by Kevin Currie-Knight
I’ve wanted to write this article for a while. Every time, though, I postpone for some reason. Not to worry, of course, because examples of what we call cancel culture abound. The trend seemingly has no expiration date. Whenever I worry that the examples I am going to use will become obsolete, new ones thankfully pop up to take their place, meaning that I finally can write this damned article.
The most recent stories that we like to file (as I will argue, wrongly) under cancel culture are Amazon.com’s decision to discontinue selling the book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement, and Dr. Seuss’s estate announcing that it will cease publication of no fewer than six Dr. Seuss books over potentially offensive illustrations that caricature various (non-white) ethnic groups.
First, for clarity, let me tell you what my argument won’t be. I will not argue that these were good decisions on the part of Amazon.com and the Dr. Seuss estate. Nor will I be arguing that there aren’t societal and moral problems that these decisions illustrate. Now, here’s what my argument will be. Whatever the moral problems these decisions exemplify, attributing them to “cancel culture” is a misdiagnosis. The problem isn’t cancel culture, but balkanization, and it is not a problem of illiberal trends threatening liberal values, but some liberal values (free speech and association) threatening another (toleration).
The Problem Isn’t Cancelling, but Balkanization
Let’s look first at Amazon’s decision not to sell When Harry Became Sally (henceforth WHBS), a book that caught heat for allegedly being anti-trans. First, we should note that no one (well, maybe some people at Amazon) know(s) the reason why Amazon removed this book from its platform, yet everyone – especially conservatives – act as if they do. The reason I mention this is that a search for the book on Amazon.com takes you to books like Deborah Soh’s The End of Gender and Ben Shapiro’s Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings that seem to make similarly “trans critical” points, as WHBS. We can assume that Amazon pulled the latter as a way to censor purportedly anti-trans ideas, but why then link a search for WHBS to books making similar arguments? My guess is that the book was removed because, in a way similar to Target’s temporary cancellation of the book Irreversible Damage, Amazon received some feedback from customers or activist groups that led them to think pulling WHBS would do better for PR and maybe sales than retaining it on their shelves. But, I digress.
The point I want to make is that anyone concerned that Amazon’s redaction of WHBS can easily disabuse their thoughts by doing the experiment I did. Use whatever search engine you’d like and quickly search for the title of the book. Now, follow the links on the first two pages of results, and if your results are like mine, you will find at least five places – including the publisher’s own website – where you can purchase the book.
Here’s the point: the book was not cancelled except by a single vendor. That vendor is disproportionately large, and maybe the book risks being cancelled by other vendors. But as it stands, the book is readily available for anyone who wants it. And this is the reality of how cancel culture goes. In the internet age, being cancelled by one platform or medium doesn’t mean you are done. Far from it! It means that, while some platforms are now closed to you, you almost certainly have others at your disposal, as well as an audience eager to lap up your “I was cancelled too!” story and merch.
Am I saying that there is nothing to see here, folks? No. But, if cancelling isn’t the problem, what is? In my view, it is best framed as a problem of balkanization that results from a pervasive “us versus them” cultural mentality. The trend seems to be this: An outlet hosts a particular content creator, and for whatever reason decides that content creator’s views are problematic; so problematic that their mere presence on the media platform risks PR nightmares and may trigger other platform users. From there, the content creator finds – and they always seem to find – other platforms that are willing to host that type of content. When enough platforms do so, this unrelenting sorting process ensures that platforms will only carry a homogeneous roster of viewpoints acceptable to the moral purity standards of its audience.
The problem wasn’t that Amazon was in any way able to “cancel” WHBS. The problem is that if decisions like Amazon’s become the norm, different books reflecting different views and tastes will only be available at certain booksellers dedicated only placating a certain sort of person. There will be conservative publishers and booksellers, liberal ones, progressive ones, and never the twain shall meet. The “cancelled” will still likely be able to produce and distribute content, but platforms will become increasingly balkanized. You’ll likely still be able to purchase WHBS, but you will no longer allegedly have the right to be able to purchase it from any bookseller of your choosing (a right you never had anyway).
To sum up, the internet age makes it hard to truly cancel anyone in the way conservatives and Intellectual Dark Webby types imagine. The internet doesn’t afford any media outlet that type of unilateral power. But while the internet makes cancelling hard, it makes sorting, blocking, carving new niches, and balkanizing very easy. And these, rather than cancelling, are the real problem.
Combatting Cancel Culture Can Only Be Done at Cost to Liberal Values
Now, let’s look at the case of the six “cancelled” Dr. Seuss books. The story is that after listening to and entertaining “feedback from our audiences including teachers, academics, and specialists in the field” (what field is never specified), Dr. Seuss’s estate decided that there were enough offensive images in six Dr. Seuss books to warrant their discontinuation.
Nothing about this process easily strikes me as illiberal. The estate that owns the Dr. Seuss copyrights exercised it prerogative to do market research, on the basis of which they decided to discontinue publication of six Dr. Seuss books. For what it’s worth, I think the better move would have been to continue publishing the books but have a skilled (and credited) illustrator draw new images to replace the ones deemed offensive. But neither the decision to de-publish, nor the process that led to the decision, strike me as illiberal.
One could say that while the decision and process wasn’t illiberal, the illiberalism comes from the sensibilities that led to de-publishing of works solely because the images were deemed offensive. Invoking the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, a liberal attitude is one that would permit and tolerate the publication of even the most noxious ideas in the name of liberty. I believe in this too, as a legal principle. But it is very hard to argue that an estate deciding, based on their own market research, to de-publish some of its titles is akin to not allowing or tolerating the flow of ideas. (Who are the illiberal players here? Those who participated in the market research and gave their advice using their liberal free speech rights? The estate who made a business decision they have every right to make given their liberal property rights?) It may seem like this is an example of illiberal attitudes choking the liberal flow of ideas. But just as easily, it can be recast as an example of people exercising their liberal values of free speech and conscience (voicing concern over the books), and free association (the estate refusing to publish the books) against forces that would seek to limit how those liberal rights can be used. And I defy anyone to find a way, using liberal language, to explain how we have a right to make Amazon sell WHBS or make the Dr. Seuss estate publish what it has no interest in publishing.
Am I worried by the spate of decisions to de-platform content creators for perceived moral infractions? Yes, but given my first argument above, I am not as dismayed as some, because I do not think that we can really say that anyone is being monopolistically cancelled. My concern is where all of this likely leads: to an increasingly balkanized society. But as troubling as such balkanization is, it can be the result of perfectly liberal uses of perfectly liberal rights of free speech and association. My guess is that stemming those tides can only be done by limiting those rights in a very illiberal way. And as a liberal, that possibility is more concerning than what we call (and misdiagnose as) cancel culture.