Tag: wokeness

katharsis culture

A great many people have criticized the use of the term “cancel culture,” but have done so for different reasons. One group of people simply wants to deny that cancellation is a widespread phenomenon; others are aware that something is going on but don’t think that “cancellation” is the right way to describe it. I myself don’t have a problem with the use of the phrase, but I think there are more accurate ways of describing the very real phenomenon to which that phrase points. I think the two key concepts for understanding what is happening are katharsis and broken-windows policing.

In an essay that I published a few years ago, I talked about the prevalence among those committed to social justice, especially on our university campuses, of a sense of defilement. The very presence in one’s social world of people who hold fundamentally wrong ideas about race and justice is felt as a stain that must somehow be scrubbed away. As long as such people are present, one experiences akatharsia: impurity, defilement. The filth must be cleansed, the community must be purged. (I’m choosing the spelling “katharsis” rather than “catharsis” to focus on this archaic meaning.)

This kind of thing is sometimes referred to as scapegoating, but it isn’t, not at all. Essential to scapegoating is the belief that the unclean social order can be made clean by casting out or sacrificing something that is itself pure and undefiled. In the cases I am discussing here, the logic is more straightforward: the one who is perceived to bring the defilement must himself or herself be expelled. Scapegoat rituals have a complex symbolism. Katharsis culture doesn’t.

Now, such katharsis may be accomplished in several ways. Sometimes it involves actions for which the term “cancellation” is the best one: an announced lecture is canceled and the lecturer disinvited, or a television program that had been scheduled is canceled. But katharsis takes many other forms. For instance, James Bennet had to be fired from the New York Times because by authorizing an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton in the newspaper he had defiled its pages. The op-ed itself could not be erased, so, through a compensatory kathartic action, Bennet had to be removed.

Our society has largely forgotten the symbolism of defilement and purgation, so we don’t know how to call it by its proper name. When people feel that they have been defiled, what they say is that they feel unsafe. Everyone knows that such people are not in any meaningful sense unsafe; it is a singularly inapt word; but people use it because living in a publicly disenchanted world has deprived them of the more accurate language.

All this explains why Ben Dreyfuss’s preference for the language of “snitching” is not especially helpful. But that word does capture something relevant, which is the way that katharsis culture always involves appeals to authority: rarely do we see attempts at direct action against the sources of defilement — which is good, because that would require the more drastic and clearly illegal actions we saw on January 6 in Washington D.C. Rather, the existing authorities are asked to assume a sacral role and to enact the necessary purging. This return of archaic religious impulse, then, serves to reinforce existing power structures rather than to undermine them, which is why so many leaders accede to the demands of the mob: it’s good for their authority, it establishes them more firmly in place. And also, like George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant,” they are being driven by the mob which they may seem to be leading, and in the eyes of that mob they can’t bear looking like fools. Thus they are doubly incentivized to carry out the sacral duties of their leadership position.

But there is another element to this behavior that likewise could be described in religious terms but might be more easily graspable if a more mundane analogy is invoked. Those who demand the expulsion from their community, whatever they perceive their community to be, of the producers of defilement do not just address their acts to the presently guilty: they seek to address all of us as well. The message is: Our vigilance is constant and you cannot hope to escape our surveillance. No matter how small or insignificant you are, we will find you and we will punish you. This ceaseless surveillance of public space by self-appointed cops, then, is a kind of broken-windows policing. It’s a way of letting everybody know that the space is watched, the spaces cared for. If trivial offenses are so strictly punished, more serious violators have no hope of escaping undetected.

In this sense, the hyperaggressive and absolutist pursuit of purging the unclean thing – no one ever thinks it adequate for people like James Bennet to be to apologize or to take a leave of absence or even to undergo anti-bias training, they’re always given the ultimate punishment possible – is meant less for the offender of the moment then for all the bystanders: thus Voltaire’s famous line about the British Navy hanging admirals pour encourager les autres. You can see, then, that what I’m calling katharsis culture has a double character, the sacral and the disciplinary. We are all invited to look upon the holy rite — to look, and to tremble.

