Cancel Culture Has Been Hijacked By The Rich And Powerful
"Cancel culture" is one more myth to keep the powerful in charge.
In the opening to her landmark essay ‘Notes on Camp’, theorist Susan Sontag argues that there are things that have been named but never described. Cancel culture is one of these things — even as the phrase becomes increasingly popular.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age recently ran a three-part series on what they are describing as a new form of social activism, spinning a story of spurned academics and supposedly vilified thespians, all targeted by a powerful mob who have allegedly chosen aggression over civility. In one article, actor Hugh Sheridan, supposedly “cancelled” for taking on the role of Hedwig in the acclaimed musical Hedwig And The Angry Inch, detailed the ways in which his life has been “destroyed.” “You cannot support cancel culture if you care about people’s mental health,” Sheridan said.
In another piece published as part of the series, universities are depicted as places where terrified academics cannot speak “the truth”, whatever that nebulous phrase means — where cancel culture has utterly upended the notion of free expression.
These articles are part of a trend. Earlier this month, the editor of small digital publication Verity La, Michele Seminara –– “cancelled” for publishing a piece that was described as racist and misogynist, and her subsequent tweets through the official Verity La account — wrote an op-ed about the alleged harassment she had received, decrying a new age of censoriousness.
The mistake made by these articles is simple: they imagine that there is some stable meaning of the phrase “cancel culture”. Even a brief look at the various ways that we use the term should show us how far from achieving some sense of shared meaning we are. That’s not a coincidence, or a result of our lack of trying. Cancel culture is one of those phrases that, by its very definition, cannot be clearly explained.
These failed attempts to bandy about the term should teach us something – namely that the exercise of getting to some uncontested version of the term is impossible. “Cancel culture’ is constantly being re-defined and changed. No one party will be more right than anyone else about what cancel culture “actually” is.
But, importantly, that “we” is not generalised. Cancel culture has disparate meanings across a range of different communities. The writers at The Age have their own interpretation of the term. So does Seminara. Meaning has always been bound to identity, and identity to groups. Words don’t track onto ahistorical, objective truths. They are highly variable vocabularies, ones that which we can collectively create — and, in the case of cancel culture, can collectively abuse.
An Attempt To Define Cancel Culture (To Show That We Can’t)
I’m going to undertake a deliberately doomed exercise: I’m going to try and generalise a definition of “cancel culture”. You will quickly notice the ways in which this exercise is futile — you will find yourself disagreeing with a large number of my arguments. That is the point.
In the most abstract terms, in order for someone to be “cancelled”, we would generally say that they have — firstly — expressed a belief or undertaken an action that — secondly — has been considered immoral, dangerous, or untoward by enough people. By “immoral”, I mean “in contrast to at least one dominant system of ethics”, by “dangerous” I mean “could lead to bodily or psychological harm” and by “untoward” I mean “in contrast to a social, rather than ethical code”.
The very heart of cancel culture is obscured, a foggy definition that resists our turning it into a general rule.
A key part of that second premise is the use of the phrase “enough people”. There is no way to define “enough people” in the abstract. That is one of the ways in which defining cancel culture is impossible. We understand that an individual cannot cancel someone on their own — we would generally say that the person whose dislike of another’s actions is not taken up by many or any other people is “holding a grudge.” This is different from cancelling someone. But how many people are required for someone to be cancelled?
In philosophy, there is an ancient thought experiment known as the sorites paradox. Take a heap of sand. Start removing grains from it, one by one. At some point, the heap will stop being a heap. A single grain of sand, after all, is not a heap. But where is the boundary between heap and non-heap?
We cannot define the line between heap and non-heap in the abstract, just as we’ll never be able to define the line between “enough people” and too few. The very heart of cancel culture is obscured, a foggy definition that resists our turning it into a general rule.
Repercussions For Who?
The third and final condition for cancellation is that once the belief or action has been designated as immoral/dangerous/untoward by enough people, the person who made the comment, belief, or action experiences widespread repercussions.
These repercussions can be economic — the person loses their revenue stream — or social — the person might be socially ostracised. These are clear-cut examples. But there are less obvious ones. Is “being made to feel bad” a repercussion? If so, the definition of cancel culture would become impossibly large, capturing everything from minor awkward social exchanges — a room full of people not laughing at your joke, causing you to blush — to total, consistent social shaming.
Nor is it clear what we mean by “widespread.” How many people criticising you would it take for your actions to receive these widespread repercussions? 12? 200? Looking at examples of “cancelled” individuals doesn’t help; each instance of cancellation was undertaken by a different community, enforcing different repercussions. You can be cancelled by one community and embraced by another. So how do repercussions work if that’s the case?
When comedian Dave Chappelle experienced pushback for expressing anti-trans rhetoric in his most recent special, Chappelle seemed to revel in the fact he was being called out. He also didn’t appear to experience any repercussions, let alone widespread ones — he continues to have opportunities for high-paying jobs, if he wants to take them, and his cultural and economic power means that he can continue to earn a living through the very means that he expressed the remarks in the first place.
