The Carnival of Cancel Culture
5 March 2023
For a while it seemed that there had been a lull in so-called cancel culture. The Right had appropriated the term to refer to pretty much any time people let them have it online. Idiotic figures like Andrew Tate wore it as a badge of honour and intentionally courted the notoriety that being ‘cancelled’ bought. People seemed to have caught on. But the response to the recent Dilbert comic strip author, Scott Adams', racist episode played out in much the way we’ve seen happen for years. No sooner were the heinous words uttered that commentators fell over themselves to condemn his tirade (which included phrases like ‘white people’ should ‘get the hell away from black people’). It wasn’t long before carriers of his work lined up to announce that they had dropped him. It was the obvious thing to do.
In various ways, this is how it’s played out, more or less publicly, for years. When science fiction author William Sanders sent a scathing rejection letter to a hopeful author in 2008, that author made the letter public. A line referring to a character in the rejected story was taken to refer to all people of that group and a flame war quickly erupted. Early cancel culture was less about policing agreed upon moral codes than establishing new ones. Targeting specific incidences of wrongdoing offered teachable moments, and quickly an accepted standard emerged whereby bewildered transgressors repented, accepted the new code of conduct (‘we don’t joke about x’, ‘I didn’t mean y, but it could be construed that way and that’s dangerous enough’) and hoped to move forward in the good graces of the mob. But as Will Shetterly describes, Sanders, ‘a self-described “redbone hillbilly”’, wasn’t the type to accept what he viewed as middle class codes of politeness without a fight. Those attacking him retorted, perched comfortably atop the moral high ground, things like this from Tobias Buckell:
…the various stages of calling someone with a prejudice or racist belief or action out are very similar to the Kubler-Ross model of catastrophic loss.
Denial: * Example — ”I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening.”
Anger: * Example — ”Why me? It’s not fair!” “NO! NO! How can you accept this!”
Bargaining: * Example — ”Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything, can’t you stretch it out? A few more years.”
Depression: * Example — ”I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die . . . What’s the point?”
Acceptance: * Example — ”It’s going to be OK.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
It is fitting that Buckell should have drawn a metaphor from something that’s usually used to understand how people cope with death (and even uses ‘I’m going to die’ as an example response). Because what is happening here is something like a death, and unfortunately sometimes ends in literal death.
A few years ago, I wrote about how troubled TV host Caroline Flack, accused of assaulting her partner, tragically took her own life. This was after online bullying and apparently successful calls to have her removed from her television gigs had, she felt, effectively ended her career. Unlike other examples that typically spring to mind, the calls to cancel Flack were less about what she had said than something she had allegedly done. But it wasn’t enough for the state to investigate, and if found guilty, for her to face criminal consequences. Before all this, she had to be made an example of. Flack’s arrest had to become a ‘teachable moment’, not just for her, but for all of us—as though the masses would see her hosting Love Island and suddenly feel a bit punchy.
At the time, I remarked that the treatment of Flack had been ‘medieval’. Since under capitalism, the vast majority of people must earn a wage in order to survive (or live off of others who do), the concerted attempt to cancel someone’s ability to earn a living is the modern equivalent of a public execution. Indeed, when I mentioned the topic recently on Twitter, a commenter responded that since few had been ‘permanently cancelled’, it was questionable as to whether or not cancel culture really existed. This betrays the unspoken goal of blotting out sinners from public life—to make them disappear forever.
We seem to be regressing to pre-modern ideas of what it means to be human. A lack of belief in the human ability to handle freedoms leads to this disappearing of ‘bad influences’. The public acquires a child-like quality. We cannot be exposed to even a hint of wrongdoing or we will enact it in our own lives.
It’s not a new observation, but there is something more to this ‘medieval’ comparison. There are striking parallels between medieval and early modern forms of public punishment and today’s cancel culture—the carnivalesque spectacle of denunciation, public rituals of repentance, but also, the unintended consequence of making heroes out of ‘petty thieves’ that are worth exploring.
Reading studies of pre-modern torture and execution as public rituals, especially those of Michel Foucault in his famous Discipline and Punish, one is struck by the similarities. In these historic rites, whoever dared challenge the will of the sovereign was beaten and broken in a grand spectacle. The presence of a crowd of spectators was not incidental, but rather formed a key part of the scene. They played an active role, cheering, jeering and squabbling for mementos of the event. Their presence was necessary to affirm the show of power on the part of the sovereign, since whoever breaks the law offends not only the King but also the morality of those who abide by it. In this way, public punishment acted as a kind of revenge for offending both the people and the sovereign. It rewarded those who obeyed and of course warned others to follow suit.
It is important to note that these were not solemn rites and often descended into carnivalesque absurdity. A world turned upside down, carnival is an ‘in-between’ space where normal social rules and roles are suspended. The low become high, the high become low. Indeed, public executions often swung chaotically between absurdity and laughter and the solemnity of death.
We can see this ‘carnival’ of cancel culture today in the strange mismatch between the alleged gravity of offences and the glee with which offenders are pursued, the memification of the conflict, the seeming power of the crowd, and (sometimes—more on this in a moment) rituals of public repentance in the well-tread ‘public apologies’ of those who dared offend. Yet today, there is no king that sits on a throne and oversees the spectacle. Whose power then is enacted through the mob? In the wake of the death of Caroline Flack, commentators unanimously blamed bullying by the tabloids and social media. #BeKind went the popular hashtag. However, it was not simply that the crowd jeered when she was initially arrested. They bayed for blood. #SacktheFlack was the hashtag then. But who could spill it?
