Does cancel culture exist? It doesn’t matter, it’s an almost entirely horrible idea anyway

[image: ostrakon from 482 BCE, used to cast a vote to ostracize the Athenian general Themistocles (Wikimedia); this is essay #295 in the Figs in Winter series]

The time is 1979. The place Rome. I am a 15 year old who is participating in a sit-in organized by one of the anarchic factions of my decidedly left-leaning high school. A variety of topics are under discussion, ranging form American imperialism to the latest terrorist attack by the (ultra leftist) “Brigate Rosse” (Red Brigades). I am not myself a committed leftist, coming from a family whose political opinions range from none at all to moderate-boring to positively apologetic of fascism. But I am curious to see why my friends attend these sit-ins, so I go.

There are some smart young men and women there. Several of them seem to know more about both politics and history than most adults I am acquainted with. The setting is stimulating, exciting even, as one gets the feeling that one isn’t merely a high school boy, but participating in the lifeblood of democracies: open, honest, and informed discussion.

Until, of course, someone says something that doesn’t toe the general line adopted by the anarchic group. Yeah, you wouldn’t think anarchists would have a line to toe, but they do. Several of them, in fact. I don’t recall who crossed the line on that particular day, or what the specifics of the discussion where about. But I vividly remember that the guy was violently booted out and accused of all sorts of moral failings, beginning, of course, with being a fascist. Even though — this I know for sure — he most certainly wasn’t.

That was my first encounter with what today some people have labelled cancel culture, but otherwise known as ideological intolerance. In contemporary settings, the term “cancel culture” is usually deployed in a derogative fashion by the Right and by certain libertarian talking heads (e.g., Bill Maher), apparently oblivious to the historically well documented fact that both sides of the political spectrum have regularly engaged in it. In the United States, for instance, the Right has for decades attempted to cancel National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts — because god forbid we have a population of well informed citizens who have a sense of aesthetic appreciation. Or take the grass root canceling of the Dixie Chicks country music group once they began criticizing President George W. Bush over the Second Iraq War.

Meanwhile, the Left keeps protesting that there is no such thing as cancel culture, despite article after article on national newspapers documenting one instance of it after another. For example, the literal cancellation of the television show Roxanne after the lead actress posted a derogatory tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to former President Obama. Speaking of Obama, he is on record criticizing cancel culture:

Pretty well put, I’d say. In fact, canceling has not really obtained great results so far. Sarah Manavis, writing in the New Statesman, simultaneously denied that cancel culture exists and pointed out that it is ineffective (you would think that for something to be ineffective it ought first to exist, ah, logic!): “‘Cancellation’ rarely has real-world consequences: instead, it might result in names trending, take-down threads, and more replies to a tweet than likes.” That is not quite true: plenty of people have suffered real consequences from being canceled (see this New York Times article for some examples). The problem is that much more often than not these people are either previously unknown or not particularly influential or powerful figures. It takes a lot of work, years of persistence, and evidence of legal, not just moral, wrongdoing do bring down major targets, like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein. As Ligaya Mishan writes in the New York Times:

Let’s get three things clear about canceling, whether it’s done by the Right or the Left. First, contra widespread opinion, especially among conservatives and libertarians, very few episodes of canceling have anything to do with the famous First Amendment to the US Constitution. Here is what the Amendment actually says:

The Amendment only prohibits the Government to interfere with free speech. Not private individuals or corporations. When Twitter of Facebook delete your post or block your account they are not infringing on any of your Constitutional rights. Ironically, therefore, it is more often the Right that finds itself in violation of the First, every time it attempts to use the power of Government in order to silence or drastically undercut free speech or free press platforms, like NPR.

Second, cancel culture is not the apocalypse. Pundits on the Right love to draw analogies between modern canceling and the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolutionary Terror, the Stasis of East Germany, all the way to Stalin’s gulags. Again, very poor reasoning and woefully inadequate understanding of history. All those cases were instances of the State or a politically powerful religious authorities persecuting dissenters and subversives, similar in spirit, if not in scope to President Nixon’s infamous list of 56 journalists to be treated as “enemies,” followed by intimidation, unlawful break-ins, investigations, arrests, and even plans for murder by poison.

