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.