Language on the Move: “Cancel Culture,” “Critical Race Theory,” and the Digital Public Sphere
abstract. Scores of people have been talking about “cancel culture” and “Critical Race Theory” recently. However, what people mean when they use the terms varies wildly. This Essay examines the recent drift around the meaning of these terms, analyzing the role that the digital public sphere has played in generating these examples of language on the move. Part I describes the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, its theorized importance to democracy, and the ways in which the digital public sphere has not lived up to the Habermasian ideal. Part II explores how the terms “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” have rapidly shifted in meaning as political actors have bandied the phrases about in the digital public sphere. Part III cautions that we should not blame the digital nature of the digital public sphere for these shifts in meaning; while technology plays some role in the perversion of “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory,” larger social, cultural, and political processes bear greater responsibility.
“Cancel culture” has been on the tip of many tongues of late. The folks decrying it have been a true model of diversity—ranging from defendants facing charges for rioting at the Capitol on January 6, 20211 to entertainers Chris Rock and Donald Glover (both of whom blamed the “boring” quality of recent entertainment on cancel culture).2“ Critical Race Theory” (CRT), meanwhile, has incited just as much conversation.3 A vocal cadre of conservatives has been on the warpath, seeking to expunge CRT from schools, institutions, and, it seems, all of public life.4 Those behind both movements claim that cancel culture and CRT are corrupting public discourse—the former by intimidating speakers into silence, the latter by teaching falsehoods about the United States’s racial past and present. However, what people mean when they use the terms “cancel culture” and “Critical Race Theory” varies wildly. If public discourse about the terms has deteriorated, it may be attributable to discrepancies in their usage: people are talking past each other. This Essay examines the recent drift around the meaning of these terms, analyzing the role that the digital public sphere has played in generating these examples of language on the move.
The Essay proceeds in three Parts. Part I describes the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, its theorized importance to democracy, and how the digital public sphere has not lived up to the Habermasian ideal. Part II explores how the terms “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” have rapidly shifted in meaning as they have been bandied about in the digital public sphere. Part III cautions that we should not blame the digital nature of the digital public sphere for these shifts in meaning; while technology plays some role in the perversion of the terms “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory,” larger social, cultural, and political processes bear greater responsibility. A brief conclusion follows.
Philosopher Jürgen Habermas imagined the public sphere as a space that was open to all citizens to gather and engage in rational debate about matters affecting the polity.5 Rationality is key within Habermas’s formulation: the arguments that citizens make when engaging with one another in the public sphere must be reasoned, logical, and sensible.6 Eventually, according to Habermas, the din of the debates that occur in the public sphere subsides, and “public opinion” is generated out of the tumult.7 In a legitimate democracy, says Habermas, the state is sensitive to public opinion; indeed, public opinion constrains the actions that a legitimate state may take.8
In this way, Habermas conceptualized the public sphere as necessary to a healthy democracy. He was thus concerned by what he saw when he surveyed the media landscape in the mid-twentieth century: powerful media companies, which were more interested in generating profit than in promoting democracy, dominated the formation of public opinion.9 Indeed, “the commercialized mass media . . . turned the public sphere into a space where the rhetoric and objectives of public relations and advertising [were] prioritized. Commercial interests, a capitalist economy, and mainstream media content . . . colonized the public sphere and compromised rational and democratic public discourse.”10 Public opinion was no longer the product of rational arguments among citizens; instead, it was whatever the media conglomerates, motivated by the imperative of wealth accumulation, wanted it to be.11
And so, observers sympathetic to Habermas’s view breathed a sigh of relief with the arrival of the internet.12 In the halcyon early days of the worldwide web, it seemed to be the public sphere’s salvation13—an unfiltered space free from gatekeepers, be they media executives or anyone else.14 It appeared to be open to all, provided that one had access to a computer and a dial-up internet connection. Indeed, optimistic commentators theorized that the internet would “empower those who have always wanted to engage in public debate but were previously marginalized by traditional media.”15 The most starry-eyed among them believed that the internet would revitalize the public sphere and save democracy.16
