November 2020


Woke politics and power

By Waleed Aly
Image of statue of slave owner Edward Colston, Bristol, England, June 2020

Statue of slave owner Edward Colston, Bristol, England, June 2020. © Harry Pugsley / Getty Images.

How liberalism’s blind spot let cancel culture bloom

Unless you are unusually interested in American political data analysis, you probably haven’t heard of David Shor. He spends his professional life studying public opinion and the variables that affect it, immersed in polling data and the relevant academic literature. And he does this mostly with the aim of figuring out how the Democrats can win elections. As a 20-year-old prodigy, he spent 2012 crunching numbers for the Obama campaign.

Three days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May this year, Shor sent out a tweet. Black Lives Matter protests were surging all over the United States. Mostly these were peaceful, but they were undeniably accompanied by a significant amount of looting and rioting in several cities. In this context, Shor wrote: “Post-MLK-assas[s]ination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2%, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon. Non-violent protests *increase* Dem vote, mainly by encouraging warm elite discourse and media coverage”. 

Shor hadn’t made this up. He was summarising a recently published peer-reviewed study by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, which Shor attached. Then came the response.

“Yo. Minimizing black grief and rage to ‘bad campaign tactic for the Democrats’ is bullshit most days, but this week is absolutely cruel … and reeks of anti-blackness,” replied Ari Trujillo Wesler, a political organiser. In a subsequent tweet, Wesler dismissed Wasow’s study as “sloppy” without explanation, then repeated her accusation of Shor: “YOU need to stop using your anxiety and ‘intellect’ as a vehicle for anti-blackness”. Wesler then tagged Shor’s boss Dan Wagner, the chief executive of Civis Analytics, with one final message: “Come get your boy.”

Shor tweeted an apology the next day. But that didn’t stop Wagner coming to get his boy. After a brief internal review, Shor was fired.

We cannot know the full story of why Shor lost his job because he isn’t allowed to tell us, thanks to a non-disclosure agreement as part of his termination. And while Civis Analytics denies Shor was sacked for his tweet, that is at odds with what other Civis staff members told Matthew Yglesias at Vox. One said that Wagner “only talked about the tweet and client complaints around the tweet” when he announced the decision. And another: “they communicated that it was because of the tweet and that they viewed it as going against Civis values given the political environment around protests at the time”.

Shor has since landed a new job, but he can’t tell us where. His new employer won’t let him, putting this condition in his employment agreement, obviously fearing backlash.

Just over a month later, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter with 153 signatories, most of them writers and academics. The letter decries what is described as a creeping censoriousness in progressive politics: “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity … an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”. This had led “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, [to deliver] hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”. The letter alludes to several examples, including “a researcher [being] fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study” – a clear reference to Shor.

Progressive opinion is divided on Shor’s treatment, which is to say some believe he was hard done by. But Shor’s isn’t an entirely isolated case. Boeing’s communications boss Niel Golightly resigned in July after six months in the job, when a staff member complained about an article he wrote in 1987 – and subsequently disowned – opposing women’s service in the military. Harald Uhlig, a University of Chicago economist, lost his role as a consultant to the Chicago federal reserve in June after tweeting that “flat-earthers and creationists” calling for the police to be defunded were undermining the Black Lives Matter movement. The New York Times’ opinion editor James Bennet resigned in June following a staff revolt when he published a piece from Senator Tom Cotton calling for the US military to be deployed to quell Black Lives Matter “rioting”. In May, The New York Times had suspended the column of its celebrated food writer, Alison Roman, after she accused Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen of “selling out” by parlaying their success into a line of cynically branded products. This followed a fierce online backlash accusing Roman of racism because her two targets were Asian (Kondo is Japanese, Teigen half Thai). Her column still hasn’t resurfaced. 

Each case has its own detailed nuance and invites an essay in its own right. For example, some argue the New York Times op-ed saga was more to do with longstanding concern among journalists about slipping editorial standards at the newspaper than simply being a response to the politics of a single article. The point here isn’t to adjudicate on each, or even to say they are all equivalent. It’s to illustrate the atmosphere of the moment: this sense that a wild reckoning is afoot; that punishment and intimidation are beginning to stand in for persuasion or teaching; that a tweet here or a comment there is sufficient basis to define a person’s entire character; that people are no longer permitted first drafts of their ideas and themselves before being assailed; that even the passage of decades offers no protection; that reputations built over a lifetime can be broken down in an instant.

