On Cancel Culture

Freedom of association also implies the freedom not to associate with people, especially if they violate your ethical system.  Since I believe in freedom of association, I don't think it should be illegal to "cancel" anyone, or, as it used to be known, to shun, to ostracize. I think there are even times when it is warranted. It's one of the few tools, besides praise and condemnation, that a non-coercive society can use to modify anti-social behavior.  There is a long history of ostracism and shunning, from ancient Greece to the Amish.  I have a great deal of sympathy with Alonzo Fyfe's ethical theory of Desirism, which would seem to provide a moral basis for cancel culture.  Not only that, but there is a kind of "bottom-up" "spontaneous" "emergent" quality to cancel culture, which more formal, hierarchical disciplinary measures lack, which I partly find appealing in a romantic, quasi-anarchist way, though I recognize that it also can create problems. In short, I don't think cancelling should be cancelled.

But it's perfectly possible to believe all of the above, and, at the same time, to be critical of the way in which this tool is being frequently used in contemporary ideology in the year 2020. I have three criticisms of contemporary cancel culture:

1) Cancelling, or shunning, should be a last resort, when no mediation or restoration proves possible. People are being cancelled quickly and willy-nilly, without a robust conversation and deliberation and debate - and this spreads like wildfire over the internet, among people who have nothing to do with the situation at hand, don't know the people involved, and often don't even have their facts right. This can become a kind of mob rule, which, given people's existing prejudices, can rhyme with shameful chapters of history, like lynching, and prison. Again, I don't think hasty knee-jerk cancellation should be illegal, but I would prefer that this be exception rather than the rule.

Why should it be a last resort?  Because, as I said above, cancelling is a non-coercive tool to modify anti-social behavior - at best, it is a form of education.  But this is generally only effective for the people watching - not so much for the person who is being cancelled.  The cancelled person themself usually becomes more anti-social after being cancelled.  Ultimately, cancelled people may only be accepted by other cancelled people, and they may form their own culture with its own mores - isn't something like that what happened with 4chan, and turned it into a haven for nazis and white supremacists?  The nightmare scenario is that eventually everyone gets cancelled, or at least a huge part of the population, and then society loses all power of cancelling.  In this sense, cancel culture can become self-defeating.  (I suppose, in that sense, cancelling fails Kant's categorical imperative, not that I really care.)  In order to maintain the power of cancelling, and for it to mean anything, it must be used sparingly.

2) For the same reasons, there needs to be a path for people who have been cancelled to find their way back to forgiveness and acceptance. I'm not even sure how this would work, but let's start thinking about it, together.

3) Most importantly, I am very much against the second-order, third-order, 17th-order shunning, where anyone who fails to cancel a bad guy, or (gasp) attempts to defend them, is themselves shunned. The whole business of "You're cancelled because you're friends with a friend of a friend of this person I don't like" cannot work, because we are all six degrees from Kevin Bacon. Precisely because I believe in freedom of association, I am absolutely opposed to guilt-by-association. Again, I don't think it should be illegal, but it is a very bad mental habit, and one that, when widespread, creates a chilling effect which does not bode well for civil society, and certainly destroys any possibility of building a movement.

I respect cancel culture, but even more deeply respect those who are willing to be cancelled in order to stay true to their principles.

P.S.: One more thing: there is a sense in which cancelling can be a kind of illusion - for the person being cancelled, the people doing the cancelling, and many people looking on.  You might think you've been cancelled, because all you see are loud voices calling for your cancellation - when in fact, a larger number of people still love and respect you, and an even larger majority of the culture either don't know or don't care.  Don't give up hope, and don't give up trust.


  1. PPS: [In the course of an argument on facebook, I wrote this... it seems to fit here.]

    The big story is the way that these giant social media monopolies like facebook and twitter are deforming our social relations, encouraging behaviors of picking on individuals, piling on, and exhibiting a weird pseudo-moralistic sadism when someone is down - I want to call it gleeful sadism, but I don't see any real joy here. It's all this weird performative set of compulsory gestures of mockery and cruelty, delivered in memespeak: "buh-BYE!"

    I find it especially gross when "my side" is doing it, and that's when it's time for me to speak up.

    Maybe this particular case doesn't matter, but to me it's like exercise. We have to start flexing these muscles now, or they will atrophy and disappear, and we won't be able to make that push to defend someone when it really does matter.

    Practice defending people.


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