We now know that the optimists were terribly, terribly wrong. Twitter is not the “heir to the Greek ideal of the Agora, to New England-style colonial-era town-hall meetings, Parisian café culture, or Viennese salon discussions of previous centuries.”17 Indeed, commentators today are less likely to argue that the internet has rescued democracy and more likely to lament that the internet has sent democracy into a death spiral. On social media, rational debate—the hallmark of the civic deliberations that took place in the Habermasian public sphere—is not a dominant presence.18 When one dares to open the Twitter app, one is more likely to encounter abusive speech, ad hominem attacks, and wildly fact-free and logic-free statements than rational argumentation.19 The inevitable invective that one can expect to find in the replies to tweets discussing politically salient topics makes Twitter an unbearably hostile place for those who would otherwise like to engage in political debate with their fellow citizens.20 This hostility functions to exclude many from the digital public sphere—a space that should be open to all if it is to fulfill the promises of the Habermasian ideal.21
As noted above, Habermas theorized that reason would both anchor and propel the political discussions that take place in the public sphere. However, scholars have observed that emotion frequently drives people to engage in public discourse.22 Communications scholar Peter Dahlgren, for example, has noted the difference between instrumental and expressive political engagement.23 While instrumental political engagement seeks to get things done—for example, getting a referendum item on the ballot, increasing the turnout at a protest, or forcing an elected official to take a particular action—the goal of expressive political engagement is emotional release. “[W]ith expressive politics, the benefit is seen as residing in the act of voicing one’s views. That is, there is no anticipation or demand that the act will have consequences beyond the satisfaction it affords the citizen: It ‘feels good,’ it ‘gets something off one’s chest,’ and so on.”24 Dahlgren attributes “the growing uncivil and even baleful character”25 of political discussions in the digital public sphere to the proliferation of expressive politics—that is, to the fact that social-media users frequently turn to these technologies to satisfy their emotional needs.
Dahlgren also observes that social-media users are drawn to other users who have had similar emotional reactions to the political facts of the day. These users help each other comprehend what, to them, is incomprehensible. “Cognitive dissonance is replaced with cognitive comfort via emotion. . . . [I]t fosters cognitive closure of groups and ultimately damages the critical role of the public sphere.”26 Dahlgren asserts that the existence of these siloed communities of individuals who offer each other cognitive comfort helps to explain the rise of our “post-truth” present, where every set of facts can be met with a set of “alternative” facts.27 He writes that in the digital public sphere, “[t]ruth becomes reconfigured as an inner subjective reality with an affective leap and thus becomes the foundation for validity claims about reality. Rational argument becomes all the more incommensurable as a mode of discourse.”28 Dahlgren’s observations sound the death knell for realizing the idealized Habermasian public sphere.
And while Habermas lamented that commercial interests were corrupting the public sphere in the late twentieth century, those interests have made themselves at home in the digital public sphere.29 Media scholar Zizi Papacharissi argues that the internet’s transformation into an “online multi-shopping mall” has influenced the quality of the political discussions that take place there.30“[E]asy-to-digest exciting news like horserace or scandals” are more profitable than “in-depth analyses of wonkish policy details”—a feature of most “advertising-supported media”31 that curtails the sophistication of the information that is readily available online. So while social-media platforms may be “democratizing” in the sense that they allow most anyone to engage in political speech—indeed, the price of admission to the digital public sphere is a (free) Facebook or Twitter account—they simultaneously allow powerful actors to manipulate public discourse. These powerful actors range from the mass-media conglomerates of yesteryear (all of which have online outlets) to new actors who are unique to the digital public sphere, including the architects of social-media algorithms and organizations that pay individuals to pose as unpaid users in order to influence other users and the terms of the debate.32
As this Part has demonstrated, the digital public sphere has failed to live up to the Habermasian archetype. The next Part analyzes the role of the fraught digital public sphere in the shifts that we have witnessed around the meanings of “cancel culture” and “Critical Race Theory.” The analysis ultimately reveals that responsibility for these examples of language on the move lies less with the digital public sphere and more with larger economic and political dislocations.
According to some very insistent voices on the political right, the country is in the midst of a crisis.33 This crisis does not involve the fragility of the nation’s democratic processes (which were revealed so dramatically during the 2020 presidential election), the inequalities that the novel coronavirus has laid bare, or even the increasing severity and frequency of environmental disasters.34 Instead, the crisis stems from “cancel culture.”
During the twilight of his presidency, President Trump used an Independence Day address to speak about the newest “political weapon of the “far left.”35 Standing in front of Mount Rushmore, Trump explained that the threat of “cancel culture” was “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”36 He described cancel culture as the “very definition of totalitarianism,” ensuring that anyone who does not “speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments” is “censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.”37 Trump, later echoed by other high-profile members of the GOP,38 seemed to be referring to the practice of collectives expressing distaste through social-media platforms for a person (or institution) and deciding to withdraw support.39 The term, however, has become much more expansive than that narrow understanding.
