308 - Culture Cancellation


I am confused by what appears to be new and unnecessary terminology. I am told by implication that there is a 'cancel culture', that one can be 'woke', and that while has been replaced by the far older-sounding whilst.

Taking just these three examples in reverse order:-

While can be used as a conjunction, preposition, noun or verb, whereas 'whilst' is used only as a conjunction or adverb. Grammar.com. So whilst is the special case and therefore it is all the more unusual to find it so heavily used, as if someone in Whitehall has said very definitely that whilst is the conjunction and adverb, so it should be used when those two cases are required, not the generalist while. Or possibly the same person said "Whilst is British English, so use it". There's a suitable test for the conjunction; [first statement. Meanwhile, second statement]. This construction is then replaced with [first while/whilst second], demonstrating the conjunction.

While is also a noun, as in a while, and a verb as in to while away time. You could argue that the verb is to while away. While can appear as a preposition, replacing until, though I do not recognise this myself. The common meaning between while and whilst is during. I suspect there is an element of the current fad (as perceived by me) for whilst that says "This is posher English". Funnily enough, whilst is the newer word. Other source.

Woke, particularly woke culture,  is a political term of African American origin refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It is derived from the African-American Vernacular English expression "stay woke", whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Wiki This seems to mean, right now, that the issue declared to be woke is not going away, not cured in any way and one needs to remain aware and alive to its existence. Black Lives Matter, for example.

Unfortunately, in efforts to appear 'with' any culture, terms such as this are appropriated for such as marketing purposes, so we might find examples of corporate wokeness, or woke capitalism. ¹  We can add terms such as virtue signallingidentity politics, the obvious political correctness and of course culture war.

And, just maybe, a culture war is what is going on.

Cancel culture is the practice of withdrawing support for a something [2] .This especially applies to social media, so people who err (for example, where allegations of sexual misconduct are credible) are then cancelled, meaning unfriended, unfollowed. This is effective if the cancelled person makes some sort of living from being on social media. The same term has been used to describe advertisers cancelling an account (on social media) because of perceived failure (to hold others to account, I expect).

But cancel culture is not at all the same as holding someone to account for their actions, with implications of justice being served. This is more nearly the court of public opinion in our echo-chamber world. The shouting is so very difficult to counter, fake content runs rampant and in widening circles in ways that means the ripples live on long after whatever passes as credible truth has been established. Sometimes the truth is simply boring, so the fake version somehow lives on enough to become the accepted truth.

Do read Sarah Jeong at [3], which refers to things you might want to (appear to) know about — Overton window², The Letter³, the Great Awokening, motte and bailey fallacy, successor ideology. The ease with which one can publish an opinion—I may be doing that here—has diminished dramatically the role of the public intellectual and, as Jeong observes, opinion is so much easier to do than to collect fact. As Jeong says, with the fall of the opinion class, the mask rips off, revealing politics as little but clashes between competing cults of information that primarily convey values in terms of emotionality, rather than rationality. On the topic of The Letter, Here, the “liberalism” referred to is the general philosophy that society ought to be based on free and equal discussion from a plurality of viewpoints. “illiberalism,” therefore, is a fancy stand-in for what opinionators have alternately called “campus culture,” “cancel culture,” and “wokeness.” Is illiberalism being conflated with wokeness, or the other way about? I don't think they are connected, but I might agree that they have commonality, if well enough defined or confined.


Wikipedia [4] connects cancel culture with online—and therefore public—shaming, even revenge (revenge porn included). This is old-style village culture but spread far wider and is, as we have all seen of late, just as easily subject to fake news, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, spin and so on.  Quite where the line should be drawn to define unacceptable behaviour is far from clear. Defamation, slander, libel are civil actions—though some countries have made defamation criminal—and civil actions are (therefore?) hard to establish, prove and gain restitution.    But bullying, harassment and mockery are not subject to restriction to any great extent. Privacy violation is a major issue in online shaming, for which it would be useful to find a case supporting it, and though I think I can support shaming for criminality or grossly unethical behaviour, I'm also sure that what is or is not unethical lies in the eyes of the beholder and depends to some extent upon culture. We cannot, for example, declare that the whole internet should run to American cultural rules, nor should we accept such. Whether we can apply such a restriction to any single social medium (e.g., Facebook) seems moot and largely already decided.

Cancel culture is (often, as far as I can see) conflated with call-out culture. These two are surely different because of the action attached, cancelling or calling out; stopping one's attachment or loud pointing to a perceived failure. It seems to me that the cancellation is an individual action, a casting of a vote with one's feet or one's mouse. Calling out is more of the public squabbling that is becoming the echo-chamber norm. The call-out action is far more easily cast as something else, a move within a culture war and is largely demanding that others take action. The thinking person will—if it comes across a call-out and takes any notice—attempt some diligent checking of content (a truth test) and then decide whether of not to agree enough to take action, presumably including cancellation. If the objective of a calling-out is to cause others to commit to cancelling then we do indeed justify conflation of the two ideas. 

