A short essay about Ben Burgis’s latest book
Ben Burgis’s latest book is a therapeutic experience for those who have experienced online public shaming. It is also a courageous book taking on the dysfunctions of the left; pathologies that Burgis calls “diseases of the powerless”.
The book has eight chapters and two essays where the author tries to introduce us into the most important sources of conflict that currently lead to cancellation: comedians’ more or less inspired jokes, the trans debates, accommodating each and every one with a disability at the Democratic Socialist Convention, the Tankies, the Anarchists and so on.
Throughout, Ben Burgis describes the devious ways cancel culture functions and how it can unleash tremendous amounts of hate and vitriol from the very people that claim tolerance and empathy even for serial killers. Because what we usually call “the left” has built a reputation of being a political theory that aims at understanding and changing the systemic causes of social evils. The left explains social dynamics in terms of clashing interests of the classes – i.e. between those who own the means of production and those who have to sell their labour in order to survive. It also explains oppression in terms of systems. People are put in different positions by the social systems, their actions are the result of power dynamics and of the chances they get.
This is one of the most difficult points to understand. The left in general does not emphasize the individual’s choice. For those less familiar with this type of explanation it may seem very counter-intuitive. This is not to say that we don’t have a choice, but that we do not have absolute freedom. We are free to choose from the options that our society provides. And the number of options gets smaller as we descend the social ladder.
So why was it necessary for Ben Burgis to write a book about cancel culture? Why is cancel culture possible in the first place? Since leftist, especially prison abolitionists, are willing to be tolerant, given the reasons mentioned above, to even rapists and serial killers, since those people are also the result of the social circumstances, why is the left so obsessed with cancelling people?
This is a question Ben Burgis tries to answer in chapter 8, “The Genealogy of Left Moralism”. He touches upon this peculiar characteristic of leftist debates where you have people willing to be tolerant of convicted criminals, but find it difficult to accept some of the people who identify as leftist, but on some points may differ from the current orthodoxy. Burgis uses very diverse authors to explain this particular point, the point that I consider the most important of the book. Why is it that the left, which is supposed to be about the systems, falls into the trap of targeting specific individuals as if they were Satan? How is the critical project of the left reduced to a form of moralizing that, as indeed Nietzsche would argue, to a great extent resembles Christian morality? Ben Burgis identifies two main sources for the current situation. The first is the social structure of today’s left. Unfortunately, it is a mainly activist intellectual left that is more prone to narcissism and quarrels over minor disagreements. The second reason has to do with the fact that the left was for too long unable to exercise political power. Burgis calls this “the diseases of the powerless”, referring to the fact that cancel quarrels and endless online debates are related to the fact that for too long the left was irrelevant politically.
While I completely agree with the first diagnosis, I am more reluctant to accept his second as explaining today’s decay of the left in endless online quarrels over someone truly belonging to “the authentic left” if they said X or Y more than twenty years ago.
There is no mention here of the fact that most cancellations have to do with what I would call sexual wars. You see more leftists tearing each other apart starting from questions such as, ‘are trans women supposed to compete in women’s sports?’ or ‘is prostitution just sex work ?’ than you would find them even debating questions such as democratizing the work space, taxing corporations or slashing competition. I haven’t seen the kind of passion you see in the trans wars paralleled in questions on how we are going to really move beyond capitalism if all we do is replace the agents made to compete in a market from capitalist enterprises to workers cooperatives. What is the main characteristic of capitalism, if not the competitive production of profit, and if so, it is competition that we should go after if we aim to reach the core of the capitalist organization of the economy. I haven’t seen one leftist cancelled over economy, but when it comes to sex… Well, Julie Bindel, a lifelong feminist whose career started when she defended a women that killed her husband in self-defense managing to save her from prison and changing the law, is now one of the most cancelled feminists! Julianne Moore, a longtime collaborator of the Guardian, Sheilla Jeffreys, a famous researcher and academic from Australia, not to mention the queens of cancelling campaigns Meghan Murphy, J.K. Rowling and Kellie Jay-Keen and many other women that who call themselves “gender critical” are vilified on social media. Because even more than sex wars, the transgender wars fuel scandals where one post can trigger hundreds of comments raging for days on end.
This is not, in my opinion, a symptom of the disease of the powerless. On the contrary. It is a symptom of privileged people wanting to weaponize their identities to harm others. It resembles hazing and ostracizing performed by religious groups. Because, unfortunately, the left itself runs the risk of being very close to a religious sect. You don’t see a lot of working people trying to cancel some business owner that just imposed a more draconic way of measuring toilet breaks. And even if they did, this is truly a place where cancel culture shows its limits. Because you can target individuals and really humiliate and hurt them, make them lose their jobs, but not really change anything in terms of workers’ exploitation.
