About two days after I submitted my undergraduate thesis, my supervisor was cancelled. He’d been sending emails with slurs in them: Muslims were ‘Mussies’; East Asians were ‘Chinky-poos’; Nelson Mandela was a ‘darky’. When New Matilda published the emails online, he tried to say it was all ironic—part of, in his words, ‘a whimsical language game’. Not many people believed him. Instead, public backlash brought about the end of an illustrious academic career. He had been the University of Sydney’s first and only professor of poetry.
We didn’t have the phrase ‘cancel culture’ back then. In those days, ‘political correctness’ was the bogeyman du jour. But here was an example of woke politics creating sufficient public outrage to drive a man from his job. By 2019, when ‘cancel culture’ became the new frontier of the culture wars, everything old was, apparently, new again.
For cancel culture’s critics, two things are never in doubt: that cancel culture is real, and that cancel culture is new. In ‘Woke Politics and Power’, an essay published in the November 2020 issue of the Monthly, Waleed Aly takes both assumptions as read. That’s a pity, because ‘Woke Politics and Power’ is perhaps the best contribution we’ve seen to an otherwise paltry debate. The argument at its base is that young progressives have been stripped of every mechanism for having their voices heard. ‘Cancel culture’—understood by Aly as a nihilistic use of power in the place of persuasion—is what remains. ‘Cancel culture demands discussion,’ he writes, ‘not as a sui generis phenomenon that should worry us in isolation, but as a symptom of something broken in our social and political life.’
Aly’s contribution is to try to chart how we got here. In his view, cancel culture originates from a context in which liberalism reduces what are really group-based claims to individual rights. That’s a problem: by reducing everything to the individual, liberalism lacks the tools to reckon with the many and varied ways power bears upon us as members of groups. Ensuring the rights of an individual black man does not very well protect him from the ways society makes life harder for black men. ‘Once liberalism has done its work at providing a basic level of universal freedom,’ Aly writes, ‘it finds itself with little more to say.’
In consequence, young people interested in justice for minority groups find their calls falling on deaf ears. For all the right’s hand-wringing about changing values, Aly notes, there is no issue beyond marriage equality on which ‘the views and interests of young people’ have prevailed. Instead, millennials’ ‘sense of identity-based equality is routinely affronted, and the institutions that preside over this—especially politics and the traditional media—are populated by a narrow demographic that is older, whiter and more male than the society they ostensibly serve’. Into that context comes cancel culture, for which Aly seems to endorse the Macquarie Dictionary definition:
the attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.
Cancel culture relies on the only political tools available to the disempowered: boycott, divestment and sanction.
Whether or not young people have no other recourse, cancel culture is, to Aly, irredeemable. Its nihilism towards civil discourse—that is, its turn to power in place of persuasion—inhibits the possibility of ‘disagreement without enmity’ and will set off an arms race of social censorship. Civic space, says Aly, cannot survive this culture of mutual contempt.
Aly is one of the first commentators to try to hold in his mind two conflicting ideas: that cancel culture is bad and that its use is understandable. It’s a noble attempt to chart a path forward. But, as we’ll see, Aly is only half right. When it comes to cancel culture, things are not as bad as they seem.
That’s because, first, ‘cancel culture’ is more perceived than real. To put it crudely, we fear being cancelled because pundits tell us to fear being cancelled. Second, the real change to public discourse is not an ideological movement of censorship but a material alteration to our public agora. That material shift is fundamentally democratic: never before has public disagreement been available to so many. And third, we should be glad of this change: the disagreement of the cancellers is not uncommonly censorious but precedented, legitimate and integral to the functioning of civic space. What is new is simply that public disagreement has been made available to voices never heard from before. ‘Cancel culture’ is not the death of the agora—it is its rebirth.
• • •
‘Woke Politics and Power’ may be the most promising iteration of a growing tradition of cancel culture reaction, but it never really escapes the tradition’s core conflicts. The original sin is a massive overstatement of the threat. The trouble begins with the slippage between three very different things: the definition of cancel culture; instances of cancellation in the world; and the terrifying spectre invoked by the phrase. The definition itself is uncontroversial; all agree that ‘cancel culture’ can describe the ‘attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support’.
