There’s No Such Thing as Cancel Culture

Social norms are a never-ending contest

L.D. Burnett
Jan 17 · 13 min read
(Demetrius Freeman/Getty)

In one of the most gripping, visceral portrayals of human experience in all of cinema, Glenn Close makes the viewer feel what no one ever wants to feel: unalloyed shame.

The scene unfolds at the end of the film Dangerous Liaisons, set in the hedonistic courtly society of pre-Revolutionary Paris. Glenn Close’s character, the Marquise de Merteuil, to soothe a long-nursed grudge against a lover who had abandoned her, plots the ruination of her ex-lover’s virgin bride-to-be and enlists the playboy courtier Vicomte de Valmont (played by John Malkovich) to help enact her plot. Though he originally has designs on seducing someone else, his own wounded pride at being rejected brings him around to Merteuil’s plan. Servants seduce servants, nobles seduce nobles, a wealthy noblewoman falls in love with an impoverished aristocrat, innocence is ruined, lust is assuaged, lives are destroyed, all in an entangled web of ruinous liaisons, all orchestrated and monitored by the vindictive, glamourous, socially-connected Marquise.

But the truth, as always, comes out in the end. As Valmont lies bleeding to death from a duel, he hands over to his wronged opponent all the letters the Marquise had written to Valmont detailing their seduction plots as they unfolded. Valmont’s opponent publishes the letters to all of Parisian society — people who have had their own dalliances and affairs, who have themselves held marital vows lightly and violated them routinely, who have indulged in listening to and feeding the courtly gossip of hearts broken and beds despoiled. But what the Marquise had done, and done on purpose, violated an unwritten, unspoken, but unbreachable social norm.

In the last two scenes of the film, Glenn Close, barely moving a muscle, embodies and illuminates that the viewer feels it with her. Not realizing she has been exposed, the Marquise steps forward in her balcony box at the opera, and the entire house falls silent. Everyone stares at her. We see her eyes dart from orchestra to balcony, from wing to wing of the house, from the nobles to the bourgeoisie, looking for social refuge and finding none. For a long, silent minute, every person who had once delighted in her company or admired her from afar now stares at her in a collective act of quiet, adamantine condemnation. Then they begin to boo. And she knows she is finished. She knows that they know all. She turns around, stumbles, and leaves, a social outcast.

The last few moments of the film show her at home, in darkness, in silence, sitting before her boudoir mirror, looking at her painted face, the false face she has presented to society, the face whose every emotion we have seen but that she can now see for herself. She begins to remove her makeup — her beauty spot, her lipstick, finally her caked white powder foundation — and as she wipes away the false, imperturbable face of the socialite, we see exposed her stinging crimson cheeks. As the camera fades to black, we see a single tear fall from the Marquise’s eye as her whole face burns. In this performance, Glenn Close so perfectly embodies pure shame that we cringe in dread even as we sit in judgment.

I thought about that scene when I read , who warned corporate America not to hire anyone from the Trump administration who had peddled lies for the president. If a firm hires one of Trump’s propagandists, giving them a corporate job where they can launder—or even leverage—their former connections to the White House, Lane said, “Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie.”

The editor of a business magazine has drawn a bright ethical line that marks an extreme boundary of what kind of character, what kind of behavior, deserves the opprobrium of the whole community of Forbes editors and readers. He dangles before the corporate world the specter of being permanently marked by shame.

That strong statement from Forbes, with its promise of shunning and shaming, reminded me of the early days in the Trump administration, when the cagers of children—Stephen Miller, Kirstjen Nielsen, John Kelly—and their apologetic propagandists Sean Spicer and, later, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, could not go out to a restaurant in Washington, D.C. without being heckled and catcalled.

Some people were wringing their hands at the incivility of it all, appalled that these poor Trump apparatchiks couldn’t even enjoy a meal in peace at a nice restaurant.

All right then: What if, instead of the boos and the shouted epithets, the restaurant-goers just took to their feet, in utter silence, and stared unflinchingly at these agents and abettors of genocide until, like the Marquise, the Trumpists fled not “court society” but society as a court sitting in judgment of the shabby selves their ruthless acts had exposed?

The collective and unwavering moral scorn of a libertine society that has been pushed to the limits of its tolerance—censure from a crowd more inclined to give power-players a pass—is a fearsome thing for people who commit foul deeds behind a façade of social respectability.

It is, in fact, what they fear the most.

There is no such thing as “cancel culture” — there is only culture.

