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.