The Masquerade of Cancel Culture
I want to preface this with the fact that I am not a turncoat. I haven’t gone to pout in the embrace of the Alt-Right. I am the same Leftist I’ve been since many younger Leftists were even born. And yet it is considered something of a cardinal sin to not only believe Cancel Culture is a real, actual thing; but that it almost exclusively harms real, actual people, most often in gross acts of retaliation which far eclipse the crime being punished. Of course the church which regards this as heresy, which employs this ruthlessly efficient form of excommunication, is the Online Left.
The act of cancellation has nothing to do with justice. Rather it is petty grievance and vindictiveness disguised as justice. It is neither restorative nor rehabilitative, but a mechanism for the wanton destruction of a person. Which is a strange mechanism to employ for a community whose members are so fervently in support of police and prison abolition. Apparently cops are fine so long as they are only morality cops. Wrongthink needs correcting, after all, and woe betide anyone who steps out of bounds.
Through this, cancellation becomes the means to artificially enforce a system of beliefs and to protect an ideology that abuses its adherents’ need for community with the threat of exile. And it succeeded. The Online Left is now equipped with a form of self-policing so perfect that we’ve done more damage to ourselves than the Right could ever dream. The fluctuations of this barometer are so deranged that it has somehow corrupted a word meant to describe the absence of corruption: purity.
Purity, above all, has become the primary means of attaining status in these circles. This is dangerous for two reasons. One, it is a facade that must be maintained at all times. A single slip-up is potentially fatal to one’s purity and thus their status. Two, purity is a moving target when derived from the ethos of an ideology that is constantly mutating like a recombinant virus. Together these elements forge an obscene sort of social contract to which the signatories adhere rigidly–so long as adherence suits their purposes–and establishes the basis for advancement.
This contract empowers the only currencies which still hold value for the Left, both of them perversions of justified social practices: hero worship and public shaming. Status is gained through the former by attaching oneself to a figure in the community perceived to be virtuous and good. In following this person one is hoping to rise with them, not unlike the followers of ascendant figures in the real (offline) world. Conversely there is the act of public shaming, which is the destruction of a member of the community to show loyalty to that same community or its virtues and thereby gain status within it. It is not uncommon for the participants in such shaming to become considered virtuous figures themselves through the transitive power of destruction. And if a virtuous figure strays from the group’s litmus test and falls prey to that destruction? All the better.
It is the eating of one’s own that most often provides the path to social status. How can one advance if someone still stands in front of you, if not by taking their place? Cannibalization was once seen as the greatest sin man could commit against man, the reduction of a soul to mere meat devoured for basic sustenance. It is perplexing then that a community which prides itself on compassion and acceptance can so easily dehumanize and make palatable the destruction of someone who was once counted among them. But then we must remember, eating the flesh of your enemy was once also believed to grant you their power.
Participants in these harassment campaigns are worse than sharks: They’re vultures. The scent of blood alone will not draw them, only the scent of death. It does not reward them to pile onto a figure who still has some social utility. The risk is too great. But if the figure is spiraling, if the waters are muddied in the slightest, they will swoop in and take their pound of flesh. Whether or not the matter at hand warranted this reaction is of no consequence. Not even the incidence of a mental health crisis is considered. Justice is not the motivation, only the masquerade of justice.
Of course they will never admit this. Doing so requires that they be honest with themselves, which the deeply insecure and vain must as a rule never do, lest their interior self suffer a terminal wound. And this self is very fragile. The extent of their activism is showing up to canvas or phonebank every two years. Sometimes not even that. They are not especially bright or amusing, and their only talent is for regurgitating the loudest voices in the echo chamber. The annihilation of another person constitutes the brief moment in which the void within is filled, in which they feel themselves to be more than just one individual among many, all awash in a sea of mediocrity. And in a cultural moment for which collective illusion is the only means of gaining influence, it comes as no surprise that they are all too eager to weaponize the mercurial and amorphous will of the community for their own gain. That it comes at another’s expense means nothing.
None of this is to say that the targets of these cancellation attempts are saints, but neither are they the demonic presences into which they are transformed. Like the rest of us on this heap of dirt, they are human and flawed and fallible. Their perceived transgression is often at best a poorly articulated point or at worst a kernel of truth buried inside a tumor of exaggeration and outright fabrications. Somehow more pitiful are the instances in which cancellation is used to settle personal scores, an abuse of social justice so bold it is horrifying to see unchallenged. This especially deranged court of public opinion is often so arbitrary that its victims are just the day’s lunch special.
No one, in consideration of all this, ought to wonder why the Left cannot gain any ground when confined largely to an opaque and alienating cabal on the internet. Those most knowledgeable and affirmed in Leftist beliefs seem content to police themselves, the rest to exorcise their own self-loathing through the wreckage of other people’s lives. It is a great victory for them when an ordinary person is fired from their ordinary job or an academic is deplatformed and blacklisted, the charges often framed in the most uncharitable way possible. Anyone not washed in the blood of social media will see this behavior for what it is: the strange flailing of full-grown adults who left their minds back in senior year and never went back to get them.
But what more can we expect from a generation, of which I am a part, that hasn’t exactly been efficacious as a movement? What else do you have when your track record as a political force has run into the negatives? In trying to answer these questions we can see that cancel culture more broadly describes a desperate attempt to reckon with the fact that we have no control over own lives. We wage culture wars because we lost the class war a long time ago. We keep losing. The most we can do is temporarily shave a few thousand subscribers off an influencer or run someone off Twitter for the crime of the day. Then in that moment we’ve won. Even if out in the real world we’re still getting the shit kicked out of us, today on the internet we won. So, like crabs in a bucket, we exert control over the only thing we can: each other.
And if a few people drown, so what? Right?