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The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture

The modern scapegoat performs an equivalent function, uniting otherwise squabbling groups in enmity against a supposed transgressor who relieves the condemners of the burden of wrestling with their own wrongs. What is lost, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues in “A Secular Age” (2007), is the ambivalent, numinous duality of the sacrificial victim. (“Pharmakos” comes from “pharmakon,” which is both itself and its opposite: medicine and poison at once, healer and killer.) No longer is it acknowledged, however tacitly or subconsciously, that the scapegoat, whether guilty or not of a particular offense, is ultimately a mere stand-in for the true culprits responsible for a society gone askew (ourselves and the system we’re complicit in). Instead, the scapegoat is demonized, forced to bear and incarnate everyone’s guilt, on top of their own.

These expulsions are necessarily public, which is something of a historical regression: When the colonial theocracy of 17th-century America gave way to the Enlightenment and democracy, penalties as spectacle — whippings, arms and legs trapped in stockades and pillories, Hester Prynne’s scarlet A — fell out of fashion and, as the British journalist Jon Ronson notes in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” (2015), were largely abandoned as a government-mandated punishment, although they continued in extrajudicial form in the lynchings of Black people, from Reconstruction through the 1960s. In keeping with the American ideal of self-reliance, citizens were expected to be attuned to their own sense of guilt. The 20th-century American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, writing about cultural differences between Japan and the West, distinguished guilt as a legacy of Judaism and Christianity, suffering from the internal knowledge of having failed to live “up to one’s own picture of oneself,” versus shame as the fear of external criticism and ridicule. Guilt guides conduct even in the absence of social sanctions, when nobody knows you’ve done anything wrong; shame “requires an audience,” a social network, to force you to change.

But guilt still derives from communally agreed-upon standards, be they manifest as religion, ideology, a legal code or just the rudimentary ethics without which no group can survive. The increasing atomization of American society in the 21st century has brought an unmooring from such consensus. As standards have shifted, some have grasped for stone only to find a handful of dust. If you can’t trust others to follow their conscience or even have one, and you’ve lost faith in the ability or desire of institutions to uphold what is good — if you no longer believe that we live in a city upon a hill, that our society is just or even aspires to be — there may be no recourse (short of revolution) but to scold and menace, like modern-day Puritans. The act of shaming draws a neat line between good and bad, us and them. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the etymology of “cancel” leads to the Latin “cancelli,” derived from “cancri”/“cancer,” a lattice or grid of crossed bars: a barrier, in other words, linked by dissimilation to “carcer” (prison), and in its early adaptation to English taken literally, as a crossing out, lines drawn through words on paper.

THE SHEER ARBITRARINESS of some of the targets of cancel culture — singled out among many who might have committed comparable sins, often neither public figures nor possessors of institutional power but utterly ordinary people before their swift, simultaneous elevation-degradation to infamy — lends a ritualistic distance to the attacks, enabling a casual cruelty, as in the American writer Shirley Jackson’s infamous short story “The Lottery” (1948), when the villagers qualmlessly turn on one of their randomly selected own. The French philosopher René Girard, in “Violence and the Sacred” (1979), notes that “the very fact of choosing a victim bestows on him the aura of exteriority … the surrogate victim is not perceived as he really was — namely, as a member of the community like all the others.” To justify vindictiveness, you can’t recognize yourself in those you denounce; you have to believe, as Taylor writes, that they “really deserve it.”

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