So, comedian Kevin Hart is forced to step down as Oscars host over homophobic tweets seven years prior. Lana Del Rey, Doja Cat and Jimmy Fallon all find themselves at the bottom of Twitter pile-ons within the space of five days, each charged with racism – in Fallon’s case because of a Saturday Night Live sketch from 2000 in which he impersonated Chris Rock in blackface. And J.K. Rowling is now so routinely the subject of online attack on grounds of transphobia that there is no point even identifying any individual instance of it. Whether you find this thrilling, terrifying or both, there’s no denying it’s happening.

Welcome to “cancel culture”. The term enters the Macquarie Dictionary in 2019 as its “word of the year”, with the committee that decides such things observing that it “is so pervasive that it now has a name” and is “for better or worse, a powerful force”. Precisely how powerful is up for debate, especially in the case of celebrities. Jimmy Fallon has remained on air, and even conducted a warm, mutually friendly interview with comedian Chris Rock himself. And for all her troubles, J.K. Rowling’s British book sales have increased, and her new novel, Troubled Blood, is a bestseller despite the controversy it has attracted over its plot involving a cross-dressing serial killer. Kanye West’s 2019 album Jesus Is King went to number one, despite repeated “cancellations” over his support for Donald Trump and comments about slavery in America being “a choice”. But the people who suffer most seem to be non-celebrities, such as Shor. Someone might be filmed saying something racist, say, only to have Twitter users hunt down and publish their personal details with the consequence of them being harassed if not fired from their jobs. That doesn’t mean cancel culture isn’t powerful, just that its power isn’t uniform. Its punishments might also be more powerful in silencing onlookers who fear being cancelled themselves. Yglesias’s investigation of the Shor case found there were Latino Democrats who suspected Black Lives Matter rhetoric might be hurting the party with working-class Hispanics, but were too afraid to say anything concrete, even off the record.

This is partly why debates about cancel culture quickly reach an impasse. Critics are prone to exaggerate its effects, defenders too keen to downplay them. That means concerns about censoriousness are often met with the argument that this is a distraction from some more real threat. The Harper’s letter, for example, attracted plenty of critical responses, which largely argued that the greater concern is the systematic exclusion of minority and disempowered voices from the “open debate” the signatories seek to defend. Closer to home, Greens leader Adam Bandt dismissed the whole idea of cancel culture as an invention of conservatives, adding that “the conservatives and the powerful are where the real damage to free speech is coming from”. 

This tries to position all criticism of cancel culture as right-wing hypocrisy. That’s not a specious point when you consider, to choose but one example, the atrocious witch-hunt of Yassmin Abdel-Magied by an alliance of News Corp newspapers, shock jocks and culture-warring politicians, which ruined her livelihood and chased her out of the country. Isn’t that as thorough a cancellation as can be imagined? If the left cancels people using Twitter, the right has an entire arsenal of cancellation at its disposal beyond social media: the Murdoch empire, talkback radio and the most senior politicians all the way up to the US president.

And sure, the right’s objections to cancel culture are so obviously hypocritical they approach parody. But this is a poor argument for two reasons. First, it’s a straightforward case of “whataboutism” (another 2019 Macquarie entry): it responds to an accusation with a counter accusation (hypocrisy, in this case), rather than engage the charge of censoriousness before it. To criticise the right for this behaviour but justify it for progressive causes is to adopt a kind of nihilism as to the methods of politics. It says there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach so long as the good guys are using it. The inevitable result is that it reduces political debate to a brutish power play. This is a politics in which ends justify means, and means have no independent ethical standing. As we shall see, cancel culture adopts that nihilism wholeheartedly, not reluctantly.

But it fails secondly because it is sheer caricature to portray the fight over cancel culture as left–right trench warfare. The Harper’s letter, for instance, lauds protests for racial justice and police reform, condemns the long-standing censoriousness of the “radical right”, and identifies Donald Trump as “a real threat to democracy”. Its signatories include Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, and Bernie Sanders–supporting Democrat candidate Zephyr Teachout. The Sydney Morning Herald published a similar statement defending the film industry and the Sydney Film Festival – hardly a right-wing institution – after it was accused of giving an award to a racist film. Signatories included an array of Indigenous, non-Anglo and progressive figures such as Larissa Behrendt and Christos Tsiolkas. The true frontier in this conflict is within the left. The right exploits it for its own predictable purposes, but that’s actually a sideshow.

