21 Fallacies Feeding ‘Cancel Culture’ and Holding Back the Contemporary U.S. Left
Does the US Left have a “cancel culture” problem? Or is ‘cancel culture’ just a cynical right-wing bogeyman aimed at disparaging leftists, Millennials, and academia?
Perhaps cancel culture is mostly mirage: the social media shadow of American celebrity obsession, distracting us from the overall healthy left culture on the ground?
Maybe left-wing cancel culture is real, but marginal. Just a crazy niche of fringe folks—better to ignore?
Or is there a genuine ‘there’ there—a problem with significant reach and influence—and if so, what does it consist of?
While we’re by no means settled on the term “cancel culture” and remain open to other possible names for ‘it,’ experience and investigation over the past decade have led us to the conclusion that, yes, indeed, there is a ‘there’ there: whatever we call it, ‘cancel culture’ indexes a real problem on the Left. And it is no minor matter, of interest only to the ‘cancelled’; it hinders whole sectors of the organized and movement Left—intellectually, socially, morally, and politically.
How might we define this left cancel culture? It is undoubtedly a tall task, and we do not mean to offer here a monolithic or final definition. Nonetheless, for now, we offer this: that cancel culture on the left can be understood as a bundle of distinct yet interlocking methods that mishandle problems among regular and working people, as if some regular people are—or are always on the verge of becoming—the enemy (and others, their fragile and helpless victims). This blunt projection of demonization (and blanket victimhood) leads to treating differences, complexities, and conflicts that could and should be approached through reasoned discussion and principled struggle instead as melodramatic antagonisms that demand one or another form of coercion—whether by relying on existing institutional power, or the moral panic of ‘mob rule’.
We might grasp cancel culture here as an expression of punitive (or carceral) thinking within our own social movements, whereby the punishment and purge of individuals comes to symbolically substitute for the collective structural and cultural transformations that liberation ultimately requires. In this sense, cancel culture represents a seeping of ruling class methods of punishment and ‘divide and rule’ into the emancipatory movement, but without access to the resources of the ruling apparatus—a fact which makes cancel culture’s maneuverings in some respects even cruder, more erratic, and less discerning than the more sophisticated attacks of established state power. However genuine the concerns that may animate it, cancel culture remains a grossly inadequate salve for real world injuries and actual domination.
Let us be clear, we are not here making a ‘liberal’ argument: We concede that there are antagonisms in the current capitalist-imperialist world system that are so deeply entrenched that they may indeed require the use of force to overcome and transform them. This is, in other words, not a ‘defense’ of the economic and political Bosses who are positioned to force underlings to endure indignity, exploitation, and abuse—and then to deny them access to institutional recourse. But cancel culture trains us to see virtually all social conflicts, even those among our own comrades, allies, and regular people, through this harshly antagonistic lens. And that’s a problem. Leaping to treat even what may be fleeting (or unsubstantiated) offenses as unquestionable mortal injuries, cancel culture can quarantine and ostracize, but can it understand, let alone heal or transform, the underlying problems to which it responds? Can it attract and sustain the kind of broad mass involvement we need if we are ever to win the deep social transformation our times demand?
The list of fallacies below is an attempt to clarify and compile some of the false assumptions and wrong methods—sometimes held consciously, often unconsciously embedded in existing practices and organizations—that enable ‘cancel culture’ (hereafter CC) and more generally perpetuate the marginalization, divisiveness, and even self-destruction of the contemporary Left. While we’ve tried to represent the operative notions here in a way that shows their serious problems—and with a hefty dose of sarcasm—we’ve also tried to do so in good faith, using language not too far from what perpetuators and participants of CC might recognize as their own, even as the ideological undercurrents we bring out for each are seldom brought to the surface so explicitly.
One last note: It could be pointed out that many of the problematic ideas and practices below are themselves symptoms of deeper issues—from the logistical limitations of contemporary left organizations, to the weakening of the labor movement and other forms of progressive politics based in democratic accountability, to the distortions of corporate social media algorithms, to a sense of despair and suspicion that pervades society generally in this age of compound crises, when an emancipatory path forward may seem in doubt. Nonetheless, though the notions enumerated below can indeed be seen as the symptomatic effects of more fundamental causes, we believe that ideas and methods that take hold of the minds of millions can become causes in their own right—and that many of these fallacies have taken on a life of their own.
And so, we present: 21 Fallacies that Fuel Cancel Culture.
1) Optics are more important than Substance.