But one suspects that underneath there is a different battle, for attention: people wishing to be classed as opinionators, wishing to have importance. So this might be a fight against established power, even the Establishment. [6] discusses this in an American setting, but makes some points that are sufficiently uncomfortable that one perhaps ought to read the whole thing. I cherry pick:-

Politically correct speech and symbols of inclusiveness, without a concerted assault on corporate power, will do nothing to change a system that by design casts the poor and working poor, often people of colour, aside...  Zionism is the cancel culture on steroids. [ref to The Letter on this topic too]      

Corporations have seized control of the news industry and turned it into burlesque. They have corrupted academic scholarship. They make war on science and the rule of law. They have used their wealth to destroy our democracy and replace it with a system of legalised bribery. They have created a world of masters and serfs who struggle at subsistence level and endure crippling debt peonage. The commodification of the natural world by corporations has triggered an ecocide that is pushing the human species closer and closer towards extinction. Anyone who attempts to state these truths and fight back was long ago driven from the mainstream and relegated to the margins of the internet by Silicon Valley algorithms. As cancel culture goes, corporate power makes the Israel lobby look like amateurs.

The current obsession with moral purity, devoid of a political vision and incubated by self-referential academics and educated elites, is easily co-opted by the ruling class who will say anything, as long as the mechanisms of corporate control remain untouched. We have enemies. They run Silicon Valley and sit on corporate boards. They make up the two ruling political parties. They manage the war industry. They chatter endlessly on corporate-owned airwaves about trivia and celebrity gossip. Our enemies are now showering us with politically correct messages. But until they are overthrown, until we wrest power back from our corporate masters, the most insidious forms of racism in America will continue to flourish.

Um. Soap box stolen, I think. My reaction to this is includes discomfort. If I come across an issue, I want to be able to choose to take action—or not—for my own reasons. I want those reasons to be coherent, to be based upon correct information and, preferably, consistent with my other behaviour. I am not (this is consistent behaviour) interested in causing people to agree with me; I am very much interested in causing other people to make up their own minds, to make their own reasoning and take their own actions. I do not disagree if they find their action at odds with mine. I disagree with anyone demanding that I comply with their thinking. In that sense I am all for discussion but heavily against anything that smells of insistence.  For example, I want you to vote, but I'm not interested in convincing you to vote as I do, though I'd like you to consider it with similar effort.

This is something I see as equivalent to defence of your right to free speech. Just don't demand that I listen, most definitely do not demand that I do as you do; don't demand at all. If you're not prepared to listen, neither am I. And if I'm not prepared to listen, I should have shut up some time ago.

DJS 20200715

top pic from redressonline.com

1 Colin Kaepernick 'took a knee' for the US national anthem as a protest against racism 2 Sep 2016. Subsequently he was included in a Nike campaign with the slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” 

2 The Overton window is the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. It is also known as the window of discourse. The term is named after Joseph P. Overton wikipedia

3 The Letter, published in Harper's Magazine, 07July2020   https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/ is same as link. Maybe 130 signatories. Cherry picking: Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. 

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. 


There’s also a certain paradox to the Awokening. As white liberals became more vocal about racial inequality, more racially conservative Democrats left the party and helped power Donald Trump’s electoral victory. This backlash gives the impression that there’s a surging tide of white racism in America.      .....the fundamental reality is that the Awokening has inspired a large minority of white Americans to begin regarding systemic racial discrimination as a fundamental problem in American life........ Trump’s presidency itself is probably a driver of this, since there is a tendency well-known to political scientists for public opinion to move in the opposite direction of the person who occupies the White House.  A worthwhile read.

5 The motte-and-bailey fallacy (named after the motte-and-bailey castle) is a form of argument and an informal fallacy where an arguer conflates two positions which share similarities, one modest and easy to defend (the "motte") and one much more controversial (the "bailey"). wikipedia

6 Simple test between civil and criminal cases: civil looks for compensation or restitution in some form, while criminal cases look for punishment.  The Defamation Act [2013] may be of interest.

7 The Talk section on wikipedia, a good source through which to understand what issues are not part of the problem, explains rules for exclusion of a topic. They refer to example farm (a place where examples are grown), soap box (from which someone has a public rant) and cruft (redundancy or unnecessary surplus, a computing term). None of these are acceptable on wikipedia, though that is a long way from saying they don't occur. Point of view editing (POV) is discouraged and there are issues with due and undue weight being given to content (DUE). Fascinating topics.

[1] https://time.com/5735415/woke-culture-political-companies/

[2] https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/

[3https://www.theverge.com/21320338/letter-harpers-writers-free-speech-canceled-social-media-illiberalism well worth reading.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_shaming

[5] https://medium.com/@rachelwayne/the-problem-with-call-out-culture-4edecb31e192

[6] https://consortiumnews.com/2020/07/14/chris-hedges-dont-be-fooled-by-the-cancel-culture-wars/

Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2018