Mechanics and logics of cancel culture

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Mechanics and logics of cancel culture

How do cancel cultures work? What is the logic behind them? In order to understand, we should look at the underlying mechanics and logics of cancel cultures involved in two major forms of them: institutional and technological cancel cultures.

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

How do cancel cultures work? What is the logic behind them? Why is it that sometimes any one person, individual, or institution can wield what some believe – rightly or wrongly – is outsized power? There will not be space here to look at every kind of cancel culture, nor at every possible interpretation of cancel cultures. But there is space to look at the underlying mechanics and logics of cancel cultures involved in two major forms of them: institutional and technological cancel cultures.

Mechanics of cancel cultures

What we have to understand about cancel cultures is that not only are their esteemed values not identical, but that their mechanics of operation are not identical. Moreover, their mechanics are not identical because the kinds of power that they have access to are not identical.

Pierre Bourdieu, eminent sociologist of the academy, exposes this insight through Homo Academicus.[1] This work analysed the student riots of May 1968 in France, which soon spread beyond the university to French society, culminating in widespread labour strikes and riots, complete with violent police crackdowns.[2] [3] [4] [5] Bourdieu explores this event and the way the universities and academics navigated it, and the types of power and influence present in the university system that in part contributed to it.

He notes that there are basically two types of power directly relevant to academics – institutional and intellectual – which depending on the academic was more or less concentrated. Institutionally, some academics had access to power in the university by virtue of their position in the university’s administration and their ability to institute obligations on students and other academics.[6] For example, the chair of the department who controls the curriculum and funding, the committee who determines tenure, etc.

Other academics had access to power not because of their position within the university’s hierarchy, but by virtue of their reputation within the wider cultural landscape. Often, this reputation was on the basis of the supposed intellectual value of their academic productions, but this sometimes also shaded into their popularity or dispopularity in the wider cultural environment.[7] For example, the professor who gets interviewed by the Economist or who publishes editorials or popular level works.

It is important to remember that it is rare for any one person or group to have access to only institutional or intellectual power. But it is also important to see that what Bourdieu here calls ‘intellectual’ power operates on the basis of reputation, which is another reason why any ‘intellectual’ criteria will be unstable, just as ‘moral’ criteria, since they both can be co-opted by the cultural milieu both inside and outside of the university.

Moreover, the categories Bourdieu provides can serve as templates to understand ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ cancel cultures. In the present world, what Bourdieu labelled ‘institutional’ or ‘academic’ power, often today would be the group seeking to institute ‘intellectual’ criteria. However, many seeking ‘intellectual’ criteria would also come from within the academic world, but with a different centring of their reputational value.

Similarly, the categories Bourdieu names ‘intellectual’ easily overlap with groups today who are seeking ‘moral’ criteria. Both groups operate on the basis of public reputations and the agreement with the ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ dogmas of the day. This is not to say that these dogmas may or may not be intrinsically true or just, only that the mechanics of enforcement require allegiance to a particularised point of view. Of course, many seeking ‘moral’ criteria are themselves entrenched within institutional structures and seek to shape the institution towards that moral vision. Yet, the power that gives the greatest weight comes from beyond the localised context of a given university, concerns over reputational alignment with ‘moral’ and ‘intellectual’ values.

How do institutional cancel cultures actually cancel? Often through institutional power granting them control over and influence on the happenings, procedures, and decisions of the university, as well as institutional innovation: e.g. restructuring, curriculum change, admissions policies, examination standards, etc. You might say they operate on a hierarchically legitimated cancellation. Best-case scenario, institutional cancelling can protect truth and justice from those attempting to institutionalise lies and injustice.

However, those with less institutional power must rely on outside reputational power, which can be multiplied by media technologies. Reputational power operates on the shame-honour dynamics of ‘moral’ values in the wider public sphere. Deploying and recruiting reputational power has become easier with technological innovations, such as mass and social media. Since the power comes from outside in the public, social media technologies make it easier and faster to publicly shame or honour institutions and individuals that cohere with a set of moral values. Different societies and moral cancel cultures within a society will obviously employ these same technologies to effect a shame-honour dynamic in their favour. Therefore, this can be termed reputationally legitimated cancellation. Best-case scenario, reputational cancelling can hold people, groups, and institutions publicly accountable for institutionalising lies and injustice. This is sometimes especially necessary because the institutionalised structure of power cannot be held accountable from within.