The case of J.K. Rowling is a good illustration. She is unabashedly a political progressive. Her transgender rhetoric may be acerbic, but the politics are feminist, not conservative. It belongs broadly in the gender-critical school of feminism that sees women’s oppression as anchored in the female body itself, the cultural assumptions that surround it, and how it is “vulnerable in specific ways to sexual violence, such as pregnancy from rape”, as Susanna Rustin put it in The Guardian. This goes back to Simone de Beauvoir, and stands in opposition to the later queer feminism of Judith Butler, which substitutes gender identity – the subjective feeling of being male, female or something in between – for the biology of being female. The attempts to cancel J.K. Rowling are therefore attempts to cancel a particular version of feminism and declare it invalid. The aim is to expel Rowling from the progressive fold in order to set the meanings of progressivism: it is a border war within progressive politics. 

I think cancel culture demands discussion. Not as a sui generis phenomenon that should worry us in isolation, but as a symptom of something broken in our social and political life. Yes, it is censorious – in my view irredeemably so. And yes, it is a stain on our public discourse, though it is far from the worst. But such verdicts alone are of limited value unless we understand why it exists; how the failures in both the content and the mode of our public conversation have made it inevitable. I don’t think cancel culture can adequately be understood as some mass act of bad-faith intimidation. Rather, cancel culture is the story of a young, socially conscious generation trying desperately to remedy the injustices they see, but having been left with wholly inadequate tools for the job. And, perhaps surprisingly, the best way to understand this is to start somewhere else: with liberalism.

Liberalism stands like a colossus over societies such as ours. It is variously the organising principle for what we now call “right-wing” economics, and the overwhelming driving force of progressive social change. This puts it in the unique position of being simultaneously accepted and reviled by more or less everyone. The problem is that liberalism’s guarantee of individual liberty, constrained only to the extent it causes harm to others, tends to recognise individuals only, shorn of group identities. This makes it good at arguing for rights – outlawing racial segregation, legalising abortion, decriminalising homosexuality – but even those victories veer into a paradox. Liberalism frames them as individual rights claims, stemming from each person’s right to freedom, self-determination and non-interference from both majoritarian society and the state. In practice, however, they are group-based claims, strongly anchored in group identity. To downplay those group identity dimensions is a severe mischaracterisation.

But it’s a mischaracterisation that liberalism, on some level, is committed to. Once liberalism has done its work at providing a basic level of universal freedom – what we might call a subsistence level of liberation – it finds itself with little more to say. It might invite us to view society as a collection of individuals, but that doesn’t mean we do. We continue to understand ourselves and each other in groups, each of which finds itself with different standing in society, different access to resources, different levels of social esteem, labouring under different levels of prejudice. Tweak it as you may, liberalism has always struggled to grapple with the problem of power: namely that those who already have power can achieve more with their freedom than those who don’t, and that often this power discrepancy corresponds to our membership of certain groups. Indigenous Australians, as liberal citizens, have the same formal rights as everyone else. They also have significantly lower life expectancy, poorer health, and they continue to die in police custody in circumstances other Australians don’t. You cannot solve or even reckon with this by simply treating everyone as an individual. It is obvious at some point that belonging to a group greatly influences the meaning and significance of the liberal rights we have. Take free speech. When Australian politicians and tabloid newspapers were ratcheting up a scare campaign against “Sudanese gangs” in Melbourne, free speech must have felt decidedly theoretical to many Sudanese Australians, because they lacked the means and connections to answer back. Liberalism more or less ignores this. 

Cancel culture bursts into this vacuum. It comes from a generation that has inherited the world liberals helped transform, without experiencing the revolution that delivered it. That generation is therefore more likely to take these cosmopolitan norms as natural and given, and instead see the ways in which they are not fully realised. In fact, cancel culture can only be understood in the context of a generation that sees profound systemic failure. No doubt the twin shocks of the Trump presidency and Brexit have heightened this apprehension because they seem to have arrived from a completely different planet. But these are really only crowning examples. If you consider mainstream politics from a millennial vantage point, the failures look thoroughgoing. Marriage equality aside, on what issue have the views and interests of young people prevailed? Housing policy keeps prices crushingly beyond the reach of many, and there is little serious action on climate change (especially in the US and Australia). Millennials’ sense of identity-based equality is routinely affronted, and the institutions that preside over this – especially politics and the traditional media – are populated by a narrow demographic that is older, whiter and more male than the society they ostensibly serve. 

Not all of this can be pinned on liberalism as an ideology, but the disillusionment with the practice of liberal democracy, with which liberalism is inextricably associated, is now abundantly clear. A recent Lowy Institute survey found only about 40 per cent of Australian adults under 30 think democracy is “the most preferable form of government”. It is no surprise this generation’s political passions became especially energised in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Moments like that, which quickly take on global significance, crystallise the sense of systemic inequality, symbolise the stagnant failure of a liberal society to deal even with such grievous injustice, and catalyse a response.