Worry more about how things look from the outside, and less about what’s happening on the inside—be it a meeting, an organization, an event, a relationship, or an artwork. External appearances are not even ‘external’ anymore, since such optics, with the help of social media, quickly become internal factors as well. A tweet from a private meeting can start a public firestorm that will consume an organization even before said meeting is completed. Whereas it might have once been possible to explore the nuances of complex matters internally, admitting rough edges and testing unorthodox interpretations in private before deciding on public positions or precise language for broader consumption, this line between ‘public’ and ‘private’ has collapsed. Anyone attending a meeting might shave a sharp splinter from the draft party platform and send it flying as a deadly public blow dart in an instant. Therefore, we must now hold every ‘private’ gathering—every meeting or seminar, every moment, each sentence—to the same public optical standard we would use for an official press conference. No word, phrase, or idea that can be decontextualized or excerpted—tik tok-ed or tweeted—to imply something ‘offensive’ or ‘problematic’ should be allowed, even in private. The enforced loss of spontaneity (and honesty) is a small price to play for making sure we aren’t made to look like fools or bigots. Better to strangle internal discussion than to take a public dart in the neck.
2) Engagement equals endorsement; Association is complicity.
To engage someone in public conversation means you are endorsing all their (potentially problematic) ideas or associations, or at least making light of them—even those ideas that are not part of whatever conversation occurs. Thus, an interlocutor must be deemed ‘safe’ of compromising statements or associations prior to such engagement. If you or your organization don’t have the time or resources to research all the ideas and statements of a potentially ‘controversial’ person ahead of time, well, then maybe you should just not bother engaging them at all. After all, merely being associated (even privately) with a person deemed problematic is enough to compromise you. It is thus better to cut ties with problem people than to sustain contact with them, since the influence of association can only pull in one direction: the ‘bad’ one. The idea that your engagement might encourage positive change in the person deemed problematic, or at least help keep that person from further sliding in the problematic direction, is naïve, at best. Worse, the idea that such association might help the rest of us better understand the context or incorrect ideas that gave rise to the problem in the first place insultingly implies we don’t already know enough to pass judgment. In short: it’s just not possible to do something good with someone bad. Cut ‘em loose.
3) Conversations can’t change problematic people; Political opponents can’t be won over.
If a person opposes us now, they’ll most likely oppose us forever. It’s not possible that discussion with ‘problematic’ figures might give the person in question a chance to clarify, correct, contextualize, qualify, or walk back troubling ideas. Bad ideas can’t be deflated or improved through engagement or ideological struggle; they must be de-platformed. It’s not possible—or not worth taking seriously as possibility—that such people could have, even at one and the same time, multiple views, values, interests, priorities, associations, or commitments that conflict with one another, with some pointing towards a better way forward, others holding such progress back, or with some ideas being residual remnants reflecting that person’s history, but not necessarily their future. People don’t change. They are static and self-identical. Disregard that dialectical bullshit about people as constantly BECOMING relative to what they HAVE BEEN and what they MIGHT BE. People just are what they ARE. Those the enemy has persuaded are lost to us forevermore. Say goodbye to your Trumpy uncle.
4) Problematic views and acts flow from malice or monstrosity, not mere error.
Why give a person the benefit of the doubt when you can cast them as your conscious and mortal enemy, a living embodiment of all you seek to oppose and destroy? Forget that quaint notion that we should “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance.” It’s best to assume that the do-er of a problematic thing was, at the time of said offense, in possession of all relevant information, the full range of opinion, and had their senses about them, and yet still—even after all of that—pursued this bad idea or act as the one that they still wanted or needed to take. Circumstances don’t mitigate wrongdoing. In the off chance that an offending person was not in sound mind or body at the time of an act in question, well, that’s tough shit: they should have known better than to put themselves in a position where they would be likely to fuck up. If their sources of information, opinion, or logic are flawed, well, that’s their fault too. There is no need to factor where someone has come from into our judgment of them today. Good People don’t make Bad Mistakes, therefore, making an error deemed Bad is proof of being a Bad Person. Talk of mitigation is liberal bullshit that upholds an oppressive order of privilege.
5) People can be reduced to their worst action or idea, without doing them an injustice.
Why assume that something bad someone has said or done was an outlying mistake when it can be seen instead as the expression of their essential being? People’s worst moments express their truest selves. (Indeed, for every shitty thing they’ve done that we’re aware of, there are probably a dozen shittier things still unknown to us—we need to factor in these ‘unknown knowns’ as well.) Further, to call attention to the good work that people have done (or might do in the future) as a matter of contextualizing a misstep is to make light of their shittiness. The aftermath of harm is not a time for ‘balance’ or ‘perspective’—and, let’s face it, these days we are always in the aftermath of harm. The only thing that ought to be discussed once a wrong is reported is that wrong; any other element of a person’s work, character, or history is at best irrelevant. Worse, mentioning the ‘other side’ is insulting and insensitive to those who feel they have been harmed and understandably want ‘justice’. It is fine and just to essentialize those you oppose.
6) The passage of time is irrelevant.
