Harper’s Magazine sparked major controversy recently by publishing an open letter criticizing cancel culture, signed by hundreds of public figures. The letter was all the more galvanizing since—in addition to the usual suspects like Steven Pinker and David Brooks—well known leftists, such as Michael Walzer, Noam Chomsky and Drucilla Cornell, were also signatories. This provoked a flurry of responses: ranging from denials that cancel culture is a problem and accusations that conservatives are overstating its significance, to exclamations that it was about time, defences of the status quo and even a few baffled queries as to what all the fuss was about. The Harper’s letter went out of its way to express support for a variety of progressive causes—from calling for racial justice to criticizing Donald Trump:
Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides. The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
To many liberals, the letter’s content may seem banally true, and the only matter of interest is how far we must have come for it to have aroused such impassioned commentary. But this temptation needs to be resisted, since it naturalizes what has always been a fragile historical achievement. Too many liberals give in to the easy temptation of simply assuming the reasonableness of their outlook, without recognizing its dependence on broader historical and cultural trends. This limits their capacity to respond to the anxieties of those skeptical of liberalism’s promises—often with good reason, because, ever since a bunch of slave owners declared that “all men are created equal,” liberal societies have often failed to live up to their guiding principles. When liberalism doesn’t work as well as it should for everybody, one shouldn’t be surprised at or dismissive of the discontent that generates. More importantly, simply assuming the reasonableness of one’s outlook leads it to become rigid and stale, hampering one’s interest in inquiring deeply into historical and cultural contexts to understand why—if a doctrine is so reasonable—so many people have come to reject it. Ironically, many of the critical theories so often decried by the enemies of cancel culture provide the best analytical tools for understanding it: Max Horkheimer was on to something when he worried about the “eclipse of reason” taking place in liberal modern and now postmodern societies.
What is Cancel Culture?
It is important to distinguish cancel culture from more conventional forms of protest and activism, which have been around for hundreds of years in liberal democratic societies. Indeed, one of the frustrating features of the liberal response to these debates has been a comparative ahistoricism, which doesn’t acknowledge that much of what is going on is nothing new. When conservative commentators condemn the George Floyd protests as yet another symptom of cancel culture, it is worth remembering that Martin Luther King described riots as “the language of the unheard” and had plenty to say about “police brutality.” These kinds of protests are not exceptional in liberal societies: they are precisely what liberalism is meant to allow. While authoritarian political models insist on uniform submission to the powers that be, at their best, liberal societies allow the unheard to express their discontent—loudly, if necessary. The same is true of the counter protests that often greet controversial speakers, who then complain that they are being cancelled. If someone responds to your talk by organizing a protest, they are not undermining liberal values, but living by them. Liberalism is about tolerating differences of opinion, not ignoring them or even responding in a polite manner. If people want to call Charles Murray a Nazi or lump Jordan Peterson in with the alt right, they may be wrong but there is nothing intrinsically illiberal about making those statements. If people call for a boycott of an author or radio station, that is how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work.
Cancel culture refers to the illiberal tendency to not only criticize or even insult someone who thinks differently but to actively demand institutional or personal consequences for her behavior. There is nothing illiberal about holding people to account for what they say. But there is something illiberal about demanding their workplaces fire them for expressing those views or calling on the state to inhibit such opinions. There is nothing illiberal about criticizing a person’s intentions or even her character. But there is something illiberal about sharing details of or speculating about her personal life, reducing her to a pariah, or attempting to shame her so thoroughly that expressing her viewpoint becomes impossible, without facing public ridicule. While defenders of liberalism from Karl Popper onwards have always acknowledged the paradox of tolerance—some views are simply so threatening to the freedom of others that the freedom to express them should be inhibited—this argument is usually restricted to views so beyond the pale as to warrant exceptional prohibitions. The usual argument against cancel culture is that it has vastly extended the range of views that can be legitimately silenced through the application of institutional or personal consequences. Unfortunately, most accounts of how we reached this point are rather shallow—some iteration of people are too sensitive these days or some vaguely defined accusations of cultural Marxism or even that people just need to toughen up. More fine-grained accounts try to locate the roots of this in changes in educational approaches, the perpetuation of dangerous or misleading (mostly French) philosophies or the ascendency of woke capitalism, which is over-responsive to controversy and consumer demand. I think there is some truth to these perspectives, but they are incomplete.
