Cancel Clusters

The public meaning of what “canceling” refers to may be more a fuzzy web than a precise definition. It’s still bad.

Oliver Traldi
Jul 25, 2020 · 9 min read

We’ve all been writing a lot about “cancellation” and “cancel culture” recently. But defenders of certain practices of public critique have suggested that it’s ill-defined. And not unjustifiably. When has someone been “canceled”? What’s the difference between “canceling” and simply criticizing or even just disagreeing forcefully? In response to this, some Harper’s letter signatories and similar writers have attempted to give a definition of the term.

I don’t think this is a good strategy.

For something to be a cancellation means that it is caught up in a certain set of interrelated social dynamics. We should think of these dynamics as a “cluster” of factors rather than as sufficient or necessary conditions. We might even think of cancellation as coming in degrees — something can be more or less “cancel-ish” rather than simply counting or failing to count. (This difference between a definition and a cluster concept is a bit like the difference between a rule and a standard in law.)

In my previous piece on all this, I wrote that we should think about “cancellation” rather than “cancel culture.”

But now I’m not so sure.

If “cancellation” boils down to a relationship to a bunch of societal dynamics, then those dynamics are — that “culture” is — the more fundamental phenomenon at issue. And I actually think that understanding the idea in this way can help us make sense of some of the criticisms raised by opponents of cancellation.

The first and most characteristic factor in the cancel cluster is public shaming.

What now seems like the classic book on cancellation was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The example from Ronson’s book that’s become central to the discussion is that of Justine Sacco. Sacco made a bad joke to her fewer-than-200 Twitter followers and then got on a plane; while she was on the plane, an editor for a Gawker property was told of the tweet, retweeted it to 15,000 people, and wrote a post about it. The hashtag “HasJustineLandedYet” trended, and many people replied to her tweet and tweeted about it themselves. So the attack on Sacco was very public: it occurred on social media and in a publication with a penchant for outrage and “clickbait.” (The rise in and popularity of such publications is likely related to the rest of these phenomena as well, though it’s hard to tell if it was cause or effect.)

Most critical discussions of cancellation have revolved around words or other forms of expression — art, costumes, hand gestures — as opposed to less symbolic actions. There are cancellations for acts as well, of course. Perhaps Aziz Ansari was canceled when published a story of a bad date involving him and another person. But it is an aggravating factor in our judgment of whether something is a cancellation if it is an attack for what we might call mere expression.

Another factor is material and social cost. The clearest examples of cancellation, like Sacco, involve somebody losing their job. Sometimes a publisher pulls a book because some element of its plot is politically problematic in some vague way. That’s also a material cost. Speaking engagements might be scrapped, awards might be rescinded, as might, in the case of some high school students recently, college admissions offers. Alternately or additionally, a person might lose friendships and romantic relationships or be ostracized at a school or in a workplace. These costs are a focal point of critiques of cancellation because they often seem unjust. In a different economic environment, it would be much harder to get someone fired, but under current economic circumstances it seems like it is never too difficult for any employer to replace someone who has been canceled.

One more factor is some sort of surveillance or breach of privacy. Many cancellations have involved sharing private emails, text messages, Snapchats, and so on. There is also a kind of breach of social context in cases like Sacco’s, in which an intended audience would have known how to interpret her tweet — as a certain kind of joke — but the audience to which it was shared did not. Though this isn’t the same sort of breach of privacy as would occur if a friend forwarded our text message exchange to my employer, it is a kind of breach nonetheless. This situation is largely a result not of culture but of technology: it’s what happens when having a conversation and recording a conversation become more or less the same thing.

It is an additional aggravating factor — a factor in favor of an event being a cancellation rather than something else — that it takes some sort of support from unclear, rapidly changing or recently changed, or esoteric, community-specific social norms. We’re less likely to call something a cancellation if the target is being attacked for transgressing norms that have been stable and commonly understood for, say, 50 years. We’re more likely to call something a cancellation if the norms in question are unclear. In some cancellations, the relevant norms can’t even be articulated. That’s why the transgression is expressed as a sort of meta-norm to pay attention to norms and how one’s actions will be received: “Read the room.” “That’s not a good look.” “Don’t be so tone-deaf.” “This ain’t it.”

This charge of the “yikes brigade,” as I like to call them (they say “yikes” a lot on Twitter), is purely self-referential: Your audience accused your action of having violated a norm, so you violated the norm of not seeming to have violated a norm.