A wrong committed decades ago is just as relevant as one that happened last week. There is no reason to assume that someone who did something shitty years back (be it donning an insensitive Halloween costume or acting like an asshole at a party) has taken time to think about it, or to improve their conduct or philosophy in the interim. Certainly, there is no obligation to investigate whether someone has made steps to improve since those events years ago; it’s perfectly ok to treat them now as if they are the person they were then—or that someone told you they were then, since maybe you weren’t around when whatever went down went down. Since our movement seldom seeks to put people in actual prison—that would mean cooperating with the police state—formal sentencing never occurs…but also must never end. People can and should be banished and branded for life, regardless of what they have done to improve themselves or address the relevant issues. We must assume the worst if we are to keep our spaces safe. People don’t change, so there’s no need to give them a chance to. Debts to victims or to society can never be repaid. But a culture of permanent excommunication will prevent harmful future behavior and help past victims heal.
7) A threat to ideological comfort is a threat to safety.
Being subjected to challenging, provocative, offensive, or incorrect ideas puts the person hearing them in jeopardy. Intellectual discomfort causes harm. Therefore, it is ok—even imperative—to exert prior restraint, up to and including prohibition and exclusion of discomfiting ideas or words (or the people seen as likely to express them). People have a right not to be offended—not just a right to respond reasonably to what offends. Moments of intellectual provocation are not ‘teachable moments’; they are triggers for trauma. Making people think too hard about difficult subjects becomes a kind of violence. In particular, people’s ideas about their own perceived identity or oppression must not be challenged. People from historically oppressed groups especially cannot and ought not be subjected to arguments or debates about such topics, in print or in-person, regardless of the merit or content of the criticism expressed. Ideas that people have grown attached to should be viewed as parts of their physical or spiritual being. For someone to abstract and criticize said ideas—even for purposes of temporary analysis—amounts to a kind of ‘attack.’ Therefore, it is the job of good ‘allies’ to protect oppressed or traumatized people, not only from clear and present physical or institutional attacks, but from intellectual or ‘existential’ ones as well, like, say, someone asking a critical question about a concept or term with which they presently identify. Most certainly, it’s not possible for someone outside of this social group to offer helpful insight on matters pertaining to that group’s current situation, no matter how much genuine study or listening on the topic they’ve done. Immediate experience trumps outside knowledge, period. (Never mind that what counts as ‘experience’ may be at least in part the product of the ideological lenses through which a person has been taught to look.) A corollary: oppressed groups are monolithic, without significant ideological, intellectual, political, or methodological conflicts within their own ranks. So, it’s ok for one spokesperson of said group to give voice to the entire group’s will or interest. Anyone who contradicts such a spokesperson—especially if they do not personally belong to the category in question—is disrespecting or harming the group and needs to shut the fuck up.
8) Complicated things (and people) are compromised and not worth engaging.
How can we learn from people or things (including artworks) that are themselves ‘problematic’? Why not just move on and replace the shitty with something safer? Sure, there may be artworks (or people) that now stand for something offensive but have been deemed ‘brilliant’ in the past. But what does it say about you if you overlook the offensiveness in favor of the brilliance by promoting such content? Are you saying that aesthetic beauty or intellectual rigor or historical influence is more important than keeping our spaces safe and inclusive? How can we reduce the influence of problematic works or people if we keep giving them airtime? If someone is seen to be seriously wrong on 1 out of 10 issues, then their insight on the other 9 things is compromised, if not altogether invalidated by their hypocrisy. Hearing them out on those other 9 issues would only be providing cover for the problematic 10th. You can’t just bracket off the bad parts; they bleed into everything. The bad gobbles up the good. It’s thus not conceivable that a person or group with 9 incorrect ideas might nonetheless have something crucial to teach us regarding the 10th. Wokeness comes in batches—no sense distinguishing all these different aspects. As a corollary, wherever possible, people should declare themselves with clear and easy-to-read labels and signs. If the expressions of such a person appears to be complicated, or not immediately ‘clear’ and on the ‘correct’ side in a way that can fit into, say, a series of rapid-fire tweets, then that person bears the responsibility for any confusion that results. The responsibility certainly does not fall on the viewer or reader to investigate such complexities. Who has time to do close readings these days?
9) To entertain a ‘problematic’ joke or cultural product is never innocent.
Laugh at impure humor and you open your belly to the abyss. To listen to a comedian or other cultural content creator who is pushing values deemed bad is to risk being influenced by that content—how can one be exposed to bad content and not be marked? Even worse, it is to give the impression to those who have already made up their mind about the comedian or cultural producer that you have not made up your mind. Such indecisiveness on your part throws the settled judgements of the offended into doubt—an existential insult. After all, if you trusted and believed in them properly then why couldn’t you take their word for it? Why did you need to go and explore it for yourself? What, do you think that you’re smarter than the rest of us? That your curiosity or ‘complicated’ enjoyment is more important than other people’s right to have their grief-laden verdicts accepted without question? The death of comedy and entertainment is a small price to pay to make sure nobody gets their feelings hurt.
10) Every “micro”-aggression is just the toxic tip of a macro-iceberg.