If liberalism is about freedom, cancel culture is about power. The deeper you look at it, the less it is about anything else. This makes perfect sense for two reasons. First, it is natural that a movement that seeks to transcend the limits of liberalism ends up being consumed with liberalism’s most serious blind spot. But secondly, it emerges from African-American online culture as a recognisable extension of civil rights and black empowerment traditions. Let us consider that evolution.

The idea of being “cancelled” springs from Black Twitter, initially as a joke, then quickly as a way of expressing disapproval of celebrities who have said or done something offensive. It took its familiar shape as a kind of cultural boycott, which is basically how Macquarie Dictionary ended up defining it: “the attitudes within a community which call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure”. This, says Anne H. Charity Hudley, chair in African-American linguistics at the University of California, is “a survival skill as old as the Southern black use of the boycott”. It is a power move of the disempowered. Hudley told Vox: “If you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate … Canceling is a way to acknowledge that you don’t have to have the power to change structural inequality.” 

These roots help explain why cancel culture retains a focus on racism, and more broadly why it is so inextricably linked with “woke” politics. “Woke”, like “cancel”, also emerges from black American culture. Indeed, “woke” has the longer pedigree, having been part of the black vernacular since at least the 1960s. But it took off in contemporary online culture in about 2012, after George Zimmerman’s killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and his subsequent acquittal for murder. This galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement, and the hashtag #staywoke began to multiply in that context. 

But like all things online, both cancellation and wokeness quickly broke these original containment lines. Cancellation evolved from a relatively passive, sometimes temporary boycott, to a more aggressive dynamic that spread into the lives and workplaces of non-celebrities, and into institutions such as universities. Wokeness evolved to represent a melange of political positions. Racism remains a core focus, but the term now covers a series of commitments on sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and fatphobia as well. 

Power is the only concept that ties these things together. Woke politics identifies no ontological essence that unites racial minorities with women and LGBTIQ people (nor even the wide variety of people gathered under that single initialism). For instance, it holds that race and gender are so essentially different, so thoroughly incomparable that identifying as transgender is to be respected, but identifying as transracial (as in the Rachel Dolezal case) is emphatically not. Rather, these groups are united in their disempowerment, their experience of oppression. That disempowerment might be amplified or mitigated by “intersectionality” – so, a black woman is disempowered in a way a white woman or a black man is not – but always the focus is on who has power and who doesn’t. 

That is true even within a single group. So, woke politics celebrates sex workers as entrepreneurs unashamed of their sexuality and entitled to profit from it, but decries the institution of Formula One “grid girls”, whose workers make the same claims. Woke politics supports women’s choices in one case, but not the other. The only convincing way to understand this differential treatment is via the criterion of power: namely that sex workers are a disempowered, stigmatised and abused group, while grid girls are not regarded as one, at least not in the same way. There’s no overarching epistemology of choice, free will and social structure at play. Such concepts might float in and out of conversation as required, but woke politics is mostly interested in marshalling these to side with whomever it deems is on the wrong end of power relations; whomever is oppressed.

If you want to base an entire politics on power and oppression, you need a conceptual basis for it and a language to describe it. Woke politics finds this in critical social justice theory. This is the source of so many of its buzzwords describing what it deems “problematic” – such as “privilege”, “complicity”, “microaggressions”. Most importantly, critical social justice theory provides its central conceptions of power and oppression. Whether or not most participants in cancel culture think much about these theoretical foundations in a formal way is unimportant. The vocabulary and patterns of argument are now so ubiquitous online that people can absorb it osmotically, as rhetoric even if not as theory.

Critical social justice theory does not merely connote a concern for social justice. It is a particular approach to it that, as North American academics Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo distil in their book Is Everyone Really Equal?, “recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this”. It asserts “relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels”. DiAngelo went on to write White Fragility, which, along with Boston University history professor Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, recently rocketed to the top of bestseller lists. Both have become deeply influential in woke circles. The two books recognisably incorporate the ideas of critical social justice theory, and its more specific forerunners such as critical race theory and postcolonialist theory, which lean heavily on the ideas of a range of thinkers spanning Foucault, Derrida, Derrick Bell and Frantz Fanon. Critical social justice theory shares some relationship to the very broad family of critical theory that comes to us via the Frankfurt School of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas, in that all these theories self-consciously seek (in Horkheimer’s phrase) to “liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. But critical social justice theory takes a postmodernist turn that Habermas especially didn’t like. And it is a particular strand of this postmodern version that, once crunched through the crude machinery of social media and popularised, has come to animate cancel culture.