Those on the right, however, believed that Chappelle was up against a massive, coordinated force that attempted to silence him. He was painted as a last bastion against the ongoing attempts to shame and vilify; a cancellation success story, who did not allow his censors to overwhelm or undermine him and who fought back against an ugly new trend. These right-wing commentators took “social backlash from key cultural groups” as fulfilling the “widespread repercussions” condition, ignoring Chappelle’s considerable financial and cultural power.
How could we ever boil down these circumstances into a solid, stable category? Leave aside the huge disagreements on whether cancel culture is a welcome re-balance of power, or a case of mob rule run amok: most of us can’t even decide who’s been cancelled or not.
What Do We Want To Do About Cancel Culture?
Because of cancel culture’s definitional messiness, it is equally impossible to say definitively what “we” want to do about cancel culture. Instead, it’s better to speak about the goals of specific communities.
For certain members of the right, for instance, cancel culture is a scourge on society. Its goals, broadly construed by this community, are to silence and to oppress. So they seek to eradicate cancel culture completely, turning away from this “new” era of mob power, and return to a state where free speech rules. This is the position taken by The Age; by Seminara; by the endless list of conservative commentators who yearn for a return to a world that never existed, where you could say what you wanted without any fear of repercussion.
By contrast, for some of those on the left, cancel culture is a name given to a welcome return of power to the powerless. No longer, these leftists say, can bigoted opinions be spouted without consequence. J.K. Rowling is free to express her transphobic views, but she is not free to do so in a vacuum. Her opinion can be counterweighed by a multitude of digital voices; by the repercussions of her beliefs. For these leftists, cancellation is a way of describing a re-balancing of sorts, a way of striving towards a world in which those who have been silenced can finally find their voice.
Can we all talk about why every debate or op-ed on "cancel culture" is fucking stupid because it's a nonsense term, it means different things to everyone and we should just stop using it and say what we mean.
— Kara Schlegl (@karaschlegl) November 21, 2021
These views clearly pull apart from one another. But in both of these cases — for both the left and the right — cancel culture is about power relations, whether it be the power of the cancel culture mob, or the power being returned to the powerless. And in both of these cases, cancel culture, which cannot be defined anyway, rests on a limited understanding of power.
The Harm Of Cancel Culture
If we hold freedom, self-expression, and autonomy to be desirable, then the biggest issue of our time, bar none, is class discrepancy.
The wealthy are getting wealthier; the poor, poorer. Cancel culture, as used by both the right and the left, aims to speak to this concern — when we talk about power, we are always talking about class. But cancel culture doesn’t acknowledge highly changeable — and yet still deeply held — lines of power that have been drawn for many decades.
After all, many of the understandings of cancel culture imagine that there is some new authority being granted to marginalised communities. This is not entirely the case. Of course, social media allows voices to be heard that were not heard before. Lived experiences can be shared; communities can be formed. This is an uncomplicated positive. But power is still disrupted by class lines; by social norms. Cancel culture does nothing to alter the status quo. It does not step over pre-existing power relations or disrupt the considerable cultural and economic power of those in charge.
Mark Fisher, the great social theorist and philosopher, once wrote that the ruling class are “unembarassable” — not because they understand some secret rules of a game of social and power relations, but because there are precisely no rules. Whatever the ruling class does is correct because it is them doing it. They have an authority that stamps their every action as “right”.
It is for this reason that cancel culture will never re-draw power lines. We cannot cancel the powerful — we cannot chip away at their authority merely by attempting to designate their actions as unacceptable. It is absurd to imagine that someone like Joe Biden, the current US President, could ever be cancelled. His power is too great; his authority cemented by a vast structure that means he will never experience true repercussions. It is absurd to imagine even that Chapelle, a member of an upper class that has consolidated its wealth and influence more strongly than ever, could ever be cancelled.
It is simply not true that the hierarchy of power has been flipped on its head by cancel culture. J.K. Rowling might be inundated with critical voices — but she has the immense cultural capital required to ignore them.
Cancel culture has also done nothing to disintegrate class divisions. It benefits only those in powerful for us to imagine that authority is in any way shifting hands. Cancel culture is a distraction. As used across diffused communities, it imagines that there is a new power relation, a new way of conceiving the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. But this is one more myth, an illusion that keeps the powerful protected.
It actually serves those in power to imagine their authority is in some way threatened.
It actually serves those in power to imagine their authority is in some way threatened — if they can make it seem as though they are under threat, they can justify more consolidation of their authority. They can hold considerable cultural power while pretending that they are powerless. Rowling can be a multi-millionaire while demanding the respect we afford to the marginalised.
In Australia, we have already seen this weaponising of the term. Peter Dutton, fresh from suing a refugee advocate, has managed to paint his litigious silencing as a riposte to mob rule. Scott Morrison has warned against the threat of vast systems of empowered voices that use the notion of offence to quash opposing views. The powerful have dressed themselves up in the language of the marginalised. They have successfully hijacked the term “cancel culture”, using it as a distraction from the real issues of our time and a means of obscuring their unchanged social authority.
The lived experience of the rich and powerful is the same as it ever was, cancel culture be damned. So is the lived experience of marginalised communities. LGBTIQ Australians remain at risk of significant violence. Australians in lower socio-economic classes still face the compounding pressures of poverty. Those are the issues we face. And those are the issues that cancel culture, in all its messiness, cannot solve.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee.