Undefined Cancel Game

I don't know what a goose looks like and you can't describe one

“So … you believe in cancel culture now, Will?”

I’ve heard this a lot, over the past few days. It is generally said in much the way you might say, "Sooooo…. do you still think it doesn’t hurt to get bitten by a goose?" after someone with a record of loudly insisting that goose bites absolutely don't hurt has just been bitten by a goose.

Now, I got bitten by something, that's for sure. But was it a goose? Suppose I didn’t know what geese look like and you couldn’t tell me. In that case, how could getting bitten by something logically affect my opinion of goose bites in particular? This is more or less where I am with “cancel culture.” I still don't know what it is, exactly. Maybe you can help me out.

I’m not trying to be dense here. I’m not trolling you in exchange for your generous sympathy. It’s just that I’m convinced that it’s wise to approach emotionally charged alliteration with wary skepticism. I also tend to believe that terms that successfully pick out real things in the real world — terms that aren’t merely vehicles for yay! / boo! sentiments — can usually be given a definition that allows us to get at least a rough handle on what’s included and excluded from the category. But I’ve yet to encounter a definition of “cancel culture” that overcomes my suspicion of sloganized epithets.

So, I’m uncertain about what does and does not count as a manifestation of “cancel culture”— about what does and does not count as “cancellation” in the relevant sense. It follows that it's hard for me to say with any confidence whether I have or haven’t been “canceled” myself.

I'm sure people would like me better if I didn't insist on thinking this way. I guess there's a reason that, instead of plunging headlong into the muddled joys of normal human social life, I chose to go to grad school in philosophy twice, badly exacerbating my pre-existing allergy to the sort of emotionally charged yet semantically inscrutable term with which normal people love to bludgeon their foes. But I am irreparably myself, which is why I insist that, because the unfortunate events that transpired lo these many years ago last Thursday did not come wrapped with a card containing a compelling, intelligible definition of “cancel,” it did nothing to illuminate my understanding of whatever it is that cancel culture is supposed to be.

Maybe this is why I found the opening of Robby Soave’s account of my plight a bit bemusing:

Will Wilkinson is a vice president at the left-leaning Niskanen Center, a contributing writer at The New York Times, and someone who has frequently quarreled with me about so-called cancel culture. (I think it's generally bad when people are fired, expelled, or dragged on social media for saying stupid or poorly phrased things they quickly come to regret; Wilkinson has suggested to me that I've made too much of this problem.)

There’s more than a little “WHADDYA THINK ABOUT GOOSE BITES NOW!” in this. Eventually we arrive at the striking of the gloat gong:

And thus a noted doubter of cancel culture has been canceled for a problematic tweet—ironic, but also regrettable, in my view.

Let’s just go with regrettable.

Anyway, Soave’s characterization up top seems oddly narrow. Are the imagined pathologies of cancel culture exclusive to social media? If you experienced some form of personally costly institutional or social rejection for something you said, but it wasn’t stupid, poorly phrased, or quickly regretted, were you cancelled? If I ran a candy store and one of my employees took to Facebook to make the stupid claim, in poorly phrased language, that the Holocaust was fake, I’d immediately collect her keys to the lollipop vault, whether or not she quickly came to regret her deplorable status update. Is that cancellation? If it is, how is it “generally bad.” These discussions are always like this: a mess.

Later, Soave suggests that “excessively harsh, drastic disciplinary action in response to one dumb tweet that would otherwise likely have been forgotten in a matter of days” is “textbook cancellation.” I would like to review this textbook, which seems to suggest that the key to “cancellation” is severe sanctions for trifling transgressions. That’s interesting.

But what if you think that a certain racist joke is a hilarious trifle we ought to be willing to shrug off, while I think it is egregiously demeaning and should not be tolerated under any circumstances? Suppose our co-worker gets fired for telling this joke, and you describe it as a lamentable bit of “cancel culture?” If proportionality is the issue, characterizing the firing as cancellation clearly assumes what needs to be proved.

In my experience, tendentious question-begging is the point. Slogans like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. The person who believes that the transgression is serious enough to merit severe consequences isn’t given a fair chance to make her case for this position. Instead, she’s forced to earn the right to make the case by acquitting herself of the implicit charge that she is a petty tyrant policing mind-crimes in the name of stultifying ideological conformity. Good-faith discussion of the gravity of racist jokes never gets off the ground.

That’s why “cancel culture” tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content. My view has been, and remains, close to the one elegantly expressed by L.D. Burnett in Arc Digital:

There is no such thing as “cancel culture” — there is only culture.

There are social mores, norms of public behavior and expression, norms and customs that both exert and absorb constant pressure and negotiation in the public square. One of the tactics of negotiation, one of the sources of pressure that shape these social norms, are public denunciations for shameful behavior.

What else should we call the loud yelps about “cancel culture” — coming from Harper’s Magazine, coming from Fox News, coming from Congressman Jim Jordan as he bellows against a second impeachment of President Trump, coming from Senator Josh Hawley as he whinges about his book contract — except attempts to shame others for their views?


But public criticism, or the interventions of professional editors working with an author to improve his writing and reporting, or the decisions of large media companies to withdraw their agreements to publish a particular author, or the deplatforming on social media of heinous people who say heinous things—none of this is censorship, nor is it cancel culture; it’s just culture. This is how society works. This is how critique happens.