There are no innocent errors, just instances that have yet to be analyzed and traced down to the deeper danger beneath. The difference between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ aggressions is a microscope; little annoyances or snubs are made of the same stuff as life-threatening mortal violations. It is thus correct to react to a minor offense as if it were a major one—especially if a pattern of minor problems has been alleged. In the latter case, one need not give the offender a chance to correct their behavior before bringing out the big guns: they already have a ‘history of misbehavior,’ after all, and must be condemned for it. Their chance for rectification and improvement has passed (even if this is the first time we’ve communicated our concerns to them). The fact that existing law makes qualitative distinctions between different categories of acts—and that the alleged behavior may not have crossed any legal line—is yet more proof that the Law is a relic of an oppressive order that doesn’t take oppressed people’s wounds seriously. By amplifying and harshly punishing examples of even low-level alleged misbehavior, we amplify the safety of our special spaces (at least for all who have not been flayed alive for past missteps). Fuck fine distinctions and fuck due process.
11) The moral imperative is to eliminate (what might be) evil, even if it means wrecking good work.
Political progress is to be understood not as a complex positive project of building something Good from the mixed materials that now exist, but rather, negatively, as the elimination or exposure of those elements deemed Evil. Better a pure Nothing than a compromised Something. Radical political intervention is best understood as a solvent to burn away the bad rather than as an adhesive or mixing agent that holds things together so that the better can be built. Isn’t it best to purify oneself and others of sympathy for the devil rather than to burden one’s brain or one’s organization with the messiness of sifting through more mixed elements? Tear that shit down. We’ll worry about building things later (maybe).
12) If we deprive badness of a platform, it will lose its platform elsewhere, too.
If we can prevent bad or backward ideas from getting a hearing in ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ platforms, this will prevent their circulation elsewhere. We can meaningfully reduce the circulation and impact of ideas in the ‘mainstream’ by denying them the ‘legitimacy’ provided by left spaces and engagement, however small and isolated the Left may be at present. The possibility that such an approach might rather enable the Left’s own blindness and disconnection from the actual state of ‘controversial’ debates, and thus perpetuate or expand our isolation from people who are already influenced by that ‘mainstream,’ is a secondary or tertiary concern. The further possibility that spending time with someone or something deemed objectionable might actually help us better relate to our neighbor or coworker or family member who has also been exposed to that person or thing, is swallowed up by the danger that such exposure will merely drag us into being ‘like them,’ or else give comfort to the enemy. The related likelihood, that I can only criticize something accurately if I know the object of critique intimately, is eclipsed by the danger that, in giving stuff deemed bad such close attention, you impart the impression that you secretly or not-so-secretly actually like that garbage. Can’t have that. Sure, right now the millions of people watching so-and-so’s podcast or cable show may not be waiting for our permission to do so—or even know that we exist!—but unless we model what a principled refusal to look or listen looks like, how will said millions ever learn to do likewise? If enough of us just close our eyes and block our ears really tight then it will almost be like the big bad wolf outside the door isn’t there anymore.
13) We can win social change without winning over the millions who currently disagree with us.
After all, isn’t righteousness on our side? Aren’t we fighting for the good of the entire planet? Who needs to win over the conservative hicks (or centrist fence-sitters) in a backward country like this one? Or heck, even in our own households, communities, or classrooms? It’s not like revolutions require super-majorities, do they? Can’t a militant minority do the job? It’s not like radical change means you need to win masses of people over. Those who disagree with us are probably stupid and hopeless. (The masses, alas, turned out to be asses.) Best to protect our spaces from such “deplorables.” Wouldn’t building an expanded base end up watering down the purity of our correct politics anyway? Why take the risk that our ever-so-precious conversation or community could be mired with their mess?
14) ‘Digging in’ in the face of CC critique is proof of privileged arrogance and domination.
If someone refuses to give in to criticism and public pressure to retract or apologize, no matter how small the issue was to begin with, their resistance to recanting itself reveals a bigger issue, which may require more extreme response. In particular, for a person associated with a historically dominant group to refuse to admit the validity of criticisms coming from someone associated with a historically dominated group is to engage in an arrogant abuse of privilege, regardless of the merits of the criticism expressed. Such resistance suggests that the refuser disrespects not just their immediate critic, but the group that critic is speaking for and the entire historical experience of collective oppression that has led up to this point. Someone who refuses to give in to group pressure could not possibly be a person committed to the facts as they understand them, nor could they be expressing honest concerns out of their love for the cause; they are merely providing new evidence of how insensitive and domineering they are, a fact which then in turn pretty much settles the question of whether or not they were actually guilty of the precipitating offense in the first place (as if it were in doubt!). Although there may not have been clear evidence for that first catalyzing event (ok, now we’ll admit it!), the evidence we gather from the accused’s resistance itself is retroactive, since resistance to the group itself proves that the person is the type to commit those other egregious errors as well. (Never mind that the extreme group response itself may be what pushed the targeted person to double-down in self-defense in the first place.) Corollary: Even a false accusation can be of use; it helps us see who is willing to go along with the group, and who is not. If someone ‘digs in’ and disputes the nature a ‘minor’ offense, they are merely revealing that the problem goes deeper, as we predicted. A micro-violator who is stubborn about their problematic millimeter might as well be demanding our most precious mile.
