I logged into Medium today to write a quick thought on cancel culture and found that Berny Belvedere has written an article touching on something similar. That “something similar” is not simply the topic of cancel culture, but on how the popular way of framing cancel culture misses the mark on what is really going on.
Berny helpfully describes a common way in which the cancel culture debate is depicted. It can be roughly illustrated as follows:
According to Berny, what this way of framing things leaves out is that the reason cancel culture progressives draw the boundaries more narrowly than anti-cancel culture liberals is they have different discourse principles.
The reason the lines are drawn in different places is precisely because the two groups differ on the very principle in question. The two parties differ on where to draw the line, that is true — but the line-drawing is a consequence of a prior philosophical difference.
More specifically, the disagreement is over whether the following sorts of conditions are are necessary and sufficient (anti-cancel culture liberals or ACCLs) or necessary but insufficient (cancel culture progressives or CCPs):
- Arguing in good faith
- Supporting one’s position by reasons
- Not “flagrantly contraven[ing] historical and scientific facts, etc.”
Berny’s analysis is helpful and, I think, correctly captures the cancel culture debates to a certain point. But I don’t think it goes far enough to explain why we might need a different sort of picture than the one above to understand the significance of the disagreement.
Let’s summarize the conditions Berny mentions (i.e., arguing in good faith, supporting one’s position by reasons, not flagrantly contravening historical and scientific facts, etc.) by borrowing some language he uses elsewhere in the article: proper dialectical packaging or simply proper packaging. If I’ve understood Berny’s piece, then we might then illustrate the proper framework for understanding the cancel culture debate in the following way:
The CCPs circle is smaller to signify that it has narrower boundaries or a stricter principle of discourse. What I see as lacking in this framework, and what I had originally logged on to write about, can be illustrated as a hybrid view of the two frameworks discussed above in addition to the polarizing trajectory. (In fact, I had already created the diagram for this in relation to the broader issue of polarization at the end of April and, I thought, had hit the “publish” button, but apparently left it as a draft*.)
These diagrams were meant to apply to the broader issue of polarization in America, but I think they work just as well for capturing what’s going on in the narrower cancel culture debate — though the term “plausibility structure” is probably too broad here. Another term, like “morally permissible,” should be substituted.
What I think this way of framing the cancel culture debate correctly captures over the popular framework and Berny’s framework is that both ACCLs and CCPs would see proper packaging as necessary and sufficient in some cases and necessary and insufficient in other cases.
Agnes Callard, in a recent article for NYT, works with a definition of “cancellation” as “removal from a position of prominence on the basis of an ideological crime…” With that definition in mind, it seems obvious that ACCLs would still see proper packaging as necessary but insufficient in some cases. If, for example, a popular athlete or news media personality came out in favor of bestiality or pedophilia I don’t think ACCLs would think the company firing them and the existence of a social media outrage mob constitutes “cancel culture” even if the offender stated his position with the proper packaging. And I think one would find the same phenomena if one went back into the 90s and 80s, etc.
Thus, my thesis might be understood as the claim that, in a significant sense, there is no cancel culture. At least, there is no cancel culture as most people commonly conceive of it. Most people throughout most of modern American life (perhaps throughout most of all human life) have viewed some ideas as crossing the boundaries of moral permissibility to such an extent that the removal of a person espousing those ideas from a position of prominence, and public outrage over that person’s views, are seen as appropriate.
It’s not that cancel culture progressives merely draw the boundaries more narrowly. Berny is correct that prior philosophical differences are driving the disagreement. But I think the philosophical differences are not simply over whether packaging alone or packaging-plus-substance are necessary and sufficient. The philosophical differences are rooted in deeper ethical visions that determine the extent to which one can cross the boundaries of morally permissible and morally impermissible.
If cancel culture doesn’t exist, why do so many people think it does? How do I explain what’s happening to people like Bari Weiss, if not cancel culture? Our increasingly polarized trajectory. As progressives shift more and more to the left, developing either implicitly or explicitly a new moral vision, we should expect the space of common moral boundaries to become smaller and for there to be more areas in which an individual might find themselves occupying the same moral territory that they always have, but suddenly outside the boundaries of the progressive moral vision to such an extent that cancelling is the appropriate response within the logic of that system.
If my thesis is correct (but not only if my thesis is correct) then shouldn’t we see something like a cancel culture on the right? Cancel culture is often seen as a phenomena of the left. Berny’s article is, it seems, written with the assumption that it is at least primarily a progressive phenomena. I think overall that’s correct: most of the outrage mobs and calls for cancellation, at least most of those which are effective, come from the far left. But this can be explained consistently with my framework by the fact that most of the shifting, in terms of carving out a new moral landscape, is happening on the left.** The idea here is that those who’ve occupied the same moral landscape they did 20 or 30 years ago are more likely to move throughout the culture with a less critical eye than those who view themselves as awakening (woke) to new moral truths and are eager to look at and test everything through their new spectacles.
But it’s also not the case that a cancel culture like phenomena is exclusive to the left. Consider the post-liberal movement among conservatives. This might be smaller and less influential than the phenomena on the left, but that’s also to be expected from the very nature of conservativism and, further, from the rhetorical posturing that conservatives have had to adopt over the last couple of decades as they’ve found themselves losing on big issues like abortion and gay marriage. It’s been in their interest to adopt more of a libertarian posture — long before the French vs. Ahmari wars — and this has made it harder for post-liberalism to gain a serious hearing (Ahmari and R. Reno also haven’t done themselves — or the broader movement — any favors).
Cancel culture does exist in a certain sense, but not as a seemingly inexplicable and independent cultural phenomena in which certain people are merely being hypersensitive snowflakes. It exists only as the natural byproduct of two increasingly incompatible moral visions attempting to occupy the same institutions. Without that polarization, the cancel-disposition we see on display in social media outrage mobs still exists, it just doesn’t have much opportunity to express itself. Without that polarization, when the cancel-disposition expresses itself it seems to the vast majority of people an entirely appropriate response — it’s not controversial.
An anti-cancel culture which fails to recognize it as a natural symptom of deeper philosophical division can only ask people to live inconsistently with their values. It’s possible that a lot of people can be lead to unthinkingly shift their values in this manner. After all, people can and do unreflectively shift their thinking by shifting their behavior. But banking on those who have become woke (or red-pilled) to sleepwalk their way back towards the old shared territory seems foolish.
For example, having sold people on the rhetoric that the pro-life position is sexist, how do liberals expect to walk back towards the old idea that it’s morally permissible to be a pro-life democrat? Rhetorically, they’ve made it nearly impossible for themselves to stand in the way of the logic of those on the far left. They’re currently doing the same with transgenderism, immigration, and gun control. The way back would require not just a lot of prominent liberals eating some humble pie and pushing back on the rhetorical posturing that they themselves formulated (e.g., the idea that if you don’t think “trans women are women” then you’re “denying their existence”). At the same time it will require the courage of a lot of prominent liberals to suffer, for a time, the outrage mobs they’ve created and then winked at. This sort of difficult, collective action is unlikely to arise until or unless a crisis point is reached. Unfortunately, a sort of cultural crisis might also be a natural byproduct of very distinct and incompatible moral visions trying to occupy the same socio-political landscape.
[*] Never getting back around to finish writing about certain things is why I decided to think of this space as a “half-baked ideas” blog.
[**] Several years ago I saw an animated chart that illustrated this shift in relation to European politics. I didn’t save it at the time and I can’t find it now. Conservative positions have shifted somewhat, but not nearly to the extent that American liberal positions have shifted. Most of the growing cultural divide is a result of liberals adopting new, more radical positions.