While ‘cancel culture’ seems to have cropped up out of nowhere in the last few years, the urge to stamp out disagreeable ideas and to excommunicate or marginalise those who hold them is as old as humanity – and it has arisen again and again in most human cultures. Cancel culture is, in fact, one of the core forms of illiberalism that humanity tends to indulge in when robust safeguards on liberal principles cannot be established, secured, and maintained.
Today’s style of cancel culture seems new not just because of the internet, however, but because it is rooted in ideas that look and feel like natural extensions of liberal ideas — fairness, equality, tolerance — but, in fact, are perversions of these. The ideas that have led to these perversions and their dangerous manipulations also seem to have sprung from the ground in the last five years, but they have a pedigree that extends back much further.
In our book, Cynical Theories, we look at the development of what has come to be known as ‘Social Justice’ scholarship and activism from a few core ideas central to that change: the emergence of postmodern thought. These are ideas about three concepts—power, knowledge and language.
In the postmodern worldview, knowledge is that which has been legitimised by dominant forces in society and this happens in the service of power. Consequently, established knowledge needs to be scrutinised closely for its inevitable oppressive qualities. Once something has been established as knowledge, the power dynamics embedded in it are enforced and policed on all levels of society by normal people who have internalised the knowledge as true and so speak and act as though it is true, usually unconscious of the implications. Postmodernism maintained that the primary way in which power/knowledge (as Michel Foucault had it) works is through the ways it is considered legitimate to speak about things: discourses.
As these ideas evolved into theories related more specifically to identity, the oppressive systems came to be known as ‘white supremacy,’ ‘imperialism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ heteronormativity (the assumption that heterosexuality is the default), cisnormativity (the assumption that identifying with the sex indicated by one’s genitals is the default), ableism and fatphobia. That is, the powerful discourses are deemed to be those of straight, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, slim men. Other groups have their own discourses that could counter these but because they have not been able to establish them as knowledge, they have been dismissed, which was a function of the power of the dominant.
Since the late 1980s and especially since 2010, these concepts have formed the root of activism to address issues of social justice. Following the Civil Rights era in which anti-racist activism, feminism and Gay Pride sought and achieved legal equality for women and racial and sexual minorities under the law, there emerged a new form of activism which sought to address the lingering aftermath of these unequal systems by addressing the very foundation of prejudice – attitudes, biases and ways of talking about things. The postmodern concepts of knowledge, language and power were very good for this. After all, if oppression is maintained by the way we talk about things, the solution is to change the way people talk about things, by authoritarian means if necessary.
This conception of how society works is counterintuitive to those of a liberal bent. Those of us who grew up understanding that freedom of belief and speech were not only essential individual liberties, but also that the free exchange of ideas is how knowledge advances and moral progress is made, were not well-prepared to either understand or counter this development.
And yet, it is coherent if you accept its core premises. You start with the assumption that oppressive systems of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic and power must be permeating everything at all times through the way people think and speak and that this does great harm to marginalised groups, but that it is difficult for you to see them.
Then of course, it becomes essential to scrutinise language closely using the correct critical tools that are understood to reveal the forces of white supremacy, patriarchy, cisnormativity and all the others. Because these discourses are so powerful, of course you will feel a moral imperative to shut them down. Often this is most simply done by shutting people down – by ‘cancelling’ them.
In this way of thinking, there is nothing to be gained from debate, because the issue is not one of differing ideas that can be evaluated on their merits. The issue is one of power and discourses and the dominant discourses need to be dismantled and the marginalised ones elevated to achieve social justice.
This is the driving force for what has come to be known as ‘Cancel Culture’. The term is most commonly applied to the phenomenon where somebody – often a celebrity, if we hear about it – has said or done something seen as racist or sexist or transphobic that has resulted in a massive backlash, usually on social media, leading to them being fired, boycotted or in some way acknowledged as a terrible person worthy of no further positive attention. Cancel Culture refers, at root, to a general attitude that it is socially righteous to attempt to destroy a person’s reputation permanently and to prevent them from having an influential voice in the public sphere where they can promote dominant discourses that are believed to hurt people. Sometimes this succeeds and people do indeed disappear. More often, it does not, but they are forever marked as ‘problematic’ and association with them can be hazardous.
This is why we saw John McEnroe publicly excoriated for saying Serena Williams would rank around 700 among men in tennis. He said he did not believe it to be earthshattering to say that differences exist between men and women, especially in athletics, but this is because he did not understand that, in Social Justice terms, he was speaking into a dominant discourse that marked women as inferior and thus actually perpetuating that sexist discourse.
Remember, it is not about truth. It is about power. This is also why Danny Baker was fired from the BBC for tweeting an image of a chimp and relating it to baby Archie, the child of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He might well say that it did not occur to him that this could be read as a racist trope because, in his words, he did not have ‘a diseased mind’, but his intentions, even if believed, do not matter in this conception of the world. He spoke into oppressive racist discourses whether he intended or not, thus perpetuating racism and so he must go. This is essential for engineering the discourses to correctness, as that will fix the disparities of power in society, and so people who have a record of making problematic statements must be prevented the opportunity of doing so again while serving as a warning to others.
Images and symbols can also be read as perpetuating oppressive discourses. For activists combatting fatphobic discourses – those which imply that being morbidly obese is less healthy or attractive than being slim – adverts have often been targeted. Cancer Research have annoyed fat activists twice for their billboards referencing research that shows obesity to be related to several forms of cancer. Another advert suggesting that a slim and toned woman was ‘beach-body ready’ (and thus obese women were not) also received large protests.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests were often targeted at statues perceived as representing racially oppressive history and continuing to perpetuate those discourses by their lingering presence. Some did, of course. The slave trader, Edward Colston, was summarily dumped in the sea. However, many people felt that defacing the statue of Winston Churchill, so significant in the war against fascism, was uncalled for. This month, the 18th century philosopher, David Hume, was determined to be persona non grata and the David Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh was therefore renamed. The University’s statement explained that this was because his “comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today”. Hume’s discourse on race, over two centuries ago was seen as so powerful that marginalised people could be harmed by seeing his name on a building today.
The individual whom activists are trying most ferociously to cancel right now is the author, J K Rowling. Unlike McEnroe and Baker, her speech crime seems to have been undertaken knowingly, launching her right into the middle of possibly the most authoritarian online gatekeepers – trans activists.
Rowling commented on Twitter, “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”
Twitter activists, however, decided it was hate and furthermore that it was dangerous. Rowling, they declared, was denying the validity and even the very existence of trans people, creating a hostile environment and transphobia with her speech. She was perpetuating the oppressive discourse of cisnormativity and because of her huge platform and great influence on young people, she was committing a dangerous and violent act. Actors of the Harry Potter films denounced Rowling’s words, significantly, often by repeating the mantra ‘trans women are women” as though by repeating this affirming discourse, they could undo some of the harm done by the utterance of her sceptical one. None of them attempted to address her argument, even when she explained it in detail in a lengthy essay.
Since then, Rowling’s opponents have made every attempt possible to discredit her and so reduce the potential influence of her speech. She was claimed to have chosen her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, in honour of a sexuality conversion therapist, despite having given an entirely different explanation of this name and never having said anything critical of homosexuality.
Vanity Fair accused Rowling of proving her commitment to transphobia in her most recent Galbraith book, Troubled Blood. The review insists that the novel is about a male murderer who kills women while wearing a dress, and thus the moral of it is that trans women are dangerous. In fact, as the journalist Nick Cohen points out in a recent review, the book is not about that at all, although there is a sentence or two about a murderer who wore a woman’s coat.
Attempts to counter Rowling’s speech with opposing mantras, hideous narratives and misrepresentations of her work have now been topped by the literal burning of her words. Activists and trans allies around the world have been filming themselves setting fire to Rowling’s books on the social media site, TikTok. The desire to symbolically destroy Rowlings words in an attempt to undo the damage perceived to have been done by her ‘transphobic’ discourse on sex and gender is entirely in keeping with the concepts of knowledge, power and language present in postmodern thought.
These are the kinds of manifestations of ‘cancel culture’, today’s instantiation of the altogether too human illiberal impulse to apply collective will to stamp out dissident thought, and they are comprehensible. We wrote Cynical Theories to help people understand where this philosophy came from and thus how to understand the activism that applies it. With a proper understanding of the underpinnings of cancel culture as it has arisen today, we have the best chance of minimising its harmful impacts and reasserting the liberal norms that help keep at bay some of the worst aspects of human nature. Despite everything, it is our hope that this is still possible.
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