15) The open exchange of ideas is not to be trusted.
“Free speech” is an oppressive concept, a chimera that elides the actual-existing power dynamics that rule our world. Face it: beneath every invocation of “freedom” is the reality of power. Considering the compromised nature of discourse, then, it’s preferable to use force to shut down purveyors of bad ideas, if we can, rather than to use reason, argument, or evidence to refute the ideas themselves. Why debate when you can de-platform! The fewer people are exposed to those bad ideas, the better. Let’s be honest: We don’t trust people to sort truth from lies, even with our help. And if we’re really being honest, we’re not sure we can unpack and criticize the specific ideas of our enemies effectively anymore, anyway, since we’ve pretty much limited our intake of them to second-hand snippets and soundbites for years. (Not everyone has the luxury of spending endless hours in the library, dude.) Therefore, we’re justified shutting down misleaders in advance to protect the herd. Why initiate or allow complex debate and discussion that is just likely to confuse people? Or even worse, to lead our group to lose its clarity, unity, and focus? If our organization admitted that it didn’t yet have a clear, single, united view on something important, well, wouldn’t that make us seem indecisive and weak? How can we be the vanguard of the revolution if we admit we’re still thinking things through? Airing important differences aloud impairs our movement.
16) Opinion and rumor about certain things must be accepted as fact.
The statement of a strongly held feeling about another’s wretchedness, even if lacking substantiation, can be enough to decide the truth of a matter—at least for now. And since there is no obligation on the rest of us to investigate said ‘truth of the matter’ –since we’re all busy and life is hard, and investigations are difficult, and our activist organizations don’t have the resources of the state to call upon—it’s fine to let such strongly stated assertions stand as accepted truth…pretty much indefinitely. Furthermore, it’s improper to point out that a second-hand (or third- or fourth-hand) account is not a first-hand one. This is not the time to distinguish between hearsay and solid evidence! Similarly, it’s not ok to ask for evidence or substantiation in the wake of an unproven claim on a sensitive topic. What’s wrong with you, do you not believe INSERT SPECIAL CATEGORY OF PERSON HERE? It’s better to uncritically accept and quickly act upon serious but unsubstantiated rumor than to subject oneself or one’s organization to the messiness, discomfort, uncertainty, or complexity of pursuing an actual investigation.
17) Accusers (even third-party ones) are always reliable—so due process need not apply.
It’s not necessary to hear ‘both sides;’ when we’re dealing with an iteration of systemic oppression, one side is more than enough. Aggrieved people don’t lie, dissemble, or exaggerate. In fact, the experience of being aggrieved necessarily improves moral character. All that violence and systemic injustice and desperation a person may have been exposed to doesn’t leave any compromising psychic wounds. Aggrievement and oppression, however, do make people more vulnerable to harm, especially when others doubt or question their honesty or reliability. Thus, denying aggrieved people the fullness of human complexity, including the potential to be dishonest or just confused, is less bad than making it seem like you don’t take their every word for gospel. It follows that accusers or allegers need not—indeed, should not—be made to go on the record in detail. (We must ‘believe survivors,’ yes, but without requiring them to be specific about what exactly we’re being asked to believe.) It goes without saying that the accused need not have the right to confront their accusers, or even to know the specifics of what they are being accused of. (Habeas corpus is so 20th century and so ‘bourgeois state-y’—forget that liberal crap about it being a product of historical struggles against state repression.) It’s more important to protect the anonymity of accusers, and even 3rd or 4th hand rumor-ists and gossips, than it is to provide the accused a fair chance to address what’s been said about them. Transparency just doesn’t apply to those who circulate charges—that would put them at risk, since, after all, we must assume that all who have been alleged to have caused harm in the past are out to perpetrate even greater harm in the future. The sheer possibility of retaliation, which can never be fully ruled out, means that we must not demand accountability from accusers, or from those who speak in their name. Thus, it’s perfectly ok to weaponize defamatory gossip behind the back of the accused, to work to exclude them from spaces (including online ones), or even to go after their livelihoods, rather than to try and clear things up through more direct two-way communication. Further, since we cannot expect the actual victim to take on the burden of speaking up, anyone speaking in their name or on their unconfirmed behalf must be treated with all the deference owed to the actual alleged victim. The fact that some who speak in the victim’s name may not be authorized to do so and may even be weaponizing the situation for their own ends is outweighed by our belief that Excommunicating Perpetrators objectively helps Victims In General to heal and feel safe. Forget the lessons of the ‘telephone game’ we learned in kindergarten; second- or third- or fourth-hand allegers should be treated as if they are giving reliable first-hand accounts. There are no misunderstandings, only survivors and perpetrators: Which side are you on?
