Woke capital grows more powerful by the day, leaving common people more and more worried about potential censure for thoughtcrime.
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The war over “cancel culture” is partly a conflict of norms. The expression of public disapproval—by both censure and shunning—has long been a part of human society. However, cancel culture escalates this tendency by imposing a narrow (and perpetually fluid) litmus test for what opinions are allowed and who is allowed to express them. Even minor transgressions can result not only in harassment on social media platforms but unemployment for the canceled and those in their orbit.
If norms are an important lens for understanding cancel culture, so too are the dynamics of power in American society. Cancel culture is in part a collaborative effort among those who control various institutional behemoths to enforce some kind of doctrinal discipline and to protect their own class interests. The concentration of power—in finance, technology companies, media organizations, and elsewhere—feeds cancel culture in multiple ways. This concentration of resources affords the proponents of radical wokeness a key vehicle for imposing their ideology upon the nation as a whole: they can use those powerful centralized institutions for promulgating and implementing their ideological vision. Moreover, the frustrations birthed by such a concentration of power (for those who are locked out of the magic circle of the elect) can often inflame ideological radicalism in those who yearn to have some position of responsibility and influence. Allies of what Wesley Yang has termed the “successor ideology” can use institutional might to crush dissenting voices and engage in a continuing process of internal radicalization.
The bigness of corporate power, then, plays a central role in the dynamics of cancel culture. For instance, a key beat in some media organizations now is ferreting out voices to remove from various platforms. A distinctive ecosystem has formed. Some nonprofit or activist group (often backed by wealthy interests) compiles a list of deplorable voices or problematic statements. Media figures with influential perches then amplify this negative analysis, both by publicizing it and signal-boosting movements that agitate for “cancelation.” These pressure campaigns can target advertisers or corporate sponsors. They can target a person’s place of employment. They might call for various tech companies to suspend an individual’s account or censor some problematic material.
A concentration of power accelerates this ecosystem of cancelation. In a time when a few technology companies dominate social media (especially Google, Facebook, and Twitter), proponents of mass cancelation only need to win over a few institutional stakeholders. A handful of moderators can decide to purge a voice from those platforms or block a link.
This concentration of power goes far beyond social media. Google and Facebook dominate digital advertising; for instance, Google controlled 73 percent of the $55 billion search-ad market in 2019. This dominance gives these platforms a considerable ability to shape the fates of media organizations that depend upon advertising. And these conglomerates are willing to use this might. In June, for example, Google threatened The Federalist with demonetization because it objected to some of the remarks in the comments section of stories. (Disclosure: I have contributed to The Federalist in the past.) This threat caused The Federalist to remove (temporarily, at least) its comments section. More than a few have, of course, noted the irony of Google relying on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to avoid accountability for what people say on its platforms while also holding media companies accountable for what is said in the comments section of their platforms.
This is not simply a “Left vs. Right” political battle. While Donald Trump’s election inspired increased anxiety about right-leaning populism among the stalwarts of American boardrooms and greenrooms, some of the most vicious battles of cancelation at the present occur within the center-left. The intensity of this battle in part comes from a clash between the norms of bourgeois liberalism and those of a more insistent, “woke” ideology. That collision is one context for the recent open letter in Harper’s Magazine defending the continued importance of open debate. But part of this intensity can also be attributed to the vicious market dynamics in many American cultural professions. With fewer comfortable jobs to go around (in the press, in the academy, and so forth), the battle for remaining positions grows ever fiercer.
Pushing back against cancel culture might involve certain normative arguments, including defending the values of open inquiry and pluralism against a rigid intolerance or championing a vision of the person that places human dignity beyond reduction to ideological conformity. Other arguments might challenge the substantive criteria for “woke” cancelation by claiming that some supposedly “cancelable” offenses are, or should be, acceptable positions.
Reversing some of the concentration of power in the American economy might also help unwind cancel culture. The rise of giant technology conglomerates has had an obvious influence on contemporary public debates. The concentration of power in their hands—a concentration encouraged by federal policy—has proven an apt weapon for proponents of ideological cancelation. Antitrust efforts could reverse some of this consolidation as well as make it harder for tech behemoths to collude among themselves to impose a certain ideological line on public discourse. An alternative—and potential complement—to a more disaggregated digital environment would be more federal regulation to limit the power of technology companies to censor voices arbitrarily or selectively enforce their terms of service. Missouri senator Josh Hawley’s Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act offers a fusion of both approaches. This bill would impose stricter standards of political neutrality on many large tech platforms while allowing smaller platforms much more latitude; by placing more burdens on larger platforms, it would encourage a proliferation of smaller ones.
Strengthening employment protections for workers might also resist some of the imperatives of cancelation. It might be revealing that the signers of the Harper’s letter included Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. Arbitrary termination for some ideological transgression—one of the major tools of cancel culture—would be anathema to the employment protections that Weingarten and other union organizers have fought for. Unionization alone would not be an antidote to cancelation politics, but unions could help negotiate for more protections for their employees so that they cannot be fired for a social media controversy. Contracts might, for instance, include stipulations that someone cannot be terminated for something he or she said before starting a job.
Beyond unions, a tighter labor market would give individual workers more flexibility in switching between jobs and in securing free speech protections in their current jobs. This rejuvenation of opportunity might be especially important for younger
Defending the practices of liberty is in part about cultivating certain norms and intellectual principles, but the concrete structures of power within a society also matter for such an enterprise. It has long been recognized that promoting liberty entails constraining certain arbitrary exercises of power. In the aftermath of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, many people identified the state as the major threat to liberty. However, John Stuart Mill and others saw that private actors and organizations could also threaten personal freedom. Counteracting the politics of ideological cancelation might demand a defense of the norms of pluralism and policies that empower a broader swath of the American public.
Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. You can follow him on Twitter: @fredbauerblog.