On Cancel Culture and the Successor Ideology

Lamenting Into the Void

A version of this essay originally appeared elsewhere online in February 2021, just prior to the start of this publication. I plan to eventually migrate much of my writing here, and due to the topical nature of this piece, I thought it best not to wait. Next week I’ll be back to my usual once weekly output. If you enjoy my writing, please consider subscribing.

An ideology has emerged over the past decade on the cultural far left, but has since taken great strides toward becoming mainstream. It goes by various names. Social justice, wokeness, intersectionality, and so forth. It’s best described by essayist Wesley Yang as the successor ideology. In Yang’s own words

“At the highest level of generality, the successor ideology is that which conceives of white supremacist, cis-hetero patriarchy as a unitary system of domination that must be attacked on every front. There’s a series of different movements that addresses each one of those aspects, but there’s an overall sense [of] conceptual unity to those things, such that an attack on one is an attack on all the others.”

The successor ideology is illiberal, but it’s taking over spaces in society that once were liberal. The term “successor ideology” is intended to function as a generalized, abstract, umbrella placeholder for “that which succeeds liberalism.”

The Avenues and Institutions of Culture and Information

The successor ideology (or “SI” for short) does not merely represent the evolution of norms and sensibilities that organically occur in all free societies. It has caught on with an ever-increasing portion of people in positions of power and influence, and has been aggressively foisted onto the culture, the economy, and the political landscape. Remarkably, these people have mostly given up on electoral politics. They generally remain too fringe to be widely electable. They are also too cynical and pessimistic to trust democratic reform. So they have abandoned the ballot box and the state house, and instead wage politics on their own turf: the avenues and institutions of culture and information. 

And they have been wildly successful. Nearly a decade of uninterrupted victories in the culture wars have sent shockwaves through society whose ripples have clearly influenced electoral politics as well. Having captured education, academia, journalism, media, publishing, entertainment, and technology, the successor ideology controls virtually every avenue of information. It has ingeniously done an end run around traditional democratic politics by instead changing the culture, thereby changing politics downstream. With every election cycle, political candidates pander more energetically to this ideology. With every passing year, politicians sound more like its devotees. Eventually, it will be hard to tell the fakers from the true believers — and by that point, it won't make much difference.

The Siren Song of the Right

The only faction with any ability to mount a resistance against the successor ideology is the political far right, as they are the lone bloc with some level of power who are also mostly beyond reach of institutions. Their resistance, however, comes from such an imbecilic, reactionary, truly bigoted place, that they serve only to make the SI look appealing by comparison. Nothing makes the "everyone I don't like are racists and fascists'' crowd look good like confirming the most cartoonish version of their bogeyman. And vice versa. Indeed, both groups are in some ways the inverse of one another, and function as mutual recruiting tools, a dynamic that, unchecked, will not end well. Such is to be expected. Anyone looking for salvation from the far right is lost and confused in more ways than I know how to address.

On “Cancel Culture”

The SI's incursions into other sectors of society will probably be successful in the long run. Over the past decade, I have underestimated it too many times. Every time I thought society was beginning to turn a corner and move on, every time I said this was a troubling but isolated phenomenon, every time I said this was just a phase, or that there was a ceiling beyond which this ideology could not grow, I was proven wrong. I'm not going to cast this as society's biggest problem — it isn't. But it is a problem, and I'm done underestimating it.

The successor ideology does not believe that dissenting viewpoints should exist beside it. It has no interest whatsoever in open debate. It’s brazenly illiberal, and when it comes down to it, it's not overly fond of democracy, either. It draws a convenient line around itself, then declares everything else to be so intolerably beyond the pale as to warrant destruction. Run afoul of this political religion, and its adherents will do everything in their power to ruin your reputation, purge you from respectable society, or destroy your ability to make a living. This enforcement mechanism is known colloquially as cancel culture (the right has its own version, too, albeit much less potent). Cancel culture’s purpose is flexing institutional and cultural power in spectacles of ruination in order to strike fear in the general public. Even a failed cancellation attempt works just as well as a successful one, because only a very powerful or self-sufficient individual can weather such a storm unscathed. Most people aren't in that position — and they know it. Cancel culture is not about censorship — it's about inspiring self-censorship and conformity through fear.