Unsurprisingly, this version of critical social justice theory understands society in a thoroughly postmodern way: as a series of ideologically loaded systems that are designed to preserve the power of certain groups over others. These systems are so comprehensive and dominant that we cannot help but be “socialised” into them, and ultimately “internalise” them. That makes them invisible to us, seeming true and natural rather than mere constructions. The result is that everything – the language we use, our sense of morality, even what counts as knowledge – is really just the subjectivity of privileged groups. Those with privilege go through life with the wind at their backs, safe in the knowledge that cultural assumptions suit them. 

This is relatively easy to grasp in the case of something like standards of beauty: black people rarely enjoy the social benefits that come with being considered beautiful, because the “white supremacist” system establishes beauty standards that correspond to white biology (fair skin, small lips, straight(ish) hair, thin noses, small backsides). There is nothing objective about those standards; they are arbitrary, but operate to entrench white privilege. But critical social justice theory wants to extend this idea of subjectivity much further. So, declares Kendi: “intelligence is as subjective as beauty”. Once you start down this road, there’s no theoretical limit to the array of privileges that can (and have been) identified. Sensoy and DiAngelo point to white privilege, male privilege, cis-privilege, hetero privilege and able-bodied privilege. Others have since added thin privilege (and the oppressive corollary, fatphobia). In practice, though, some kinds of privilege end up being emphasised over others. Because critical social justice theory understands the world as “systems of meaning” it tends to view the world in highly symbolic terms. It instinctively views all inequalities as the product of identity-based oppression. That means wokeness looks past structures of power imbalance expressed in, say, classical Marxism’s tendency to put material conditions (such as wealth and working conditions) to the fore. This makes wokeness less attentive to the privilege of class and education than you might expect. It wants to be inclusive, but doesn’t reckon with, for example, the way its policing of language is silencing, especially of those without tertiary education. It is more likely to police the working class’s language than rage over its struggles. If it did, the labour model of Uber Eats would make the company “problematic” and people would be cancelled for endorsing it, but that doesn’t happen. Wokeness tends to overlook certain privileges its adherents enjoy. A Pew Research study found predictably that Twitter users are younger, wealthier, more left-leaning and better educated than the broader population. Their disproportionate wokeness is a luxury of those who win out of the knowledge economy. 

Whichever privilege you’re talking about, critical social justice theory demands it be dismantled to liberate the oppressed. It is a view that effectively separates all speech and action into one of two categories. They either perpetuate power, privilege and oppression, or resist it. “[T]here is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas,” writes Kendi. Whatever isn’t resistance is therefore “complicit” in perpetuating oppression. In this vision, there is no such thing as neutrality. There is no right to silence, no right to reserve one’s opinion, no right to abstain. The binary is total.

In this world view, no act or comment is too small to be considered part of a system of oppression. Asking a non-white person in a predominantly white country where they are from is a “microaggression” that perpetuates the system of “white supremacy”. Indeed, Kendi goes further and calls microaggressions “abuse” because he pointedly refuses to consider them minor. But when things are heightened in this way, any criteria for distinguishing different levels of persecution begin to disappear from view. When nearly everything can be found problematic, when labels like “white supremacist” can be hurled at most social behaviour and people, they flatten out the very idea of oppression. 

This account of a comprehensive systemic oppression encoded into everyday life and language certainly fills a vacuum left by liberalism’s inability to deal meaningfully with group identities. It provides some useful tools, because it makes things visible that are important to see. But it is such a monstrous overcorrection, its conception of power and oppression so large, its aim of deconstruction so complete, that it careers headlong into absolutism. In casting everything as either liberation or oppression, it has no ethical choice but to call out on every front at all times. That is exactly what cancel culture does, and why it is apt to seize on what many might see as small and historic transgressions. And because it absorbs critical social justice theory’s comprehensive vision, it proceeds as though there is no possibility of it being wrong. Certainly, different people will police different levels of microaggressions with different levels of severity, but the broad direction of motion is set. 

This, according to Columbia University linguistics associate professor John McWhorter, amounts to “a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology”. Privilege becomes its original sin. Absolution cannot be obtained except by confession, in this case a public acknowledgement of one’s privilege. Statements that violate its orthodoxy – which are problematic – equate to blasphemy. Cancellation is a form of excommunication. We might extend the analogy to observe that it has its scripture, its high priests, and even its inquisitors who offer the possibility of leniency to those who publicly denounce themselves. 

