Who Does Cancel Culture Serve?

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Who Does Cancel Culture Serve?

“Conservative voices are being silenced,” said Lisa Kudrow’s conservative talking head character during Netflix’s year-end roast Death to 2020. “I said this on my YouTube channel, I’ve said it on Joe Rogan, on the Jordan Peterson Kayak Podcast, I said it on Tucker Carlson… twice, actually, and I said it in my New York Times Bestseller Conservative Voices Are Being Silenced. It’s a point I have to make over and over because conservative voices are being silenced.”

Kudrow’s joke is funny because it mocks hypocritical elites with national platforms. But the joke is also very smart. Emphasizing the frequency and repetitiveness of such complaints, Kudrow’s bit satirizes the obvious: dominant cultural narratives about widespread repression are usually frenzied moral panics fixated on the very thing that is supposedly repressed. Her joke shows how contemporary cancel culture rhetoric, in the words of Michel Foucault, “speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function.” Cancel culture rhetoric, as embraced by New York Times columnists, trans-exclusionary academics, elected Republican officials, and a certain cohort of writers, is a ploy to amplify conservative voices and keep them at the center of everyone’s attention.

Being in command—of attention, of other people—is what’s really at stake for today’s “but, free speech!” warriors. Claims of cancel culture and censorship misrepresent the experience of diminished privilege as the loss of a fundamental right. Take the case of Leonard Guthrie, a January 6th rioter who told his local New Jersey newspaper that he went to DC “to be heard.” He used voice as a euphemistic metaphor for something much more insidious: the permission traditionally granted white men and white patriarchal institutions to intrude upon others without their consent. He lets this slip later in the interview when he uses “voice” and “force” interchangeably: “President Trump said, ‘It’s time for the world, time for the Capitol to hear our voice. It’s time to hear the American people out in force.’” Guthrie’s use of “voice” and “hearing” recasts conquest as speech.

What conservatives often call free speech is the entitlement to both cross people’s boundaries without their consent and move through the world free from such imposition from others. Historically, this entitlement has been reserved for white men as one of the primary benefits of white patriarchal privilege. But in the 21st century, the conditions of this entitlement have evolved in ways that increase white families’ ability to horde wealth and privilege by disqualifying extremely conservative views on gender, race, and sexuality from its protection.

Guthrie’s statement is an example of the first part of that entitlement, the limitless permission to take and use. Samuel Alito’s Federalist Society-sponsored 2020 National Lawyers Convention keynote speech includes illustrations of the entitlement to protection from any sort of nonconsensual interference. Overlooking everything from slavery to coverture to settler colonialism, Alito says that we are experiencing “previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty… we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive, and prolonged as those experienced for 2020.” In particular, he is concerned that First and Second Amendment protections including free speech, religious liberty, and gun ownership are becoming “second-class rights.”

These rights are supposedly “second-class” because, as Alito sees it, they are taboo among elites: “[There are things] you can’t say if you’re a student or professor at a college or university… I’ll mention one… you can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” Alito says.

When Alito uses a platform run by one of the most prominent political organizations in the nation and covered by outlets like CNN, NBC, the Washington Post, and even Esquire, he’s not saying “marriage is a union between one man and one woman” at a college or university. I have, however, worked at various colleges and universities over the last 20 years (including a community college, a state school, a few Catholic schools, and an expensive private university in New England), and can assure you that the anti-gay-marriage view is far from verboten in American colleges and universities. It is commonly explicitly endorsed by the curriculum in assignments such as the one that once sent a queer student running to my office in tears after they were made to participate in a “debate” about gay marriage in one of their other classes.

In a “Teaching Philosophy” Facebook group I belong to, posts about such so-called debates are evergreen—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Conservative views are alive and well in the academy today. One of the most prominent British TERFs is a philosophy professor at The University of Sussex (and she was just awarded the Order of the British Empire), and there’s another philosopher at SUNY Fredonia who publishes papers with titles like “A Liberal Argument for Slavery” and “The Moral Status of Harmless Adult-Child Sex” in leading, mainstream philosophy journals. Conservative speech is silenced on campus about as much as it is in that Kudrow bit.

When Alito says his anti-gay marriage views are silenced, he means is that he gets pushback for saying them. Traditionally, white patriarchy entitles white cis-hetero men the ability to move through the world without any non-consensual intrusions from others. For example, they are mainly not on the receiving end of street harassment, stop and frisk, gentrification, appropriation, and more. Exercising the ability to both nonconsensually interfere with other people and remain protected from any pushback or criticism for it is one way people prove to themselves and others that they are legitimately members of the white supremacist patriarchal ruling class.

Historically, this line between legitimate and illegitimate non-consensual interference has fallen along the racial and colonial boundary between whites and non-whites. That line is drawn very clearly in 17th-century British political thought, which contrasted the extralegal conquest of the Spanish to the purportedly lawful, legitimate ownership established through British imperialism. Political theorist Carole Pateman traces how 17th and 18th-century British thinkers framed the indigenous peoples as lacking legitimate ownership of their lands. “If settlement of the New World was to be justified… an explanation has to be provided… for the appropriation of land without consent,” she explains. Ranging from the idea that ownership “is legitimate provided that good use is made of the land and nothing is left to spoil” to the view that only private individuals and not collective groups can make legitimate claims to ownership, all these explanations represent indigenous lands as places European settlers can occupy without needing to ask for anyone’s consent first. Misrepresenting conquest as legitimate ownership, these philosophical gymnastics only stick their landing when it presumes that white people are entitled to impose on non-white people without their consent.

Contemporary debates about free speech and cancel culture use those same gymnastics, but they land less solidly than they did in 17th century Britain because mainstream society no longer thinks specific applications of this entitlement are legitimate. Team cancel culture is full of people who are invested in maintaining and even intensifying hard, old-school boundaries around sexual legitimacy: Alito’s arguments are one example, as are TERFs and trans-bathroom-bill advocates turned Qanon Republicans. But over the last 20 years, those boundaries have shifted as white supremacist capitalist patriarchy realized that it could leverage the conditional inclusion of some women and LGBTQ+ people into more efficient and intense forms of domination and oppression. For example, trans people can now join the U.S. military and participate in neo-imperial wars. In the era of girlbosses and pinkwashing, those old-fashioned boundaries get in the way of patriarchal racial capitalism’s remixed version of theft and domination.

For example, as Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings argue in their 2020 book The Asset Economy, “what we are seeing in the present era is the growing importance of intergenerational transfer and inheritance for the determination of life chances” such that class is defined “not (as it has been traditionally) in terms of people’s relationship to work and education, but rather in terms of their relationship to assets.” Success in white-collar careers has less to do with your level of education or work ethic and more to do with having rich parents to pay for college and support you while you work for next to nothing. Marriage is a legal instrument that establishes legitimate entitlement to assets and their inheritance. As such, access to it is necessary for ascent into the ruling class. For example, as a 2017 Pew report shows, marriage is becoming something disproportionately for rich people. As the economy shifts from one built on presumably legitimate theft and extraction to one focused on presumably legitimate inheritance (e.g., the booming market in music copyright), limiting access to marriage on the basis of sexuality alone is no longer in the best interest of the ruling class. Obergefell, the Supreme Court case that guaranteed gays couples the right to marriage, maximized rich white families’ capacities for the intergenerational hoarding of both wealth and life chances. In other words, it maximized their ability to pass off theft and conquest as legitimate ownership.

As Kudrow’s skit suggests, making a spectacle of conservatives’ disqualification from that protection is productive, especially in today’s markets of attention and communication. Outrageous behavior drives clicks. The media lapped up Donald Trump’s behavior and those, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who he inspired. Think too of how much proverbial ink has been spilled over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head. After the January 6th riot, the framing of this spectacle changed after Trump’s supporters tried, unsuccessfully, to punch up. Instead of amplifying and enabling conservatives’ punching down on people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people (to name just a few), the media’s approach to ultraconservative voices pivoted to align with the way they treat other groups considered to have illegitimate views about sex and/or sexual practices.

First, as Lesley Carhart tweeted, Trump and his fanbase on Parler were categorically deplatformed across the social media ecosystem in a way comparable to only one other group: sex workers. Second, a viral debate blossomed about whether “terrorist” was the right word to use to describe coup participants. As gender studies professor Jasbir Puar argued in her book Terrorist Assemblages, in the 21st century the figure of the “terrorist” is applied to people who are demonized for their “un-American” and illegitimate approaches to sex and sexuality: “in the United States at this historical juncture is an opportunity for forms of LGBTQ inclusion in the national imaginary and body politic rests upon specific performances of American sexual exceptionalism vis-a-vis perverse, improperly hetero- and homo- Muslim sexualities,” she writes.

For example, in the 2000s it was extremely common for Western media to both celebrate gay marriage at home while also trafficking in stereotypes about Muslim men, child marriage, and polygamy. These contrasting representations worked together to justify the legitimacy of the wars in the Middle East.

But the new gymnastics go something like this: corporate feminism and pride parades allows the U.S. to appear to have finally stopped letting men and/or straights nonconsensually interfere with women and LGBTQ people. But since “terrorists” in Puar’s definition openly flout their obligation to do the same, their society lacks a legitimate social and legal order, leaving it open for outsiders to establish one. The legitimacy of everything from Gitmo to drone strikes and no-fly list rests in part upon the delegitimation of “terrorist” views on sex. For the past two decades, the so-called terrorist’s backward views about sex have been an ideological Facetune for America’s image of itself, one that edits out some of our most endemic flaws. Applying that label to the January 6 participants creates a blur in which mainstream America appears ever more perfect in contrast to the barbarians who burst through the Capitol gates. This spectacle legitimizes more mundane and endemic forms of violence.

Cancel culture debates are moral panics about the boundaries of whiteness. To engage in these debates is to concede to the assumption that there is in fact a distinction between theft and legitimate ownership. That distinction was invented as a ruse to disguise the white supremacist and colonial theft of labor and land as legitimate ownership, and as Robert Nichols argues in his book Theft Is Property!, it continues to function that way today. Cancel culture rhetoric is an example of this: it disguises racist and sexist entitlement as a fundamental human right.

Instead of quibbling about the line between legitimate and illegitimate ownership, we should focus on building everything from the cultural norms and material infrastructures to ensure that everyone has access to whatever they need to build meaningful lives. We shouldn’t let this narrow idea of freedom as freedom from intrusion distract us from the fact that everything we think and do is dependent on what other people do and have done. Instead of fixating on the right way to carve up the pie, let’s spend our energy making the ingredients and conditions of production as accessible as possible.

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is the author of several books, including: The Sonic Episteme and Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism. She is currently writing a book about philosophies of creative independence and the radio station 97X WOXY.

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