Third, pace the Left, canceling is not a form of criticism, it is a form of ostracism. And one major difference between criticism and ostracism is that the first engages the other party, hopefully constructively, while the second one is a manifestation of radical intolerance. The original ostracism, practiced in the very first democracy, ancient Athens, actually had a pretty good raison d’être. The people as a whole (well, the non-slave male citizens at the least) would vote on whether to ostracize someone, and the vote was often taken as a pre-emptive measure to send into exile for ten years someone who was becoming too powerful and who therefore posed a threat to the very existence of the democracy.

But perhaps a better analogy for modern cancel culture is another ancient Greek ritual: the pharmakos. This was a type of non-literal human sacrifice in which someone was publicly beaten and then sent away from the city in order to carry away with him the sins of an entire community. The ancient Jews had a similar practice, known as scapegoating, in which the expiatory victim was a goat, not a human being. One reason the pharmakos or scapegoating are analogous to cancel culture is because they are largely symbolic: nothing is actually done to change the system, but the people feel better about themselves. That’s why Mishan, in the NYT article mentioned above, comments that yet another good parallel can be drawn between cancel culture and the medieval carnival (or the Roman Saturnalia), a short period of time when people were allowed to challenge social roles and practices. As Mishan writes:

Mishan makes yet another interesting point about cancel culture: it represents a shift of emphasis from guilt to shame, the difference being that

Shaming is something the Puritans excelled at, and it is very satisfying because it draws clear lines of demarcation between good and bad, where, of course, we are on the side of the good, and they are on the side of the bad.

An oft-heard remark on the Left is that we shouldn’t be so concerned with the alleged cancellation of a few people who are implicitly or explicitly supporting the patriarchy or white supremacy. Instead, we should focus on all those countless people who have been cancelled for generations by those very same patriarchy and supremacy. But this confuses two entirely different things. Women and minorities were not “cancelled” in the past, nor are they cancelled now. They are oppressed and exploited. Being oppressed and exploited is surely much worse than being cancelled, but it is a valid question to ask oneself whether canceling is an effective way to address the root problem, that is, oppression and exploitation. With Obama, I don’t think so.

Let’s ask two final questions: why is it, as I think, that cancel culture is a horrible idea? And if it is, is it always a horrible idea, or is there a place for it, under certain circumstances?

Fundamentally, I think cancel culture is a horrible idea because it is about intolerance, not criticism — let alone constructive criticism. All those years ago back in Rome I was shocked that someone could be instantly and vociferously booted out of a discussion group because he said something that the collective did not agree with. I thought that was what fascists do. (To be fair, though, fascists are also very likely to follow through on the expulsion with physical violence or worse.)

If you disagree, say, with J.K. Rowling about transgender issues, explain to her, and — more importantly — to everyone else you are able to reach via your social media, why she is wrong. Then ignore her. Going much further and actually burn her books is barbaric and counterproductive. She remains a best selling author the world over. If an average Joe posts something idiotic on Twitter, perhaps an ethnically offensive comment, by all means correct him and then mute him if you don’t wish to be exposed to his additional rants. But to start a movement so that the person will get fired and his family loose his livelihood because you were offended seems to be an entirely disproportionate reaction to what was going on. Besides, did you never, ever say something idiotic or offensive in your life? Honestly?

So I’m obviously not in favor of cancel culture, and would much rather engage in dialogue or ignore misguided souls than go after them with a vengeance. But are there exceptions? Yes, I think. An open society should tolerate much, including intolerance. But one thing it cannot tolerate is the kind of intolerance that quickly escalates into violence and threatens the very existence of said open society.

That is why, for instance, fascism — in both its traditional Right and the equally dangerous Left incarnations — cannot and should not be tolerated. In the broadest general use fascism is defined as “extreme authoritarian, oppressive, or intolerant views or practices” (Oxford American). That applies just as well to Mussolini as to Stalin or Mao. And that is certainly the sort of thing I happily agree to cancel, by whatever means necessary. Why? Because as Holocaust survivor Franz Frison wrote in 1988:

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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