Self-denunciation doesn’t always work, mind you: cancel culture is littered with those, such as Shor and especially Alison Roman, who issued full-throated apologies and were punished anyway. Nonetheless the almost pro-forma nature of so many of these apologies is instructive: accept wrongdoing absolutely, attribute it to your privilege, pledge to “do the work” and “do better”. These pledges often seem vague, but what matters most is the act of submission. The ubiquity of the buzzwords, the uniformity of the vocabulary indicates a fealty to the tenets of the subculture. These apologies read as though they have been written by a single authority, to be signed by the confessor. 

Confession and apology are central because they help articulate and reinforce the new orthodoxy. They make visible the previously “invisible” oppressive system. They put confessors in a bond with their own words so they cannot retreat without multiplying their sin. That is, confession is inherently performative and is therefore the perfect mechanism for something so explicitly performative and theatrical as cancel culture. 

Cancel culture is trying to enforce a moral conclusion without trusting the audience to do the hard work of arriving at that conclusion for themselves, partly out of a belief we don’t have the time and that injustice is too long lasting. It’s the moralism you get in the absence of real moral philosophy.

That doesn’t mean woke politics is necessarily static. Indeed, it encourages evolution because wokeness is a constant process rather than an achieved state. Hence, you “stay woke” by forever refining your awareness of systems of oppression. But this should not be mistaken for any kind of open-mindedness beyond its own borders, any countenance that there might be errors in the basic theoretical assumptions at play. Woke politics moves, but only in one direction. No one revises their position to say that something they previously thought was racist or otherwise problematic is now actually “okay”. Woke capital is gained by discovering new transgressions, not pardoning or rehabilitating old ones. 

That’s partly the echo of critical social justice theory’s never-ending quest of deconstruction, but it’s also how the hive mind that incubates in every radical subculture works. As devotees gather, they seek to demonstrate their piety, and the simplest way to do that is to express ever “purer” political convictions. To question the limits, to declare something too woke, is to risk being declared un-woke. Over time, a process of ideological outbidding occurs, which gradually pushes the movement’s centre of gravity to more extreme positions.

Critical social justice theory ultimately does not believe in persuasion. How can there be persuasion in a world where privileged narratives of “truth” are so utterly dominant? Thus, the liberal idea that “good” ideas drive out “bad” ones is rejected as an “empathy fallacy”. Any exchange of ideas is regarded as unequal because it happens against a backdrop of power dynamics and norms that dampen and dismiss marginalised voices while amplifying and believing privileged ones. The audience, therefore, cannot be trusted to empathise sufficiently with the oppressed in order to weigh any alternative narratives fairly. Indeed, the whole liberal conception of a “marketplace of ideas”, with “open debate” and “civil discourse”, is simply part of the system of oppression: a construct that underwrites and legitimates privilege. “Whites produce and reinforce the dominant narratives of society, such as individualism and meritocracy,” writes DiAngelo. The marketplace is, to borrow from Fanon, “colonised”. 

This is a closed loop. Woke politics can only accept civil discourse when it is “decolonised”. But such dominant social systems become invisible even to people from disempowered groups, who thereby internalise their own inferiority and buy into their own oppression. Accordingly, even the better representation of disempowered groups in the public square isn’t enough if those people are what Fanon called “colonized intellectuals” who aid and abet the coloniser by adopting its language, concepts and politics. How does someone escape being deemed so colonised? Typically, by espousing the tenets of critical social justice theory. The contributions of non-adherents become oppressive by definition. 

Liberals rail against this because it is intolerant by design, but their objections and calls for “tolerance” fall on deaf ears because they miss the fundamental point: cancel culture is not interested in tolerance. It is interested in liberation

Is the above representation too austere? An alternative account might say cancel culture is not paradigmatically hostile to civil discourse, but is simply trying to open it to those who are excluded. This makes it a kind of “momentum politics”, in which its absolutism is necessary to rectify deep, systemic, historic injustices quickly. Once rectified, that absolutism can be relaxed for a more civil approach. That account may be sincere, but it has no practical meaning: the “right time” to relax never arrives because there’s no realisable end-goal here, no clear description of the utopia the culture seeks to bring about. There is simply no point at which it might be confidently said the exchange of ideas is so untainted by power dynamics that it can proceed unimpeded. Thus, the very idea of civil debate is deemed part of the oppressive system. This is why people who object to the sometimes abusive tenor of online debates are often deemed guilty of “tone policing”. Norms of decorum or politeness become recast as tactics of oppression that silence the oppressed by delegitimising their anger.

