The unmentioned C word.

Right-wingers have been making much ado about so-called “cancel culture.” In this most recent version of their culture wars strategy, they have updated the anti-Political Correctness (PC) narrative to whine about liberals and lefties “canceling” conservative voices via advertiser, store and product boycotts, public shaming, counter-protests and the like. This is seen as a violation of free speech and the right to express opinion, however distasteful or unpopular. Besides the hypocrisy of accusing others of doing exactly what conservative have done to any number of views that they dislike (say, when others use flags and other patriotic symbols in “disrespectful” ways or substitute “traditional” symbology with newer heraldry, “desecrate” religious icons, sit or kneel during national anthems, refuse to address “nobility” by their titles and use vulgarity and obscenities in lyrics), the rightwing conveniently forgets that there is a third unmentioned word that starts with “c” that causes cancel culture censorship: consciousness.

More precisely, it is the lack of consciousness in expression that gets censored, not words by themselves. Words have weight and weight has impact. Words can lead to deeds a consequential result or as a reaction. One must be mindful of this when choosing words in the public space. That is where the concept of consciousness or lack thereof comes in.

In order to explain this better, let me turn to Spanish because the concept of consciousness is much better developed in that language. As an aspiring juvenile delinquent growing up in Argentina I was often admonished to “tener conciencia” of my actions. This is a common phrase that is best translated as “be aware” but which encompasses the past, present and future. One must have consciousness of how past and present actions have consequences for the future of ourselves, those around us and others with degrees of temporal and spatial separation from us. In English, the notion that the shadow of the future hangs (often darkly) over our present decision-making is one way of capturing one aspect of being aware in this “consciousness” sense of the term, but the concept has collective as well as individual dimensions embedded in it.

The basic idea is that one has to be conscious of the consequences of ones words and actions before engaging the public sphere. One cannot just blurt out or do anything that comes to mind without regard to the context and situation in which one is in (this a type of situational awareness not necessarily connected to personal or collective security). To do so is to invite negative consequences if the behaviour is inappropriate for the occasion. Whether it is or is not appropriate is not defined by the person doing the act but by those impacted by it, be it in the past, now, or in the future. For example, waving Rebel flags or hanging a noose at a Black Lives Matter rally evokes painful memories of past injustices carried forward and, given their symbolic history, constitute a present and ongoing implicit threat to non-white communities. Those who choose to wave such symbols may feel that it is nothing more than an expression of pride or resistance to transgressive usurpations of the proper order, but it is not them that define whether the displays are appropriate. Whatever their intention (and in many cases the intention is to deliberately provoke), it is how their actions are perceived and interpreted that matters. Be it a riot or a rear-end whuppin,’ the consequences of their acts are determined by their lack of or disregard for consciousness about the context and effect their acts have on the witnesses to them.

Likewise, expressions deemed appropriate in the past may come to be deemed inappropriate in future circumstances. For example, recently several Dr. Seuss books were pulled from shelves by the contemporary publisher, acting behalf of the author’s estate. The books in question were written as World War Two US propaganda and contained grotesque cartoon racial and ethnic stereotypes of Japanese, Germans, Italians (and even some allies). In the context in which they were written they were deemed appropriate because the objective was to demonise the enemy that was seen to be posing an existential threat to the nation. Japanese and German-American opinions and sensitivities were not considered because they were deemed to be a threat from within. However today such caricatures evoke an unhappy chapter in US history that only serves to perpetuate bigotry and racism, so the author’s family wisely chose to remove them from circulation. in my opinion this helps reaffirm Dr. Seuss’s reputation as a children’s book writer rather than tarnish it by keeping his propaganda work on equal footing. The latter can still be displayed in museums and in historical archives as examples of the extremes to which a nation will go when put under wartime stress, but as with Confederate symbols and nooses, they have no mainstream place in heterogeneous democratic societies based on principles of equality and fair play.

This is the heart of the matter. What liberals and lefties may wish to “cancel” are expressions that lack consciousness, or awareness of how said expressions affect others. The same is true for the Left, which can also lack awareness of the impact of certain forms of discourse and behaviour on others (especially if the intent is non-revolutionary but instead reformist in nature). This is different than performance art and other manipulations of words and symbols for dramatic theatrical effect (say, political satire). Here the (even if unconscious) objective is provocation without consequence. The trouble in this reasoning is that consequence is a given, especially when consciousness is absent at the moment of expression. And since consequences are often negative when consciousness does not obtain, those who decry “cancel culture” may be wise to engage in some self-reflection before they enter the public space in either word or deed.

Truth be told, what right-wingers are essentially doing is complaining about how they do not have impunity when it comes to expression; they cannot just say or do racist, bigoted or otherwise prejudiced things without consequence. Under the cover of freedom of expression, they maintain that they have the “right” to say whatever they want whenever they want without consequence. The trouble for them is that not only is the syllogism underpinning the logic of no-consciousness expression flawed on its merits, but their individual rights do not always, in every instance and context, supersede the collective rights of those around them. In other words, consciousness or lack thereof is a major determinant of the consequences that follow.

Left for another time is discussion about, having failed miserably to improve the material and social conditions of the majority of society when in power, contemporary right-wingers in liberal democracies fall back on culture wars as the first line of defence. That the culture being defend often happens to be racist, xenophobic, misogynist, patriarchal and bigoted does not matter. What matters is to keep up a relentless whinge that diverts liberal-left leaning movements and governments from the real policy issues that need to be confronted in the interest of progress and the common good.

Perhaps we need to “tener conciencia” of that.

7 thoughts on “The unmentioned C word.