This nouveau-norm-violation aspect of cancellation is linked to another factor: the disproportionality, and sometimes the totality, of the response. In his insightful piece here at Arc, Nicholas Grossman writes that “the hard part isn’t telling other people to be more open to ideas they don’t like. It’s drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” But, in fact, I have never seen anyone defending cancel culture argue that, in general, what the transgressors of these new norms suffer is appropriate. Does one bad joke merit years of suffering? Does one problematic political opinion deserve the ire of thousands upon thousands?

Before Twitter, what was taken to be the natural response to somebody saying something a bit off? The new norms involve abstracting away from the actual so-called transgression that has occurred into tendentious associations with various -isms and -phobias. Once someone is accused of those, they are, again in contemporary argot, a “trash person” to whom no rules of civility, often including the very same norms that we’re told they’ve transgressed, apply. Anything goes, then.

This in turn is connected to another factor: that these events often happen on social media. Geoff Shullenberger has argued that this form of “human sacrifice” is part of “the digital business model.” “Dunks” are incentivized by the “likes” one accrues for them, especially on Twitter. This is related to the fundamental falsity of the images we project on all social media. On LinkedIn, we must make ourselves appear professional, successful, competent. On Facebook, we must make ourselves appear popular, sociable, agreeable. On Instagram, we must make ourselves appear beautiful, fashionable, well-traveled. And on Twitter, we must make ourselves appear clever, funny, and most of all indubitably moral, with morality being characterized almost fully by mastery of the newest and strangest social norms on tap.

The opportunity to recognize and dunk on a “trash person” is the perfect occasion for a tweeter to demonstrate those traits — in thundering lockstep, but also in a kind of competition, with the other dunkers.

None of these factors is individually necessary, though. Somebody might be canceled privately, by powerful people in a smoke-filled room. They might be canceled for actions and not words, or in print rather than online, or for violating old norms rather than new ones, or based on something they said publicly and with full knowledge of how people would react, and so on. And the cancellation might fail to take from them anything they value. If some or all of the other elements are present, people would still be using the same word to describe it.

This is part of why at least some opponents of the anti-cancelers have trouble getting entirely behind things like the Harper’s letter. They want a clearer account of just which factors in this cancel cluster are taken to be pernicious. But since no single factor in the cluster is necessary, there will always be exceptions that disable any clear, unifying articulation of the problem with cancellations.

To opponents, then, it might just seem that “cancellation” is not at all an interesting or deep moral category. The question about any cancellation will always be which of the above features it has. And if it has some of those features, it should be criticized on that basis, not qua “cancellation” — so I think some opponents would say. But then the anti-cancelers’ response could be: Criticizing “cancellation” is just our sort of messy way of criticizing all these things at once. And surely the opponent agrees that all these things are bad!

The opponents might wonder why these harms aren’t separated and addressed individually, which would surely result in condemnation of a broader set of political and social groups, and might even leave cancellations looking relatively tame compared to other acts of similar types. But it is really in concert that all of these factors seem to take on the nightmarish quality that some attribute to cancellation — and this quality is compounded by effects like self-censorship, which aren’t part of cancellations at all, but seem to be natural consequences of them. Opponents of cancellation, including myself, have likely focused too much on these kinds of chilling effects, and on questions of liberal principles and just what counts as freedom of speech and so on.

Making clear what’s in the cancel cluster also makes clear which kinds of objections have been neglected. No relatively powerless and unknown person deserves the ire of thousands for a bad joke. No movement for justice can coherently center around gleeful determinations that some people are “trash.” It is wrong to breach the trust and privacy of conversations with friends and family in order to expose them to the ill will of an online mob or to get them fired from a job or kicked out of a school. And there’s nothing righteous in attempting to destroy a person on the basis of norms invented just weeks prior which nobody can articulate clearly and which have no discernible relationship to the punitive feelings their transgressions seem to engender.

I think much of politics, and much in culture, is ultimately based on trust, and on instincts about trustworthiness. At least one source of the backlash against cancellation is due to this. People who engage in such black-and-white thinking about other people, who urge on or defend an angry mob which effects punishments so disproportionate to those people’s offenses, especially when the offensive nature of those offenses can’t be clearly explained and wouldn’t have been accepted, say, two years ago, and who cheer on the chill of surveillance as it advances more and more into previously sacrosanct private realm of interpersonal relationships — those people don’t seem worthy of our trust. Their mindset is capriciously punitive. They seem straightforwardly to enjoy hurting others. I do believe that such a way of dealing with people is properly called illiberal. But set the categories of political philosophy aside if they’re a sticking point. It is also, on top of that, just wrong.

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