Logics of cancel cultures

Cancel cultures depend on slightly different logics and ethics to undergird and direct their activities.[8] [9] These logics are embedded within the different forms of access to the types of power available, but they must also have some kind of conceptual justification. Thus, these logics also have a sort of base paradigm for inclusion or exclusion. For this reason, each may have different protected and non-protected classes. Moreover, these logics must display some level of internal cohesion, which makes it possible for someone inside or outside the group to appeal to the base paradigm as worthy of being extended or retreated.

In May 1968’s student riots, that coherence meant the labour unions joined the students by striking and participating in the demonstrations. The students could not exclude the workers and maintain their ideological coherence, but also they had no interest in excluding them, since the workers greatly outnumbered the students and provided greater public legitimacy and public fallout against the universities in their favour.[10] [11] [12] [13] Meanwhile, Bourdieu points out that within the institution of the university, those with the most to gain from keeping the status quo were the most likely to side against the students and the workers and provide justification within their ideological confines.[14]

Today, as then, while different cancel cultures assume diverging conceptual logics to base and determine their cancellations upon, both employ the same mechanics of cancelling, and in so doing, assume the same core logic of cancelling. But often, ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ cancel cultures do see the conceptual coherence of the other, and, more importantly, see the true value of truth and justice that one or the other is emphasising.

How can we seek truth and justice without turning them into labels for different kinds of grapes for power? There are no easy answers. But now that we have understood how cancel cultures work – at least provisionally – and can see more clearly the dangers of an eternal struggle for power disguised as ‘intellectual’ or ‘moral’ value, we can begin remaking the university into the centre of truth and justice we all want it to be. We do not have the power to cancel any one cancel culture. Yet, by rejecting disguised fights over power – whether using the institutional structures or in Twitter’s hashtag – and embracing humility, reflexivity, and an equal commitment to truth and justice we might have the power to cancel cancel cultures altogether.

Developing dynamic intersectionality

There are no easy answers. Nevertheless, we might be able to construct a way forward by working the mechanics and logics of cancel cultures together in a way that subverts somewhat the idolatry of power they often inadvertently celebrate. In other words, we might be able to find a way to cancel cancel cultures from within cancel cultures.

All particular logics of cancel cultures use the same mechanics described earlier: institutional and reputational cancelling. Sometimes there is a hegemonic cancel culture operating under a particular logic that controls both institutional and reputational cancelling at a societal level. Other times one cancel culture maintains access to only institutional or reputational cancelling, while in others multiple cancel cultures have access to both forms.

Cancel cultures in their various forms have an interest in targeting individuals, groups, or even wider segments of society with their cancelling, or similarly with affiliation, usually loosely based on their preferred underlying logic. These social collectives assume that the distinguishing features of these social groupings exist as a basis upon which a cancelling can be enacted. This is the meta-logic of cancel cultures. Importantly, though all cancel cultures operate by the same meta-logic, the conceptual logics of cancel cultures can differ widely. Moreover, there is a multiplicity of cancel cultures at play in any society at a given time, though the exact number varies with the society and over time. Moreover, these diverse cancel culture logics may work for or against each other collaboratively in different ways.

To describe and begin to reform just this kind of situation in the US legal system, in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in a field-defining paper.[15] [16] Crenshaw’s point is that when it comes to the types of cancelling logics operative in a given situation, the outcomes are not as simple as picking one of the cancelling logics and placing it as primary. Moreover, the logics of cancelling can intersect to exponentially impact the person or group involved. Crenshaw explains, “Some people look to intersectionality as a grand theory of everything, but that’s not my intention. If someone is trying to think about how to explain to the courts why they should not dismiss a case made by black women, just because the employer did hire blacks who were men and women who were white, well, that’s what the tool was designed to do.”[17] This concept of intersectionality is incredibly helpful as a tool, but it also has limits, because it was developed to counteract a specific set of institutionalised cancel cultures. Thus, unfortunately, it is often understood and used as if intersectionality involves static societies. But cancel cultures and how we understand how they operate changes even in the course of a year.[18] [19] [20] Nevertheless, it does provide some help to cancelling cancel cultures. We just need to make it more dynamic.