That Which Succeeds Liberalism

As this implacable march continues on, the road ahead is concerning. We appear headed toward an environment where eventually, everyone who isn't invincible will have to bend the knee or see their career eviscerated, excluding perhaps the lowest paying, lowest prestige jobs. We will arrive at a place where the dominant cultural forces are so powerful, so repressive, and so pervasive, that it's just easier to keep your head down and go with the flow, whatever you might privately think. Sinners, heretics, and infidels essentially become second-class citizens.

True believers and fellow travelers can only see the above paragraphs as gross exaggeration mixed with recalcitrant reactionary whining in the face of real progress. You can almost picture a horn-rimmed-bespectacled face, smirk dripping with ridicule, mock boo-hooing "Just don't be [insert bigotry], it's really not that hard." Except the goalposts of bigotry and racism move every year. As the bar for what qualifies drops lower and lower, "just don't be bigoted" becomes an ever-expanding and shifting criteria. The successor ideology has long since blown past what any sane person recognized as bigotry just ten years ago, into the realm of race theology, original sin, and progress treadmills. Individuals are defined, essentialized, and morally ranked by group category. Every inch of life is politicized, problematized, drenched in racecraft, and incorporated into the eternal struggle.

When the goalposts are always moving, should missing the net, even narrowly, get you kicked out of the league? And what if you don't agree with where it's shifted in the first place? The fact that none of this was arrived at democratically or by incremental and organic shifts over time is perhaps the most fundamental problem. This was not something most people ever agreed on, or evolved toward. This was something they were bullied, brow-beaten, and leveraged into, on pain of having their livelihoods trashed.

Ask Yourself

Is this the society we want? Where everyone is a sleuthing-session, a mobbing, a public denunciation, or unproven accusation away from being fired or ruined? Where we all have to become de facto politicians, and function as our own PR firms? We have moved remarkably closer to this in just a few years.

Nearly everyone under the age of retirement has an online presence. At least middle-aged people today can rest assured that most of their pasts are obscured in the mists of time, but for Millennials and Generation Z, our entire lives are documented online. In 20 years’ time, there will not be a single person in the public sphere invulnerable to destruction by a single well-skilled dig (or hack) into their past. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine an entire society under the thumb of the church of Scientology. That comparison is hyperbole. Just barely.

And if you think this won't be — and isn't already — weaponized by cynical actors for reasons of pure self-interest, there's a Nigerian prince with a lucrative business opportunity who'd love to meet you. Every moneyed interest, crook, and huckster now has this powerful weapon added to their arsenal. Corruption, unethical profiteering, and do-nothing political hackery can now be woke-washed with superficial diversity or symbolic gestures, while real reformers can be destroyed with gotcha cancellations whipped up by political or business adversaries. A nihilist would take a special kind of delight in this dark comedy. I can only shake my head and sigh.

From the most reactionary right-winger to the most devoted social justice activist, everyone has something "problematic." Everyone has something in their past; something archived forever on the internet, something they said or did that they don't even remember, or maybe something that never even happened, but that they could be believably accused of. And even in the case of the most morally pure and unimpeachable progressive paragon, the goalposts are always shifting. The game is rigged, folks. The truth is that nobody is woke enough to evade being cut down by the scythe of posterity's judgement for long — the knives will come for you, too, someday. And depressingly, that is what it seems to take. The only reliable way to shake the faith of the new Elect is when they find themselves cannibalized by their own congregation, a victim of their own ideology. Nothing less appears sufficient to break the spell and shock them out of the oxygen-deprived hive mind.


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