported), writing, also in 2019, that the concern involves “online outrage and callout culture,” and also that “… whatever cancel culture is, it’s a pretty big tent,” even going so far as to say, while acknowledging that it imperfectly refers to something important, that it’s “an increasingly useless term.” Also, for what it’s worth, the Harper’s letter did not use the term “cancel culture,” instead expressing the concern in more generally accessible concepts like ostracism and censoriousness.
Before jettisoning the issue over specific terms, it’s worth looking into the reason why the technical argument over “cancel culture” is such a distraction. To start, the actual disagreement is over the state of the left. Some think that the situation warrants raising red flags, even while maintaining that Donald Trump is a worse threat to liberal democracy. Others on the left either do not see the problem, or perhaps see it as the cost of doing business, and ultimately the way things have always been. These skeptics think that on whatever trivial level a problem might exist, it’s certainly too trivial to deserve its own name, be it “cancel culture” or any other.
Early in its life as a term, the concept of “cancelling” a person the way you would a credit card (already quite a non-literal use) was adopted by many activists on the left to describe their own actions toward the targets they were holding accountable. They perceived their indignation to be righteous. And perhaps it was at first, or still is in many cases.
We can come up with abstract definitions that include any general form of censorious behavior, but the fact that the term has mostly until now been used to refer to activists on the left is no great mystery. The verbs “cancel” in its metaphorical use, and “callout” in its more literal use, were used by activists on the left to describe their own actions. These uses then caught on with those not in favor of the actions, or who perceived excesses, tacking on the word “culture,” because by then the actions clustered into enough of a trend to predictably consist in concerns unique to the left, and in ways of communicating that are unique to the left. It’s simply the term for certain behaviors on the left, the key word in the term coined originally by people on the left. The term doesn’t gain its meaning from some Platonic heaven, but just from its use to this point.
In any case, the philosopher Ben Burgis provided a relatively fulsome explanation of cancel culture when he stated, “‘Cancel culture’ refers to an interrelated cluster of trends toward mutual surveillance and hair trigger denunciation and public shaming that has different levels of impact in different political (and other) subcultures and in the larger culture.” So along with Herzog and Singal, who in 2019 both acknowledged the clustering kind of phenomena that cancel culture names, Burgis’s sketch of cancel culture also acknowledges the complexity of the category. Still, liberal skeptics will insist on claiming victory if they get the anti-cancelers to admit that this is all just one big line-drawing exercise. But lots of things are just line-drawing exercises, and it doesn’t follow that the phenomena in question are unimportant.
Nevertheless, the battle for definition continues. This is partly because the parlor game is just too fun. Despite the fun, or perhaps because of it, the game delays analysis of the concern. Like Herzog, Burgis cites the internet and social media as key to understanding the peculiarities of the moment, saying, “a lot of online cancel culture (and sadly this stuff is far from an exclusively online phenomenon, although online is its toxic heart) is a result of the feedback loops built into contemporary social media. That gets particularly dangerous when it intersects with the collapse of legacy media, the rise of the gig economy, and the semi-feudal power of employers in largely non-unionized American workplaces.”
Burgis, from the socialist left, also worries that this kind of complex clustering threatens the hope of a long-run, broad-based, working-class political coalition. The Harper’s letter was stated in more conventionally liberal terms, expressing concern at “moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Indeed, liberals have special obligations in maintaining a liberal society, and importantly end up staffing many rule-making positions in educational, government, and corporate institutions. Any rhetorical habits that prevail among liberals then become independently important, no matter what the right-wing spends its time doing. And per Burgis’s explanation of online feedback loops, the current situation can be distinguished even from past forms of intra-left censoriousness.
But, again, one side in the debate disagrees that there’s any sort of real problem. Indeed, Hannah Giorgis expressed the view in stark terms in The Atlantic, “Any good-faith understanding of principles such as free speech and due process requires acknowledging some basic truths: Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.” Talk about a sweeping statement. Perhaps Giorgis got caught up in what some on my side do occasionally, expressing the concern in too absolute a fashion.
Either way, any view stating that no threat to a liberal society can come from criticisms that are merely informal, workplace reviews that don’t literally break the law, or criticisms of books that are technically within constitutional bounds, simply because they are by definition informal in kind, is something I would want to vehemently deny. Still, at least this gets at the actual disagreement. Perhaps some believe this whole dispute is only a function of social media, or that rhetorical debates among elites don’t have wide-reaching impact, or that civic norms aren’t fragile in the sense feared by the Harper’s letter signatories. I’m open to having my mind changed on these and other substantive matters, but because my view doesn’t rely on cartoonishly absolute categories, the technical side of the debate doesn’t do it for me.
To the extent that the debate has been derailed by the peculiarities of the term “cancel culture,” I would be happy retiring it. I just wouldn’t get my hopes up that this will move the conversation forward in a significant way. That’s because, once again, of the very real underlying disagreement. People have even coined their own terms to describe these clustering tendencies among liberals, which I cannot fully vouch for as I’m still digesting them, but in any case, the terms are unsurprisingly met with quick dismissals and mockery. And there’s no guarantee that once a term settles in, that the right-wing won’t adopt it and use it in uglier and more totalizing ways than originally intended.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this debate has become exhausting. We’re living through a pandemic and an economic recession, with historic protests for justice ongoing, and with a presidential election looming, so momentum-loss of the discussion surrounding the Harper’s letter is built in. Still, the more general topic has come up again many times in the past. No matter how long the break in the action lasts this time, here’s hoping that when the debate flares up again, we can skip the technicalities of the intellectual parlor game.
—Jay Jeffers studied philosophy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He lives and works in Dallas, Texas.