Cancel Culture is Not Progressive Politics: A Response to The Print
A recent article in The Print entitled ‘Don’t rush to cancel wokes in McCarthyian panic’ is a timely reminder that critiques of modern ‘wokeness’ often throw the baby out with the bathwater. Moreover, it reasserts that supporters of demagogues who deploy every underhanded trick in the book have little moral authority to denounce and tone police millennial anger with the system. In a time of rising inequalities, virulent authoritarianism and mounting anti-scientific discourse, there is a need — perhaps more than ever — for an element of anger, spine, and brazenness to progressive discourse.
However, to conflate such a clear-eyed form of articulation with the current phenomena of online “wokeness” is not only inaccurate, it runs the real risk of undermining the progressive social project as a whole. In this spirit I hope to offer a counter argument, and posit that there is good reason for self-described liberals, leftists, progressives and rationalists to offer a critique of ‘cancel culture’ that is distinct from the attacks of the right.
It is no coincidence that the emergence of politics as a mode of aesthetic performance and moral puritanism on social media has coincided with left parties and movements bleeding more and more working class support in all corners of the world. A failure to offer a reasoned analysis that separates genuine progressive organising from online grandstanding can push the progressive agenda further into political redundancy. In categorising woke culture, it is necessary to draw a distinction between the principled fight for basic human dignity on the one hand, and the forms of pedantic, righteous and carefully curated social media performativity that masquerade under the same vocabulary of morality. This is not to denigrate the intention of vocal “wokes” on the internet, but rather to convince them of the dangers inherent in mobilising a sanctimonious form of outrage for the larger goals of the left.
The original article offers five key points, three of which are, to my mind, perfectly reasonable. It is the two others that I believe are worth initiating a debate on and reflecting deeper about. The first is the assertion that “cancel” culture is really “consequences” culture, and a signal that the age of impunity is over. The second is the conflation of wokeism with youth culture, with the author arguing that feminism, MLK Jr and Ambedkar were all expressing the same “woke” ideas that attract millenials today. Let’s look at these more carefully.
What does Cancellation Achieve?
It must be stated at the outset here that some transgressions are certainly worse than others, and there is a definite need to differentiate a threat of violence from a joke made in poor taste or ignorance. The problem arises because often the online medium offers no gradation of outrage — and so piling on to relatively trivial issues ends up allowing serious matters to also masquerade as trivial. Secondly, the basis of such “call-outs” is a focus on the individual rather than the structural. As such, it channelizes outrage into singling out and ostracising individuals rather than into dismantling the systems that inculcate and incentivize such expressions of casteism, misogyny and so on. “Cancellation” hits at the symptom, not the root — and, as we shall see, is counterproductive even in that effort. Moreover, the act of calling out provides no real metric to understand, reconcile or make sense of an individual’s own progress and evolution. Progressivism can — and must — be about learning and growing together.
Lastly, there is the important consideration of whether call out culture is detrimental to attracting people to the left. In his seminal and brilliant book ‘Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left’, the writer Ben Burgis demonstrates how online wokeness is structurally undermining dedicated, grounded progressive organising. In response to the argument about ‘cancelling’ being about consequences, Burgis underlines the extreme disutility of the fact that it almost never produces any real material consequences. He writes, “If we denounce “problematic” comedians, and thus make ourselves look like some secular version of evangelical preachers ranting about the blasphemous undercurrents they take themselves to have detected in popular TV shows, and we demonstrate that all our huffing and puffing doesn’t even blow these comedians’ stupid little careers down, then we’ve succeeded in making ourselves look both spectacularly unappealing and completely powerless. Both halves of that are a problem if we’re interested in presenting a version of the world that a great mass of ordinary people can get excited about and give them the confidence that it can be achieved.”
On Wokeness and Solidarity
To understand modern wokeness as a legatee of social justice movements like feminism, civil rights and anti-caste organising, it is necessary to add a few caveats. While purely at the level of discourse both may be classified as forms of articulation that challenge the status quo, there is good reason to look beyond this and understand the underlying differences between the two. Perhaps the most important shift since the major protest movements of the 20th century and modern online wokeness is the subtle shift in the definition of “solidarity”. I’ll paraphrase here something I’ve said before on Instagram, so bear with me if it feels repetitive.
Earlier, solidarity meant the ability to recognise the violation of certain basic values to a set of people, which warranted public protest as well as support to the said group even if one could never understand, relate to (or even particularly like) that said group. Today, it means the requirement to acquaint oneself constantly with multiple, complex histories of various “oppressed groups” in all their exact details; find a single, clear narrative thread that binds such histories together without contradictions and then create and deploy a vocabulary that is acceptable to all these groups while constantly policing any accidental transgression of it.
So long as one manages to accomplish this delicate act of tiptoeing (or flagellate themselves publicly when they’re “out-woked” or confronted for past transgressions), no one needs to be held to any other standard of responsibility — attend a protest, offer their services to a cause, educate those around them with valuable skills, or even switch off their air conditioner for five minutes.
This simple shift in the meaning of the word “solidarity” is actually one of the most profound infiltrations of neoliberal worldviews into radical politics. It necessitates that the “good ally” is now one with access to the widest range of opinions and vocabularies, not the one who inhabits the positionality by themselves. Lived experience is now considered a poor cousin of having the time and energy to be “right” about anything. In other words, solidarity has gone from being the long term ability to use identity as a bridge to the short term profitability of using identity as a weapon.
As the late essayist Mark Fisher wrote about online woke culture: “It is driven by a priests’ desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd”. In this regard, it must be seen to be quite different from the expansive, radical brilliance of feminist, black and Ambedkarite organising. Indeed, the term ‘organising’ can be seen as qualitatively different from the more murky and obtuse term ‘activist’, which originated concomitantly with various forms of individualistic, self-centred forms of politics. As Astra Taylor brilliantly writes in her article titled ‘Against Activism’, “In its very ambiguity the word upholds a dichotomy that is toxic to democracy, which depends on the participation of an active citizenry, not the zealotry of a small segment of the population, to truly function.”
Moving forward for the left, it must be recognised that people with “perfect” allyship credentials online are often just people with resources. We must collectively turn our attention to attracting the imperfect ally — the person with the occasional faux pas, the person who didn’t have to be guilted at a liberal arts college to understand basic human values. We must find ways to not lose the person who’s hesitant, unsure, riddled with insecurities and maybe even slightly ignorant but always willing to share a laugh or a meal — even if it comes at the cost of angering the self assured, condescending ones with the reading lists.
The fact that Dr. Ambedkar agreed to draft the constitution reveals a tacit optimism that the caste-society he lived his life in could perhaps one day adopt civility. Whether this was a misplaced hopefulness remains to be seen, but there is an idealistic and magnanimous undercurrent to such a position that has been a universal and defining feature of progressive movements the world over. To abandon such a discourse for a lexicon imbued with guilting, shaming, policing and interpreting things in the least charitable way possible is a certain recipe for political suicide. If solidarity genuinely means something to us, then we must begin to live it in all its jagged, uncomfortable, contradictory, jubilant, funny, kaleidoscopic, difficult forms. Online wokeness is failing us on this front.