But you see tremendous mobilization to ban someone like Julie Bindel from speaking at an event. And, of course, here the next line of the cancelling crowd would be: you are a class reductionist, you reduce all forms of oppression to economic oppression. Which is, pointless to say, a caricature of what I said. The fact that more cancelling is done for reasons that have nothing to do with the economy does not make me a class reductionist. It makes those claiming that obsessed with competing identities and absolute truths.
The only point that would make me accept at least partially Ben Burgis’s diagnosis of cancel culture being a disease of the powerless is the fact that indeed, for too long the forces standing against us like corporatism, state power and surveillance agencies, militarism, conservatism, imperialism were so overwhelming that it was hard to get to them. So, instead of going into the arena and fighting with “the dinosaurs” leftists preferred labeling and creating safe bubbles. There is a lot of frustration and, as a result, it is easier to hurt a fellow comrade, because at least she cares and you can get to her. You can exercise your power on the ones that are not beyond your reach. But it should be noted that most cancelling takes place on identitarian grounds and that should tell us something about the themes really preoccupying today’s leftist intellectuals.
Ben Burgis agues time and again in his book that cancelling is not even effective. This is an observation that can be used in a perverse way. The cancelling crowd can claim that nothing really happened after the online hazing, trashing and public humiliation. The victims still have careers and they still live. And, of course, since the cancelling ritual takes place online, you could just disconnect and go for a walk. Here Burgis argues that this alleged lack of efficiency needs to be further analyzed. First, because it deters people from the left, and it makes the movement look pathetic. And second, in terms of being “just online” he argues that we spend quite a while online, especially due to the pandemic.
But I think here the author fails to see the real reason why the argument that it is “just online” is not enough to embark on the mission of vilifying persons online. For it is not the time per se we spend online but the fact that social media are public spaces that makes online shaming so damaging. A social media platform is a mediated public space. As Jürgen Habermas pointed out while writing a history of the public sphere there are several stages and types of public spheres. There was the Athenian “direct” public sphere, the feudal “representative” public sphere, the King’s court type of public sphere, then the literary salons, and, finally, the press as the public sphere. Social media, as a form of mediated but still public sphere, is like a public arena. And it is one thing to be trashed in a private space, but being trashed in public makes it a million times more difficult to bear. And this is why I think Ben Burgis’s argument that we spend time online and this is why cancelling on the Internet shouldn’t count misses the true reason why so many people have denounced this cancel culture of the left.
“Cancelling comedians while the world burns” is what a debate on the left should look like. But I think another problem with it is the fact that it tries to offer solutions. I find the chapter called “Tankies are wreckers” especially controversial. Tankies is a term used to describe those who do not distance themselves from the Soviet Union and former socialist countries but try to defend the Soviet experiment instead. While I fully agree that we have to have a balanced and critical approach towards all forms of power past and present, calling those who try to defend the Soviet experiment tankies or wreckers risks falling into the same trap – name calling and denouncing an entire group as a result of their opinion.
One of the most important aspects to cancel culture that is insufficiently explored is not the theme of the discussion per se, because it may be transgender issues, the Soviet Union or anarchy. The problem is the structure of the debate.
There are “diseases of schematic thinking” at work when cancelling starts to take place. Nathalie Wynn described some of the most important elements of this type of group thinking. The first one is essentializing. While, for example, transgender activists claim that gender critical feminists are essentializing women, defining them in strict relation to their biology, they tend to essentialize themselves as a whole group of people. And, if someone makes a remark or has made a remark decades ago everything about that person is reduced to that. The next characteristic, that is emphasized also by Ben Burgis, is the fact that it is “transitive”. It applies to those who fail to distance themselves from the victim.
This is truly important and worth going further with. I would add to those characteristics a few other structural aspects that characterize cancellation dialogues.
First of all, there are answers to everything. All cancellations start from a position of absolute truth: those who embark on this holy mission have absolute faith in their beliefs and they act as crusaders defending the sacred values.
Second, there’s no way out. Once you have made the wrong comment, or reacted the wrong way, you’re finished. The Polish leftist party Razem fired one of its parliamentary councilors because of a like that person gave to a controversial post years ago! The Internet never forgets and neither do the cancellation mobs. There is nothing you could say or do to escape it. I have countless examples of absurd dialogues that follow this structure.
Third, failing to see your mistake is proof of your “sin”. If you fail to see how certain remarks are sexist/racist/etc then this is the very proof that you are indeed sexist and racist. It is not my habit to offer personal examples, but, after quarreling with my family and labeling them obtuse conservatives my husband said something very important to me: “You know, you were not born a Marxist. How many years of reading and thinking did it take you to reach where you are intellectually? You want them to understand all of that in a twenty minute discussion?” The most important elements in a debate are patience and empathy. If it takes only one line to look at the person in front of you as if they were Satan, that should tell us something about the intellectual reflexes that we have allowed ourselves to be the slaves of.
