Something is always at stake
At this time last year I was beginning to prepare a talk to be given in November. I decided to incorporate the term “cancel culture” into the title, though I hesitated at first because I thought by the time I gave the talk the phrase might have faded from use. Little did I know. Just recently, I’ve seen it used by critics of Nancy Pelosi’s decision to not seat two Republican members of Congress on the select committee to investigate the January insurrection and by a person charged in that attack requesting leniency for his actions—he begged that he not be “canceled.”
So our use of the term is alive—but not well. “Cancel culture” as I see it, as a historian of censorship, is our latest too-simple way of addressing an inherently complex problem. It’s not a tool for constructive argument but a rhetorical bludgeon to beat opponents over the head with.
Faced with contemporary controversy, historians often respond in a way that can at first seem cynical. “Oh, yeah,” the historian says, “We’ve seen this before, a million times.” As someone who studies censorship, especially in religious contexts (and ranging over 500 years or so), I see more that is familiar about the current fury over “cancel culture” than anything new. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t grave things at stake. We need clearer, more self-aware, and—it has to be said—more honest analysis than we have seen in much of the present debate.
So what looks familiar? I see a lot of people attributing the virulence of the current situation to the power of social media. But the introduction of new media has long raised deep cultural anxieties that are inextricably intertwined with the reality of cultural change. Confronted in the sixteenth century with the simultaneous effects of the Protestant Reformation and the printing press, the Catholic Church responded by establishing a bureaucracy to control printing and reading that continued into the second half of the twentieth century (and still, in a much-limited form, exists today). Confronted at the turn of the twentieth century with the undeniable power and attractiveness of motion pictures, a bureaucratic coalition consisting of studio executives and a largely unremembered group of Catholics—including a Jesuit priest and a movie-reviewing group composed of Catholic college alumnae—collaborated for decades to enable all Americans to attend every movie while forestalling federal censorship.
From the perspective of historians of Catholicism, these two examples differ from each other in a way that’s technical but important. The mechanics of the control of reading and publication were part of canon law—which is to say, they were approved and enforced at the highest levels of Church authority. Catholics were thus obliged to follow them because of their baptism. The mechanisms surrounding the control of the US motion picture industry, however, while involving the initiative of U.S. bishops, the collaboration of lay people, and the cooperation of the movie industry, functioned not by the mandate of ecclesiastical authority but within the realm of commerce and civil society. The participants made their decisions according to what they believed American mores and values to be.
It’s worth noting that in these historical examples the things people thought were under threat actually were. The Protestant Reformation really did have an irreversible impact on the authority and centrality of the Roman Catholic Church. The motion picture industry really did transform imaginations and alter the way we perceive the world. It’s easy for us to look back on such examples and make fun of the people opposed to these changes, as well as to use them to congratulate ourselves on not being tempted by the same censorious (or prudish, or puritanical, or inquisitorial) impulses. But eventually we all run into ideas we consider genuinely dangerous, and we then find ourselves wondering about effective mechanisms to limit or avert the damage.
Two very obvious current examples are the pervasiveness of medical misinformation regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations, and the role that online grooming and recruitment play in drawing young people—young men, especially—into white nationalist extremism. Even those who think they seek entirely unmoderated platforms quickly find that a complete absence of restrictions on a site attracts the worst of the worst and makes the space simply unusable.
When we face issues like this, there are no soundbite answers. What the impulse to censor (or “edit,” or “moderate”, which is what we call it when we approve of it) reflects is the desire to protect the truth, or to prevent certain kinds of predictable social harm. That we have trouble defining and agreeing on what these terms refer to is a given. So is the fact that we have even greater trouble figuring out a way to protect these things without compromising other deep and real commitments, such as freedom of expression and the priority of hearing voices excluded from the status quo.
Did the historical examples we have of non-governmental censorship work? As I say to my students, almost any question can be answered by replying, “It depends on how you define it.” The Catholic Church achieved a high level of clarity about what was and was not normative Catholic teaching—but at the price of very limited engagement with the ideas of modernity, a price still being paid. The system of motion picture censorship represented by the Production Code Administration indisputably limited artistic freedom. That it did so in an era that also produced some of the greatest movies ever made complicates the question but does not tell us whether it was worth the price.
In the 1960s, the Catholic Church moved definitively away from these bureaucratic mechanisms for controlling expression, both the official ones such as the Index of Forbidden Books and the less official ones like the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency. As it did so, commentators clerical and lay drew on the language of “maturity”—the idea that navigating these issues could not be accomplished by impersonal mechanisms but only by people following their consciences, informed by the community, and seeking to protect the truth, the young, and the basic fabric of society, while at the same time allowing human expression and exploration and innovation to flourish as fully as possible. It’s a high ideal, and you can find plenty of evidence that we might not be up to it at the moment.
There aren’t any tidy lessons here. But one thing does seem very clear to me: The widespread use of “cancel culture” as a rhetorical sledgehammer does more harm than good. I am avoiding the obvious joke about wanting to cancel cancel culture because I am not feeling very jokey about things just now. I hope somebody is doing some solid ethnographic work about why this term and this idea have such current cultural resonance. But if we want to find a path to genuine understanding of what in our society leads to human flourishing and what snuffs it out, we need much better crafted analytical tools and people willing to wield them in ways that build, not destroy.
Una M. Cadegan is Professor of History at the University of Dayton and author of All Good Books Are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth-Century America (Cornell University Press, 2013).