18) Exaggeration in the cause of social justice is necessary.
Emotional amplification, public dramatization, or even deliberate exaggeration is justified in cases where someone is speaking out against injustice or alleged wrongdoing. Feelings of aggrievement are to be validated, not questioned or fact checked. The more passionate someone is in denunciation, the more trustworthy they become. No Investigation? No Problem! Amplifying what might have occurred is more important than figuring out what actually did. (Never mind that mounting evidence shows that mental health problems in this country are at an all-time high. And never mind that COINTELPRO in the 60s and 70s routinely organized campaigns of false accusation to wreck radical organizations and defame left leaders.) Let’s face it: in these crazy media days, one needs a bullhorn to break through the noise, a sledgehammer to knock down the wall of indifference. Nuanced accounts of complex interactions won’t cut it. We need to Go Big to grab people’s attention and make things stick. Therefore, rounding up the rhetoric regarding particulars is not only permissible; it is necessary. We must cherry-pick the statistics and images that best fit our worldview, even if they bestow a misleading picture of the whole: how else to dramatize the essence of evil and get people caring about a system of oppression whose effects are often diffuse, subtle, and uneven? Sure, our exaggerations may lead to the proliferation of factual inaccuracies in the short term—maybe even a simplistic sense of the overall situation—but, in the long term, the heat and attention created by our maximalist presentation will lead to more people getting involved, therefore illuminating other abuses elsewhere. (Those who burn out on the melodramatic framing weren’t really committed to the cause in the first place.) Whatever harm is done to people who are tarnished, indeed slandered and defamed, by broadcast falsehoods in the process, is not our concern. It will be worth it in the long run. Can the harm done to an accused wrong-doer ever really be compared to that of the harm-sufferer, even if the harm in question remains unsubstantiated? In contrast to the longstanding judicial principle that “Better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent be convicted,” we affirm that “Better 10 men ruined by false accusations than one victim be doubted.” (No men in this society are “innocent,” anyway.)
19) Vengeance arcs toward justice.
Sure, we might be a little rough or excessive sometimes, but the arc of retaliation bends towards righteousness. (Or at least towards what feels righteous.) When in history have regular people’s urge to vengeance led them astray? It’s wrong to tell those who are feeling the need to strike back or destroy that they should channel that rage in a more constructive, reasonable, strategic, or fair manner. That’s tone-policing. Better to encourage righteous rage and fan the flames, wherever they lead. Tailing spontaneity and immediate emotion is the way of the future: as evidenced by what goes viral on our corporate-owned social media feeds. In times of big changes and sweeping historical crisis, it’s bourgeois and oppressive to be worried about the fate of just one individual (or other individuals who happen to be connected personally to that one individual). If we need to go a bit overboard in punishing a particular person in order to send a message to others and make our group’s militant morality absolutely clear, so be it. We were never going to win over everyone anyways. And you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Individuals are disposable.
20) Hyper-sensitizing individuals will lead to collective liberation.
In the struggle to radically uproot vast systems of oppression, we prioritize tenderizing individuals, one by one. If some people must be broken like eggs, others must be taught to think of themselves as fragile eggshells. Our goal is to make as many people as we can as sensitive as possible to the myriad offenses that exist in the world today—especially those ‘small’ offenses they experience directly, at the hands of other regular individuals on a day-to-day basis or on social media. As ‘micro’ offenses rather than macro- ones—papercuts not limb loss, bad word choices more than cluster bombs—such offenses may not be immediately obvious. Training people to see how small affronts and slights are actually BIG ones is thus crucial work, much more important than training people to work through the smaller stuff charitably, in light of the truly humongous threats all poor and working people now face. Similarly, training people to focus primarily on the offenses that affect them personally is more important than encouraging them to struggle in solidarity against the oppression of others, let alone spending time studying more abstract things like History or Social Theory that may take them away from their immediate self-interests. Focusing on other people’s oppression leads to ‘savior’ complexes, but teaching people to amplify all the many small slights they themselves experience personally: that’s the road to liberation. Each molehill, when inspected properly, reveals a mountain. Who is to say that the Big Crises we all share are more important than the millions of tiny ones that divide us and make us unique?
21) Fuck it, let’s be honest: Radical change ain’t happening in the USA (unless built upon its smoldering ashes).