But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people. These collectives might variously be national, religious, gendered, class-based (or some combination of these), but they were not typically chosen. Collective identities effectively led people to ask themselves “What is required of me?” rather than “What does my identity demand of you?” Liberalism smashed that comprehensively.

It’s a major difference with major consequences. Pre-modern identities sat atop a shared, largely fixed morality, provided mostly by religion or a relatively homogenous culture. Liberalism assumes that some kind of common moral culture undergirds society, but it is largely amoral itself. It leaves moral judgement to the “market” of individuals, which will change it over time. That is, liberalism is a political theory of state non-interference in which the only valid reason for government to limit people’s freedom is where they exercise it to harm another. It is not a moral philosophy that requires us to believe that harm or discrimination are the only criteria for deeming something immoral. Yet, over time, we have come to treat liberalism as a philosophy of public morality, too. It is now difficult to think of a moral judgement largely uncontested in society that doesn’t ultimately boil down to liberal criteria of “harm” or “discrimination”. Conversely, it feels vaguely puritanical to describe any conduct that is harmless as immoral. We might express admiration or disdain over certain character traits occasionally, but thick notions of virtue and vice are outside our public vocabulary.

Wokeness wants to remoralise politics, but it has two problems. First, it emerges from liberal societies that only have a limited moral consensus on which to draw, and even if a workable consensus did exist, wokeness would immediately go about deconstructing it as a system of power. Second, woke morality, though absolutist, is itself entirely political. It makes all politics morally loaded, but it also has no morality that isn’t reduced to politics. Its critiques of identity-based privilege and oppression are really just another way of identifying harm and discrimination. It describes these things in a grand, structural way, but it is ultimately using the same criteria as liberalism. 

This problem of using liberalism’s terms to fill the holes in liberalism causes wokeness to stretch these liberal concepts to breaking point. Hence woke politics’ wildly expansionary use of terms such as “harm” and “safety”. It even shows up in something as benign as the David Shor example. The problem was not that Shor’s data analysis of non-violent protest was wrong. It’s that, in the words of one former Bernie Sanders staffer, “using it to dictate how BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of colour] should feel and protest is harmful”. Note the monumental leaps here. Shor didn’t dictate anything. He shared a peer-reviewed study with a matter-of-fact summary. That study did not prescribe a form of protest so much as explain the electoral consequences of different options. It does not determine how anyone should “feel”. There’s no evidence that most black (or BIPOC) people actually did feel anything about it, or would have if they saw it. And even if they did, the precise nature of the alleged “harm” is unexplained beyond the fact those “feelings” exist. Are we being invited to equate those feelings with harm? Or is there some clear, causal relationship between Shor’s tweet and some other kind of harm? If so, what is it? And what is the evidence of it?

My best guess is that the “harm” comes from Shor making a small alleged contribution to the system of white supremacy. It’s a good example of the kind of exaggeration woke politics forces upon itself. If all conduct is either resistance or oppression, then all conduct is ultimately either liberating or harmful. Once you accept this, there is no need to demonstrate harm. It can be derived entirely theoretically, and then asserted as an unfalsifiable fact. To deny it is to participate in the system of oppression. 

It also sidesteps any question about precisely what kind, and what extent, of harm justifies cancellation. Suppose I could demonstrate that a handful of people suffered anxiety after reading Shor’s tweet, and perhaps had to consult a psychologist. Would that be enough to justify a demand that such arguments not be aired? And what if the data analysis is right, and preventing its airing contributed to an uncritical acceptance of violent protest, which in turn led to a re-elected Trump administration? Would that constitute harm as well? Such questions become difficult even to explore because in cancel culture “harm” is intended as a full stop that terminates rather than facilitates the discussion.

This makes “harm” an enormously promiscuous concept. Rendered this broad and decisive, just about anyone can deploy it to censure (and censor) just about anything. Imagine the possibilities. If criticising the Anzacs is harmful – to their memories, to their families, to the soul of the nation – perhaps those doing so deserve to be silenced. Plenty of people say religion is harmful. Should we move to ban or no-platform it? Plenty of others say godlessness is harmful. Do we fight that, too? In the absence of some kind of threshold for these assertions of harm, that requires accusers to argue that the harm in question is serious enough to trump other considerations, there is no way to resist any of these claims that doesn’t boil down to one’s own ideological conviction. If every ideology tried to adopt this, the only possible outcome would be everyone trying to censor everyone else. It is precisely the same style of argument that wants to censor songs, books and haircuts because they will “corrupt our youth”. The ends are different because woke politics wants to remake social norms rather than preserve them, but the approach is the same. They are really only a semitone apart: highly discordant next-door neighbours. 