The Roots of Cancel Culture in New Media
Prior to Kant, classical liberalism remained largely disinterested in exploring its historical and cultural roots, with its proponents more or less assuming that they were providing universal, Lockean accounts of reason and political morality, which transcended history. It was only in the nineteenth century that acute observers started to recognize just how many factors play a role in making liberalism possible. One was the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere as a privileged realm of discourse and cultural production. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas points out how rising literacy levels and the post-Gutenberg production of books generated a new, erudite middle class. This middle class was boundlessly and even naively optimistic—like proto-Steven Pinkers—in their confidence that reason and science would remake the world for the better, without too many hiccups along the way. They were often self-righteously assured of the obvious legitimacy of their often one-sided moral and political views. But the public sphere had mechanisms for correcting for this one-sidedness: rational deliberation and dialogues in an endless array of essays, newspapers, speeches and books. As Marshall McLuhan observes in The Gutenberg Galaxy, in the bourgeois public sphere, people were forced to confront opposing viewpoints on a regular basis and deal with them in toto. Someone who wanted to criticize Karl Marx or Joseph de Maistre had to read a great deal about them, and then write about the subject at considerable length. This forced bourgeois subjects to engage with a hitherto unparalleled degree of complexity, which played a significant role in developing the liberal outlook. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes that literate audiences would sit for up to seven hours listening to debates between Abraham Lincoln and anti-abolitionists, so they could weigh up each side of an argument they’d already read about at length:
The first of seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottowa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln’s turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.
Postman asks us to consider what the odds are that anyone could sit through even a fraction of such a debate today. The answer can tell us a lot about cancel culture.
The bourgeois public sphere was driven by print media, which tended to be long form and required engagement with a variety of viewpoints. As little as twenty years ago, the best newspapers had a variety of columnists, presenting views from all ends of the political spectrum, often producing thousands of words on the issues of the day. But the classic public sphere was also comparatively uniform compared to what we see today: this tended to generate a sense that there was a conventional, liberal wisdom—critics might prefer the word ideology—that could stabilize society. This public sphere was driven by middle class authors, who tended to share values, backgrounds and interests. You still see echoes of this whenever Ivy League professors write some iteration of the why can’t were all get along? piece. Since then, the public sphere has been radically transformed and democratized. New media emerge every week, many of them no longer dependent on print or even writing at all. At its best, this has greatly empowered previously marginalized voices—women, racial and ethnic minorities and LGBT people—and given them cool new avenues for expression. At its worst, these new media have stimulated what I’ve called a “retreat from complexity.” People have access to an unbelievable amount of information—but it is all too frequently interpreted in the most shallow, partisan and one-dimensional manner. The endless videos on how such and such a figure destroyed his opposition are telling. This seriously inhibits our capacity not only to engage with others, but to take enough interest in their viewpoints to even be tempted to engage with them in the first place. If someone else is just wrong, or evil—or too highfalutin to be easily skim-read—why bother looking into what he has to say? This has transformed the public sphere into an arena in which complicated debates are treated more like sports than Socratic dialogues. Consequently, many of the emotions we have come to associate with one sided-competition have come to the fore: opponents are treated as antagonists, rather than people who simply hold different views.