“the corporate monster is always the corporate monster”

That’s the basic idea, that power is power always and that it’s exceedingly unwise to presume that power stops being power when you want to access it. So take student protesters. When they go begging to the campus administration to solve their problems, they are forgetting that power is always power. It happens that the peculiar financial dynamics of elite universities means that administrators will often side with students. But that should only make students more suspicious and less likely to supplicate before the administrators; they are most certainly not doing what students want out of an authentic endorsement of the principles the students fight for. When Screaming Woke Twitter asks Twitter, the huge evil Silicon Valley corporation, to censor someone, they are forgetting that the corporate monster is always the corporate monster. Sure, they might give you what you think you want in the short term. But you’re writing a check, and they will cash it.

It should go without saying: running to someone else’s boss to get them fired means that you’re validating and endorsing the power of bosses. You don’t get to pick and choose. You believe in the boss having arbitrary power over people or you don’t. That’s it.

Freddie deBoer. Cf. this recent post of mine that I still need to revisit and correct.

working the refs

Last Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of the first game of the NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, there was much online huffing and puffing about whether the game’s referees had failed to call fouls against the Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul.

But something important was overlooked in said huffing and puffing: the fact that, whether Harden and Paul were fouled or not, they were desperately trying to get fouls called against their opponents. And that makes the last few seconds of that game a kind of parable of our cultural moment.

It’s possible that the Warriors’ Draymond Green grazed James Harden as Harden came to earth after shooting — after, that is, missing a shot quite badly, possibly because he was thinking less about making the shot than about getting the ref to believe that Green had fouled him, which he did by falling, completely unnecessarily, to the ground. The ball ended up in Chris Paul’s hands, and Paul charged into the Warriors’ Klay Thompson while flailing his arms wildly, determined to force a call. (He did not get the call, and in his rage shouldered the referee, which has earned him a fine.)

This kind of thing has, of course, long been the bane of soccer: players who might have a legitimate chance to score a goal, or at least got off a shot on goal, fling themselves to the ground and roll about in feigned agony hoping that they will get a penalty called or a yellow card assigned to the opponent.

I have come to believe that this is what almost all of our culture is about now: working the refs. Trying to get the refs, whoever the refs might be in any given instance, to make calls in our favor — to rule against our enemies and for us, and therefore justify us before the whole world.

What are students doing when they try to get speakers disinvited from their campus? Or when Twitter users try to get other Twitter users banned from the platform? Or when people try to get executives or members of some board of directors fired from their jobs? In each case, it’s an appeal to the refs. These people are not trying to persuade through reasoned argument or to attract public opinion to their side through the charm of their personality. They’re demanding that the designated arbitrators arbitrate in their favor. (Sometimes, as in the case of the college admissions, scandal, they just bribe the refs.)

And it’s easy to see why people would think this way: If I assume the point of view underlying this habit, it means that nothing that goes wrong is ever my fault. If anything that I want to go my way doesn’t go my way, it’s because the referees didn’t make the right call. It’s never because I made any dumb mistakes, or indeed had any shortcomings of any kind. Things didn’t go my way because, whether through incompetence or bias, the refs suck. I would’ve won if it hadn’t been for the stupid refs.

I think this is a particularly attractive strategy in our current moment, especially on social media. As I wrote a couple of years ago,

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

Call-out culture has many, many mechanisms of enforcement but none of forgiveness or restoration. A culture that knows only how to punish creates an environment in which, as Freddie deBoer has said, “everyone’s a cop”; but it simultaneously creates disincentives for people to admit they they might themselves need policing. Because who wants to apply the single-sanction one-strike-and-you’re-out criterion to themselves?

These reflections might help to explain a phenomenon that Michael Lewis describes on his new podcast “Against the Rules”: that the NBA is dealing with unprecedented levels of complaint about its officials at the moment when the league gives those very officials unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and unprecedented levels of training, and unprecedented opportunities to review and correct bad calls.

If refs are doing their job better than ever and simultaneously catching more grief for their errors, that just might be a result of our expecting more of them than is reasonable. In the NBA, and also in society at large, we do better when we try to solve problems ourselves rather than try to manipulate the refs into solving them all for us. I hope the Rockets get swept by the Warriors. (And that the Warriors swept in the next round, because their moaning and bitching are almost as bad.)

UPDATE: I realized something right after I posted this — that’s always how it happens, isn’t it? — which is that by circling back to the NBA at the end of the post I elided a major distinction: The NBA refs may be “doing their job better than ever,” but that doesn’t mean that the same can be said for all our society’s referees. Indeed, many of them are doing a very bad job indeed. More on that in another post. (This is also what I get for writing a short post about an issue that needs to be treated at length.)

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them. 

Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.”