Letter 3: The Horse, The Pillow, The Green M&M
Admitting that some examples of “Cancel Culture” are nonsense doesn’t mean you can ignore it.
This is Letter 3 of an ongoing letter exchange between journalists and former colleagues Mike Pesca (me) and Adam Davidson. As is often the case, we find ourselves on opposite sides of a heated argument.
My Dearest Adam,
For 49 days I have scanned the horizon, awaiting the courier’s arrival, only to be denied your insights alighting my pleasure receptors anew. This postman evinces a wounding indifference. Perchance tomorrow and tomorrow shall bring your next missive? No matter, I shall persevere.
In other words, with no letter 3 coming from your end, I figured I’d write one myself.
I left unexplored from Letter 1, your contention that there are so many bogus claims of “cancel culture” that the phrase has been leached of all meaning. In fact you worry that it becomes a tool to discredit legitimate and necessary efforts of reform.
NOT EVEN MAD
As you know, on my other podcast, Not Even Mad, we have a segment called “Cancel Court”, in which potential cases of cancellation are debated, semi tongue-in-cheek, but also with the acknowledgment that canceling is not a mythological, phenomenon. That said, in an effort to identify possible cases, I set a Google alert for “He was canceled’ and “She was canceled”. I can report that these alerts have not not yielded a single instance of actual canceling. The stories are of people moaning about logical blowback from behavior that was guaranteed to draw critique.
Likewise, in Donald Trump Jr’s book “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us,” Trump Jr. actually cites The Mueller Report as an example of canceling. It wasn’t. The Mueller Report was a DOJ commissioned investigatory effort that wound up recommending Congress may wish to do something. Congress did not not wish to do anything, but we can both agree none of this amounted to cancellation. Donald Trump Jr. used the concept of cancellation as ammunition, hoping to discredit a methodically constructed and abundantly cautious document that reflected poorly on his daddy. That said, I don’t think being able to use the label “cancel culture” actually helped Trump Jr. any more than the usual tactics of dismissing facts or deploying labels like “Un-American” or “Liberal Bias.” By the way, there are such things as being biased un-American; just because those categories are frequently wielded as cudgels doesn’t mean they aren’t sometimes correct. The occasional or even frequent misapplication of a phrase doesn’t render the underlying concept invalid.
Yes, Lots Of The Complaining Is Nonsense
Surveying the claims of “cancel culture”, one does finds LOTS of citations where the term simply doesn’t apply. You might have come across the claim describing newspapers dropping the comic strip Dilbert, and retailers pulling Mike Lindell's pillows from their shelves, and dowdying-down the footwear of a sexy M&M.
My fellow justices on Not Even Mad’s “Cancel Court” would rule against all of those cases as being true examples of cancellation. I am willing to concede that so many supposed cases of cancellation don’t fit any decent definition. No one is being punished for speech, no one is being made to pay unfairly for opinions over which reasonable people can differ.
So the question is has the term been so abused as to become meaningless?
Let’s Talk About Fake News
Remember when “Fake News” was first introduced into the lexicon? It was a wonderfully punchy phrase describing the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation. Donald Trump, who understands punching and phrases, warped “Fake News” into actual fake news. In his mouth, “Fake News” became its opposite, and so we had to fall back on the flaccidly multisyllabic “misinformation and disinformation”. An eleven-syllable phrase that wasn’t fun to hear and imposed work on the listener. Advantage Trump, disadvantage meaning.
The same thing has happened to “cancel culture”, an elegant 2-word phrase of disyllabic balance. But because it causes offense to some and has prompted inspired misappropriation by others, I sometimes find myself retreating to the more clinical “illiberal censoriousness”. I’d rather use the phrase “cancel culture”, and risk being lumped in with Bob Baffert’s allegation about his horse Medina Spirit, for the same reason I’d rather use the words “bigotry”, “torture”, or “decimated.” Sure, sometimes a side is reduced by 11% - 99%, rendering “decimated” inexact. There are dozens of other formulations for types of racism from “systemic” to “structural” that are meant to evoke bigotry without actually alleging it. And of course John Yoo and lawyers who crafted legalisms around “water boarding “ and “extraordinary rendition” would prefer we all use those less-direct, and less accurate phrases, but I prefer to use words that resonate and convey an idea directly. There is a concerted effort among those who want to define cancel culture as a myth to erect a scaffolding of linguistics around a minefield of offense in order to leech language of its power. Denying the phrase “cancel culture” is, like the phenomenon itself, about power. I absolutely believe that the Donald Trump Jr’s of the world use the phrase to dismiss righteous critiques. But I also believe that the Adam Davidson’s of the world (like you, the one Adam Davidson I’m writing letters to) want to deny or minimize the phrase in order to take away a tool of the other side. If you neuter language, you weaken the agenda of those using it. Freddie DeBoer issued this entertaining cri de coeur about a similar word, “woke”:
Objecting Is A Tactic
I think some slang is overly reductive and designed only to wound the opposition. Take “Social Justice Warrior.” The moment I read a non-ironic reference to “SJW’s” I know where the writer is coming from. That’s why I use the term “Progressive Activists”, taken from the Hidden Tribes Survey. So what of “woke?” Woke isn’t a perfect word. It has that in common with every succinct descriptor of a complex swath of attitudes and behavior. But woke does, like all good words, usefully convey a generally understood meaning. I was in Lisbon, speaking with a writer and playwright who performs “Theater of The Oppressed”. She took me to a book store which supplied banned books during the oppressive reign of the Estado Novo. We began to lament the censorship from the right that still exists in America, and she also was interested in the cultural censorship from the left. She identified the phenomenon by asking, “This is about the woke?” In doing so she communicated an idea that I understood, and that I knew she understood. We were using a word as words are meant to be used, which is why the idea and the phrase “cancel culture” has value. A blanket objection to its use is trying to veto the idea of describing the vetoing of ideas.
