- Love This
- Yahoo Mail
- Facebook Messenger
- Copy Link
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…
Paul McNamee says
A lot to digest but all well written. Those terms are losing their potency, being thrown around as unverified insults as opposed to critical accusations.
That Jack Badelaire quote. Well. Yup. On point. I’ve seen lots of whining about certain literature and how people can’t ‘enjoy it any more.’ What? When? I see it available more than I have in years. I see it being written, published, consumed, and read.
Who is saying you can’t? Your wife? Your girlfriend? I see manufactured culture wars where the perceived enemies DO NOT EXIST.
I think part of that is a juvenile attitude that their love of something means everyone must love it and if they don’t, they suck. And if their stories aren’t on the NY Times bestseller list, it’s because of some phantom force and not because they can’t realize they love a niche thing.
Nothing wrong with loving a niche thing. Don’t try to bend the world to your way of loving it, though.
Jim Cornelius says
Speaking as one who has devoted his whole life to a “niche thing,” you are right in the x‑ring. It’s pointless — and not actually desirable — for the herd to adopt your thing (which, by the Iron Law of the Herd can only be adopted for a moment anyway). Of course I want an audience — but I prefer a small, engaged, passionate one. I’m more than happy to work my little patch and let everybody else work theirs.
I actually tend to loose interest when something becomes popular. Not sure why.
Jim Cornelius says
Things can be sullied by too many hands on them.
They can. I seen one asshole really mess things for a group. It only takes one to cause real trouble.
I also tend to think that I define myself by being different to a degree. Not outrageously, but I don’t react well to calls to conform.
Patrick McGowan says
Great piece, Jim!
One of the problems with our society today is that there are less spaces outside of politics. Everything is political. Sports use to be a non-political space but it’s not anymore. People use to find catharsis in it. Now everything is wrapped up in politics.
The idea that if you can control language you can control people has some truth to it, but it is not wholly true. There is still basic instinct that lies below it. In the science fiction novelist Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun there’s a scene where various characters are having a storytelling contest. One of the characters is from a civilization where one is allowed only to speak in passages the book that their civilization is based on, their version of Mein Kampf or Das Capital. What Wolfe does with this character is interesting. He has the character tell a story that could be construed as critical of the government. Wolfe leaves it ambiguous but it is hopeful that even in such a civilization there still is an element of free thought.
John Cornelius says
“It didn’t matter that my arguments were well-supported, sourced, and factually accurate.” The Peace Through Superior Firepower tee shirt might have spun them up a little, too.
Nice piece, Jim. Makes me want to sound my barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world, and maybe cancel my subscription to the resurrection.
Jim Cornelius says
Now, to be fair, I started wearing that AFTER they tried to have me removed. If I’d have thought of it, I’d have brought a couple of rotisserie chickens to class, too.
I am waiting for my red cloth mask with the words “This Mask Is Useless” to arrive. I wonder… would that be performative or meaningful. Either way it should be entertaining and I promise not to post it on social media as a sign of my quiet Inner virtue.
Great post! Regardless of purpose, cancel culture wasn’t an issue when people were required to write more than 144 characters of illiterate misspelled aphorisms and claim superiority. We used to call those people idiots and idiots had no platform. No they rule!!
I assume you are talking about twitter and social media in the last paragraph. If so I have to agree that these devices have had a negative effect on society. While I am sure that they have some positive benefit too, I am at a loss to think what it is.
The internet as a whole is a pretty complex topic. The great thing about it is that it gives everyone a voice; the horrible thing is that it gives everyone a voice.