Let's put it this way. Bad judgment doesn't call into question good judgment. The prevalence of unjust and unmerited censure, sanction, and ostracism should not suggest to us that censure, sanction and ostracism, as such, need a hard second look. The problem is the imposition of undeserved or disproportionate penalties. Penalizing people for flouting rules, norms or the terms of agreements is no more worrying than rewarding those who faithfully hew to them. Without the distribution of approbation and disapprobation, without a functioning economy of esteem, human civilization would crumble to dust and blow away.

People should get what they deserve. Duh. But what do people deserve? We’re never ever ever going to agree about that. We will always disagree about the bounds of acceptable speech and behavior. Even when we can manage to agree that somebody's crossed what we agree is the line, we may nevertheless differ sharply about the gravity of the transgression and the price they ought to pay for it. Pluralism is hard. But we should steer into these disagreements, the real ones, and not evade them by fighting over the application of a dumb catchy term somebody made up six months ago to shut down constructive debate about whether the social opprobrium they’re trying to shield themselves and their friends from is deserved.

The summer after my freshman year in college, my job was to give tours of Joseph Smith's house in Nauvoo, Illinois. We'd eventually end up at Smith's grave next to his first house there, a rough-hewn log cabin off the banks of the Mississippi, where it was my duty to relate the circumstances of the prophet's death. Smith had set himself up as total potentate of the bustling river burg — prophet of the church, mayor of the city, commanding general of the militia, probably president of the chess club — and he was not magnanimous about dissent.

In June of 1844, some disgruntled schismatic Mormons and regular old "gentiles" decided to exercise their First Amendment rights and start a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. In their first and last issue, they dinged Smith for teaching that there are lots of gods and that it's cool to have lots of wives. It was all true, but Smith got pissed, turned the city council into a star chamber, and in short order a deputized posse (i.e., a mob) smashed the Expositor's presses with the council's blessing.

The non-Mormon denizens of greater Hancock County were alarmed by Smith's thuggish censorship of the Expositor. A warrant for his arrest was issued by county officials, but Smith ordered Nauvoo authorities, who were completely in his thrall, to dismiss the charges. The local non-Mormons then got the governor involved, who basically said that the damn rags publish fake news about me all the time, but I take it like a man and don't smash anything or declare martial law like you, dipshit, because this is America and people have rights, so get thee to the jailhouse, stat.

Smith fled to Iowa, eventually surrendered, got hauled back to Illinois, and was thrown in the clink. An angry mob, in cahoots with the guards, stormed the jail and shot him dead. The end.

I thought about this story a lot during the dark Last Days of Trump. Donald's shameless, flailing, unhinged abuses of power during his final bid to stay in office reminded me a lot of Joseph Smith’s crazed scramble to use every means at his disposal to save his ass after having sent a dubiously authorized mob to quash fake news. Did I mention that Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo because some concerned citizens wrote a letter to the governor complaining about him? Did I mention that he was running for president at the time? Anyway, Smith’s letter defending his actions to Governor Ford may be the Trumpiest 19th document you will ever read.

In the investigation it appeared evident to the council that the proprietors were a set of unprincipled men, lawless, debouchees, counterfeiters, Bogus Makers, gamblers, peace disturbers, and that the grand object of said proprietors was to destroy our constitutional rights and chartered privileges; to overthrow all good and wholesome regulations in society; to strengthen themselves against the municipality; to fortify themselves against the church of which I am a member, and destroy all our religious rights and privileges, by libels, slanders, falsehoods, perjury & sticking at no corruption to accomplish their hellish purposes. and that said paper of itself was libelous of the deepest dye, and very injurious as a vehicle of defamation,—tending to corrupt the morals, and disturb the peace, tranquillity and happiness of the whole community, and especially that of Nauvoo.

To my mind, this translates roughly as, “We shut down these bad dangerous people only because they were trying to use fake news to destroy good, pious, orderly, honest people with their sensational lies. What are we supposed to do, just take it?” In the context of the warrant for Smith’s arrest, this amounts to: “I did nothing wrong. I'm the victim here!”

Thanks to Trump’s coup attempt, I’d been thinking a lot about Smith's spectacular con-man-with-power flameout, but his crazy letter didn’t come back to me until I heard this:

I doubt it would improve my grasp of history to think of Joseph Smith as having “cancelled” the Nauvoo Expositor or (following the example of Jim Jordan) to characterize the Hancock County justice of the peace as having tried to “cancel” Joseph Smith by bringing appropriate legal charges. Indeed, I doubt the rhetoric of cancellation improves our grasp of anything at all.

Here’s Robby Soave again:

The term cancel culture, in recent years, has metastasized and is now deployed in a wide variety of situations, some of which strain the boundaries of the term to breaking. Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio), for instance, described the second impeachment of President Donald Trump for his role in the Capitol riots as an example of Democrats trying to "cancel" the president. This is nonsense.

The only thing I disagree with here is the implication that the term ever had coherent boundaries. Jordan has applied the term to a new domain, but I believe his usage fully accords with precedent and convention. It’s nonsense.


p.s., Please forgive the tardy start to our first full week. It has been both emotionally and logistically complicated around here. I’ll settle into a smooth, consistent rhythm as the hubbub dies down.

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