Thought experiment: you travel to the airport to go on holidays but upon arriving find that you can’t board your flight. Despite the validity of your papers, you discover to your dismay that your country’s border control agents don’t recognise the idea of travel, Passports, countries, national sovereignty or citizenship, and will shoot on sight anyone who turns up at one of their checkpoints. The government is too scared of border control to do anything because they have activist supporters in all major bureaucratic positions, full control of the media and academia, and are financed by the largest corporations.
If you were choosing a name to describe this problem, you wouldn’t call it “border culture”. Borders are great, fine, normal. The problem is not borders. The problem is that the people in charge of your borders hate you and are insane.
Thought experiment over, let’s talk about why the concept of “Cancel Culture” is stupid. There has never been a society in history where saying something controversial might not lose you social status. I will go one better and say that it’s good for a culture to have taboos, or at least stuff you can get fired for saying; boundaries are important.
So our current problem is not that we have a culture of boundaries. It’s that the people who patrol the boundaries of our public discourse are using their power to try and hurt for you for saying things that are so banal and self-evidently true for most of the population that they’re barely worth saying. Increasingly they are also trying to punish you not only for saying the “wrong” thing, but for failing to say the “right” thing with sufficient enthusiasm.
It’s important to keep saying that the attempted hit on JK Rowling was for saying something that almost no one alive (or who has ever lived) disagrees with. It’s intentionally disingenuous to put this alongside the girl who lost an internship at Deloitte for making a Tik Tok about wanting to stab white people who say “All Lives Matter”. Even if you accept that the second case represents a problem, it’s not the same problem as the first case. The false linkage of these types of cases is tactical and intentional.
The “Cancel Culture” letter to Harper’s doesn’t use the term, but it begins by conceding to the true enemy all the territory it wants and needs. Protests are good! Diversity is strength! Trump bad! White Supremacy on the March! The reason for this capitulation is fear, understandably; the tone of the letter is of people being held at ideological knife-point, trying to talk their way out of the situation without getting murdered. But in doing so it’s full of false equivalences.
No, a great many of boundary-patrollers’ goals are not good or noble either in intent or execution; they are sinister and crazy. No, Cancel Culture is not mostly a problem because it gives Conservatives a chance to Pounce. No, it is absolutely not true that there is a countervailing ideological force in the opposite (ie rightward) direction that existed first. Culturally, the difference in threat between Right Wing Populism and Authoritarian Progressivism is the difference between a drunk guy in control of a Cessna and the US Air Force.
“Cancel Culture” implies that the burden of it lies evenly across the cultural landscape like a bed of snow; rather than being more like a toxic gas that is pumped out of one specific factory. The name also implies that if someone isn’t cancelled we shouldn’t worry. “If we attempt to cancel you and it works, you’re gone. If it doesn’t work, then Cancel Culture doesn’t exist, so what are you even complaining about?” No boundary-patroller has anything to fear from this term.
The culture war is in part a language war. The people who are winning (let’s be real — the people who have won) have succeeded by popularising a way of speaking that admits no ability to critique it. Everything is tagged with a label that calls the thing the noble opposite of the evil thing that it is. That’s how (to pick a random example)armed activists taking over a neighbourhood can be a Summer of Love.
The centrality of language means you have to pay attention to the terms people use, that they reject, that they are willing to acknowledge. The fact that progressives are willing to have a conversation about Cancel Culture means that phrase is not a live grenade — it’s nothing they can’t handle. There will never be an equivalent discussion about the term “Globoh*mo” or “bugman” because there is no advantage to engaging with those ideas. They don’t come pre-defused.
In different ways, our society is both more and less censorious than ones that have come before. Every society gossips, tone-polices and expresses outrage. We do it in a way that reflects the technology at our disposal, the fact that we have too much free time, and our tendency to view everything that happens as entertainment. In that tangle of ideas there are more than a few problems we should try and solve. But the fact that the borders of our culture are patrolled by ideological zealots who will doxx and destroy you for saying that the sky is blue is not one of them; its an entirely different problem. We shouldn’t use any terms that help to disguise that.