Crying wolf: A parable for cancel cultures

Reading time: 10 minutes

Crying wolf: A parable for cancel cultures

Can we cancel the concept of cancel culture altogether? To find out, we look at moral and intellectual criteria for knowledge.

This article was written in preparation for our round table on Cancel Culture.

Not so long ago, a cute shepherd boy was on guard against wolves. Left alone in the fields and bored, he had an idea. “What if I shouted that there was a wolf? They would come running. That would be so funny and I wouldn’t be so bored, or alone.”

So he shouted, “Wolf! There’s a wolf! Help!”

Immediately, the alarm trumpets rang in the town. People armed with spears and bows sprinted to reach the boy in time. When they arrived, the people were relieved that the boy and sheep were safe. Then, the boy suddenly burst out laughing mischievously. The townspeople were angry and told the boy not to joke about wolves or scream for help without any danger. As they left, the boy was already addicted to feeling the power to make everyone come running.

The boy found their warnings made him want to try again. So he did, almost daily. Each time the village ran to save him and sheep only to find no wolves. Soon, the numbers who ran from the village diminished. Eventually, not even the boy’s family came running. Everyone had learned the boy’s cry of “Wolf!” meant nothing and was only a ploy for his amusement.

One day wolves appeared, for they were a real danger that had long troubled the village. The shepherd boy cried desperately, “Wolf! There’s a wolf! Help!”

No one came. The wolves killed and ate him and several sheep. It was not until people saw the sheep scattered that anyone even went out to check on the boy and the sheep. They found what was left of him and some of their sheep. And there was great grief in the whole village.[1]

It may not be obvious yet, but the actions of the boy and the townspeople in this parable uncover how moral and intellectual criteria for knowledge are intertwined and expressed in cancel cultures.

At the intersection of moral and intellectual criteria for knowledge

Can you separate the knowledge from the conveyor of the knowledge? That is, can you separate the tweet from the tweeter? On the one hand, yes, the tweet has an internal set of conceptual relations if read on its own, plucked at random from the Twitterverse. On the other hand, no, the tweet only means what it means when those conceptual relations are set in the wider set of relations of the discourse and of the wider world.

The story of the boy who cried wolf is a very common parable told to children, the moral of which is that you should not lie because while it has some short-term benefits, it often has long-term costs. You can have a bit of fun by getting all the townspeople to run out to save you and the sheep from the wolf even when there is no wolf. However, if you do that too much, what your cry of “Wolf!” means to the townspeople will no longer be “Wolf!” but “(There’s no) Wolf!” Thus, the story is not just teaching about lying, but about how morality and criteria for knowledge are inseparable.

The townspeople have two ‘intellectual’ criteria for knowledge of the wolf: the cry of “Wolf!” and there being a wolf. But they also have a moral criterion for knowledge: whether the cry of wolf comes from someone deemed worth listening to. If not, then it goes unheeded regardless of whether or not there is a wolf, because the intellectual criteria are entangled with the moral criteria. The boy, therefore, also makes moral and intellectual determinations. He values the amusement of activity and power over the value of truth. But he also does not take seriously that moral and intellectual criteria are intertwined. He does not see the moral or intellectual value of his own actions. The boy was cancelled, but he also cancelled himself.

The townspeople cancelled him on the basis of moral and intellectual criteria: moral, because he was untrustworthy and selfish, and intellectual, because while wolves were a known possibility, the probability of “wolf” meaning “wolf” was dramatically reduced. But here we see how inseparable the set of criteria are for knowledge. This is partially because knowledge is always the product of persons, and partially because all knowledge is put to use by persons. Therefore, moral and intellectual criteria are forced to overlap.

In the university, there is a desire to find ‘intellectual’ criteria for knowledge but ‘moral’ criteria for people. Presumably, the hope is that there can be a ‘rational’ or ‘technical’ set of evaluative judgements that will enable any group of people to rule whether the content of knowledge offered by a person – even an evil person – is worth hearing. Meanwhile, there is also the desire that there can be a set of ethical evaluative judgements directed at the people offering knowledge to determine whether they are worth listening to. In this way, the university has two sets of competing cancel cultures: one cancelling on the basis of ‘intellectual’ criteria and another cancelling on ‘moral’ criteria. But these cancel cultures pose two potentially insurmountable problems.

Problem #1: Can you have truth or morality if all you care about is power?

First, Pierre Bourdieu, a 20th-century French sociologist who specialised in the legitimation of knowledge in the academy, long noted that usually what gets labelled as ‘intellectual’ criteria for knowledge are not actually epistemic in nature,[2] rather they are political in nature. The same is true, he would argue, for much of what gets labelled as ‘moral’. Bourdieu writes, “But, under the cover of saying what something truly is – what it is in truth – one always risks saying what it must be in order to be truly what it is, and by the same blow, sliding from the positive to the normative, from ‘what is’ to ‘what ought-to-be’.”[3]

Thus, the legitimation of knowledge or a person in a society, even when constraining our focus to the academic field in society, is always the site of what he calls ‘doxic contest’, or ‘symbolic violence’.[4] [5] That is, stronger agents in a field want to impose a set of legitimations on the field as a whole, while weaker agents seek to resist this by expanding the set of legitimations or seeking to impose their own set over against those who are currently dominant in that field, so that the dominated agents reverse places with the dominant.