Observers and scholars have offered origin stories for the idea that a human being—as opposed to a subscription, an order, a flight, or some other inanimate object—can be “canceled.” Most begin with New Jack City, a 1991 film about a Harlem drug czar’s rise and fall in the early days of crack cocaine’s seizure of poor black communities.40 In one scene, the czar, played by Wesley Snipes, is confronted by his girlfriend, who is distraught over the ease with which he commits murder. Snipes’s character, Nino Brown, responds by pouring a bottle of champagne over her head and ordering a lieutenant to remove her from the premises, telling him, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.”41 Decades later, hip-hop wordsmith Lil Wayne rapped about his relationship woes, informing his listeners that after many ups and downs with his love, he was single after having to “cancel that bitch like Nino.”42 A few years after that, a cast member on the reality show Love and Hip Hop—apparently having watched New Jack City the night before—declared that a love interest, who had hidden the fact that she was a mother, similarly was “canceled.”43 Eventually, the term “canceling” moved past its misogynist origins of men canceling “bitches” and came to signify something that anyone can do to anyone else.
As sociologist Ruha Benjamin writes, critique is “[n]o longer limited to television or newspapers” in the digital age.44 Instead, canceling, as a form of critique, often occurs on digital platforms.45 And that is what gives canceling its power. Online platforms have made drawing and quartering a transgressor in the “virtual public square easier and swifter. Viral hashtags and memes allow almost anyone to publicize . . . transgressions, sometimes as they are happening, with the potential for news to spread globally in a matter of minutes.”46
Scholars of the phenomenon of canceling have observed that it likely has several digital antecedents. For example, before “cancel” culture, there was “call-out” culture, in which people used social-media platforms to draw attention to problematic acts committed by others.47 And then there was “dragging,” in which online users, as a collective, critiqued a bad actor.48 Importantly, many scholars of canceling insist upon crediting black people for the cultural expression.49 For these thinkers, “Black Twitter”—the appellation given to the distinctive collective voice that black Twitter users have come to generate50—is the birthplace of canceling.51
When the origins of canceling are located in the black community, a historically disadvantaged group, we can better see how the act of canceling might be understood as a province of the disempowered. That is, canceling may be how the marginalized “speak back” to power.52 The disempowered have very few tools at their disposal when it comes to convincing, compelling, or pressing those with power to do what is right. Rarely can the marginalized make the powerful accede to their demands. But one tool that the marginalized can deploy is the collective—and publicized—withdrawal of their support.53 Hence, canceling might be understood as a digital weapon of the weak54 that allows “coalitions of the Othered”55 to commune, and perhaps heal, through acts of public condemnation.56
Further, if canceling, as initially understood, is a weapon of the weak, it should not be surprising that most of the time, being “canceled” does not actually destroy anyone—President Trump’s portrayal of the phenomenon notwithstanding.57 More often than not, those who have been canceled resume their ordinary lives after the flurry of attention surrounding their cancelation ebbs. And, as one journalist notes, “[w]hen the mighty do fall, it often takes years, coupled with behavior that’s not just immoral but illegal.”58 Harvey Weinstein, for example, “was indicted for crimes, not canceled.”59
If conceptualized in this way, those on the political right who decry cancel culture misunderstand—or deliberately misdescribe—what is going on when celebrities and noncelebrities are canceled. Those folks are not “censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished”60—at least not in a way that is enduring. Kanye West, for example, has been canceled several times over the past few years.61 Nevertheless, he recently released an album that reached number one on the Billboard charts and became a billionaire.62 To suggest that online collectives successfully run the targets of their ire out of public life attributes more power to these collectives than they actually have. It also falsely attributes a lack of power to the privileged subjects of cancelation.63 Whipping oneself (and one’s base) into a fury about cancel culture, then, is less about identifying a phenomenon that coerces conformity and restricts liberty and more about constructing a reality that does not exist—one in which the powerful are disempowered and the disempowered are powerful.64 So understood, describing cancel culture as a plague on American democracy is an attempt to “silenc[e] marginalized people who have adapted earlier resistance strategies for effectiveness in the digital space.”65
This is not to say that the phenomenon of canceling someone is entirely unproblematic. The harm caused by being canceled, even if only temporarily felt, may be disproportionate to the act that triggered the cancelation.66 There may also be premature cancelations—that is, collectives may censure an individual before a full, exonerating account of the facts emerges.67Additionally, the burdens that cancelation brings may be more onerous and enduring for noncelebrities than for celebrities.68
Scholars have convincingly argued that canceling an individual also works to individualize racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination.69 Canceling allows racism, for example, to be understood as a personality trait that bad actors possess—as opposed to a banal feature of our country’s laws, institutions, and processes.70 So conceptualized, we “fix” racism by identifying, and canceling, racist individuals—as opposed to redistributing power and reorganizing society.71 Further still, scholars have observed that canceling an individual is profitable for social-media platforms insofar as it increases user engagement.72 Ligaya Mishan proposes that the next time we flock to Twitter to read about the misdeeds of the latest cancelee, we should keep in mind that we are “uncredited workers, doing the free labor of making the platform more valuable.”73
These concerns about canceling are valid. That said, we can, and should, criticize canceling for the reasons above while also recognizing that when commentators identify “cancel culture” as an existential threat to democracy, such critiques engage in a project of protecting privilege and preserving the status quo.
