The act of “canceling” people is as old as civilization itself.
Sometimes we canceled people via exile. Sometimes it was through removing their heads from their bodies. But the reasoning was always the same:
You did something that badly compromises our community’s shared values, so you gotta go.
Before humans started divvying up the hunting versus the gathering, we already had the basics of a limited social contract. It went something like this:
“What’s up, fellow hominid? Here’s my offer: in honor of the fact that you look vaguely similar to me, I won’t kill you when you turn your back. In consideration thereof, kindly don’t kill me when I’m not looking, either. Sound good? Kthxbye.”
We didn’t have such agreements with wildebeests, grizzly bears, or people from other tribes. But the ability to at least rely on one’s own brother, father, and cave baby mama to not sneak up and club you to death was a crucial step in the march toward everything else we now call “society.” I don’t care how fertile your crescent is; it’s still going to be hard to cultivate crops if you’re certain to get bludgeoned as soon as you bend down to sow and/or reap.
Incidentally, “I don’t care how fertile your crescent is,” was the first recorded sentence that was followed immediately by “that’s what she said.” It was carved in cuneiform on the back of the Rosetta Stone.
But it’s safe to assume that if your bro ignored the agreement, tried to whack you, and you found out, you and your cave circle would rightly cut him from the team…figuratively or literally. After all, if you can’t trust him with the simple task of “not killing you,” the only remaining options are to banish him or kill him first before he kills you.
And killing him first would almost certainly be the safer, more prudent option. #EXTREMECANCELATION
As humanity has evolved, our social connections have advanced as well. Time lurched forward, the cave circle expanded, and our expectations of one another changed.
The progress wasn’t always smooth, of course. Our mutual expectations have stagnated for centuries at a time, and then changed in fits and starts. Often, they’ve completely inverted in the course of one or two generations.
I Used To Be With It, But Then They Changed What “It” Was
Here’s an example:
In 1958 America, an interracial couple would likely be run out of town—or worse—by an angry mob made up of folks like the local parson, government officials, and the couple’s own families.
Why? “Because we don’t tolerate that crap. It’s just wrong.”
In 2021 America, a person attacking a couple for “race mixing” on social media would risk losing their job, their friends, and their social media access.
Why? “Because we don’t tolerate that crap. It’s just wrong.”
The first example wasn’t from antiquity, it was from 62 years ago. It’s so recent, in fact, that I still talk regularly with two people—my mom and dad—for whom 1958 is a vivid part of their memories.
But while our societal expectations have totally reversed in a generation or so, we’re now holding each other accountable to our new, opposite norms for the exact same old reason: the shared values of our community.
We have always chased people out of town—or worse—for violating the majority’s standards. Our standards are just different and better now.
Given hindsight and the “long arc of the moral universe,” it’s easy to look back on 1958 and see that exiling people for something we now accept, ignore, or celebrate, was wrong.
We’re not perfect now, but we’re thankfully a lot closer to it than when we started.
Don’t misunderstand: I have no doubt we’ll continue to make plenty of detours and backslides along the way, just as we always have. It’s nonetheless hard to imagine a scenario where our standards will ever flip all the way back to those of 1958.
That long arc indeed bends toward justice. As such, our society’s expectations of one another will continue their march toward an even greater celebration of–and insistence upon–inclusivity, diversity, and equality.
Note: If you’d like to learn more on this subject, see “all of human history.” You’ll quickly gather that, with short and thankfully temporary exceptions, forward is the only direction our species marches.
Which brings me to my point: why are conservatives so outraged by “canceling” if it’s always been a part of how human society works?
Is it because conservatives are intellectually (and generally) dishonest?
Could it be because they desire to bend the arc away from justice?
Is it due to their status as unmitigated assholes of the first order?
What? That’s only 770 words? Felt like at least 1500. Are you sure? Okay, I’ll continue explaining, jeez. This is a free article, you know.
Say What You Will (If You’re Ready For The Consequences)
Free speech is of such value in the United States that we enshrined it as the very first amendment to the Constitution. Little known fact: that’s why we call it the First Amendment. A lot of people don’t know that.
And just like the rest of the Constitution, we completely take it for granted and misunderstand the shit out of it.
We use it as a cudgel, think it only applies to white people (and until 1868, that was unfortunately correct), and generally have zero idea what the fuck we’re talking about in re: this or any other matter. We don’t take too kindly to book learnin’ ‘round these here parts.
It’s often said by nerds that “freedom of speech” doesn’t mean “freedom from consequences of that speech.”
Put differently, Congress may not be able to make laws broadly limiting your freedom of speech, but my company can probably fire you for calling your coworker a racial epithet.
Being a racist cousin-fucker won’t, in and of itself, get you arrested and sent to Leavenworth. It’s completely legal to say most shitty things, and in many states, to fuck your cousin. Thanks, First Amendment! (For the “saying shitty things” part, I mean. The First Amendment is largely silent on cousin-fucking).