Consequently, there is a reflexivity necessary to interfacing with criteria for knowledge, whether intellectual or moral. We must ask ourselves: Do I/we want to impose A or B set of legitimations to maintain or gain power? And will these legitimations come at the cost of others? Will these legitimations come at the cost of knowledge itself?

It is not that questions of true/false or moral/immoral are irrelevant, but Bourdieu is cautioning that often criteria not relevant to either intellectual or moral quality are projected and imposed as intellectual and moral criteria, when in fact these legitimations and delegitimations function merely to reinforce or introduce political, ideological, or social stratifications. That is, obsessing about power and seeking to gain power often distort ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ criteria.

Moreover, all ‘intellectual’ criteria ultimately are underpinned by moral evaluations as much as the ‘moral’ criteria are. Ultimately, even the assumption that true knowledge over false knowledge is better is a moral evaluation. Likewise, the assumption that moral or immoral persons can be known as such is an ‘intellectual’ evaluation. Thus, these intellectual/moral categories are themselves pliable and overlapping, making the possibility of viable criteria for knowledge more difficult.

But their pliability also means that they are not just interrelated but that they are easily converted from intellectual or moral criteria – whatever those might mean – into criteria for power. So that what makes something ‘intellectual’ is that it supports the intellectual viewpoint(s) of the group in question, and what makes something ‘moral’ is that it supports the moral expectations of the group in question.

This is the inbuilt danger of any cancel culture: whether someone is being cancelled because of a perceived lack of ‘intellectual’ value or of ‘moral’ value. In the university, some academics worry about ‘moral’ values cancelling ‘intellectual’ producers or products, while others worry about ‘intellectual’ values cancelling ‘moral’ producers or products. Yet, this conflict in part exists because there is an awareness on both sides that neither category necessarily equates to what its label claims for itself. Ethnicities can remember and see afresh that their ethnic background can be used as an ‘intellectual’ basis to cancel them, while some virologists can remember and see afresh that ‘moral’ concerns can be used as a basis to cancel them.

In sum, all this forces us to consider: are ‘moral’ and ‘intellectual’ criteria even possible? Are all criteria a kind of cancel culture, a culture that cancels some values in favour of others? This only leaves an irony: cancelling cancel culture is a cancel culture while cancel culture wants to cancel those who would cancel cancel culture.

Problem #2: Intellectual and moral criteria at odds

Second, even if we set aside the sociological quandaries and complications seeking to impose a set of ‘intellectual’ or ‘moral’ criteria to academic production and the academic producers, the goals of the criteria are averse to – if not incompatible with – each other, despite the fact that they cannot be fully separated from one another. ‘Intellectual’ criteria seek to legitimise and delegitimise the value of academic production regardless of the ‘moral’ quality of whoever produced it, while ‘moral’ criteria seek to legitimise and delegitimise academic producers based on their actions regardless of the ‘intellectual’ value of what they produce.

The cancel culture of the moral criteria ultimately applies the ‘moral’ evaluation of producers even to their act of production by virtue of the ‘moral’ value of their production. That is, the ‘intellectual’ value of a production is the ‘moral’ value of its producer. Meanwhile, the cancel culture of the ‘intellectual’ criteria ultimately applies an intellectual value to producers through their productions as well. Both ultimately want to talk not only of the products but their producers, though from different ends. The intellectual want to talk about the producer in terms of their production, but the moral want to talk about the production in light of its producer.

This opposition forces uncomfortable questions: How immoral do you have to be before the intellectual value of your production is irrelevant? (Obviously, this has extensions to other fields or criteria sets within the domain of cultural production, e.g. artistic value, technological value, etc.) Alternatively, how unintellectual do you have to be before the moral value of the producer is irrelevant? If Hilter had also been a physics genius surpassing the insights of Einstein and all today’s physicists by leaps and bounds, would we feel comfortable using the physics notes he left behind after committing suicide? Alternatively, if Mother Teresa liked to muse about physics in her journal, would we feel comfortable using the error-filled physics notes left behind to develop a new type of nuclear fission reactor?

Does it change based on the perceived value of what is produced as well as the producer? If Hilter instead developed only moderately insightful theories on physics, would we feel more or less comfortable using or dismissing them? The same goes for Mother Teresa. If her physics ideas happen to be groundbreaking, would we feel more or less comfortable imitating her moral character?