More recently, the term “canceling” has been applied to acts of censure that do not stem from relatively disempowered online collectives. For example, critics have derided the decisions of social-media companies to deplatform particularly “dangerous” users as acts of “canceling.”74 What is likely the most well-known example of deplatforming concerns President Trump himself.75 After a mob of Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to prevent the election from being “stolen,” Twitter and Facebook suspended his accounts, citing several of his posts that had incited the violence.76 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained that the company arrived at this decision because it believed that “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period [were] simply too great.”77 Trump, in a video tweeted from the White House Twitter account, described his deplatforming as the latest in widespread “efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens.”78
Trump and other commentators characterize deplatforming
as an act of “canceling,” language is on the move. It is worth emphasizing that
“relatively disempowered collectives” did not make the decision to cancel
Trump. Instead, those decisions were made by a handful of extremely wealthy and
executives.79 While this dynamic was especially salient in Trump’s deplatforming—where journalists have reported that the number of executives involved in the decision to suspend his accounts was preciously low80—it has also been true with respect to the deplatforming of other social-media users.81 That is, collectives do not make the determinations about whether a particular user’s content actually violates a particular platform’s community standards.82 Those decisions are internal to the social-media companies.83 If the internet is, indeed, a public sphere, it is one that is governed by profoundly undemocratic processes and institutions.
To address this democratic deficit, Facebook has
established the Facebook Oversight Board (“the Board”), which Zuckerberg
has described as a “Supreme Court.”84 The Board
is an independent panel composed of law professors, politicians, journalists,
and activists, offered as a mechanism to allow outside input for decisions at
Facebook—including decisions around deplatforming
particular users or removing certain
content.85 Facebook has agreed to be bound by the Board’s “rulings,” which involve specific decisions around whether content should be removed or allowed.86 However, the “recommendations” that the Board makes, which concern the company’s content policies generally, are nonbinding.87 With regard to Trump’s deplatforming, the Board upheld Facebook’s decision to suspend Trump’s account, while also counseling the company to review its decision to suspend the account indefinitely.88 Facebook ultimately decided to impose a two-year suspension; at the end of two years, it will revisit its decision and determine whether it is safe to let the former President use the platform again.89
While the establishment of the Board is promising, Zuckerberg’s description of it as a “Supreme Court” reveals its mixed democratic implications.90 After all, the U.S. Supreme Court is a countermajoritarian body, subject only indirectly to democratic processes.91 Board members are appointed by Facebook, making them even more insulated from direct democratic accountability than Supreme Court Justices, who are at least appointed by democratically elected Presidents. While the Board increases the number of participants and variety of perspectives involved in decisions relating to content on the platform, it does not fundamentally change the undemocratic character of Facebook’s governance structure. Nevertheless, the Board is, undeniably, a start.92
We might dare to hope that the Board is an overture—a first offer in our negotiations around the ultimate form that platform governance will take. If Facebook and Twitter are indeed the central sites of the digital public sphere, and if, as Habermas proposed, the public sphere is essential to democracy, then we may want these platforms to have strong democratic commitments. If so, we might imagine userbase-wide elections of Board members. We might ensure that the Board, as well as any supervisory council that Twitter may implement in the future, are truly representative of Facebook and Twitter users. If robust democratic commitments guided our vision of online governance—democratic commitments that are even more robust than the ones that have led U.S. elections to be marginally democratic, at best—perhaps the digital public sphere would not replicate the inequities of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, and other axes of stratification that exist in real life.
