Malice Through The Looking Glass

Why cancel culture is inherently fascist

Image credit: Iran Human Rights

First a disclaimer: aside from FB, which I use to keep in touch with friends around the globe, and Medium, which I use to gain access to perspectives I otherwise might not encounter, I don’t use social media. As such, I’m a latecomer to the term cancel culture.

So I went off and did some research about this exciting new phenomenon and what I found left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. Even the term is enough to flag loudly and clearly that something is very wrong indeed.

As most people will be aware, “cancelling” is the term given to a process by means of which someone claims that a well-known person has done (or, more rarely, not done) something which means they should be publicly excoriated and thereafter sent into banishment. As we live in a black-and-white on/off yes/no world of absolutes, few pause to consider (a) whether the allegations are credible, and (b) whether or not the claimed action or inaction truly is of a degree such that online lynching is an appropriate response.

In many cases it turns out that the claimed perpetrator was indeed guilty of something; in many other cases it turns out that the claimed perpetrator was not in fact guilty of something. But in all cases the thrill of public excoriation is too great to be resisted.

Most people are insufficiently acquainted with history to know that it wasn’t so long ago that we’d gleefully take our children to watch public executions. There’s nothing more conducive to a great day out than watching some unfortunate being flogged and then hung from a rope, kicking and thrashing helplessly for agonizing minutes, until the life slowly drains from their body. While this was going on, the mob would be mocking and jeering, happy to gawp at the death-agonies of the condemned. After all, surely they deserved it, whoever they were?

The arguments made in favor of cancel culture are eerily similar to those made in favor of show trials and public executions: they give power to the powerless, they punish miscreants, they enable us all to see justice being done.

We always find ways to justify doing the things that make us feel good.

But when we pause for a moment to consider just what cancel culture truly is, we see a rather disturbing picture. Even the term is abhorrent. It implies one can simply flick a virtual switch and “cancel” another human being as if their life was as insubstantial as a magazine subscription or a lightbulb.

In reality, it’s a human being on the receiving end, just as it was a human being dangling at the end of a rope. Reality is nuanced and rarely black-and-white. The complexity of a life can’t be summarized in a meme or a tweet. Yes, of course there are disgusting people out there who do disgraceful things. But there are very few of us whose lives are so simple and so pure that it would be impossible to create a distorted view of who we are and what we’ve done.

And so how do we, at arm’s length, know the truth of what we’re being told?

It’s no good pretending there are trite ideas that reliably guide us. Always believe the victim is as much a charter for abuse as always believe the defendant.

When we participate in this so-called cancel culture what we’re really doing is participating in online lynching, largely because we enjoy the feeling of power that it gives us. We worship the famous but we also deep down resent them because their very fame makes us feel insubstantial. So when we have a chance to participate in tearing them down, we leap at it.

Today even the most seemingly innocuous phrase or gesture can result in someone, somewhere, screaming that the offender must be “canceled.” Now that we’re all hyper-sensitive victims who need Earth-sized safe spaces in order that our fragile sensibilities be shielded from micro-aggressions, it seems practically anything at all can lead to a demand for “cancelation” of another human being.

But claiming we’ve “canceled” someone is as silly as it is offensive. The person continues to live. They must suffer the consequences of whatever fire we’ve collaborated in bringing down upon them. For those innocent of the claimed misdeeds, they must live through the impact it has on their families and friends, on their work, and on their future. They have not been “switched off” but rather they must endure, like the person dangling at the end of the rope that is slowly, agonizingly slowly, choking the life out of them.

Yes, for those who deserve it, such punishment may be condign. But how do we truly know who deserves it and who doesn’t? When we leap onto the trendy bandwagon and lend it our weight we’re no better than those who eagerly flocked to watch a witch being burned at the stake, spitting at her with righteous phlegm as she screamed and writhed in her death agony.

Worse yet, for all the wonderful warm feelings we get when we help skin someone alive online, a great many offenders quickly return and thrive as though nothing at all occurred. So what was the point, aside from enabling us for a few brief moments to bask in the glow of righteous anger?

The fact is, we can’t “cancel” anyone. It’s a fascist concept. It is the result of black-and-white thinking, of intolerance, of mistaken assumptions. It is fueled by our schadenfreude.

So perhaps it’s time we grew up just a little and abandoned this popular pastime. After all, we did, after thousands of years, finally learn that public executions weren’t in fact the wholesome and righteous family entertainment we’d all so fondly believed they were.

For another interesting view of cancel culture, this Medium article is excellent.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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