Foucault wrote that during the time when public executions were common, death seemed to lurk behind every corner. Using death as a punishment gave death meaning. One might add that it gave a sense of control over the uncontrollable. The same might be said of job losses today. Precariousness seems to be a fact of life for many—a threat that, like death in the Middle Ages, lurks perilously behind every corner. It is perhaps unsurprising then that public firings have taken over as the ceremonial punishment of choice. Threatening people with firing gives the irrationality of being perilously flung from the labour market a sense of meaning and purpose.
Social media mobbing and lobbying companies to show ‘accountability’ appears to be the ultimate display of democracy in action. But ultimately, the power being enacted is that of capital. It is capital, not the king, that spills the blood. And just as the power of the sovereign seemed mightier with his ability to control death—to condemn or call off the execution at the last moment—so too does lobbying bosses to fire workers underscore their power.
Of course, while the Left often gets the blame for cancel culture, outrage has become a bipartisan affair. No platforming is matched by calls to cancel liberal arts programmes and inform on lefty academics. No one wins in this game except those in power who are lobbied endlessly to underwrite these threats.
As carnival, public punishments also offer opportunities to affirm the underlying values of the community. As battles over the material questions of who gets what and how society should be structured have waned, groups increasingly jostle over symbolic questions, questions of whose values should be recognised as foundational. It’s no wonder then that the public spectacle of condemnation and affirmation of values via apologies or repetition of the egregious charge as capital drops the axe is so sought after. In public rituals of punishment, the condemned are invited and expected to repent and confess their wicked deeds, implicitly affirming the rules that have been broken. Early on, cancel culture was beset by grovelling spectacles of public apologies, as offenders begged for mercy for what appeared to be increasingly innocuous infractions. When a popular personality within the strange subculture of social media knitting made a comment that an upcoming trip to India would be like, ‘being offered a seat on a flight to Mars’, she was roundly denounced for her insensitivity. Not long later, she offered an apology affirming the values of diversity and inclusivity she’d been accused of transgressing.
However, things didn’t, and increasingly don’t, always play out like this. And therein lies the danger of punishment as public ritual. Historically, sometimes people would publicly repent, be perfect Christians and denounce their heinous crimes. But it is very hard to control someone who has nothing left to lose. Carnivals affirm the underlying values of the community, but they also open up spaces where, for a brief moment, the unsayable can be said. The carnivalesque liminal space of the public execution produced precisely this result. Indeed, people often turned up to view the spectacle for just this reason. The condemned would often curse with impunity the King, the judges, even God. As Victor Turner once wrote, ‘nothing satisfies as much as extravagant or temporarily permitted elicit behavior.’ While Dilbert creator Scott Adams already had close to a million Twitter followers, during his tremendous downfall, his posts went from tens of thousands of views to regularly hitting over a million and more. His posts were swarmed by those celebrating, condemning, defending, and many others who clicked to watched it all go down.
For those condemning, the carnival of cancel culture is the world turned upside down. The weak can suddenly act as though they are strong, as though they have the power to take life (or livelihoods) at will. But for the condemned, it either destroys quietly and piously or it, ‘sharpens alienation [and] strengthens the power of resistance’, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it. Thus, an unintended consequence of public punishment is the creation of a space that accepts and indeed invites individuals and groups who are willing to say the unsayable. In short, it attracts an audience.
In this way, public punishment often had the effect of making heroes out of petty criminals. Similarly, the early rise of cancel culture saw people like Milo Yiannopoulos, who possessed otherwise unremarkably bad ideas, suddenly launched into the limelight from relative obscurity. Cancelling allegedly ‘dangerous’ ideas births and extends online liminal spaces where the unsayable is exhaled like a breath of stale air. The cancelled (and those who barely brushed it) can pose as renegades, willing to express the truths they claim we’d all like to share.
Public castigation also has the unintended effect of drawing us closer to the transgressor. While many took part in the frivolity and violence of public executions, never did they feel as close to the criminal as when he or she was standing on the scaffold. The intention of the public display is to warn, ‘tomorrow it could be you’. The public are invited to see themselves on the stage. Never did people feel more threatened by a violence ‘exercised without moderation or constraint’ than when the victim stood before them. The result could as much be fear and toeing the line as it could be solidarity and resistance. The ever-present danger is that tyranny gives rise to rebellion.
Why has the medieval execution become the model for power today? Because we have lost the liberal subject that partially did these old ways of meting out justice in. This subject was one that could be ‘treated’ through rational means. Of course, this did not dissolve coercive power so much as it transformed it and made it harder to see. However, the rise of more liberal forms of justice did at least ostensibly place all human beings on a level playing field. Public punishments of the past underscored the fundamental inequality between the governing and the governed. The same thing is happening now, where the relationship between public figures and the ‘mass’ has been reconceptualised as a paternalistic one. We cannot be trusted to see any wrongdoing, no matter how minor, lest we re-enact this in our own lives. Saints and sinners must set an example for the rest of us.
The unintended consequences of public rituals of punishment should be a lesson for us. Neither uncomfortable truths nor damaging untruths can be cancelled out of existence. They need to be debated and challenged. You might enjoy the carnivalesque meme-filled merriment of being powerful for a day, dangling the threat of utter cancellation over the head of wrongdoers. But it just reminds us who really holds the power. The carnival of cancel culture only affirms existing power structures and does little to progress society. Indeed, it appears to be driving us backward.
 It should be taken for granted that exploring these incidents doesn’t entail defending what people have said and done. It should be. But it isn’t. So I’m not defending the actions I describe across this essay in the same way that I don’t defend the actions of those who were condemned in medieval Europe. It’s the method of condemnation and what it says about our society and culture that I’m exploring here.