But for Aly, following other anxious voices such as Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Chait, the withdrawals of support we see in cancel culture are irredeemably censorious. For that to be plausible, the act of withdrawing support must be powerful indeed. No lone tweet deserves this much fear—only a ‘culture’ could have this much power. After all, that is how boycotts, divestments or sanctions get their force: numerous actors work together to withdraw their collective purchasing power. That’s why the spectre we are asked to fear is a mob at the gates; a horde of woke young people looking to do material damage to public figures who commit micro-aggressions.
In the cottage industry of cancel culture writing, this spectre is taken for granted. That’s a mistake, with the consequence that we have all been jumping at shadows. To see what I mean, take Aly’s leading example, which happens to be the same example Matthew Yglesias, in ‘The Real Stakes of the David Shor Saga’; Jonathan Chait, in ‘The Still-Vital Case for Liberalism in a Radical Age’; and Yascha Mounk, in ‘Stop Firing the Innocent’, each based their critiques of cancel culture on. Among a certain type of liberal pundit, it is the epitome of cancel culture’s excesses. In an interview with the New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams called it ‘the quintessential example of what we’re talking about’.
At the height of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, the story goes, a political data analyst named David Shor tweeted about some research favouring non-violent protests. I’ll let Aly go on:
Shor hadn’t made this up. He was summarising a recently published peer-reviewed study by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, which Shor attached. Then came the response.
‘Yo. Minimizing black grief and rage to “bad campaign tactic for the Democrats” is bullshit most days, but this week is absolutely cruel … and reeks of anti-blackness,’ replied Ari Trujillo Wesler, a political organiser. In a subsequent tweet, Wesler dismissed Wasow’s study as ‘sloppy’ without explanation, then repeated her accusation of Shor: ‘YOU need to stop using your anxiety and “intellect” as a vehicle for anti-blackness.’ Wesler then tagged Shor’s boss Dan Wagner, the chief executive of Civis Analytics, with one final message: ‘Come get your boy.’
Shor tweeted an apology the next day. But that didn’t stop Wagner coming to get his boy. After a brief internal review, Shor was fired.
It’s an example that Aly, Yglesias, Chait and Mounk each tell with great concern. A star data analyst forced from his job; a CEO buckling under the pressure of the mob. For Aly, Yglesias, Chait and Mounk the implication is clear: Shor’s dismissal was caused by the enormous power of cancel culture. But what each of them fails to mention is that Wesler’s ‘Come get your boy’ tweet received no more than two likes.
That’s two more likes than the median tweet on Twitter, but 32,000 fewer likes than the tweet sitting at the top of my feed as I write this. It’s an understandable omission. If my ‘quintessential example’ of cancel culture’s power rested on a single tweet from a small account that received two likes, I wouldn’t mention it either.
Perhaps this is why critics complain about the ‘culture’ and the ‘atmosphere’ and hand-wave past concrete examples. (‘The point here isn’t to adjudicate on each, or even to say they are all equivalent’ writes Aly, after listing a few examples. In the infamous Harper’s letter of last year, the go-to phrase was ‘whatever the arguments around each particular incident …’.) The individual instances simply rarely amount to much. The point is to adjudicate on each, because these individual instances are the only evidence we have that cancel culture exists in the world. When concrete examples fail, cancel culture’s critics are left, like so many Dennis Denutos, gesturing wildly. It’s the vibe of the thing, your Honour.
Think of it this way. If Civis Analytics CEO Dan Wagner did dismiss Shor for his tweet (Civis Analytics denies the charge), blaming Wesler’s two-like response misses the mark. In this paramount example of cancel culture gone wild, the all-powerful mob calling for Shor’s dismissal simply did not exist. There was no mass movement to punish Shor; nor did Ari Trujillo Wesler have any power. But that doesn’t mean the all-powerful mob didn’t exist in Dan Wagner’s imagination. Moral panics, bogeymen, monsters under the bed—these do not need to be real to have real-world effects.