Political discourse has always been characterized by deep antagonisms: the Athenian demos didn’t cancel Socrates just because he was annoying. But the aim of the liberal public sphere is to mitigate these antagonisms by abstracting away from the individual who holds the view and dealing with the view itself. Modern political antagonisms, however, have assumed an ever more personal quality. So much of the shaming and condemnation of those who feel differently flows from the logic that if they hold bad views, they must be bad people. This means that it is not only someone’s perspective that can be interrogated, but his personality, character and background. The most intimate details of a person’s existence can be scrutinized as part of an effort to generate a total theory of him as rotten the whole way through. In some respects, this harkens back to an older, religious approach, which sought the root of political antagonism not in ideas but in the character of an individual’s soul. Mark Fisher makes this point in his essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” when he discusses how much of cancel culture emulates a “priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn.”
The first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if—and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought—one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements.
The Roots of Cancel Culture in the Crisis of Identity
The regression to a pre-liberal mode of personalized condemnation reflects an inherent tension within liberal culture itself. People condemn identity politics today without recognizing that liberalism itself made identity a central object of cultural concern. From Hobbesian materialism, to Locke’s emphasis on the self and Mill’s endorsement of the freedom to engage in new “experiments in living,” liberals have always stressed that, to be an individual, one must be free to pursue one’s subjective desires without inhibition. Identity is central to this, since any constraints on this freedom are seen as preventing people from being who they fundamentally are. For liberals, who we are is not ensouled beings, destined to exit the transient world of time to rejoin God in an eternal heaven. Instead, our identity is wrapped up in being and doing what we want to be and do—and the culture of liberal societies has come to reflect that. Everything from crude statements like #YOLO to endless self-help manuals on discovering your true self bear witness to this new culture of expressivism. Conservatives have also begun to adapt to this—stressing the psychological and everyday benefits of believing in the Judeo-Christian God, even if you can’t prove his existence. Capitalism has also played a fundamental role in generating this culture of expressivism, overturning old traditions and mores in an endless quest to commodify every aspect of human life. If someone is willing to pay good money to alter her body, or build a temple to New Age spirituality, who are we to stop her?
This expressivist culture has liberated billions from the shackles of authoritarian traditionalism and religious idolatry. But it remains fundamentally limited. The problem is that expressivist culture has always operated in sharp juxtaposition with the material reality in which many of us find ourselves. While the purported mantra is be who you want and do what you will, the stark reality is that many feel increasingly little control over their destinies. Liberal democracy is supposed to be a representative system, in which diverse views are deliberated upon in order to produce policy. But, over the past few decades, people’s trust in democracy has faltered, as it has become increasingly clear that politicians are far more receptive to elite interests than to those of the ordinary person. Rising inequality and job precarity have meant that millions of people who anticipated living prosperous lives have faced an increasingly competitive and stratified hierarchy and have found themselves silenced at the bottom. This hyper-competitive existence has eroded the civic friendship and liberal outlook that characterized the bourgeois public sphere at its best. Opponents are now competitors to be annihilated, rather than participants in a shared discussion. All this has been magnified by new media, which parasitically depend upon and stoke these deepening antagonisms. When this happens, people have little sense that there is any meaning beyond themselves, and this limits their empathy and interest in sincerely learning about other people and putting themselves in their shoes. At the best of times, this has produced the kind of moralistic behavior typical of cancel culture, where we find meaning and solidarity in joining a crowd who share our desire to shame and condemn. This becomes even worse when we face an existential crisis.
Things were bad enough before the Covid crisis and George Floyd’s murder, which showcased both how fragile the system is and how ineffective it can be at managing our human existential anxieties about death. In a sufficiently equal and democratic liberal society—governed by what I call liberal socialism—people might have felt the solidarity with others required to provide a sense of meaning and security that goes beyond themselves, which is needed to moderate and rationalize their approach to politics. When we lack this, we revert to finding meaning in personalized condemnation: projecting blame for the world’s failures and our personal anxieties onto simplified antagonists. But, as critical theorists from Marx through Adorno knew, society is always characterized by tensions that go beyond individual behavior and responsibility. When they become serious enough, such tensions evolve into contradictions that undermine the surface stability of society. We may be at such a tipping point now.