Sure, as a phrase “cancel culture” is overused, and maybe even more often than not, misapplied. And yet we have troubling examples that call out for a name to help us make sense of what’s going on. What do we do with the examples of:
Ilya Shapiro; Colin Kaepernick, David Shor, Alison Roman, Junot Diaz, Gillian Philip, J. Angelo Corlett, Jason Kilborn, Hakeem Oluseyi, Meg Smaker, Mary DeVoto, Laurie Forest , Peter Shamshiri, Trent Colbert, Garry Garrels, Erika López Prater, Henry Bienen, and Jackie Blair.
These people include a cookbook author, a quarterback and a cafeteria employee. Some will be fiiiiiine, in the parlance of the cancel-deniers, but some have seen their lives partially destroyed, and their livelihoods irreparably diminished. Some harbor beliefs that you and I strongly disagree with, but that doesn’t matter. All were punished for their reasonable statements or actions. I could list hundreds more. I think it’s important to see this phenomenon as a phenomenon, and to name it. Certainly it’s not the greatest threat to society today, and it’s not unprecedented, but it is something. To ignore it would be like regarding the new spate of book bans as just the usual to-and-fro of questions of how to compile a library collection. But we can point to that phenomenon, call it a phenomenon, and have a word for the phenomenon, which the purveyors of the phenomenon would rather we not use. We call it “book banning,” and now we can discuss its implications. It is important to not deny or downplay what is happening.
“How About We Eliminate Phrases?” Is Not A Solution
There’s an analogy to the tactics of Q-Anon, which is to call anyone they don’t like pedophiles. Just because Q-Anon are a bunch of dangerous wackadoos doesn’t mean pedophiles don’t actually exist in the world. Similarly, these days charges of “grooming” are deployed wantonly and irresponsibly. However, the phenomenon of actual predators actually “grooming” their potential victims does exist. It’s good for us to have the concept and phrase for the reason that it’s good to have words and phrases to economically communicate all sorts of things that go on in the world. People who should not be punished for their opinions are in fact facing punishment for their opinions. I call it cancel culture. You can’t measure it with a thermometer or with a piece of litmus paper, but we understand what it looks like as much as we understand similarly imperfectly defined concepts like “toxic masculinity”, “passive aggressive behavior”, or “gaslighting”. The ideas are sometimes misapplied and edge cases test definitions, but that means the words and the concepts those words seek to describe obscure more than they enlighten.
The most insightful essay I’ve read on the costs of over-reacting to cancel culture was by Eve Fairbanks in the Atlantic.
Fairbanks, a white American, lived in South Africa for years and wrote a book that her friends and professional associates warned her would be pilloried on grounds of insensitivity. It wasn’t. In fact, when she appeared on The Gist, I asked her the very questions she documents being asked all throughout her book tour: “Weren’t you worried that you’d be criticized for telling a story that wasn’t yours?”
She wasn’t criticized, and so concluded that the fear of cancellation, from people who decry it, might itself be leading to more self-censorship. Of course it does. As I said, cancel culture is about power, specifically power as a blunt instrument. Fear of punishment exists among those who decry such a fear as well as those who welcome it as proper consequences. This is a feature of the phenomenon. If we were to scrap the name, the concept, and the vigilance against it, we would invite more bludgeoning, not more justice.
I’m looking forward to your next entry into this dialogue. You’re now assigned to the even-numbered entries. I will let the chill toward my mailman thaw upon the arrival of your next letter.
Yours Hopefully Before the Vernal Equinox,