Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
They will never be convinced that cancel culture exists
Let's not waste our breath
In some parts of the landscape, it seems we are still debating this question.
A few days ago, journalist Adam Davidson, asked on Twitter:
“Can one of you believers in cancel culture just write one piece that gives evidence and doesn't just speak to a feeling you have? Maybe some data that helps your readers know the size and scale of this problem? Also, some examples of people actually fired?”
It seems absurd to me that anyone could still deny the existence of the phenomenon - in fact, so absurd that I literally don’t believe it.
However, others are not as cynical as me, and supplied Mr. Davidson with countless stories - occasionally their own. One man said he was suspended from the British Labour Party for saying “only women experience menopause”. Multiple women claimed similar losses, firings and suspensions over gender issues.
Others shared the dataset by FIRE cataloging 426 cases in the recent past of scholars targeted for ideological reasons. They noted that the scholars were ten times more likely to be targeted by those on the left. Another user shared a catalog of events that bubbled up in public discourse - nearly 300 incidents.
Most significantly, some pointed out that for every case that makes the news, there are likely scores more that don’t. Most of us cannot afford to make a stink about a traumatic incident, we cope and try to move on as best we can. The incidents that do rise to public consciousness do so usually because the person targetted is already in the public eye - and privileged enough to have a stage.
I was unlucky enough to once debate Billy Bragg on BBC about this issue, and I learned very quickly that my carefully prepared arguments were less than worthless. No amount of reasoning, anecdotes, or even data was going to convince him. I began to see what I see clearly now: that they aren’t denying the existence of cancel culture because they don’t see it - they are denying it because they still want to keep this weapon and don’t want to feel like bad people for using it. It is easier to just pretend a harm isn’t happening than to try and justify it (but of course, when cornered by reality, they will try that too).
The arguments usually progress down the steps of clown-world politics.
First, they will deny. Then, they will minimize (either the relevance or impact or both). Finally, they will outright justify.
Just yesterday, Greg Lukianoff and Komi German of FIRE wrote a piece in the Daily Beast with evidence of the existence of this culture. “And despite the denialism surrounding its very existence, we will demonstrate through empirical data and polling that cancel culture is not only a real problem, it is one that continues to expand in scope and size.”
A worthy pursuit by two earnest and thoughtful people. Too bad it won’t work.
At this point, it is profoundly naive to imagine that evidence will result in anything but a shift in goalposts. Not because they are fundamentalists on the issue - but because they are anything but.
I have directly engaged with literal Islamic fundamentalists in my work for years. The fundamentalists might be unhinged, moralistic zealots - but they are fairly straightforward debaters. And that is because they are grounded in principle - they actually believe what they say. And over the years, I have successfully changed the minds of fervently religious people through debate. My most frustrating encounters were instead with very liberal believers.
These were the Western-born-and-raised individuals who grew up with a variant of the faith most believers would consider utter heresy. And yet, despite their liberal upbringings and carefree enjoyment of the freedoms of the secular West, they would sputter indignantly when asked to even acknowledge the religious abuse and persecution faced by those who did not have such privileges. At first I thought the problem was simple ignorance - they had difficulty accepting what they themselves had not experienced. But the mountains of data, polls, historical and judicial analysis I presented made no difference either - to them Islam would always be a good and tolerant religion, and Muslims beleaguered, but model, minorities.
The reason was simple: as members of a religious group which was often considered marginalized, they could benefit from victim status among the general population. Meanwhile, as beneficiaries of a uniquely liberal upbringing within Islam, they were spared from the worst elements of the practice and community. They had both the freedoms of the West, and freedom from the worst of Islam - while appropriating and minimizing the suffering of others. They could have their cake and eat it too.
I learned a valuable lesson in dealing with these types. When someone sincerely holds a position, they will debate in earnest. When someone holds a position because it is in their favor to hold it, they will not. You must respond to the self-serving man by taking away the benefit he derives from an act - by turning the incentives around. Then, the same selfishness that keeps him in will lead him out.
The “what cancel culture?” guys are not like the fundamentalists - they are not sincere doctrinaires, but the beneficiaries of a brutally unjust system. The merits of the position they hold are irrelevant.
I’ll go further. They know that cancel culture exists. They like it, and want to keep using it. The only way to get them to stop is to turn that weapon against them.
I’m sure I’ve lost at least half my readers there, who probably didn’t expect such a militant position from me.