Dynamic intersectionality builds upon Crenshaw’s intersectionality by emphasising that the particular boundaries and oppositions of various cancel cultures are constantly evolving. Today’s oppressed can become tomorrow’s oppressor, and the reverse. Just ask Cleopatra. Moreover, they are not just evolving in time, but in different institutions and geographies. Someone from a working-class background could run the sociology department with an iron fist. There it is not your class background that causes you to suffer, but whether you agree with her pet theory on educational outcomes. But that same sociology professor could find herself cancelled the following day simply for being a woman as the Taliban take control of Afghanistan. The danger with static misunderstandings of intersectionality is assuming that who has the power to cancel and on what basis a person can be cancelled will remain constant, in time, space, or institution.

Dynamic intersectionality requires that we take a posture of constant reflexivity and humility, intellectual curiosity, and moral courage. How? First, we set aside the obsession with getting power but without ignoring how the mechanics of cancelling are presently functioning in the specific social system in view for all the people involved. This means not only truly seeking to see things from another’s perspective, but taking the proactive step to get their perspective. This means ongoing dialogue and reflection also about the logic upon which respective cancel cultures operate, as well as how different people, groups, and societies see the world. This can build epistemic inclusivity by exposing and reducing blind spots while developing a passion for the collaborative pursuit of truth.

Second, dynamic intersectionality seeks moral fecundity. What does this mean? It means understanding the moral frameworks of others from the inside first, and then seeking to put them in relation to one’s own moral system. We must constantly interrogate whether a claimed moral value is truly about what is right and good or whether it is about power or prestige. It means using the dynamic intersectional analysis to see who is being cancelled for what reasons and how. Again, it cannot be done by any cancel culture alone, but must include a we-them perspective and collaboration. Above all, it must include the moral courage to seek justice for all, even if it costs us, but especially we must seek it for those who have the least capacity to seek justice for themselves, both in institutions and in wider society.

Dynamic intersectionality is a solution to cancel cultures. Yet, it can be corrupted by grabs for power and influence disguised as ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ values. It still presents difficulties when sets of moral and intellectual values are simply incompatible and incomprehensible. However, these are minimised the more dynamically intersectional it becomes in its epistemic inclusivity and moral fecundity. But when it is successful, there is at least the chance that it cancels cancel cultures and the idolatry of power often hiding in them. In their place we might build a world of collaborative and cooperative seeking for and establishing of truth and justice.

R. Anthony Buck

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[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus (Paris: Les Éditions De Minuit, 1984).

[2] In France, The Protests Of May 1968 Reverberate Today — And Still Divide The French

[3] May 1968: A Month of Revolution Pushed France Into the Modern World (Published 2018)

[4] France’s protesters revive ghosts of 1968 revolt

[5] France’s 1968 uprising, 50 years on: ‘It’s harder for the youth today’

[6] Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, 99, cf. 97-167.

[7] Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, 99-100, cf. 97-167

[8] Cf. Can you teach new robots old tricks?

[9] Cf. Alasdair C. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth, 1988).

[10] In France, The Protests Of May 1968 Reverberate Today — And Still Divide The French

[11] May 1968: A Month of Revolution Pushed France Into the Modern World (Published 2018)

[12] France’s protesters revive ghosts of 1968 revolt

[13] France’s 1968 uprising, 50 years on: ‘It’s harder for the youth today’

[14] Bourdieu, Homo Academicus.

[15] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989, no.1, Article 8: 139-67, http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8.

[16] Intersectionality, explained: meet Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term

[17] Kimberlé Crenshaw on Intersectionality, More than Two Decades Later

[18] What is cancel culture? Why we keep fighting about canceling people

[19] What is cancel culture? How the concept has evolved to mean very different things to different people.

[20] The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture