Cancellation, or Cultural Change
Some Aspects of a Single Vertically-Integrated Process
When I appeared on Megyn Kelly's podcast, she shared an anecdote (at 46:00 minute mark) about a friend of hers who worked as an editor at a major publishing house. The editor had received a manuscript of a historical novel, based on a true story, of a woman who had to pose as a man in order to receive a medical education and become a surgeon in the 1920's1. The editor admired the novel and circulated it for feedback from some junior editors.
Perhaps you can anticipate what happened next. The book was attacked by other staffers for its failure to portray the woman who posed as a man in order to practice medicine as transgendered. The author had failed to frame her story through an anachronistic projection of today's gender ideology onto a past in which the ideology did not yet exist. This meant her work was therefore “transphobic.” The editor was reported to HR for forcing them to read the book and subject to a disciplinary process. He was unable to move forward with the acquisition he had intended.
What matters here for our purposes is not the historical illiteracy and philistinism of those making the demand. I am assuming my readership does not need this explained. Nor is it the spread of the historical illiteracy and philistinism to media coverage on a range of subjects undergoing ideological succession, which increasingly has come to infect scientific and humanistic research itself. That is par for the course today. Nor is it the instant conjuring up of taboos that one can convict a person for violating though no one had even heard of the offense before it was conjured into being through the act of conviction itself. This has been the stock in trade of the ideological succession for years.
What matters is that those making the demand had the power to impose their will on executives who surely knew what they were facing — a permanent cascade of irrationalism — and judged that they had to bend to it. What power were those executives bending to? Something much stronger and more compelling than the plangent cries of their junior employees alone. Emotional blackmail by a handful of activists who declare the proscribed words to be enacting “harm” that is in turn complicit with “violence” is the instrument of enforcement. But it works in the service of a greater power.
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This anecdote is only one minor example of a kind of story that travels largely through word of mouth. I haven’t reported it out. I don’t know the details beyond the bare outlines that Kelly provided. And though the story would no doubt yield an effective piece of storytelling that I may get around to doing for the book, the details are not really what matters for our purposes here, as it is of a piece with similar stories that everyone involved in the culture industries hears routinely.
If such stories appears in public at all, it does so in anonymized form to spare the relevant actors the hostile scrutiny they have chosen to avoid at the price of their acquiescence in the cancellation of work they admired, which is to say — at the price of their vocation itself. Finding work that deserves the admiration of a literate readership in a venal marketplace whose inertial tendency is always toward the semi-pornographic celebrity bestseller is the sole area of competence of editors and the sole locus of their professional dignity. It is their one job and will only be sacrificed under extreme duress. The imposition of that duress is what the Successor cadres have made their mission.
Only a relative handful of such cases ever reach the attention of the wider public: the ones so egregious and public that they are already on the record. The rest are preempted long before they can move beyond the rumor mill to become a part of the public record. Still more are pre-empted before they are shopped or written. Eventually there is no need to preempt what never occurs to anyone to say or think in the first place. This is what the movement aims at and what it has made significant progress in bringing about. This is what “doing the work” means. Some call this “cancel culture.” Others simply call it cultural change.
Any discussion of these issues that thus conceives of “cancel culture” or “freedom of speech” as unhealthy discursive processes distinct from substantive questions about how we live together as a society and what we value will thus be fatally incomplete. And while each of these stories is a compelling drama of individual conscience worth exploring in full, it makes little sense to talk about such rapid and complete abandonment of authority and control across cultural industries as a matter of individual or even collective “cowardice” — though there are of course many cowards who have rationalized their way into paralysis, impotence, or active complicity. People are making decisions based on fear, but many are not cowards. What matters is the thing that is frightening them. This thing resembles a mere social contagion. But it is in fact institutionally grounded within public and private governance and has therefore been rendered permanent.