Yet Aly is insistent: ‘whether you find this thrilling, terrifying or both, there’s no denying it’s happening’. What cannot be denied is that people perceive this is happening. But that is just how moral panics work—fear of the thing is mistaken for evidence of the thing. Things spiral. Suddenly, the spectre in our collective imagination is larger than it has any right to be. In the Shor example, we are asked to fear the atmosphere of cancel culture because Shor’s boss feared the atmosphere of cancel culture. Aly, Yglesias, Chait, Mounk and Chatterton Williams then used that example in the largest magazines on the planet to amplify the fear of cancel culture even further. Fear of the bogeyman is made to stand in for evidence of the bogeyman. With so many afraid, the thinking goes, the bogeyman must be scary indeed.
Who, then, is to blame for the firing of David Shor? Is it the political organiser on Twitter who tried to involve Shor’s employer? Is it the two people who endorsed that tweet? Or might it be that the person responsible for the firing of David Shor is the person who fired David Shor?
Why should that surprise us? What unites all of these cases, what unites any case of cancel culture that causes us to pause, is not ‘the atmosphere’ but the threat of dismissal. In the twenty-first century, the threat to free speech does not come from a horde of woke Twitter users but from bosses. That certainly appears to be the experience of 11 Civis Analytics workers allegedly fired this April for speaking up for progressive causes.
As the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has put it, workplaces today are private governments—mini-dictatorships in which bosses control your speech and your identity. And in the United States, where Civis Analytics employed Shor, ‘at-will employment’ is the law of the land. It is better thought of as at-will dismissal. Yet somehow the fact that employers can deprive employees of income if they disagree with them barely rates a mention in the reviews by Aly, Yglesias, Chait and Mounk of our censorious atmosphere. There’s no time for that. The enemy is at the gates.
• • •
This moral panic didn’t come out of nowhere—it was set off by a real change to our civic space. I suggest that the first reason it sometimes feels like public space is home to a censorious horde is simply that the material conditions of that space have changed. It’s noisier now. Never before have so many people been given a place to voice their own perspective. If this feels censorious, it is because it is new, and because we are unused to a world in which so many million voices can disagree. The ‘atmosphere’ in question is simply the cumulative force of new voices entering the agora. This is the democratisation of disagreement.
This observation first becomes apparent when we examine the examples that constitute cancellation. What we find over and over again is not that Twitter users are coordinating real material power to censor the voices of public figures who transgress social norms. What we find instead is that Twitter users are using their own voices to disagree with, disapprove of and distance themselves from acts and actors they find immoral. But when many people disagree with you at once, the experience can be unpleasant. And it can feel particularly intimidating for people who have never been so targeted before.
Perhaps that’s why the people who complain about cancel culture invariably hold a similar position in our public discourse: they stand behind very large pulpits. They are columnists, podcast hosts and TV presenters working for the largest mastheads in their countries. Until recently, discursive power was entirely situated in such mastheads. Those platforms, and the people who controlled them, monopolised the public sphere. People who could not find their way into print or onto screen simply could not find their way into the public conversation.
For the pundits and commentators who complain about cancel culture, the democratisation of disagreement presents a threat. If the trend is not reversed soon, those who have come to expect a monopoly on the terms of discourse will find themselves just one voice among many. Their cultural power, once unchallenged, will be supplanted by the dislocated voice of the people. The many concerning features of social media do not undermine this fact. There is a very good reason why Twitter receives so much ire from these people—it is the only place where other people can disagree with them.
So, cancel culture’s ‘atmosphere’ is the result of a moral panic about new and diverse voices joining our public agora for the first time. On Aly’s account, that’s not right. According to him, these voices on Twitter are not ‘merely’ disagreeing—they are stopping conversations from happening at all; foreclosing discussion; precluding the possibility of disagreement without enmity. That’s because cancellers object not simply to the content of some statements, but to the statements themselves. They want to have a fight not just about what a statement says, but about what a statement does.
At this juncture Aly turns to the philosopher Agnes Callard’s contribution to the New York Times opinion section on the topic of cancellation. In her words, under cancel culture ‘every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated’.
As it happens, there is a tremendous body of philosophical work that suggests that cancellers are right to do so. In Aly’s reading, the philosophical structure of cancel culture rests and depends entirely on ‘critical race theory’. But that’s just not true. A long history in the analytic tradition, originating with J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, continuing with eminent modern thinkers such as Sally Haslanger and Miranda Fricker, and including Australian philosophers such as Kate Manne and Eleanor Gordon-Smith, has shown just how profound the moral implications of our speech acts can be. This tradition, which Callard, like Aly, seems to ignore, shows that very little of our speech can be safely reduced to mere literal content. There are always ethical and political considerations.