The fourth element in the structure of the cancelling algorithm is the most controversial one. It has to do with an absolutely legitimate position that, unfortunately, can be used in very detrimental ways. The position I am referring to is that we should give a voice to those who were oppressed and let women discuss sexism, let people of color discuss racism, and so on. While I think this is indeed something to be cherished, in a competitive intellectual environment like the one we live in the idea of being inclusive and offering everyone a place at the table, such a generous principle has been turned on its head. It has led to absurd arithmetic where you have to count how many women, how many people of color, how many members of the LGBT community you have invited. The neoliberals simply love this. Because you may have a round table where everybody is for austerity and privatization, but they are incredibly diverse from an identitarian point of view. Glenn Greenwald wrote an extensive piece showing how capitalism can colonize diversity and play the progressive card when even the CIA and corporations drape their buildings in rainbow flags. From a logical point of view, you risk committing yourself to faulty reasoning if you agree or disagree with someone on the basis of their identity. And, apart from that, there is another important risk here. Ben Burgis says it perfectly: “It can be fun for anyone to throw stones, and this includes people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds weaponizing their “lived experience” to give them standing in cancellation games with comrades from PMC [professional managerial class] backgrounds” (Burgis 2021, 98)
One of the most hurtful trashings I’ve been the victim of involved members of a minority who indeed weaponized their identities and their “lived experiences” to attack and smear me. While I completely agree that members of minority groups, women and victims of oppression should be the ones discussing their experiences, that should not encourage us to exclude everyone else from the debate. One of the most interesting talks I’ve heard on cancel culture was an old white male who said there is no such thing to a young woman of color claiming that this phenomenon is highly detrimental!
And I would go as far as to say that just as we demand men not to attend panels where there are no women, the members of oppressed communities should refuse to attend meetings where there is no plurality of opinions! Oppressed groups should not take the poisonous apple offered to them by state institutions such as intelligence agencies or corporations. They should refuse to participate in a debate where the identity of the worker is not represented. Because in the final aftermath, solidarity is the only way we can topple capitalism, and while neoliberalism does a great job integrating identities into its scheme, it cannot integrate the worker’s identities since that would have serious financial implications.
The last element I want to analyze here is the fact that Ben Burgis, along with the vast majority of the left, completely ignores the geopolitical game and its impact. I consider one of the saddest characteristics of today’s debates on the left is the willingness to go along with the imperialist narrative; not only regarding past regimes, as in the case of the so-called tankies and the Soviet Union. What I find deeply problematic is the complete obedience of some of the most prominent leftists, such as the hosts of the popular YouTube show The Young Turks, in accepting what the US government is telling them about Russia, Venezuela, Turkey and Afghanistan. One of the most brutal ways today’s capitalism is imposing its force on the world is the endless wars and sanctions targeted at diverse countries. The US is able to conduct subtle regime changes by sanctioning important members of those close to an inconvenient political leader, order investigations on those it feels might threaten its business interests and the left is not fighting the mainstream narrative regarding these actions. And this is not an “organic” result. It is not like these things evolved without the help of government agencies. One of the most important objectives of the CIA in the sixties was to divorce the intellectual left from two elements: the working class and the Soviet Union. The war against capitalism was probably already lost when this separation was finally achieved.
Speaking from personal experience, I know how pervasive and perverse the propaganda against communism can be. The communist propaganda was stupid and infantile while the capitalist propaganda was a formidable tool. It made me and my fellow Romanian citizens think less of ourselves. It made us feel inferior in every possible way to the mighty West. The United States was in our imagination the Promised Land. For most of my fellow citizens it still is. When arriving in the United States and having someone begging me for money I instantaneously responded: “Sir, we are from Eastern Europe, and we are very poor!” That person was truly shocked and said: “Ma’am, you can’t be serious! You’re not poor! I’m poor!” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a wonderful talk about the danger of the single story and how detrimental it can be to identify yourself through only one characteristic. But that was part of the CIA’s plan to destroy us mentally and, unfortunately, it succeeded! And it still succeeded in making us ashamed of our socialist legacy while in fact parts of that heritage, public education and public health, may be the only things keeping us now from falling apart.
So it may be that tankies are not wreckers after all! I think that along with the members of minority groups refusing the poisonous apple offered to them by those in power, another important step forward would be to uncover the CIA’s plans to destroy the left and also to recover the most important positive elements that characterized our socialist experience. If we continue to play along the lines dictated to us by the imperial power and play bedroom politics fighting about sex all day long (sometimes even into the night, unfortunately) we are not going to be able to really challenge today’s political and economic power.
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Maria Cernat is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences (FJSC) (2001) and the Faculty of Philosophy (2004) at the University of Bucharest. She obtained an MA from FJSC in 2002 and in 2008 she got her PhD in Philosophy. She is currently a PhD Lecturer in the Department for Communication and Public Relations at Titu Maiorescu University and at the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations, SNSPA. Since 2011 she has published articles on Romanian websites for political debates (CriticAtac, Cealaltă Agendă, România Curată, Gazeta de Artă Politică, etc.).