Cancel Swarm, Cancel Panopticon, and Cancel Extortion
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March 19th, 2022
I read a piece recently critiquing so-called “cancel culture” from a feminist perspective. I am noticing more people who consider themselves on the left criticizing the cancel culture phenomenon, as Ben Burgis did when he came to The Stoa. This is inspiring me to do a dispassionate meta-take on cancel culture, incorporating both critiques from the left and right.
What does “being cancelled” even mean? This is my sense of what is at the core…
Stigmatizing and ostracizing a person in a way that is aimed to cut them off from sources that support their livelihood.
“Sources” could mean friends, jobs, social media accounts, and even bank accounts. Cancelling somebody might backfire of course, giving the “cancellee” more livelihood opportunities. People who consciously capitalize on failed cancellations are referred to as “culture war profiteers.” The means of cancellation are becoming more sophisticated, hence the culture war profiteering goldrush might be at an end, and we could be moving into a “long night” scenario as John Robb suggests.
Cancel culture was first associated with “social justice warriors” on university campuses. Now that it is a wider phenomenon, I sense it would be good to delineate a few dimensions: the cancel swarm, the cancel panopticon, and cancel extortion. People on the “culture war left” (aka “Thesis”) are concerned with the cancel panopticon, people on the “culture war right” (aka “Antithesis”) are concerned with the cancel swarm, and famous people are concerned with cancel extortion.
Some thoughts on each…
Cancel Swarm. Swarming is when a large number of people gather towards an attractor in a decentralised way. The attractor for a cancel swarm is a person or thing targeted for cancellation, and the people swarming are those who agree that person should be canceled. Swarms can be sparked on social media or by legacy media, and use various methods to cut off the attractor from their livelihood. This is the bulk of what we understand to be “cancellation.” My Antithesis and non-woke friends often feel stifled to speak what they believe to be true, fearing they will be labelled as nazis, be censored on social media, or lose their jobs. This causes them to react in anger, publicly or privately.
Cancel Panopticon. A panopticon is a circular prison design, with a guard in the middle, able to watch all the prisoners without them knowing when they are being watched. Michel Foucault used the term metaphorically, describing society as a panopticon that leads to self-management and self-censorship. In the context of leftist discourse, this is what Mark Fisher called the “Vampire Castle”: the left “eating its own” (aka cancelling itself) and preventing any coherent movement to emerge due to the fear of cancellation. My Thesis and “woke” friends seem to be some of the most terrified of being cancelled. I sense this boils down to a fear of being shamed and excommunicated from their own social group, leading to a culture of self-policing, keeping their true thoughts and complicated feelings on issues hidden from others, sometimes buried from even themselves.
Cancel Extortion. Extortion is extracting benefit from someone by using some form of coercion. “Black PR” firms - aka negative PR firms - are masters at destroying reputations, leveraging the fear of the cancel panopticon, and directing cancel swarms to target specific people or corporations. The never-ending cancellation attempts of Joe Rogan are an example of Black PR-directed cancel swarms. The methods of Black PR are open to any sociopath with an internet connection, and this may be our new reality: the panopticon is already here, the swarm is already on the loose, and extortionists are just waiting for you to become famous enough to get on their radar.
The bitter truth we may need to swallow is this: thanks to our internet-interconnectedness, we are all already cancelled, whether on the left, right, or in the middle, we just have not been pointed out to the swarm yet. Whether the attempted cancellation is deserved or undeserved, directed or undirected, successful or unsuccessful, we are all vulnerable to this phenomenon.
We all have different risk factors of course, but speaking personally, I am called to take more risks. I am called to explore in a wilder way, perhaps making a prison break from the panopticon, possibly triggering the attention of swarms. I sense there are ways to do this less foolishly, and having a better sense of what this cancel culture actually is (and what it is becoming) could help better navigate this phenomenon.
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