Contrary to our at times ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric, we don’t really feel it is possible to change this country in a deep or transformative way. So, let’s just enjoy our moral superiority, our exclusive ‘movement’ spaces, and our curated media feed until the ship goes down or the smoke of the last forest fire consumes us. In the meantime, the best we can probably do is kneecap every ‘privileged’ or ‘problematic’ person, project, or institution we can reach. Sadly, the real big oppressors—the Dick Cheneys of the world—are generally protected behind bunkers of money and armed security: the best we can do is to take aim at whatever dick we can reach. All we’re really good for, here and now, is to fuck this bad shit up, while keeping enclaves of righteousness alive—maybe for after the fires burn out and we re-emerge from this cave. Most Americans are so complicit (settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, etc.) that they can’t really be part of any positive solution, anyways. So, if we end up tearing down our former comrades and driving away potential recruits or allies…No. Big. Deal. (Never mind the fact that capitalism is increasingly wrecking their lives and futures, too.) Let’s be clear: We didn’t start this fire. So, is it really fair to expect us to take responsibility for putting it out? Such a responsibility is a burden that oppressed and aggrieved people especially should not have to bear (even if there is no one else to bear it). Who the fuck are you to suggest otherwise?
‘Cancel culture’ teaches its adherents to focus on weaknesses of people in order to tear down their strengths, rather than uniting with people’s strengths to overcome those weaknesses, in light of the common threats we all face. It trains people in suspicion, fear, hyper-sensitivity, and overreaction, and thrives on decontextualization and sensationalism. It teaches people to weaponize vulnerabilities and to instrumentalize others as means to an end, rather than treating them as human ends in themselves. It traffics in moral posturing more than political strategy, expressing a burning impatience with wrongdoing in the world—this is its positive aspect—but too-often directing that impatience against regular people, against comrades, and often against intellectual discussion or due process itself: all things we need if we are to change the world for the better. Unable to strike meaningfully at the heights of the system, CC tends towards ‘horizontal violence,’ with callous disregard for those it harms or the work it wrecks.
To be sure, cancel culture did not come out of nowhere. It is inseparable from the habits encouraged and enabled by corporate social media: Hasty generalization, reduction of complexity, public virtue signaling, echo chambers discouraging dissent, the fear of false ‘friends,’ and the rapid dissemination of unreliable information are all key features of its function. It takes advantage of the impunity of the online troll and the connectivity of social networks to pursue all-spectrum bullying. At the same time, CC reflects the sad sobering reality that in the contemporary USA, the ‘muck of the ages,’ the impurities and damage of capitalism, empire, male-domination, racism, narrow individualism, etc. have indeed marked us all, in one way or another. But rather than finding in this common state of imperfection a basis for humility, compassion, and mutual improvement, CC seizes upon the faults of others as if those who have strayed thereby become irredeemable monsters—infiltrators to be purged, punished, or eliminated from pristine existing spaces. Faced with a complex world of developing human beings, always operating in conditions not entirely of their own choosing, cancel culture insists on Angels and Demons. It thereby discourages genuine openness, intimacy, trust, friendship and understanding, while silencing those who don’t abide its wild swings of judgment.
As we’ve seen above, cancel culture traffics in guilt by association, expresses cynicism about people & their potential to change, and embodies an anti-intellectualism mired in narrow identitarianism, as well as deeply problematic notions of evidence & epistemology. It also evinces a profound lack of strategy, for which it substitutes performative moral panic and self-righteousness. At times, to be sure, cancel culture is instrumentalized deliberately to forward individual careers, or to deliberately destroy movement-organizations, whether by those with personal vendettas or in the employ of the enemy state (see COINTELPRO). Such deliberately destructive actors, however, could not succeed without the help of many well-intentioned people, who, nonetheless, tacitly enable cancel culture’s destructive practices. Even as, on some level, they may know better.
By helping to surface left cancel culture’s fallacious methods here, we hope to contribute to an increasingly conscious and collective process of thinking through and beyond the present impasse. Together we can and must develop the theory, the practice, and the sustaining infrastructure that can move beyond cancel culture, re-ground left movements and organizations, and thereby give us a fighting chance to build the culture of respect, debate, and comradeship we will surely need for the struggles to come. We need movements that can build effective resistance to the current unjust and unsustainable world system, that can shepherd broad popular forces capable of defeating the ruling-class agenda, that can help people to grasp the world’s problems in their genuine complexity, and that can nurture into existence a new world that will be more reasonable, just, and free than the one we have now.
In that spirit, the Red Goat Collective welcomes all manner of thoughtful responses to this polemic, at the email address below (or elsewhere). We also welcome stories of how ‘cancel culture’ has played out in readers’ own circles, as well as resources and reflections to help our movements and organizations develop alternative methods for dealing with the challenges we face. Thank you for reading. And for continuing the discussion.
1) Other candidates include: culture of disposability, culture of excommunication, carceral culture, leftist purge culture, call-out culture, the neoliberal personalization of politics, left authoritarianism, cannibal leftism, culture of shame or disgrace, culture of suspicion, sectarianism, “woke” mob rule, moral panic, culture of escalation, de-platform culture, the proverbial “circular firing squad,” and good ol’ fashioned Calvinist Puritanism.