As noted above, while the internet has been democratizing in the sense that it is a space for relatively unfiltered discourse, it is also a commercial space where powerful actors—from media conglomerates to computer engineers interested in algorithmic optimization—can and do manipulate public discourse.93 And so, we might be attuned to how the shifts in the meaning of “canceling” and “cancel culture” are the effects of manipulation by these media conglomerates, engineers, and others. “Cancel culture” may be the crisis du jour because algorithms have put discussions of the phenomenon at the top of our newsfeeds, and media outlets likely earn handsome profits when they offer generous coverage of the “crisis.” Moreover, we might be interested in investigating just how these shifts manipulate us. We might interrogate how identifying President Trump and other deplatformed figures as victims of “cancel culture” distracts us from the discussions that we should be having about online governance. People are using the term “canceling” to refer to collective acts of censure by the disempowered, as well as unilateral acts of censorship by powerful social-media conglomerates. This dual use obscures the sharp distinction between these types of “cancellations,” lumping two very different phenomena under the same critique of “cancel culture.” The confusion undermines the legitimacy of collective withdrawals of support, while simultaneously distracting us from the need to advocate for platform accountability.
The drift in the use of the term “cancel culture” also has implications beyond online governance. For example, branding Dr. Seuss a victim of “cancel culture” hinders a deeper conversation about the propriety of applying contemporary racial norms to artifacts produced in times when those norms were dramatically different.94 Additionally, it diverts us away from conversations about what corporate responsibility looks like in this context, as well as what meaningful engagements with racial inequality the Dr. Seuss estate—and other similarly situated institutions—might take after having financially benefited from the racial subordination of nonwhite people.95 Whenever we hear accusations of “cancel culture”—from the Capitol rioters, Chris Rock, and others—we might ask ourselves what we are being manipulated into discussing and, perhaps more importantly, not discussing.
Further, we might ask why so many have allowed themselves to believe that there exists a “cancel culture” that censors, banishes, blacklists, persecutes, and punishes. We might wonder whether this is an example of successful political manipulation possible only because the specter of a powerful “cancel culture”“resonates and reproduces already existing fears and doubts.”96 The precariousness suggested by an omniscient and omnipresent “cancel culture”—everyone is just one problematic statement away from becoming a hashtag and, subsequently, an unemployed pariah—might actually speak to a real precariousness that people feel. That is, do people feel vulnerable because they know that one false move may lead to them being pilloried on Twitter? Or, rather, do they feel vulnerable because their healthcare is tied to their at-will employment, their real wages have decreased over time, their ability to retire comfortably is not guaranteed, and the nation’s social safety net has always been, and remains, inadequate?97 Perhaps the perceived cancel culture crisis is merely a vehicle by which people can process the precarity wrought by the United States’s ongoing experiment with neoliberalism.
Some strident members of the Republican Party have recently fixated on CRT. Most accounts of the origin of their newfound obsession trace it to an appearance by conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox in the last few months before the November 2020 presidential election.98 During that appearance, Rufo reported that several executive agencies were engaging in employee trainings on CRT.99 It seems unlikely that the trainings to which Rufo referred actually exposed participants to actual CRT; that is, it is unlikely that those trainings explored the law’s role in producing, protecting, and naturalizing racial inequality, as such training would be completely irrelevant to the job that most federal employees have been hired to do. Nevertheless, Rufo, having identified the subject of the trainings as CRT, declared “a one-man war against [CRT] in the federal government,” assuring Carlson’s audience that he was going to continue investigating the trainings “until we can abolish [CRT] within our public institutions.”100 Apparently, someone from the Trump Administration was watching. After Rufo’s appearance, the White House Chief of Staff reportedly reached out to Rufo, asking for his help in putting together an executive order that would prohibit these “problematic” trainings.101
On September 4th, 2020, the Trump Administration issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies to “begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”102 President Trump ultimately issued an executive order that prohibited trainings for the military, grant recipients, contractors, and federal agencies that were “rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.”103
After Trump lost the presidential election, President Biden quickly rescinded the executive order.104 However, the rescission of the order did not quell conservatives’ newfound fascination with CRT. Lawmakers in a variety of states have since introduced bills that purport to ban CRT in government and schools.105 Some of these bills have been passed and signed into law.106
