Part of the natural evolution — and devolution — of language is that useful terms of art gain popular acceptance and then are debased through overuse. This process is accelerated in the sticky, humid and overwrought hothouse conditions of cultural conflict.
The decomposition of useful terms is frustrating for those of us who make our living and/or our way of life through hammering words into meaningful and useful shapes on an anvil of research, imagination and passion. You can’t make a good blade out of degraded metal. Ah, well…
The concept of “cancel culture” is a hot one right now. Pop Culture Dictionary defines “cancel culture” thus:
Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.
Cancel culture is a real thing. I can personally attest to this. I graduated in 1987 with a degree in history from the University of California, Santa Cruz, which was an early adopter of the pernicious shackling of discourse that has since percolated across the nation.
My area of specialty, then and now, was frontier history. It became immediately apparent that my Native American History class was not about the study of history — it was an exercise in ideological agitprop for ardent adherents of a leftist, “anti-colonial” ideology. This went far beyond a valid and much-needed corrective to triumphalist mainstream history, presenting an anti-historical and simplistic mirroring of an old morality play, caricaturing First Nations people as “victims” and white settlers as “oppressors.” I pushed back on that — and a handful of students petitioned to have me removed from the class. Canceled.
It didn’t matter that my arguments were well-supported, sourced, and factually accurate. They disrupted the desired ideological arc of the class and my vigorous presentation “intimidated” students. In those times, the university stood up for open and vigorous discourse and the petition was tossed aside without consideration. In 2020, I am quite certain the outcome would have been different.
Like most phenomena of America’s never-ending culture wars, “cancel culture” is not the sole province of one end of the political spectrum. One of its early manifestations came from the political right, which effectively drove the Dixie Chicks out of the country music fold because Natalie Maines told a London audience that they were ashamed that George W. Bush is from Texas.
Not only were the Dixie Chicks “canceled,” their lives were threatened.
At the newspaper I edit, I have had to deal with angry readers who wanted me to get rid of columnists they don’t like. De-platform them. Cancel them.
So… yeah. It’s for real, it damages lives and livelihoods, and it must be resisted.
However… the concept is debased by those who whine about cancel culture to cover lazy, sloppy work — or the failure to do any work at all. It’s kinda like calling any news that you don’t like “Fake News.”
The pulp fictioneer Jack Badelaire laid down a rather amusing rant on the subject of… oh, just read it:
“I hate to break it to all the knuckle-dragging manpissbabies out there, but you can in fact write violent action-adventure fiction these days despite your own narrative of how ‘woke culture’ or ‘the PC police’ won’t let you, and now I’m annoyed enough that my next blog post is going to have to be step-by-step shake ‘n bake instructions on how to do that because you’re too busy jerking off to your collection of Gold Eagle paperbacks from forty years ago to figure out how to adapt to today’s market.”
Kinda reminds me of the “red pill” types obsessing about “alpha male” status. Whoo boy… anxiety about your alpha status isn’t an alpha trait. Anyway, bleating and whining is unseemly and unmanly. Making cultural excuses for your own failure to perform is unseemly and unmanly. And it is NOT effective resistance to the actual threat of “cancel culture.”
The term “virtue signaling” is a wonderful one, because it so succinctly describes something we’ve ALL witnessed. Dictionary.com defines “virtue signaling” as:
The sharing of one’s point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not…
…The term virtue signaling is often used to accuse someone of trying to win praise for showing support for a social cause without actually doing anything meaningful to advance it.
Again, virtue signaling, though usually associated with lefty “social justice warriors,” is not a phenomenon of a particular ideology. Right-wingers virtue-signal, too — usually around patriotism and religion. Posting an “I Have A Freedom Boner — Bet You Don’t Have The Guts To Repost This” meme is a clear case of virtue signaling.
A left-leaning associate takes umbrage at the term, because she thinks it is used as a device to dismiss and shut down social or political expression. It’s a fair point. Distinctions should be made between expression that is merely performative and expression that is backed by action and meaningful engagement. Of course, such judgments are inherently subjective, but, I think, functional. Taking a principled stand at some risk or some expense of time and effort is not virtue signaling. We may agree or disagree with the stand, but we should not denigrate and dismiss the activism.
Putting it simply, posting outraged photos of litter on Facebook and declaring oneself an “anti-litterer” qualifies as mere virtue signaling. Going out and picking up litter is meaningful action. Posting photos on your social media of your meaningful action may be a bit performative and self-aggrandizing — but what the hell, at least you walked your talk.
It is possible that I’m overthinking all of this. People use and abuse language and that’s the way it evolves and there’s nothing I can do about it. Nevertheless, being a wordsmith, it matters to me. I’m sorta sensitive about this sort of thing. Call me a snowflake…