It also should be said that many of the ideas examined below can be found in some form on the Right (or the Liberal-Center) as well. (See for instance the current reactionary campaigns to keep children ‘safe’ from “Critical Race Theory,” as well as the bipartisan Cold War history of anti-communist blacklisting.) To those who would dismiss our critique here as being ‘one-sided’ for bypassing the ’real threat’ from the Right, we point out the following: while some (but not all) the ideas criticized below may be found on the Right (or in the Center), those bad ideas are largely compatible with the Right and Center goals of maintaining or deepening the current unjust social order. Such ideas clash, however, with the Left’s historic mission of universal emancipation and global human flourishing; we thus direct our critique where prevalent ideas and practices stand in the way of our ostensible goals. We would further add that such obsessive fears of the Right, however understandable, at times work to suppress critical discussion on the Left about some of the fallacious methods we examine below—as if to engage in serious self-critique within our movements would be to give quarter or credence to right-wing attacks, rather than a way of inoculating against them. ↑
2) Socialist feminist Liza Featherstone forcefully frames some of the problem in terms of the hegemony of neoliberal individualism and consumerism, in her February 2022 Jacobin essay, “The Political is Not Personal”: https://jacobinmag.com/2022/02/the-political-isnt-personal . Black linguist and conservative social critic John McWhorter frames part of problem in religious terms of the “Woke Elect” in his 2021 best-seller Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Katha Pollitt’s May 2022 column in the Nation magazine, “Cancel Culture Exists” documents several specific instances of unjust cancellation, while arguing that many more such cases remain publicly unknown: https://www.thenation.com/article/society/cancel-culture-exists/ . See also Ben Burgis’ 2021 book Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/05/canceling-comedians-while-the-world-burns-cancel-culture-moralism-social-media, and Ngoc Loan Tran’s 2013 essay, “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” https://www.bgdblog.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/ , as well as Bill Fletcher Jr’s Feb. 13, 2019 article in The Nation, “Rethinking Ralph Northam”: https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/ralph-northam-blackface-jesse-jackson/. This recent piece in The Intercept by Ryan Grim details how a ‘cancel culture’ dynamic can interrupt and undermine even an honest democratic socialist attempt at transformative justice: https://theintercept.com/2022/05/08/maryland-campaign-brandy-brooks-progressive-accountability/. ↑
3) We should note here at the outset that we are thus not primarily concerned with the ‘cancelling’ of those who truly do sit atop oppressive hierarchies, and who use the power and privilege of their position to take abusive advantage of those who have no choice but to suffer their domination. We are instead mainly concerned with the way in which methods that might be appropriate to conditions of truly systemic oppression and desperation—where people have next to no other options, where the stakes of inaction are high, and where the structurally exploitative commitments of the offenders are unapologetic and clear—have been taken up against our fellow working-class people, middle-class comrades, movement leaders and allies. Taken up: as if the things that divide us, despite our roughly common class position, are just as incommensurable and beyond reasoned resolution as those that stand between us and imperialist-capitalist class elites. Taken up: as if we could ever have a chance of overthrowing our true ruling-class enemies and transforming current oppressive social conditions, without learning somehow to live, grow, work, and struggle alongside other roughly regular people, people with whom we will undoubtedly have all manner of disagreements—some of them serious—but whose common interests and concerns nonetheless remain our best leverage for realizing serious social change of this world. ↑
4) Arguably, the entire phenomenon is shaped (albeit unconsciously in some cases) by the verdict that universal liberation, popular transformation, and social revolution beyond capitalism and its structuring inequalities are no longer possible. With the horizon of revolutionary abundance thus ruled out, all that remains for such a ‘Left’ are fights for small reforms, coupled with rhetorically inflated yet imaginatively impoverished, often inward-looking, competitive clashes over the scarce discursive space and social resources still allowed us by our capitalist overlords. ↑
5) Readers seeking a straightforward set of “alternative” methods or substitute approaches to the problems that ‘cancel culture’ mishandles will not find such a positive guidebook here, though we believe that better ways of handling genuine movement challenges are embedded throughout the critique. We certainly welcome the process of creating such alternative and improved methods in the days to come. In the meantime, we believe that clearly identifying, exploring, and establishing the validity of criticizing these problematic ideas and practices publicly and forcefully can be a key step in building the intellectual and social space within which new and better organizational and cultural approaches can incubate. The process of developing new methods of work must, in the end, be a collective and inclusive endeavor. (One such archive of methods is the work of Mariame Kaba, compiled in her 2021 book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1664-we-do-this-til-we-free-us). ↑
The CounterPunch website is offered at no charge to the general public over the world wide web. New articles are generally posted every weekday. A batch of several articles, including the Poet’s Basement, and Roaming Charges by Jeffrey St. Clair, are posted in the Weekend Edition. After the initial posting, these articles are available in the archives which can be searched by using any of the search boxes on the website. CounterPunch also publishes books, and published a newsletter and magazine from 1993 to 2020. The CounterPunch+ Subscriber area of our website features subscriber content and access. CounterPunch is reader supported! Please help keep us alive.
This article was also posted on Znet: https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/21-fallacies-feeding-cancel-culture/