It is trivially — yet essentially — true that all societies have prohibitions; after all, part of what constitutes a society is having prohibitions. But “cancel culture” seems more than just the support of social prohibitions, and the tendencies of this movement might reveal some more-troubling elements.
Because “cancel culture” is an emergent phenomenon, it is hard to create a comprehensive taxonomy of it, but its distinctive elements seem to involve some combination of the following: the destruction of art that either is problematic or whose creators have believed or said something problematic; rendering unemployable those who have believed or said something problematic, especially on social media; the de-platforming of problematic individuals; and participating in a crusade to “cancel” either problematic art or individuals (that is, calling for “cancellation” as cultural participation).
“Cancel culture” is in part about enforcing a set of cultural values (an enterprise not unique to that movement), and it often does so through social-media pressure, which is sometimes aided and abetted by major media institutions. So, for instance, a hubbub starts on Twitter, which CNN then magnifies. It would be naïve to read this as digital democracy; often, major media institutions give a megaphone only to those social-media controversies that they find helpful for their preferred predetermined narrative. For instance, after Halle Bailey was announced as Ariel in a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, major media outlets focused on a few random tweets in order to portray America as a whole as a seething cauldron of racial animosity. Though social media are an important vector for cancel culture, they are often a vehicle rather than a cause.
Cancel culture includes other technological elements, too. Perhaps one of its more distinctive elements is that it occurs during a moment of near-universal legibility. Earlier efforts at ostracism often occurred within discrete localities or subcultures. For Internet-based cancel culture, anyone anywhere can launch an attack on anyone anywhere. Moreover, these attacks are available for all to see over an indefinite period of time. As Helen Andrews has noted, one of the core elements of modern shaming is its endurance. A video clip, a private text message, a Facebook post — anything can be transformed into a cause for public, personal ridicule, which the amber of the Internet preserves across years or even decades. Nor is cancel culture simply about criticizing others on social media. Instead, it is often about translating this digital criticism into real personal pain: to cause jobs to be lost, college admissions to be revoked, and media platforms to be shut down. (There’s a reason why it’s called cancel culture and not criticism culture.)
Cancel culture does not have a single ideological orientation, but, in this present moment, it intertwines with the Great Awokening. Cancel culture is a great tool for evangelical wokeness, in part because of those demographics where wokeness is most concentrated: the college-credentialed meritocrats who reside in major urban areas and function as gatekeepers in tech, major media outlets, educational administration, institutional nonprofits, and so forth. Cancel culture has been a way for the woke to flex their burgeoning muscles as they suppress and splinter dissenters. The suppression part is clear, but this splintering tactic plays a key role; even those who are putatively non-woke have an incentive to go along with some cancellations in order to prove their respectability (that they are not that deplorable). Again, though, the impulses of cancel culture are not confined to the Great Awokening — the “cancellation” of the Dixie Chicks for opposing the Iraq war, for instance, offers a forerunner to contemporary cancel culture (even if the band paid a relatively mild price compared with some of those who endure cancellations today).
Revealingly, opposition to cancel culture reaches across a broad ideological and demographic range. Critics of this movement range from comedian Dave Chappelle to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to novelist Walter Kirn to polemicist Camille Paglia. It is not too surprising that many of those invested in the arts should be so wary of cancel culture. There may be something philistine about the idea of canceling someone because he holds objectionable opinions. Ezra Pound was a literal Fascist — a man who turned his back on the United States and produced propaganda for Mussolini — and yet his poetry is scintillating; striking it from the libraries of the world would deprive us of some of the gems of poetic modernism. W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk is one of the most penetrating and imaginative surveys of race and identity in the American canon, but he praised Stalin and the USSR. From one perspective, the iron logic of cancel culture leads to gradual intellectual impoverishment, as one figure after another is tossed into the bonfire of the canceled.
And it’s hard to shake the feeling that part of what’s involved in cancel culture is a breakdown in personal charity. The idea that someone should be expunged from society for holding controversial (or, frankly, even objectionable) ideas can have troublesome implications. We are all of us flawed people, and part of living in brotherhood with others involves trying to see the virtues in others — to not let errors obscure the personhood of another. It is, of course, true that social opprobrium and even state coercion can be instruments for discouraging vice; the first has helped diminish the use of some racial slurs, and the second helps curtail robbery, rape, and murder. But it’s also true that stigmatization alone hits diminishing returns in encouraging virtue and that some efforts at stigmatization can be motivated more by atavistic cruelty than by a deep devotion to human dignity.
As with many other issues, talk of “rights” can confuse the question of how to approach cancellation. A legal right to do something doesn’t make the action either prudent or virtuous. For instance, members of Congress might have a legal right to denigrate private religious organizations (such as the Knights of Columbus), but it’s not clear that such behavior serves the interests of American pluralism or good government. Someone might have a legal right to denigrate the poor and suffering, but such a display would offer anything but an edifying example. Likewise, the teeming crowds on social media might have a legal right to call for someone to be fired, for a book to be expunged by its publisher, or for a work of art to be destroyed. A tireless agitation for the personal destruction of others might, however, corrode both personal lives and public norms.
Within some opposition to cancel culture, it’s possible to see an impulse toward openness, expansion, and pluralism. For this countervailing impulse, another person’s problematic trait doesn’t mean that he or she has nothing valuable to contribute to one’s own life and to society as a whole. You might not want a flat-earther as a geological adviser — but why not as a carpenter, a neighbor, or a comedian? A Christian might read Homer despite his polytheism, a liberal might read Pound despite his fascism, and a humanitarian might read Du Bois despite his Soviet sympathies. The point is not to destroy impure people but instead to see virtues in this mottled world.
From this pluralist perspective, there might indeed be times where some form of “cancellation” is appropriate. For instance, college students might protest if their institution paid for a literal neo-Nazi to be a commencement speaker. Different institutions would, of course, be able to formulate their own internal norms, but one might make a case for at least some institutions to have a place for some kind of pluralism. Politics might complicate some of this. Citizens have a right and even a duty to deliberate on those norms that will guide a government, so some level of “cancellation” might be inherent in any politics. But taking this pluralist approach, we would turn to cancellation as an emergency measure, not a standard practice.
Crucial to maintaining a free society is disciplining both the power of government and the power of individuals. A government without internal balances can soon degenerate into tyranny or anarchy; a citizenry who do not show the virtues necessary for sustaining a republic will soon undermine the foundations of liberty. Maintaining norms of tolerance involves some modes of discipline — to see beyond outrage, to grasp the possibilities of others, and to recognize one’s own limits. That discipline might bring great rewards, too. The bonfire of the canceled casts a far dimmer glow than the raw flames of charity, beauty, and cultural daring.