There are social mores, norms of public behavior and expression, norms and customs that both exert and absorb constant pressure and negotiation in the public square. One of the tactics of negotiation, one of the sources of pressure that shape these social norms, are public denunciations for shameful behavior.

What else should we call the loud yelps about “cancel culture” — coming from Harper’s Magazine, coming from Fox News, coming from Congressman Jim Jordan as he bellows against a second impeachment of President Trump, coming from Senator Josh Hawley as he whinges about his book contract — except attempts to shame others for their views?

The people who use this phrase to describe the social consequences of social transgressions are trying to create a consensus that whatever that phrase supposedly points to is, in fact, the truly shameful behavior. To quickly cry out “cancel culture” at any sign of criticism or judgment is to try to bully one’s hearers into abandoning their own ethical and moral standards and yield instead to the ethical and moral standards of those whose own behavior strays toward or past the limits of what society will bear.

Consider the absurdity of Jim Jordan, on the floor of the House, claiming that the solemn resolve of his chamber to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection, was a dangerous manifestation of “cancel culture,” rather than a profoundly serious constitutional proceeding.

Yes, Jim Jordan, with his well-known habit of looking the other way since his days as a wrestling coach, used the phrase “cancel culture” to shame political opponents into silence about Trump’s high crimes.

Shame on those who engage in cancel culture, say those who decry cancel culture, themselves engaging in this so-called cancel culture, criticizing the critics to save themselves and their patrons from scrutiny.

But public criticism, or the interventions of professional editors working with an author to improve his writing and reporting, or the decisions of large media companies to withdraw their agreements to publish a particular author, or the deplatforming on social media of heinous people who say heinous things—none of this is censorship, nor is it cancel culture; it’s just culture. This is how society works. This is how critique happens.

This is how taste is shaped, and how norms are made and unmade: by social pressures from every quarter. We all face and funnel moral pressures, intellectual pressures, religious views, notions of civil order, laws, customs, clashing visions, clashing wills, economic interests, political agendas. We all, in our private lives and in our public discourse, generally live within the limits of what we and the communities we most care about belonging to find acceptable. This is social life; this is human life.

None of this is to deny that there is ever anything problematic about the moral pressures of society. Any rural kid who has wondered if they will ever have a life beyond the horizons of what they can see on the bus ride from the farm to the high school, any queer kid who has felt the pressure to hide who they are because they expect only condemnation from the moral milieu of their little Baptist church, any weird kid or loner who has been picked on for their eccentric interests or their lack of interest in football and cheerleading, anybody who has grown up in a small town with small cultural horizons and has longed to get away—any of them, any of us, could tell you of “

We do not wish to live in a society where we must curb our own aspirations or diminish our own identities to fit into the narrow roles that our small-town city councils or suburban neighbors envision for us.

But for those who have access to the internet—and that’s certainly wanting for many rural and poorer families—the borders of our village have been greatly enlarged. The astonishing reach of online news outlets, social media platforms, and various content creation platforms allows us to witness and participate in a truly national conversation. We can find our affinity groups, our like-minded fellow citizens, our online friends who share our moral and ethical commitments; we can encounter, sometimes for the first time, people whose ideas run absolutely counter to our own. The very encounter with the different and the new is always a challenge and a chance — and no social pressure at work today in our broadly tolerant culture will ever prevail to homogenize or bowdlerize the dazzling diversity of ideas anyone can find on Al Gore’s internet.

Yet even in our broadly tolerant society, the liberal vision of the individual citizen exercising his or her will in absolute moral independence is but a useful fiction, as useful a fiction as the idea of a social contract, and both are but models that mark out the boundaries of liberal political discourse. When people transgress those cultural limits, culture pushes back.

Now, our system of government provides us protection against that very government interfering with our rights to speak our minds, even when our utterances are disagreeable or offensive to common social mores. And, thanks to the 14th Amendment, that freedom from government interference extends to our lives as citizens of a particular state or residents of a particular city or employees of, say, a local community college. This freedom is guaranteed to us and protected by law. None of that is put at risk when someone’s Twitter account is locked, or someone’s book contract is voided.

How is it “cancel culture” for a for-profit company to respond to market pressures, or for a private media platform to decide that hosting someone’s statements devalues their brand, never mind helping to undermine the social contract itself?

When Nike announces that it will not donate money to members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, following a similar decision by the Disney Corporation, what are they doing but expressing their own views and participating in political debate, exerting what influence they can on the ever-shifting terms of the social contract? Money is speech, the Supreme Court tells us, and I am sure Jordan and Hawley would agree. It is not that Nike or Disney are silencing you, gentlemen; they are simply not talking to you any more. Be grateful they don’t begin to boo.