  1. Having read this I can’t quite work if you genuinely think this is simply a left/right issue or if such dishonesty is just a cynical stratagem to deflect scrutiny from what’s actually going on. What Glen Loury rightly describes describes as nothing but a power move. Sure there are plenty of examples of the right seeking to simply avoid consequences for something egregious or pretend society hasn’t moved on, but there’s countless examples in academia or the media that are nothing like that.
    Are we really to pretend that Pinker, Rushdie, Attwood, Kenan Malik our very own Comrade Trotter are right wingers (I could make a list as long as you like)? Many of the most high profile victims of ‘cancel culture’ have been people who are by any reasonable measure on the left of politics and ascribe to liberal values.
    As for ‘consciousness’ , it might be more than empty rhetoric if there was any sense that those pushing for much of the cancelling weren’t essentially a mob. They of course claim to be speaking for this or that marginalised group, but it doesn’t take much scrutiny to see they’re doing no such thing.
    If I chose to pick up on something in the blog and arranged for a mob of people to harass you and try to get you canceled, would you accept your own lack of consciousness? Of course not, because it would be nonsense.
    Many people (most of them on the left) have articulated there very real concern about the increasingly culture of intolerance and ideological bullying far better than I ever could, yet we’re still supposed to buy the absurd lie it’s all nothing but a culture war whipped up by the right to silence people finally gaining a voice and hold others to account. That dishonesty does no one any favours.

  2. Andrew:

    That was an odd rejoinder and I caution you against using the label dishonest on me. Keep it civil.

    Certainly in liberal democracies there are authoritarians on the Left as well (many, many more) on the Right, but you seem to be conflating them and people justifiably aggrieved by historical transgressions, injustices and the like. By referring to such people as a mob propelled by empty rhetoric you simply confirm the cynicism of the Right, where incredible as it may seem, virtue-signaling in defence of “tradition” and “traditional values” and “freedom of expression” is the new “woke” mantra of what should be more properly seen as whinging retrograde elitists (now posing as national populists in many instances) who do not like having the power dynamic tables turned on them. The authors you list are not being “cancelled” in the measure the Right claims they are (and you could have added Chris Hitchens to that list), precisely because they were/are conscious of the consequences of what they say and write. They are critiqued, to be sure, but cancelled as a group? C’mon. I will give you an idea of what cancelled is really like in two words: Ward Churchill (look him up).

    Unless you think that various alt-Right provocateurs are legitimate intellectuals, I find it hard to believe that you sincerely think that Right intellectuals are being whole-scale censored or that somehow genuine conservative (or traditional liberal) thought is being “cancelled.” Think of this way: What has been the dominant ideological paradigm of the last four decades? Neoliberalism and its variants. Has that been cancelled? Have property rights and individual freedoms been effectively subordinated to collectivist logics, even in places like NZ? Have proponents of market dominance been censored even if they dabble in national-populist sociopathy? Have the abject failures and structural flaws of the global capitalist system in dealing with the pandemic led to whole-scale calls for economic revolution and end to capitalist control of global commodity chains? Not at all.

    Indeed, if anything the critiques levelled against the Right by Left intellectuals have until recently tended to avoid the central subject of the relationship between capitalist markets and democracy precisely because Right intellectuals have had a corner on it (aided in many instances by deliberate suppression of anti-capitalist theory in academia and policy-making circles). So the structural foundations of Right ideological supremacy remain largely unchallenged, and even the pernicious influence of market-driven logics on societal behaviour have been under-examined in the mainstream. What is being called out (as opposed to “cancelled”) are superstructural or epiphenomenological pathologies–racism, bigotry, misogyny and the purveyors and symbols of hate disguised as champions and symbols of free speech. The democratic Left has very little in the way of moral equivalents to such things.

    Again, many of the (what you might think of as the irresponsible as opposed to responsible) Right want to have unfettered voice without consciousness or consequence. That is not the way things work, and if you speak without consciousness, there will be consequences. Now that power imbalances are slowly being overcome by a multitude of previously disempowered and marginalised people, all the conscious-less Right can do is bitch and moan about the fact that what is happening is simply them being increasingly held to account for their words and deeds. That is no absurd lie.

  3. The Maori language has similar linking of past, present and future in its consciousness.
    Newton also put it rather well in his third law, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
    There are inevitable consequences from which few escape.

  4. Barbara:

    What I was trying to convey is that the backlash or repudiation of retrograde speech, symbols or ideas has less to do with the words in and of themselves and more to do with the lack of consciousness of those who deliver or embrace them. Whether that lack of consciousness is deliberate or inadvertent, the inability or refusal to holistically situate oneself in a given context given the historical and contemporary backdrop is what causes offence. It is not all of the Right that has been called out by so-called “cancel culture.” It is just the conscious-less Right that is being held to account. You may find my reply to Andrew Miller pertinent in this regard.

  5. Great replies x2 Pablo, complemented the original post.

    I have cut loose a number of my old US car culture “buddies” from earlier times over the last several years. Reflection, empathy and the new, seem not their thing at all! Trump Love and social media cognitive malfunction can be ugly. “Did they go bad or were they always bad?” is an eternal question in many settings. I do not recall them being openly into white supremacy in the mid 70s, but there are new pressures on their world view and social being now.

    Am lucky to have diverse cultural and political interests I guess, rather than being stuck in one sub culture. Reactionaries fervently want their world to stay the same, and feel constant nagging social inertia.

    I will mull over your column and “be aware” for a bit actually.

  6. Thanks for that. I agree with the post. What I was exploring was your search for equivalence of meaning in Spanish, of what lay at the heart of your argument.Cheers.

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