Thus does cancel culture devolve into what moral philosopher Hugh Breakey calls “meta-argument allegations”, which foreclose debates on grounds of harm and safety rather than truth. That is easy enough when “truth” itself is deemed a power-based construction. The result, as Breakey writes, is that instead of “an argument being about a serious moral issue, the argument becomes a serious moral issue”. That radically shuts down the possibility of good-faith deliberation. Cancel culture becomes a form of what another philosopher, Agnes Callard, calls “messaging culture”, where the literal meaning of someone’s words or argument are discarded in favour of a non-literal interpretation that cares only about the agenda that lurks behind them: “every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated”. This inhibits the possibility of “disagreement without enmity”, where people do not hastily attribute ulterior motives to each other. It’s exactly the dynamic that pervades party-political discourse, making it so often frustrating, unedifying and impoverished.

This is why any criticism of cancel culture is quickly dismissed as the privileged seeking to maintain their power. “[W]hat is really unfolding here is a cohort of established influencers grappling with the fact they are losing control over how their work is received,” writes The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik of the Harper’s letter. Or this, from a response to the letter initiated by a group of journalists of colour: “Their words reflect … an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out”. There might be people whom these views describe among the Harper’s letter’s signatories, but these are extremely confident declarations to make of the enterprise as a whole, reading self-interest into the letter that isn’t in the text itself. Particularly given the letter’s expressed belief that “the restriction of debate … invariably hurts those who lack power”. 

The mistrust inherent in messaging culture becomes pernicious when the theatres for these exchanges are online, and when cancellation happens via the rapid swarm of, say, a Twitter pile-on. Online forums are highly performative places, damning whatever social or political interaction occurs on them to match their performative mode. But because they’re also splintered places, that performance is often for one’s own subculture rather than anything broader. The more you are immersed in one subculture, the less need there is to play by the rules of another. You earn kudos by demonstrating your commitment to your own audience, not considered engagement with another. In that sort of environment, messaging culture dominates. Contributions become perfunctory and rhetorical “takes”, deploying all the necessary buzzwords with all the necessary performative contempt. It’s visible in all manner of online phenomena from “stan culture” to the growth of extreme political discourses within Islamism or on the far-right. 

Civic space cannot survive this culture of mutual contempt. But here we must recognise that while cancel culture contributes to this, it is not the main driver of it. In fact, that’s the most worrying part. Cancel culture is merely the latest entrant into the fray. It walks into an environment where rhetoric dominates over contemplation; where weighing up capitulates to weighing in; where the most successful ideologies seem to be those that bludgeon rather than cajole their way into public reckoning. It inherits a public discourse already in decay. If I am right that cancel culture regards civic space as a privilege-preserving theatre of violence, I must also acknowledge the state of civic disrepair that makes this seem reasonable to so many. That is why I can believe many of its defenders are motivated by a sincere, well-meaning desire for justice.

Talk seriously (offline) to someone sympathetic to cancel culture, and eventually you will get the response: “What else are we supposed to do?” This defence gestures at something importantly disquieting: that cancel culture simply uses the discursive tools our culture has made available. This is where those “whataboutist” claims noted earlier in cancel culture’s defence, centred on the way that right-wing actors have been “cancelling” people in brutal fashion for years, really matter. Not because such behaviour excuses cancel culture, or even because of the hypocrisy it reveals. It matters because its legacy – born of decades of sensationalism, dog whistling, tabloid media’s bullying campaigns and constant search for enemies, and the willing participation of politicians – has made this a standard way of doing things. When the mainstream institutions that guide our public conversation devolve into such brutal cynicism, we can expect those disenfranchised by it to do the same. Indeed, we can expect them to be unable to imagine any other way, and to be attracted to an ideology that licenses it. Cancel culture may be civically nihilistic, but it reflects a nihilism already well established in our public culture. It reflects a broader, growing inability to imagine a common future together with those who differ from us, rather than a future in which our foes are simply vanquished. That this now sounds quaint, even naive, underscores the problem. Yes, I’m worried about cancel culture. But what worries me most is the thought it is just the younger, more digital reflection of what’s left of our society. 

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

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