We cannot avoid grappling with the substance of this vision directly and exercising our judgment about its various tenets. A body of doctrine exists expressing those tenets. I have coined the term Successor Ideology to name this species of bourgeois ultra-radicalism that has become official value system of a rising generation of office-holders and office-seekers. These cadres are in the process of obtaining ever growing influence over an ever metastasizing regulatory leviathan of offices claiming to mediate racial conflict. The system grows by promulgating ever more expansive constructions of identity-based injury that ensures there will always be a demand for its services. It calls for “the abolition of all forms of oppression and violence,” as Robin D.G. Kelley puts it, which in turn entails among other things, “freeing the body from the constraints of inherited and imposed normativities of gender and sexuality.”
A primary constraint that the gender ideologists now hold responsible for much of the world’s oppression and violence is the binary structure of the sexes and the division of the world into male and female. The gender ideologists believe that overcoming this division is an essential part of “the abolition of all forms of oppression and violence”, and that those who resist or even hesitate to embrace this agenda are rightly comparable to slaveholders, gay bashers, and the Southern segregationists who screamed and threw garbage at the children integrating Southern schools during the Civil Rights Movement. All must find ways to put themselves in alignment with the new order that they are in the process of constructing. They believe this literally and have persuaded or cajoled many powerful figures who wield determinative power over American institutions, including the federal government, of the justness of their cause. And they have persuaded many of the most energetic people employed by the cultural making and mediating institutions in America under the age of 30 to join them in this cause, and to bring to it an abolitionist fervor and zeal — the zeal of those fighting a great moral emergency that must be eradicated at any cost, and for which any attempt to balance putative harms against ostensible benefits, must inevitably be a form of collusion with evil.
Is this vision sound? Is it true? Does it bring about the world of justice and freedom that it claims? Those who speak only of civility and free speech are desperate to avoid these questions in favor of the meta-question of whether we are allowed to ask them, in deference to the very force that prevents a deliberative process from emerging in the first place. Often enough, they find themselves under duress merely for affirming free speech in the abstract, as if the principle was itself necessarily code for an act that assails the existence of certain marginalized identities.
High profile demands for the cancellation of the famous are thus only a small part of the work of purging the culture of wrongthink and astroturfing an official pseudo-consensus that reflects the moralizing frenzy of a tiny vanguard. The bulk of the work is a daily war of attrition within institutions devoted to preempting the emergence of ideas that violate the manufactured consensus. All we see is the outcome of these struggles in the form of the sudden appearance of increasingly bizarre pronouncements from the House of Representatives, the American Medical Association, the ACLU, reporting hosted on major media websites. And the outcome of these struggles is always one-sided.
High profile cancellation attempts do, of course, serve as important markers. They are on the one hand a kind of moonshot meant to demonstrate that no one is immune from attempts to deplatform them, though some of those attempts may fail. They are on the other hand a way of alerting those going forward of what has been ruled out of bounds for future artists that lack the wealth and fame, grandfathered in from the Before Times, that allows the targets of cancel campaigns to persist in the face of claims that their work enacts violence that verges of genocide. That is to say — everyone who is not the no. 1 podcaster in America, or the best-selling author in the world, or the most popular comedian in America.
J.K. Rowling, Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle. They exist in a strange form of cossetted duress. They are still beloved by millions, wealthier and more widely exposed than ever before. But they are pariahs from the official pseudo-consensus that the Successor Ideology has captured and that a growing body of the gullible and the opportunistic alike have signed on to join with the forces that they anticipate will be in the ascendancy soon. As the forces of right-wing reaction arise in opposition to them, and the issue resolves to a simple matter of partisan politics, the partisans invariably rally to the new causes through the negative partisanship that dominates our public life. In the process, they hand over power to the new regulatory bodies and to the educational institutions that now make it their mission to raise a new generation to be docile toward these new forms of regulation and to become the enforcers themselves. It is a single vertically integrated process that one can learn about by studying any discrete episode within it. This week we move on to consider the cases of Dave Chappelle, Margaret Atwood, and Trent Colbert in detail.
See comment by Michelle Styles and adjust your mileage accordingly