If one gives more than a passing glance to descriptions of CRT offered by its opponents on the political right, it quickly becomes apparent that they are not talking about the body of scholarship that legal academics first began generating in the 1980s (or 1970s, depending on who you ask107). “America is an inherently racist/evil country,” said no critical race theorist ever. Although the troops in the war against CRT cite Ibram Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist)and Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility) as critical race theorists,108 Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s works are cited only infrequently in law reviews—the media in which most CRT scholarship initially appears.109
The misdescriptions of CRT110 that many of those on the right offer are no accident. Indeed, they are intentionally wrong. Rufo himself tweeted:
We have successfully frozen their brand—”critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.111
It seems that powerful actors have successfully manipulated a significant number of people into believing that CRT does not reference an advanced legal theory. For millions of people, the term does not mean the framework that brought us Ian Haney López’s White by Law, a devastating interrogation into the prerequisite cases and the law’s formal construction of race.112 CRT does not gesture towards the intellectual toolset that bestowed us with multiple concepts with which to think through the complexities of domination and subordination—concepts like intersectionality,113 antiessentialism,114 and multidimensionality.115 No longer does CRT mean the framework that has gifted us insightful analyses of diversity as a governmental interest that can allow a racial classification to survive an equal protection challenge,116 English-only rules,117 and—yes—white privilege.118 Instead, CRT has begun to mean something else, “absorbing meanings” that actors “want to impose on it.”119
When deployed by the political right, CRT has come to stand for any rejection of the idea that the nation has triumphed, decisively, over its horrific racist past.120 The term has come to index any thought that dares to propose that race remains a meaningful category in the present-day—a category that helps to explain why some people live lives that are longer and more comfortable than others.121 It references any observation of the fact that white people, as a group, remain on top of most measures of well-being, as well as any investigation into the processes and discourses that make this fact so.122 As theorist David Theo Goldberg describes, for the political right, CRT means “any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter . . . or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society.”123 CRT, like Antifa before it,124 has become a bogeyman.125 As unimpeachable evidence of the work that CRT is doing to represent all that the political right wants us to fear and loathe, we need look no further than the fact that some have claimed that CRT is responsible for bringing us the reviled cancel culture.126
This Essay has observed how the digital public sphere—one of the spaces in which the battle over CRT has raged127—is a site wherein powerful actors can manipulate the terms of public debate. And so, we might wonder how we have been manipulated by the fight over CRT. After careful consideration, we might conclude that the crusade against CRT is part of an ideological war that endeavors to construct the United States as post-racial—a nation that has put racism firmly in the rearview mirror. The stakes of this war are incredibly high. If the nation is post-racial, then any “racial reckoning” that the nation has initiated has been misguided; moreover, the actors that have been calling for this “racial reckoning”—organizers, protestors, activists, students, scholars—are delusional and even dangerous. If the nation is post-racial, then people who insist on talking and thinking about race are the real racists. If the nation is post-racial, then we do the right thing when we silence them—our portrayal of our nation as one that values “free speech” notwithstanding.
Semioticians have theorized that terms that come to mean different things to different people, like “CRT,” are tools for “constructing political identities, conflicts, and antagonisms.”128 It seems apparent that the cooptation of CRT by the political right is a means of constructing conflicts and antagonisms. But how does this cooptation construct identities? We might be attuned to how calling a body of scholarship that nonwhite scholars largely have produced “un-American” functions to align nonwhiteness with “not American.” In equating nonwhiteness with “not American,” whiteness gets equated with “American.” The attack on CRT, then, is part of an undertaking to consolidate white identities as American, while excluding nonwhite identities (and people) from that which is American. With this in mind, consider the Trump Administration’s self-described “Muslim Ban,”129 the wall the Administration sought to build along the U.S.-Mexico border,130 President Trump’s reference to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung Flu,”131 and his identification of those who would march alongside neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people.”132 These events all played a part in a project to align whiteness with American-ness.133 The vilification of CRT is just the latest stage of that project.