In addition to conveying mere content, sentences are very often things that act—that enter contracts, deny, promise, degrade, plead, convince, give consent, incite and so on. To make matters even more moral, the effects of those speech acts are almost always determined by the speaker’s (and the listener’s) identity. What is innocuous in the mouth of one speaker may well be harmful in the mouth of another. The reason we do not let white people say the n-word is not because of what the word contains. It’s because of what the word does.
All this, I suspect, Aly agrees with. His complaint is simply that in the hands of cancel culture, this thinking goes too far, it’s too censorious. But therein lies the rub. The debate underpinning all cancel culture discourse—all civic conversation, I should say—is a debate about what speech acts are fair game. What conversation could be more essential to civic space than the conversation about what civic space should look like?
Aly worries that ‘harm’ is too promiscuous a reason to censor people. But harm is a relevant consideration—one in use long before wokeness arrived. That is why Aly’s warning that cancel culture has gone too far, is now too censorious, is not yet a useful contribution. ‘Woke Politics and Power’ provides no alternative vision for what speech acts should be allowed. Without a view on where to draw that line, Aly’s argument sounds worryingly absolutist. It risks collapsing into an appeal that people should be able to use slurs with abandon.
• • •
This is all to say that there are often very good reasons to tell people to shut up. But I will say more: strip disagreement of all its enmity and you strip disagreement of its morality. Between mere intellectual disagreement and utter enmity there is space for a practice as old as humankind: social censure. And censure, not dispassionate disagreement, is how we express our moral selves in the world.
Social censure, not censorship, is the mark of concrete instances of ‘cancel culture’. By conflating the two, figures such as Aly, Yglesias, Chait and Mounk appear to expect that society can have public conversation and leave social censure at the door. It’s a hope that a pluralistic society can have an ongoing dialogue about what is okay and not okay without resorting to disapprobation, divestment or disapproval. This is wrong. These responses constitute public dialogue as much as approbation, investment and approval.
This is because social censure is a necessary feature of our conversation about the public good. Given that disputes about the public good are normative and moral, disagreement can hardly help but come in the form of censure. That is, when someone does something morally wrong, you can’t disagree without disapproving. And there is no way to convey disapproval except to express it.
But there is more. Disapproval is what allows society to function. Social censure, disapproval, moralism—these are all behaviours that keep us from nihilism and relativism. They police bigotry. This is why they are also the vehicle by which society progresses. Liberal societies have a proud history of using social censure to restrict harmful speech acts. We depend on it.
It is for very good reason that no-one argues anymore that human beings should be bought and sold as property—we made it socially unacceptable to do so. We shamed, denounced, condemned and scorned those who did. There would be nothing liberal about a society that facilitated that speech: the existence of that debate would be so corrosive to the soul of that community; so suppressing of the wills, goals and desires of its vulnerable groups; so dampening on the spirit of discourse, that not just free communication but the people themselves would be diminished.
Stripped back to its base, social censure is revealed to be not only the type of thing we can’t discard, but also the type of thing we should certainly want to keep. Modes of social censure such as cancellation are how we make public conversation kinder and safer. That makes cancel culture—the attitudes in a community that call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure—among the greatest achievements of liberal society.
This is not to say that cancellation has no limits. But it does establish that Aly’s own absolutism is misplaced. The truth is that speech simply does, sometimes, have harmful effects, and that we have always, often rightly, discouraged harmful speech. This is just one of the structural tensions of liberal society. The unending negotiation of the tension between the free speech principle and the harm principle is simply what it is to participate in a living community.
It would be odd, as our cancel culture reactionaries sometimes seem to want to do, to end that negotiation. When harmful speech acts enter the arena, woke young people are well within their rights to denounce those acts. To prohibit them from doing so would be censorious indeed. •
Alistair Kitchen is a writer from Mudgeeraba, Queensland. He has degrees from the University of Sydney and Tsinghua University, Beijing, and now lives in New York City.