Philippe Lagassé: Cancel culture is real. But it's not always what we're talking about

We have to understand the difference between cancelling an opponent and excommunicating someone from your own group

By: Philippe Lagassé

Conservative governments are trying to stamp out “cancel culture,” particularly in universities. The British Parliament recently passed a law guaranteeing free expression on campuses. Ontario and Alberta legislated similar provisions in recent years. This raises the question: does cancel culture exist?

Because cancel culture has become a right-wing talking point, it leads many on the left to deny that it’s a thing or to maintain that cancellation is being confused with justifiable consequences or accountability. Others on the left accept that cancel culture exists, but that the right cancels far more, and that conservative cancellations are harsher. The right, meanwhile, doesn’t bother addressing this charge. Conservatives can decry cancel culture one minute, then engage in cancelling the next, because what matters is simply beating the left. 

To help clear up the debate, we need to recognize that what we call cancel culture is two distinct things. Once we break them apart, it becomes easier to understand what it is, what it isn’t, and whether it’s happening. 

Cancelling is what you do to your opponents. It can involve deplatforming someone, protesting them, trying to get them fired, mobbing them off social media, tarnishing their reputations, organizing boycotts, and so forth. The aim is to impose personal or professional costs on those who you find reprehensible. 

Both the left and the right cancel. It used to be more of a right-wing tactic (remember the Dixie Chicks?), but now we see it on both sides. It’s easy to engage in if you’re very online, have a knack for marshalling the likeminded, or have vitriolic media outlets on your side. A recent example of right-wing cancellation was quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s banishment from the National Football League. On the left, we can point to the various efforts to prevent controversial figures from speaking on campuses, which is what prompted provincial governments to legislate mandatory free speech policies. 

A common retort is that nobody is ever really cancelled. That’s mostly right. Targets rarely disappear and most suffer only short-term costs. Cancelling doesn’t tend to erase or destroy. It usually just hurts or stains. And importantly, being cancelled by one side of the spectrum often makes you a laudable figure of the other. Just think of Jordan Peterson. 

But cancelling isn’t the only thing we’re seeing. A lot of what’s occurring isn’t cancel culture, but excommunication culture

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Excommunicating is what you do to members of your ingroup. It involves shaming, degradation ceremonies, and exclusion. Those who violate the ingroup’s norms, dissent on core issues, or question new orthodoxies risk excommunication. The range of errors that qualify for excommunications has grown, as has the statute of limitations on infractions, owing to status seeking within ingroups; when your status is tied to your ideological purity and zeal, it’s necessary to find past and novel impurities to denounce. There’s an impurity arms race that occurs, where the list of damnable sins keeps getting longer as ingroup members compete to be seen as more righteous. As well, to demonstrate that you’re truly committed to the cause, it’s necessary to slam those who aren’t, particularly if others are doing it, too. Quietly “calling in” an apostate isn’t as effective as “calling out” the disgraced when you want to show that you’re one of the good ones. 

Extracting apologies is a big part of excommunication culture. So is declaring that these apologies are insufficient, proof of guilt, or contain still other transgressions. This serves two purposes. It ensures that the target is properly debased, and critically, it serves as a warning to others within the group: if you err, prepare to be shamed and shunned by your peers, apologies notwithstanding. 

The costs of excommunication can be financial but are primarily reputational. While the former can be recovered, the latter are supposed to stick. Being diminished within your chosen peer group has deeper effects on your person than, say, stepping down from a position. With enough time and penance, the excommunicated can redeem themselves. But it’s supposed to leave a permanent mark. 

When commentators worry about the chilling effect of cancellations, what they’re really talking about are people consciously avoiding excommunication. As Jonathan Marks notes about universities, most students and faculty “don’t want no trouble.” We want to get on without our courses and research with as little conflict and administrative interference as possible. And to be honest, it can be tempting to avoid contentious issues or parrot platitudes rather than encouraging good faith discussions and acknowledging the value of disagreement and different perspectives. In the current climate, furthermore, university administrators would rather let professors fend for themselves than defend the fundamental principles of a liberal education. Those with academic freedom arguably have a duty to speak their minds, but it’s often not worth it. 

Distinguishing between cancellation and excommunication helps explain why we have examples of people who say the “wrong things” but pay little cost. In these cases, the offenders don’t care about an ingroup excommunication because they’re proud outsiders. For example, there are conservative and libertarian professors who flout academia’s dominant, progressive norms. Not only are they willing to be campus pariahs, they may enjoy it. Since they’re immune to excommunication, their detractors try to cancel them instead. Luckily for these professors, it’s hard to cancel someone with tenure. 

Excommunication culture has flourished in progressive circles over the past decade. I’ll leave others to figure out how and why this happened. Although the right still engages in it, as American conservatives who distanced themselves from Donald Trump or don’t blindly support gun ownership can attest, we’re now more attuned to its presence on the left. Part of this is technological, of course. Social media, screencaps, online petitions, and digital audio and video have made excommunication faster and easier. This disproportionately affects progressive communities who congregate online. 

I’ll end with a few clarifications. 

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Cancellations and excommunications may be warranted. Trying to deplatform a bigot makes sense if we want to make bigotry costly. It’s in this sense that cancellation is often recast as simply living with consequences. Ingroups, meanwhile, understandably want to set norms and conditions for membership and moral standing. Your peers can rightly banish you if they discover that you’re an unrepentant racist or sexist, for instance. That’s what defenders of excommunication mean when they say they’re holding people to account; members of the ingroup are considered accountable before their peers. Indeed, this is an important difference that’s often missed: while you can impose consequences on anybody, you can only hold to account those who are answerable to you on some level. Making the distinction between the imposition of consequences through cancellation and holding to account via excommunication is especially important when we’re trying to identify acceptable applications of both practices. 

It’s also important to specify what doesn’t count as either cancellation or excommunication. You aren’t being cancelled if you face criminal charges, lose an election, or are asked to wear a mask. You aren’t being excommunicated if your positions are rejected or critiqued because of shoddy argumentation. Nor are you being excommunicated if you have to take a training session or are being asked to treat others with decency and respect. Similarly, grappling with challenging concepts and being self-reflexive doesn’t mean you’re cowering in fear of excommunication. You can acknowledge your privileges and your participation in systemic injustices because you’ve read up on them and are persuaded by the arguments. It only becomes excommunication if you get shamed and shunned for asking questions or pushing back if you find the claims lacking. 

Cancel culture isn’t going away. Both sides of the spectrum will keep using it against their opponents. It doesn’t achieve much, but it’s satisfying when politics is reduced to points scoring. Excommunication culture, however, will calm down eventually. Prominent leftists are fed up with the worst of it and are saying so openly. It’ll always exist on the margins, but it’ll affect fewer people as it loses its power and appeal. 

In the end, laws countering cancellations on campus will be less important than excommunication fatigue. 

Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor at Carleton University.


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