But frankly, I’m sick of this. I’m sick of seeing good people destroyed by this madness, and of watching others cower in fear because of it.
It has been years and years of life-ruining mobbings wreaking havoc on our discourse. The result is a suffocating atmosphere of self-censorship - which allows the most extreme to rule the day. Empowered in their role as the only actors who can openly advocate for their values, our culture appears to leap to their bidding. Meanwhile, the resentment of the disempowered grows. In the reprieve provided by the anonymity of the ballot box, they reveal their disgust at the ruling class and a rejection of their ideology. But the ruling class is incentivized to interpret this rejection in only one way: as a sign of hate and bigotry.
The denial of cancel culture is an attempt to maintain the semblance of victimhood, while behaving as a bully. This pretense of disempowerment is vital to their claims of moral authority - as I’ve noted before: wokeism (the religion of the elite) is a Will to Power, an anti-ideology. Their language and demands shift with the wind - what is woke one day will be contemptible bigotry the next, the only constant being the stupefying rate of change. The only thing that can arguably be called a “principle” is their approach to power. In their faith, power doesn’t belong to the people - it belongs to the powerless. And as it happens, the only legitimate arbiter of who is or isn’t powerless is the elite, woke class. As the self-defined electors and self-declared champions of the marginalized, they demand and then preside over the transfer of power, guiding it into place in a gesture we are assured is self-denying and altruistic.
But if it is the case that indeed the powerless are not so powerless, that they can strip “The Privileged” of their livelihoods for mere speech - then the moral justification underlying their ideology is exposed as plainly false.
Denial of cancel culture is not a matter of ignorance - it is a matter of political expediency.
Would you be incentivized to hold that fire was a bad thing if it had never burned you or anyone you knew - but disfigured those you happened to hate? What if you had the power to start these fires - but your enemies had comparatively little?
Maybe you enjoy the attacks or can justify them as worthwhile in service of some greater good, so you fan the flames. But you also don’t want to seem like the kind of person who would do such a horrible thing. So you pretend there is no harm done. And in the rare instances a blackened enemy corpse lands squarely in front of you and you can no longer deny its existence, it is too easy to simply shrug and say “well, what did she expect? She was playing with fire”.
The thing about empathy is that it is against our nature to apply it universally. It is a provincial emotion - one that grants grace to our friends and delivers fury to our enemies. The more humanistic emotion - compassion - is a difficult one to hold, and does not relay nearly the same kind of emotional satisfaction. So long as cancel culture strikes so unevenly, it will never go away. So long as the harms fall far more heavily on one side, it is in the interest of the other to continue weaponizing it.
The only way Good White Men like Mr. Davidson will recognize the harms of cancel culture is when it is them and their friends and loved ones, who suffer.
“But Sarah… Does this mean you are asking for more cancellations?”
This is indeed one of the conclusions that one can draw. But no, I don’t believe we must to stoop to cruelty to end it.
More importantly, I do not trust anyone who claims to be able to know when to put aside principle without losing their sense of right and wrong altogether. I cannot, now or ever, try to destroy an innocent person’s livelihood, nor will I advocate for others to do the same. This may be the doomed logic of the pacifist - and perhaps proof that I’m not cut out for cultural warrior status.
Nevertheless, a strategy that relies on the nobility of its enemy is not a strategy at all - it is a prayer.
And while it is dishonorable to cancel innocent bystanders of any political affiliation for any reason - what we can do is treat hypocrites with the same compassion and kindness they would mete out on others who find themselves on the wrong side of the mob.
When a canceller gets canceled, it is fairly common to see anti-woke liberals defend them - as if on a mission to prove their own magnanimity and integrity. But this is a misguided tact, and in practice more self-serving than morally justified.
There must be a cost to injustice - otherwise there is no hope of change.
Meanwhile, those of us who oppose the changes demanded by the woke must not waste our efforts on lost causes - like convincing disingenuous actors of the existence of the damage. Instead, our focus should be aimed at more fruitful pursuits, like understanding the roots of the decay, investigating why we are shifting into a culture of honor vs. a culture of dignity, why the administrative state and the environment of institutions are amenable to the demands of the woke, how changes brought upon by technology shift incentives, and most importantly what interventions can meaningfully address the problem.
I will continue to think about these and other questions, and I rely on your support to continue this work. If you can, please subscribe. If you cannot, but want to support me anyways, please share this article. Thank you!