Canceling Is Powerless
stop defending a tactic for creating change that can't create change
What could be the power that Johnson refers to here? What recent event could he point to that shows this power? What’s different now from how things used to be?
Both sides of the debate about canceling speak from the assumption that canceling is powerful. The defenders of canceling want to believe that it’s powerful because they want to validate the tactic and feel powerful themselves. The critics of canceling want to believe that it’s powerful because they want to represent it as uniquely dangerous. And those in the media covering the phenomenon have a direct incentive to represent canceling as having huge implications, given the dictates of chasing clicks.
But when you really look at it, what is remarkable about “cancel culture” is how feeble it is. It is an impotent tactic that has been embraced by huge swaths of people who seem to think it is very powerful indeed.
I am willing to be informed about examples I can’t think about, but what are the victories of canceling? I don’t mean who’s gotten fired. We have bigger fish to fry, right? Our goal is the total transformation of society, right? How are the issues that are invoked when canceling someone actually impacted by that action? How does canceling actually reduce the amount of racism in the world? The impact of misogyny? How does it help to close the massive Black-white wealth gap? How does it narrow the gender pay gap? Reduce mass incarceration? Address global warming? It can’t even influence the language norms of the vast majority of people, who are not on Twitter and who don’t know what canceling is. What is a plausible scenario through which this tactic actually impacts the issues people claim to care about? How do you actually cancel your way to a better world? The whole justification for these tactics is that they are necessary to address terrible social problems, but no one can provide a remotely convincing case for how they actually do address them.
Indeed: based on the terms of success used by the cancelers themselves, canceling can’t work. The best thing about social justice politics is its insistence on the systemic or structural nature of social problems. For example, racism is now widely understood to be structural; this is likely the reason for the rise of “white supremacy” as an umbrella term for all manner of racist behavior. Racism in this telling is not a matter of a few bad eggs but a systemic aspect of society that favors the interests of white people at the expense of people of color. I’m glad this perspective has become common because it’s correct. But why are so many people who believe this such passionate defenders of canceling? If problems are structural they can’t be fixed with the removal of individuals. That’s literally the bedrock idea behind saying problems are structural or systemic. If all men have male privilege then any given man that you get fired from a prominent role will inevitably give way to other men who enjoy the exact same privilege. If racism is an endemic aspect of white America then any individual white person you get rid of can always be replaced by any old white racist, in a country that is ~65% white. You simply cannot simultaneously say that problems are structural and also that they can be affected by canceling. It doesn’t make any sense.
Consider this Jacob Bacharach anti-anti-cancel culture piece. Bacharach identifies the anti-cancel culture essay as a genre unto itself, as it is. But of course the anti-anti-cancel culture essay is a genre too, a lucrative one, and Bacarach’s piece demonstrates the same basic misalignment with the pieces he criticizes that all of them have. Critics of cancel culture are talking about rights and procedural fairness; they feel that canceling undermines the rule-bound processes through which our society hands out punishments. To them, the overall goodness or badness of an opinion does not undermine the rule - not the law, but the norm, the custom - that we have long established in our culture that we should have free rein to express ourselves, even if offensively. Anti-anti-cancel culture types fixate on the duty to avoid harm, the moral responsibility to weigh the value of your expression against the natural desire of people to not be unnecessarily offended where possible and to feel safe and empowered in the same discourse space as the anti-cancel culture types.
There’s a good debate to be had about conflicting legitimate communicative needs and desires in a free society. But of course we’re not having that debate, and Bacharach isn’t interested in it either. Look, the United States has pretenses to be a liberal democracy. Under liberal democracy you have rule-bound freedom where efforts to police behavior are passed through defined systems, legal and otherwise, that are regulatory and procedural in nature. Canceling’s critics are complaining about perceived violations to those norms. Of course, people have argued forever, accurately, that all people aren’t actually equal within those formal systems and that they favor the interests of the white, male, wealthy…. Canceling’s proponents will thus represent the tactic as a subversion of those unequal power dynamics. One way or another, the debate that has to actually happen is to decide whether society wants to live under procedural rules about discourse or not, and if so, what those rules should look like if they’re not the ones we have now. But that never happens because one side just wants to call people children and the other just wants to call people racist.
But the deeper problem is the one I’ve already mentioned: canceling is so powerless that Bacharach feels no compulsion to discuss it in terms of power. He literally does not discuss the efficacy of canceling. I scrolled down past the bottom thinking I had missed something. He is interested in undermining canceling’s critics, but he spends no time considering the actual material value of the tactic. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: canceling is a political tactic that is most often defended with reference to its powerlessness, and this is bizarre. Bacharach defines the negative consequences of canceling as “getting nitpicked by an editor, yelled at on social media, or losing an occasional opportunity to rile up an auditorium.” Jacob: if that’s the extent of canceling’s power, why are you bothering to defend it in one of the biggest magazines in the country? “I’m defending this method to hurt political enemies by pointing out that it doesn’t actually hurt” is not compelling. On the contrary, it demonstrates just how unhealthy and bizarre our political culture has become.
I don’t think there’s a political justification for any of this. But there’s an obvious psychological one. People enjoy canceling. It makes them feel powerful. (Which, lol.) It’s fun to be part of a mob. It’s enjoyable to feel righteous. It takes no effort and, once the ball is rolling, involves no risk whatsoever. It’s a game played by the overeducated and bored. And some people are able to keep a straight face while they call it activism. The rhetorical excesses and hawkishness of canceling’s critics can certainly be annoying, but that cannot change the fact that a huge chunk of our political imagination has been captured by behaviors that achieve nothing but attracting huge negative attention and mustering enemies. There is indeed a conversation to be had about canceling on the individual level and whether people deserve basic fairness when accused, what kind of fairness if so, and debates to be had about who deserved it and who didn’t. But those have nothing at all to do with politics. Politics is about power. Cancel mobs don’t have it, and they never will.
You wanted reparations; you got Dr. Seuss. Maybe time to take a hard look at why.