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January 28th, 2022
Cancel culture is cyclical. It ain’t new at all. But luckily, the most recent incarnation of it is quite feeble in comparison to some of the old instances. This might seem strange, until it’s pointed out that things like the Holocaust, and the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials were instances of Cancel Culture.
When a foreign enemy enters the body, the dazzlingly complex immune system has a rather intense set of checks and balances to ensure it doesn’t harm the body by accident. It harms the body any way, particularly with inflammation, but in this sense the poison is really in the dose. Initial inflammation is an immune response designed to lazily swing at an enemy. Good healthy tissue gets hit in the process, but as long as inflammation isn’t chronic, this really isn’t big deal, because the body has time to repair the damage it’s done to itself.
Autoimmune diseases occur when the checks on the immune system are flawed or broken and the immune system keeps mistaking healthy tissues for enemies: the body attacks itself.
As a culture, we do the same. We are always attempting to self-regulate, just like the biological systems of the body. But in the hunt for one or a couple of genuinely bad actors we will then go into a tribal mode and start labelling anyone as enemies who has any kind of similarity to the bad actor, regardless of whether the similarities are meaningful or not when it comes to what makes someone a genuinely bad actor.
Normally the law takes care of this job. The law (for the most part) doesn’t get tribally oriented in the way a mass of people can. The law won’t start labelling everyone who has a harmless attribute as guilty. That is, unless culture infects the law and truly alters its own system as can be easily seen in past incarnations of cancel culture. German law was changed to systematically discriminate against people based on truly arbitrary metrics. The Spanish Inquisition was no different except that there was even less separations between law and culture, making the process more fluid, making the body of people at that time less protected from itself.
Our most recent instance of Cancel Culture seems to be waning, luckily. The fickle tenants of this instance of cancel culture certainly wiggled its way into some institutions like companies - think of the petition by Apple Employees. But luckily it never made its way into the deepest institution which controls violence: the law. When that happens, well, we’ve seen that before, and it’s not pretty.
This connection with the immune system is of course just an analogy. We might wonder if we are permanently plagued with a cultural autoimmunity and whether the cyclical nature of cancel culture is punctuated by remission, or if it’s possible for culture to cure itself. As much grief as people justifiably give social media, it has been the vehicle of the latest flare up of cancel culture, and perhaps this most recent stint has been far tamer and more manageable because it’s been cloistered in this technological ghost trap. Who’s to say. Perhaps this instance is also somehow more visible, and hopefully because of that we can have a sharper memory for it the next time it flares up.