Four kinds of "cancellation"

A futile attempt to lend some minimal clarity to this muddled debate.

Recently, I wrote about how incoherent the discourse on cancel culture has become. In an effort to impose some minimal degree of clarity on this conversation, I’d like to categorize what we often refer to as “cancellation” into four different types:

A) Government censorship, firings, bannings, editorial decisions, and other exercises of state or managerial power.

B) Overt calls for (A);

C) Discourse that does not overtly call for (A), but that could arguably lead to (A);

D) Discourse that will not lead to (A) but that still qualifies as “cancellation” in some sense.

With this taxonomy in mind, I’d like to make a few points.

  1. I think that there is a lot of fair criticism you can advance against discourse falling under category (D) - but one thing I do not think you can say is that it falls afoul of what we ordinarily mean by “free speech.” On the contrary, free speech can only exist insofar as it protects expression that we find irrational, or uncivil, or conformist, or unproductive. This point has to be stressed because critiques of cancel culture are routinely advanced as defenses of free speech even as they also take aim at certain forms of speech that they find disagreeable.

  2. On that note, critiques of cancel culture often downplay (or completely ignore) the difficulty in distinguishing (C) from both legitimate criticism and from expression that partisans of free speech should be willing to defend. Any sufficiently damning criticism can be construed as a career-endangering attack on someone’s reputation, and any sufficiently popular criticism can be construed as a career-endangering dogpile by a conformist mob — but does this mean that damning or widely shared criticism is therefore illegitimate? Of course not. And yet I rarely see any serious effort made to distinguish one from the other.

  3. There is also, of course, another controversy at hand here: namely, whether (A) (and by extension (B)) are ever okay. This is where I think the real disagreements over free speech actually come into play, since some folks on the liberal-left think it is legitimate to wield the state and the market to discipline speech, while other do not. This is also where many socialists (like yours truly) see a curious disinterest in these critiques of cancel culture with simple measures like workplace protections, unionization, and an enhanced welfare state that could protect workers from cancellation by their bosses.

In general, then, I see a few major points of skepticism about “cancel culture” from socialists. The first involves the difficulty in distinguishing (C) and (D) from uncivil speech and legitimate critique; inattention to this problem makes it seem like the critique of cancel culture is just an attempt to impose a new code of political correctness on political debate. The second involves a serious disagreement between free speech absolutists on one hand, and those who think that state or market intervention are politically justifiable on the other. And a third has to do with the way that critiques of cancel culture routinely ignore the most significant material causes and solutions to cancellation. A productive debate about cancel culture, in my view, would make an effort to distinguish between these different issues, and would address them specifically.