Anyone who has ever perused Facebook or Twitter—or even glanced at a website’s comments section—knows that the internet can be a wild place. Consequently, the instinct may be to believe that if canceling and CRT have come to be problematically unmoored from their original meanings, then the internet is to blame.134 After all, the internet has brought us a disinformation infrastructure that allows algorithms to drive conversation—even those conversations that are madly unmoored from facts. And the internet has enabled a democratization of speech; anyone can declare what “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” are, correctly or incorrectly, and those declarations can circulate widely and rapidly. If the internet is to blame for the recent shifts in the meaning of these terms, then the obvious way to solve the problem, or to avoid future iterations of this problem, would be through fixing the internet.135 This “fix” would take the form of more rigorous self-regulation or governmental regulation of platforms.136
It is undoubtedly true that technology has played a role in the transformation—and degradation—of the terms “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory.” This is to say that the internet itself may be partially to blame for the defanging of canceling and CRT as critiques of power.
While terms have always shifted meaning over time, the internet has accelerated the speed of these shifts. Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts have analyzed the “propaganda feedback loops” that make it possible for individuals to become insulated from competing sources of information and that have been exacerbated by the advent of social-media platforms.137 Indeed, Benkler and his coauthors have shown that anywhere from fifty to sixty percent of self-identified Republicans are enmeshed in an information “ecosystem” consisting of “media outlets [that] compete with each other on how sharply they stoke the confirmation bias, the identity of the partisans, and police each other for deviations—not from the truth but from the party line.”138 While most individuals whose politics are center or left of center get at least some of their news from sources that are nostalgically committed to facts, a sizeable portion of those whose politics skew right get their news from sources that are part of a self-referential universe of media outlets that “will pick up [a] story, reframe it, tell it again, [and] identify it as true.”139 Importantly, a right-leaning information ecosystem has existed for decades.140 However, the development of social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have made it much easier to transmit wholly siloed, wildly fact-free information.141 Moreover, powerful figures game the system to achieve political ends—tweeting interviews or other videos that go viral, which leads to coverage by other media outlets, which leads to additional interviews and videos, and so on.142
These digitally mediated propaganda feedback loops have helped to untether terms from their original meaning with unprecedented speed. An individual can now watch a Fox News segment in the morning reporting that CRT is the brainchild of Marxists who believe that all white people are racist,143 and then, in the afternoon, encounter a Twitter feed and Facebook timeline filled with articles from dozens of conservative news outlets repeating that same claim.144 Almost overnight, CRT will become, for those residents of this peculiar ecosystem, a term that refers to ideas proposed by Marxists who believe that all white people are racist. This digitally mediated process helps to explain why so many have come to perceive CRT as a crisis—and even an existential threat to the country.145
The same might be said of cancel culture.
Notably, we can look beyond the right-leaning media ecosystem for lamentations
about the practice of canceling. For example, the New York Times has published several stories suggesting that a “cancel culture” exists.146 This might merely serve as a reminder that politically
liberal and centrist media outlets are also profit-oriented enterprises.
Indulging public fascination is good for the bottom line—regardless of the
political commitments of the
But while all media outlets might be motivated by the desire to generate profits, Benkler observes that news organizations outside of the right-wing information ecosystem still embrace traditional journalistic norms.148 Accordingly, the ability of untruths to circulate within that ecosystem decreases substantially.149 For this reason, propaganda feedback loops are unique to the political right. Moreover, these loops, intensified by online platforms, create siloed discussions of “cancel culture” and CRT, resulting in millions of Americans encountering the terms only as construed by conservative commentators.150 With such centrifugal digital forces acting on these terms, there should be little wonder that they have begun to drift. Instead, the real marvel may be that more words have not been untethered from their initial meanings.
But if we
resist the delicious urge to fetishize technology, we will see that the problem
that we face is bigger than the internet. As Papacharissi
formulates it, technology “possess[es] neither evil nor good inherent
characteristics, but at the same time it is not neutral; it is actualized by
and within the historical context that delivered it.”151 Benkler
reminds us that when the major online outlets in the current right-wing media
ecosystem first appeared on the scene, they took their place within an existing
right-wing media network.152
Moreover, for almost a generation prior to the advent of the internet as we
know it, that media network had been moving further and further to the right,
while simultaneously rejecting traditional standards of
journalism.153 As Benkler writes, “[t]he American online public sphere is a shambles because it was grafted onto a television and radio public sphere that was already deeply broken.”154 Benkler sees the crux of the problem not in Facebook, Twitter, or the internet more generally, but rather in a frayed “institutional and political-cultural fabric” that is both the cause and effect of the radicalization of the Republican Party.155 If he is right, then we will not prevent the future corruption of terms that critique power—like “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory”—by tweaking Twitter’s algorithm or attaching a label to Facebook posts that are factually untrue. Instead, we will protect the integrity of concepts, ideas, and bodies of scholarship that challenge the status quo by unchaining the Republican Party from a right-wing media network that is committed not to truth in journalism, but rather to the loyalty of its viewers.156 As Benkler writes, “[I]f the fundamental problem has deep political roots and takes a political shape, it is hard to imagine that it will be solved by technocratic rather than political and cultural means.”157 If Benkler is correct, then changes to online governance will not save us. Only changes to our political culture and political systems will be our salvation.