Does the process of production change the calculus? If Hilter developed his own ideas about physics by ruthlessly experimenting on people, would the value of the intellectual product change? Likewise, if Mother Teresa developed her ideas about physics from caring for the poor? Conversely, does the moral value of a person’s life change if it develops without an intellectual basis? Does the immoral value of a person’s life change if it develops on an intellectual basis?

These questions get messy. In practice, you can only know the intellectual value of something if you consider it, like the townspeople in the parable, but the moral value often determines whose ideas are worth considering, as the boy who cried wolf discovered. Likewise, examining the moral value of someone requires some intellectual criteria for the examination. This says nothing about the multitude of social and political reasons one might be motivated to find in favour of one set of values or another that have nothing to do with either form of cultural values. For this reason, trying to assess and potentially cancel anything on the basis of either only moral or only intellectual criteria is impossible, because somewhere in both processes the other version of the cancel culture involves itself.

But at the same time, both are seeking completely different goals. Both in their own way can be viewed as utilitarian: intellectual value = what is useful for intellectual production, moral value = what is useful for moral production (if a human life could be said to be a production). The problem is that both are easily converted to political goals with personal or group-specific benefits, though theoretically both categories should be of value to everyone. Both sets of criteria are seeking better worlds, though different parts of a better world: more truth, more morality. So, paradoxically intellectual and moral criteria are compatible with each other because of their incompatibility, but only when they are placed in a relation of complementarity rather than isolation.

Can we cancel cancel cultures?

Embracing the paradoxical complementarity of ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ criteria rejects any ‘intellectual’ or ‘moral’ criteria that are disguised grabs at power for a select few. If you make any set of criteria about power, you are more likely to lose even what you are looking to find, whether it be ‘intellectual’ or ‘moral’ values. Jesus said, “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword”[6] and little is different with symbolic forms of violence: whoever lives by and for cancelling others will find themselves cancelled. As in the parable above, the end of the boy who cried wolf is not simply a dead boy and devoured sheep, or even a city who prioritised truth or morality, but a village filled with grief.

You may still be wondering: Who are we talking about? Who in society are those trying to impose intellectual criteria? Who are those trying to impose moral criteria? Or artistic criteria, etc.? You may be hoping that one group will be identified as one side or another, depending on which criteria you prefer for whatever reason. However, it is left ambiguous for three reasons.

  1. They are not separable criteria, every group uses both intellectual and moral criteria, to say nothing of others that could be named. That is, reducing the conversation to this opposition is fundamentally problematic. We are all both groups.
  2. Identification is difficult and temporary. Cancel cultures will appear everywhere with all kinds of permutations, changing dramatically in even brief spans of time. Labelling any group the boy, village, or wolf could end up looking like crying wolf two years hence.
  3. Asking ‘who is who’ often subtly imposes the power dynamics problematised above. The present author is not interested in having this discussion itself weaponised or falling prey to the critique made here.

Rather, we should be asking what am I or is my group valuing and why? Focusing on identifying any group sneaks in the us-them framework that makes truth and justice even less likely as outcomes. We have to start with a we that includes the them. What can we-them learn together? What can we-them contribute together? How can we-them be empowered together? How can we-them pursue truth and justice together? We can assume a stance of teachability and participation, rather than dismissiveness and us-them isolation.

If the university and society can become a place that seeks to listen and learn, if it seeks truth and justice, if it seeks to empower rather than depower, then perhaps it will not have to live by the swords of symbolic violence. Perhaps cancel cultures can be cancelled altogether, not by imposing criteria labelled ‘intellectual’ or ‘moral’, not by ‘power’ or ‘politics’, but by becoming a place where truth and justice do not compete, but complement each other.

Only two questions remain: 1) how might the university or society need to change to bring moral and intellectual values together without transforming them into grabs for power? And 2) will we choose to keep crying wolf?

R. Anthony Buck

To all news items ->

What do leadership, tolerance, and tension have to do with each other? Find out more on the EARS Dashboard.


[1] Originally one of Aesop’s fables, retold here from memory and with slight adaptation to the theme of the article. Cf. Aesop’s Fable: The Boy Who Cried Wolf or in Greek http://www.mythfolklore.net/aesopica/chambry/318.htm

[2] Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, trans. Peter Collier (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988); “Champ intellectuel et projet créateur”, Les Temps Moderns (Nov 1966): 865-906; “The Social Conditions of the International Circulation of Ideas”, Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Shusterman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999): 220-28.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Méditations pascaliennes (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1997), 146. Kindle Edition. Translation the author’s.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, and Jean-Claude Passeron, La Reproduction (Paris: Minuit, 1970), 11ff. Kindle Edition.

Pierre Bourdieu, Homo academicus (Paris: Minuit, 1984), 44. Kindle Edition.

[5] Cf. also Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance De La Prison ( Paris: Bibliothèque Des Histoires, 1975).

[6] Matthew 26.52