“Cancel culture” is really a tautology. All cultures involve the “cancellation” of certain behaviors and viewpoints, the public enactment or profession of which results in the social ostracization of the perpetrator. Without these taboos, there can be no social regulation of behavior and mores and hence no real culture at all. In the modern West, for instance, we cancel people who insist on being naked in public spaces. We also cancel racists and men who beat their wives, and our culture is all the better for it.
The recent public furor over cancel culture has not been about whether or not we will cancel people or ideas, but about which people or ideas we will cancel. The denouncement of “cancel culture” writ large is a characteristically small-“l” liberal way of trying to avoid this fact by drawing a curtain of false neutrality over social censure per se, as if the process or procedure of cancellation itself is what we really object to.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, this isn’t really true. We don’t object to “cancel culture,” we object to the cancellation of certain acts, ideas, and sensibilities that were recently uncontroversial. It’s the closing of the Overton window on certain positions we find reasonable that we so dislike. Once we accept this, we’re in the much more difficult — and yet, more honest — position of having to defend the ideas and practices under attack on their merits rather than simply ringing our hands over the procedural violation of an utterly fictional “viewpoint neutrality” that has never existed — at least in a cultural sense — at any time in human history.
The Right’s new rhetorical reflex to complain about cancel culture whenever social censure falls upon some public or semi-public figure or another is frustrating because it attempts to import the classically liberal notion of viewpoint neutrality from the legal world into the cultural world. This task is doomed to fail. A jurisprudence of viewpoint neutrality is only possible when there are enough important and shared cultural taboos and restrictions in a society to allow each person to tolerate the legality of viewpoints they hate, safe in the knowledge that said viewpoints are still subject to social censure, even if the avenue of legal censure is foreclosed. We tolerate the legal First Amendment rights of white-nationalist groups because we know we can crush them with overwhelming social stigma and geld them of all influence using cultural force. But no one in their right mind believes that because white-nationalist groups can avail legally of viewpoint-neutrality jurisprudence that we should therefore refrain from attempting to turn them into social pariahs as best we can.
It’s true that the Overton window among Western elites is contracting like the trash compactor in the Death Star not only upon morally acceptable positions, but also on morally edifying ones. But the response of conservatives cannot be to lament the existence of this cultural regulation, or to pretend that there was a time when it didn’t exist. Instead, they have to defend the moral merits of their positions and argue that others (like the reverse-racism of intersectional politics and the mutilation of children by transgender activists) should be cancelled with unapologetic fervor. Our civilization cannot hide behind procedural liberalism when it comes to first principles, and it’s folly to pretend we can. Genuinely moral and political conflicts are, in some cases, unavoidable. Cancellation is the price we pay for civilization.