Friday, March 5, 2021
Thinking clearly about "cancel culture"
I continue to be concerned by our growing tendency to weaponize shorthand expressions for complicated ideas in ways that shed more heat than light. “Cancel culture” is in the news everywhere one turns, and it is being deployed in ways that are both too broad and too narrow: too broad to the extent the term is applied whenever someone experiences consequences for their actions (even self-imposed consequences, as the brouhaha over Seuss Enterprises' decision to stop publishing six of the author's books reflects); too narrow to the extent that the term tends to be applied to the opposing political tribe, not our own. Before reflexively shouting “cancel culture,” let’s ask ourselves three questions:
First, what consequences have been imposed against the person deemed problematic? Has a social media post been criticized by others who find it offensive? That’s criticism, not cancellation. Has a person been disinvited from speaking at a conference or representing an organization based on something they have written or said? That may simply be enforcement of the boundaries surrounding an organization’s identity and values, not cancellation. (And yes, it’s problematic for a newspaper to stake out an identity that precludes the expression of controversial ideas.) Has a company been subjected to calls for a grass-roots boycott by those who find their practices or products offensive? That’s accountability in the marketplace of ideas, not cancellation. Has a company or person been effectively precluded from participating in the marketplace by those who control access to the marketplace? Now we’re getting close to cancellation, but we have to answer another question . . . .
Second, who is imposing the consequences? One genius of American pluralism is that people can live out their beliefs by joining together with others to support a particular way of life or moral perspective. Usually this happens through voluntary associations (churches, clubs, charities). But this can also happen through for-profit companies. If the mom-and-pop pharmacy down the street believes that the morning-after pill acts as an abortifacient and so declines to carry it, customers may choose them because of that stance, or customers may avoid doing business there because of that stance. No one would accuse the pharmacy of “cancelling” the big pharmaceutical company that makes the drug. As long as there is a functioning marketplace with viable options, we should applaud the diversity of moral claims reflected in our various associations.
But what if Amazon decides to stop selling a controversial book? Amazon – like other Big Tech companies – doesn’t just participate in the market; in a real sense, they function as gatekeepers to the market. When those gatekeepers act to remove certain people or ideas from circulation, we should be concerned. (That doesn’t mean it should never happen – e.g., I don’t think Amazon should sell a do-it-yourself kit for building a dirty bomb at home.) In my view, the power of Big Tech is what makes today’s “cancel culture” debates relevant. Many of the debates today are not really new at all, which leads to the last question . . . .
Third, am I tempted to describe as “cancel culture” something that has been happening for many years? Many debates about cancel culture today involve the use of racial, ethnic, or homophobic terms – the N-word most prominently. What’s changed, though, is the words that bring consequences, not our willingness to impose consequences for someone’s choice of words. There was a longstanding list of words that served as red lines not to be crossed (as George Carlin memorably explained), the F-word chief among them. In past eras, you could’ve lost your job, your reputation, and your social standing by uttering obscenities. In a way, we’ve traded the N-word for the F-word as the line not to be crossed, and I think that’s a healthy trade given each word’s history. The notion that words (or images) bring social consequences is not new.
Our social norms are changing. Maybe you disagree with those changes – if so, I suggest focusing your arguments on the substance of those changes and why you believe they are detrimental to society. Or maybe you think people shouldn’t experience consequences for the ideas they express – if so, I think your position would actually weaken the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas in our country, and that would be a shame. Or maybe you fear that certain arguments or beliefs are being removed from the marketplace, not through the free exchange of ideas, but through the top-down imposition of contested moral norms. If so, I share your concern, but the answer is not to issue blanket condemnation of the “cancel culture” bogeyman – it’s to take on an even more complicated topic: what should we do about Big Tech? (And no, I don’t know the answer to that one.)