But, you say, these corporations are making a purely cynical, calculated decision, responding to the demands of consumers who wish to anathematize a particular political stance. Consumer pressure is canceling Republican voices!

Well, that’s just capitalism at work, the bread and butter of liberal political economy. The market has spoken.

If money is speech and markets are free, are private corporations not free to speak or keep silence with their resources as they wish? Simon and Schuster are free — contractually free and morally free — to revoke Hawley’s book contract; they are under no legal or ethical obligation to publish the ghost-written drivel of the authoritarian-curious senator from Missouri. I’m sure there is an editor at Regnery Publishing who would love to work with him. Despite his whingeing to the contrary, Hawley has not been canceled, nor has his right to free speech been imperiled.

But here’s the thing: Hawley isn’t really worried about his freedom to speak out. He is not at all worried that his opportunity to address a wide readership can be “canceled” by Simon and Schuster; there’s an entire right-wing media ecosystem primed to echo and magnify his ideas, dark money groups ready to buy his book in bulk and push it up the bestseller lists. He will be heard, and he knows that.

What Josh Hawley wants is not access to the public square but deference within the public square. It is not enough for him to be able to express his views, or to write a book, or to have his editor pay someone to write the book for him; he wants his retrograde views laundered and given the stamp of approval by a major mainstream publisher. He wants the imprimatur of intellectual seriousness and social respectability that being published by Simon and Schuster could provide. He has not been silenced; he simply has been denied something to which he believed he was entitled.

Any time you wish to hear their views, you can find Hawley or Jordan — or Dinesh D’Souza, or Roger Kimball, or some other wizened culture warrior who has repackaged “political correctness” as “cancel culture” to capture a new gullible audience for a stale old idea — on any number of conservative media channels or social media platforms, quoted in any number of mainstream newspaper or magazine profiles.

Indeed, sometimes a respectable publication will lend its platform to one of these bad-faith interlocutors to write a screed about how awful it is to have been canceled and silenced, thus leveraging a ginned-up grievance to reach an even wider audience.

None of the caterwaulers we hear crying about cancel culture have been canceled. We know that because we can still hear them.

But our social contract no longer provides them the implicit guarantee that they will be granted a deferential audience, or any audience at all — nor does it grant them immunity from criticism. This is what they cry about. They do not fear censorship; they fear censure.

All of the complicit, “respectable” enablers of Trumpism, of white supremacy, of sexism, of various ideologies of violence and hate — the Trump loyalists in Congress, the Fox television personalities who have laundered the president’s lies and find themselves needing to pivot in the wake of his complicity in the armed attack on the U.S. Capitol, the retrograde pundits who suddenly find themselves disingenuous ambassadors for “unity”— all are afraid of one thing: They do not fear being banned; they fear being shunned.

They want to be lauded, to sit in places of honor, to be reputed as a wise or insightful or necessary voice — but they want all that after transgressing every norm of human decency in propping up the toxic Trump. So they circulate a coinage like “cancel culture” and try to buy their way into the discourse with counterfeit concerns, raising alarms about freedom of speech and freedom of expression — principles our culture undeniably values — when their real concern is exposure, shame, the social distancing of an audience who sees them as they are.

This is why so many of the critics of “cancel culture” are also defenders of “culture” or “the Western canon” as a static set of texts and tastes. They do not wish to acknowledge that “culture” is not a finished project, but an ongoing negotiation. They see projects like #DisruptTexts as an assault on culture, as “cancel culture,” rather than as plain old culture at work re-examining and re-ordering tastes, styles, beliefs, mores. If culture is not something permanently enshrined, then neither are they. Society might revise its view of them and all they advocate or represent.

The best defense is a good offense, it seems. The purveyors of the myth of cancel culture are trying to shame their critics out of shaming them. They have embraced an epithet to describe the undesirable but predictable social consequences of their words and deeds, and they try to persuade people to deploy that epithet in their defense—this is their way of exerting social pressure to reject the social pressures arrayed against them. That is how the public square works, and they are very much a part of it, though their only contribution to The Discourse of late seems to be crying that they are being excluded.

No. They are being exposed.

There is no such thing as cancel culture. It’s just culture, all the way down, and at the bottom of that well we dig together, down where all speech fades into silence, rests a mirror into which they dare not look.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

L.D. Burnett

Written by

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

L.D. Burnett

Written by

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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