Cancel culture: An introduction
Historically a tool for social justice accountability, cancel culture has transformed into an ideological tactic that has put freedom of speech and the academy into question.
This article was written in preparation for our round table on Cancel Culture.
Cancel culture is a specific way of behaving towards someone who may have said or done something that was considered offensive. In its most familiar form, it presents itself in the form of a group of people, often on social media, excluding someone from social or professional life. At its core, cancel culture’s act of exclusion is concerned with accountability: to hold someone accountable for a wrongdoing.
The brief history of cancel culture
As a mainstream phenomenon, cancel culture is relatively new. The act and the term ‘to cancel’ have their roots in social justice movements in the United States, specifically the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and 60s. Cancellation then was an attempt by minority civil rights activists to reject figures or works that spread harmful ideas. The key effort was to ignore the public status of a figure or work while drawing attention to its harm.
This form of accountability was immensely attractive, arguably prescient, and popularly possible, when social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo needed to overturn the dominant narrative about publicly accepted figures or extant social systems. These social systems or figures had failed marginalised people and communities, either on the basis of race or gender, but had evaded accountability. Cancel culture made this accountability possible, by delivering collective demands for consequences.
It can be argued that during this time, a key shift occurred in identity politics of minorities that were historically failed by society. The need to have their positive identity respected, on the basis of race or gender for example, led minority groups to form a new, negative, identity based specifically on the exclusion of the wrongdoers. This negative identity gave minority individuals as well as groups a perceived onus to deal with the wrongs of the majority by excluding them.
A second wave?
Mainstream cancel culture, as a collective tool of accountability, was initially used by social justice movements left-of-centre. As it spent more time in the mainstream, however, cancel culture diversified across other ideological positions or identities as well. Now, it has become a popular ideological tactic of both the far left and the far right. Some believe this is in fact the ‘second wave’ of the cancel culture, in which cancel culture has shifted from precepts of accountability to entrenchments of culture and politics. A key arena where this second wave has played itself out is on the question of free speech.
LSE Professor Shakuntala Banaji, co-author of the forthcoming book ‘Social Media and Hate’, argues that far-right individuals and organisations have punished forms of identity and self-expression through a range of hateful and dehumanising practices on and offline. Notably, she explains, the right have politicised and weaponised ‘free speech’. By using “the idea that a self-indulgent, censorious band of woke liberals and left-wingers … were interfering with the rights of true patriots,” the right is barring scholars and students of colour or other minorities from expressing their academic work freely, or by shaming activists, journalists, and scholars for their calls for justice on issues such as Palestinians or Muslims.
Culture writer and novelist Kat Rosenfield, on the other hand, speaks of “a militant faction on the Left,” which has imposed a radical set of sensibilities on influential public institutions, including the academy. Rosenfield effectively makes an inverted case to Banaji’s. Similar to Heather Mac Donald’s case ‘The Diversity Delusion’, she speaks of how identity politics led by “[l]eft-wing authoritarianism” has overrun open-minded inquiry and expression in the academy. There is a “sudden appearance of preferred pronouns in bios and email signatures; the obsession with diversity, representation, and racial or sexual identity in popular culture.” She claims that the academy is hit hard by cancel culture because most academics are overwhelmingly left leaning.
A key way cancel culture has become increasingly prevalent across all kinds of ideological positions is its increasing ability to perform within the binary rubric of right-versus-wrong. The concern is not whether we can hold one another accountable, but to assess and act – judge – towards someone from a position of disagreement. Cancel culture has, therefore, become a double-edged sword. Cambridge University cognitive neuroscientist Rocco Chiou explains that while cancel culture can positively hold someone accountable for their misbehaviour and raises awareness about injustice, it can also become ‘vigilantism’ in the digital space as well as the physical world: “a way of judging and rejecting anyone who holds a different socio-political viewpoint.” Cancel culture, therefore, is now creating the very problem it once fought and still does fight: bigotry. By creating new forms of ‘moral righteousness’, it is increasingly allowing people to believe it is morally justifiable to denounce someone who they believe to be “morally inferior and deserves the criticism.”
Cancel culture in Europe
As alluded to by Banaji, Rosenfield, and Mac Donald, the forms and consequences of ‘moral righteousness’ created by cancel culture are harmful to academic practice. It can, as many academics have publicly warned, lead to intellectual prohibitions that harm the academic freedom deemed necessary to the creation of knowledge.
European universities in many ways have borne the brunt of this harmful variant of cancel culture. In France, for example, ‘de-platforming’ of speakers and speech has become increasingly prevalent. Public intellectuals and political leaders such as Alain Finkielkraut and former French President François Hollande respectively were recently prevented from speaking at French universities, in Finkielkraut’s case at the Sciences Po and in Hollande’s case at the University of Lille. These, and other de-platforming events, stand at odds with the French rally cry of “it’s forbidden to forbid,” and have raised alarms about the national spirit of academic debate in France, once described by philosopher Michel Onfray as “Rabelaisian freedom, Voltairean critical sense and Cartesian reasoning.”
The French critic Pascal Bruckner is not surprised at what is happening in France. He argues that cancel culture is part of the transactional relationship between the United States and France. Much of what emerged as cancel culture in Europe is the result of influential works of French thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida. “We’ve invented this, and now it’s coming back,” he says.
The ease with which cancel culture has entered the European academy may also be because of Europe’s “traditional Christian repertoire and heritage.” French political scientist Olivier Roy indeed argues this. Cancel culture, Roy explains, “insists on repentance to allow forgiveness, but not forgetfulness.” It invokes Christian ideas of “repentance and atonement, confession of sins and the fact that the original sin is transmitted from generation to generation, and can be washed out only if individuals take the responsibility of the guilt on their own shoulders.” This is arguably analogous to the typical process of cancellation, which unfolds from the public identification of a wrongdoing by a person to the admission by and punishment of the person believed to be responsible for the wrongdoing.
It can be argued, then, that cancel culture is part of a larger – or underlying – process where religion is increasingly becoming a secular tool or reappearing in secular forms. To be sure, while European society may not use categorical makers of traditional religiosity in many settings any longer, the influence of Christianity on their identity reveals a “liminal religiosity” where religion has a “fuzzy” existence in everyday life. The influence of this liminal religiosity, for example, helps explain not only cancel culture then, but more systemic processes of exclusion such as the bans on Muslim clothing, practice, and symbols in countries like France and Switzerland.
Is defining cancel culture enough?
The unfolding of cancel culture in Europe, and its history and development in the United States, raise the question of whether cancel culture’s concern with accountability is upheld by how it is essentially performed. Who defines what is offensive or wrong? What is the difference between something offensive and something that other people do not agree with? What kind of exclusion is justified for a specific offence? Does any group of people have the right to exclude someone? Are forums of exclusion, such as social media or universities, the right places to assess and exclude someone? Should persons who have offended not have the opportunity to privately learn from their mistakes? Despite its commitment to accountability, its collective act to exclude an individual leaves many other concerns unanswered.
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