But running your idiotic mouth, free as you are to do so, might get you fired, boycotted, ignored, hated, or voted out of office. And all of those predictable consequences are legal, too.
The Framers understood: we don’t have to restrict your speech, because society has a longstanding interest in checking the people who stray from the furtherance of our collective good. It’s better to leave the government out of it in most cases, because society’s norms are subjective and ever changing.
If we’ve all decided (formally or informally) that our society values inclusion, equality, diversity, acceptance, and love, and you say “fuck all that, imma be a backwards asshole anyway!” we can’t send you to jail over it. Nor should we.
But it’s completely reasonable for society to marginalize you. You are inhibiting our ability to work toward our stated goal. And the mere threat of marginalization amongst a social species like ours is enough to hem in a lot of nonsense. We know that instinctively, and we’re very at ease using it.
Still, it’s a free country. You don’t have to be on board with the rest of us. Disagree with the moral zeitgeist? No problem at all. Your options are (1) conform to our standards while working hard to “conserve” the former status quo against the will of the majority, (2) adapt for the greater good or (3) get the fuck out of the way, which is also for the greater good.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those options.
But wait. That sounds a little heavy handed, doesn’t it? I mean, doesn’t that seem like an ineffective, even dangerous zero-sum game?
Fair point. Which is why our founders also worried about “tyranny of the majority.” We wouldn’t want 50%+1 to run roughshod over 49.999% of the population, because allowing that to happen has a history of unfortunate and bloody consequences.
As such, they installed a governmental scheme that guarantees the political minority would be able to force the elected majority to either be a huge one or a flexible one. The will of the majority has to be overwhelmingly clear, or if not, at least malleable enough to compromise with a sizable minority. If it isn’t one or the other, the minority has built-in means to disrupt society’s progress and force the majority to broaden, soften, or at a minimum, slow down.
But if instead, you choose to stand in the middle of the road and bitch as the vast majority of society barrels forward, you are rightly going to get pushed to the side. If you won’t play along, it’s an evolutionary certainty the rest of us will cancel you in furtherance of our greater good.
Follow The Money As It Runs Away From You
There’s another angle beyond good governance to consider.
As a capitalist society—a status that no conservative would ever let anyone forget—the “free market” sometimes takes the place of our voices.
If a company or its representative says abjectly shitty things, we as a capitalist society can decide it’s in our collective best interest to stop buying that company’s widgets.
If you think people respond to the threat of being marginalized, you should see how quickly profit-focused companies respond. When the Invisible Hand so much as threatens to smack a bad-acting company, that’s often all it takes to change their behaviors.
And you must always remember: it’s against the Republican platform to ever speak ill of the Invisible Hand. Nah, I’m just kidding. The Republicans don’t have a platform.
Lest you think using our collective buying power to punish outliers is somehow unfair, remember that conservatives can do the exact same thing. They have. Many times. They boycott companies they don’t like all the time.
It never really works, of course. Companies don’t listen to vocal-but-tiny segments of the population when the buying power of the majority is vastly larger and at risk. Most of society wants a more inclusive, equitable country, so that’s the direction the big businesses go.
Of course, it also never works because four decades of unchecked consolidation have left the average small town in America with one Walmart and literally nothing else. It’s hard to boycott the only store in town. I mean, I guess you can drive 25 miles to another small town to shop at a different Walmart if you’d like. Maybe pop on a little AM talk radio, catch a call-in discussion on the flawless logic of laissez faire capitalism and low taxes while you drive down some unmaintained back roads. That’ll show ‘em!
When conservative leaders decry the ills of “cancel culture,” it’s code. They’re talking to their base. I’ll translate:
“Contrary to what the mainstream media, sales data, and election results would have you believe, our anachronistic ideas aren’t repellent to the majority of modern society. They’re actually the best ideas, and that’s why the so-called ‘majority’ always tries to silence us.”
Instead of owning the fact that their ideas are awful, or expelling members who act in inexcusable ways, the “party of personal responsibility” blames the rest of society for holding those people accountable. Worse still, they discount the majority’s status and ethos as mere smoke-and-mirrors illusions, foisted upon the real majority by so-called “elites.”
I must say, as an elite, I’m honored that they’d think we’re able to steer society without society’s participation. Probably has something to do with our access to Jewish space lasers, if I had to guess.
The standard to which we hold one other predictably and consistently changes. But it only marches in one direction: forward.
What was normal a few decades ago is now unacceptable to the majority of us. And what was unthinkable a generation ago is now accepted and celebrated. That’s how human history has always worked.
Sometimes the standard winds up completely opposite of when or where you grew up, what your parents taught you, or even what your religion expects of you. That’s hard. I get it.
But in the end, no matter how hard it is, you’ve got those same three options. You can toe the line while you try to convince everyone we’re all wrong. You can adapt and move on like an adult. Or you can be forcibly marginalized as society moves on without you.
That’s not “cancel culture” run amok, friend.
That’s called living in a fucking society.
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