308 - Culture Cancellation | Scoins.net | DJS

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 I am told by implication that there is a 'cancel culture', that one can be 'woke', and that while has been replaced by the far older-sounding whilst.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 (woke, indeed) 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 followed 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 (this, any) 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. Source [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.  Easily agreed, motte: 'Killing babies is wrong', but then the bailey is 'When is a baby?'.

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/

Found 20210928, by Anne Applebaum:

[7]  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/10/new-puritans-mob-justice-canceled/619818/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=atlantic-daily-newsletter&utm_content=20210927&silverid=%25%25RECIPIENT_ID%25%25&utm_term=The%20Atlantic%20Daily

There is a reason that the science reporter Donald McNeil, after being asked to resign from The New York Times, needed 21,000 words, published in four parts, to recount a series of conversations he had had with high-school students in Peru, during which he may or may not have said something racially offensive, depending on whose account you find most persuasive. There is a reason that Laura Kipnis, an academic at Northwestern, required an entire book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, to recount the repercussions, including to herself, of two allegations of sexual harassment against one man at her university; after she referred to the case in an article about “sexual paranoia,” students demanded that the university investigate her, too. A full explanation of the personal, professional, and political nuances in both cases needed a lot of space.

By contrast, the modern online public sphere, a place of rapid conclusions, rigid ideological prisms, and arguments of 280 characters, favours neither nuance nor ambiguity. Yet the values of that online sphere have come to dominate many American cultural institutions: universities, newspapers, foundations, museums. Heeding public demands for rapid retribution, they sometimes impose the equivalent of lifetime scarlet letters on people who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling a crime. Instead of courts, they use secretive bureaucracies. Instead of hearing evidence and witnesses, they make judgments behind closed doors.

Relevant question:  How much intellectual life is now stifled because of fear of what a poorly worded comment would look like if taken out of context and spread on Twitter?  I add myself: on how many occasions do you resist making public comment about bad behaviour, simply because any sort of action is met with such a violent response?

A journalist told me that after he was summarily fired, his acquaintances sorted themselves into three groups. First, the “heroes,” very small in number, who “insist on due process before damaging another person’s life and who stick by their friends.” Second, the “villains,” who think you should “immediately lose your livelihood as soon as the allegation is made.” Some old friends, or people he thought were old friends, even joined the public attack. But the majority were in a third category: “good but useless. They don’t necessarily think the worst of you, and they would like you to get due process, but, you know, they haven’t looked into it. They have reasons to think charitably of you, maybe, but they’re too busy to help. Or they have too much to lose.” One friend told him that she would happily write a defence of him, but she had a book proposal in the works. “I said, ‘Thank you for your candour ’ ”  Most people drift away because life moves on; others do so because they are afraid that those unproven allegations might imply something far worse. One professor who has not been accused of any physical contact with anybody was astonished to discover that some of his colleagues assumed that if his university was disciplining him, he must be a rapist. Another person suspended from his job put it this way: “Someone who knows me, but maybe doesn’t know my soul or character, may be saying to themselves that prudence would dictate they keep their distance, lest they become collateral damage.”  Here is the second thing that happens, closely related to the first: Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession. If you are a professor, no one wants you as a teacher or mentor (“The graduate students made it obvious to me that I was a nonperson and could not possibly be tolerated”). You cannot publish in professional journals. You cannot quit your job, because no one else will hire you. If you are a journalist, then you might find that you cannot publish at all.

Which is remarkably like, it seems to me, those in the parable of the Samaritan who pass by 'on the other side'. Other side of what, I have often wondered; perhaps the road and perhaps the binary position. The cost, real, potential or perceived, of being involved is too much, and so people pass by. There are several issues here, one example of which is at an individual level—that cost of involvement—and one of which is at a society level, whether we should work on improving our society. Is it the individual that is at fault, or the society or both or more than that; I don't know, but I suspect the list should be longer not shorter.  Sadly, action on either front is likely to result in abreaction from those social representatives who are in some sense nearby. All of this is exaggerated online where everyone is nearby, where there is no cost to censure and no comeback as a result. This is mob rule,  and the lack of authorship—using your own name, for example, so perhaps I mean signature—makes the mob actions attractive as a secondary effect of the echo-chamber. 

I see this as Not Good. I would prefer that we allow and encourage mild dissent so that genuine discussion is held and consensus sought. What happens in the mob environment is a different sort of consensus and therein lies our collective confusion. This bad version of consensus is one in which, like non-reality tv, everyone is trying to outdo their neighbour, to be more extreme. Again, this is because there is no attached cost; in the case of so-called reality tv, there appears to be reward (survival in the programme) for being suitably extreme / radical / interesting. This we encourage outrageous behaviour and this is what is reflected in the mob situation.

I wonder therefore if the two types on consensus, which is supposed to mean general agreement, can be better labelled. the one I see as 'good' is that which follows exploration of views, perhaps extensive discussion and sharing of opinion, such that these change to the extent that agreement is formed. The one I view as bad has no discussion but looks much the same because there is apparent agreement. So what is missing is, perhaps, the evidence of discussion. What is certainly missing is any effort to subsume the dissenting voice into any conflicting view so as to discover what might be more right or more wrong or more acceptable. Consensus does not require that everyone agree but it does, I think, require to be recognition of what it is that everyone does agree on, so as to highlight the points at which opinions diverge.

I think, and have thought for some time, that much of this would be cured by being held responsible for our actions. Turing that around, it would be largely solved by not having aliases and not being able to have them. Thus in effect any post is signed, attributed, searchable and this one would take care to say only what one believed and could defend. That does not in any way remove the right to free speech and nor should that be curtailed. But what is in effect incitement to behave steadily worse, to encourage the mob, would be changed. 

As I have written elsewhere, moaning needs to turn into constructive complaint.

DJS 20210928

I wonder if this is an extension of 'naming and shaming'. If so, what is missing is any sort of balance. One might look up Liaden versions of balance (but you probably won't). If transgrression has trully occurred, where is the expected court, in which justice is seen to be done? Where is the acceptance of penalty? Where is the resulting forgiveness? This is all so very wrong.

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