said, I insist upon asking an even bigger question than the one Benkler poses: what makes the hyperbole and outright lies
offered in the right-wing media ecosystem make sense to tens of millions of
people? We might heed Benkler’s insight and observe
the gradual movement of the Republican Party to the far right over the course
of decades.158 But how has the Republican
Party taken tens of millions of people along with it as it moved so far to the
right? Why did the Republican Party not leave these presumably reasonable
people behind as its claims became more and more untethered from reality? The
search for the answer might lead us to look beyond the right-wing media
ecosystem. We might look to income
inequality that exceeds anything that we have seen in at least the past fifty
years,159 the economic precarity that the intersection of neoliberalism with late
capitalism has brought,160 an electoral system that permits profoundly undemocratic results,161 the intentional disenfranchisement of significant portions of the
electorate,162 the alignment of political identities with social
identities,163 and the leveraging of narratives that the United States is, fundamentally, a white nation under attack by nonwhite Others.164 The unreality that the Republican Party offers might help its adherents make sense of an increasingly unstable, terrifying world. We cannot indirectly fix these problems by dreaming up and implementing a brilliant scheme of online governance. We can only fix these problems by facing them directly—in the real world.
This Essay has sought to be descriptive and theoretical, ultimately proposing that the transformation of the meanings of “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” is worthy of investigation and analysis because they are symptoms of a larger malaise. They are manifestations of a crisis wrought by technology, yes, but also the radicalization of one of the nation’s parties, neoliberalism, the antidemocratic design of the U.S. system of governance, and the nation’s reiterative denial—from the Founding to the present day—that racism is embedded in the cogs and wheels of our institutions.
Nevertheless, there remains a normative question: what should we do in light of the shift in meanings of canceling and CRT? Some have argued that “an informed and effective response” to language on the move “is not merely to finalize or enforce one definition over all the competing meanings. Rather, it is to acknowledge this gap and decide how and in what ways society should choose to construct the issue and respond to it.”165 If this argument is applied to online governance, it would suggest that we should not seek to enforce one definition of “canceling,”“Critical Race Theory,” or any term that may be disputed in the future by removing content that challenges that definition. Instead, we might merely flag that content as participating in a debate about the terms and invite the user to explore competing definitions. This approach might be appropriate for low-stakes debates—those where the survival of certain groups is not at issue. But for high-stakes problems, like COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, this approach may be woefully inadequate.166
Outside of the context of online governance, the argument that we should not try to enforce one definition would suggest that we should not respond by seeking to declare, definitively, what “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” mean. The claim counsels a more diplomatic approach. Instead of arguing about whether or not Kanye West has ever been “canceled,” we could simply acknowledge that we mean different things when we say that someone has been “canceled.” We could then engage in discussions about what the consequences should be when people behave in ways that are offensive to others. Instead of arguing about whether or not any public school or executive agency has ever taught “Critical Race Theory,” we could simply acknowledge that we mean different things when we use the term. We could then debate the place that conversations about race and racism should have in schools and workplaces.
Yet, this solution might be a loss in the context of cancel culture. If canceling is a tool that marginalized people deploy to “speak back” to power, then we might lose something by allowing defenders of the empowered to falsely portray the dynamics involved in canceling.167
With respect to CRT, this solution feels like more than a loss: it feels like a tragedy. I write this as a self-identified critical race theorist. In not protecting what is meant when we say “Critical Race Theory,” CRT—the actual framework and analytical toolset that legal scholars began to generate forty years ago—might lose its utility as a method of critiquing power and inequity. Is that not precisely the goal of those who have aimed to cancel CRT? In not fighting tooth and nail to attach the term “Critical Race Theory” firmly to the nuanced, valuable paradigm that has yielded a wealth of insights about how racial power moves through our society, it feels like giving permission to a cabal—led by bad-faith actors—to kidnap one’s child. In order to honor the people who birthed the framework, my instinct is to assemble all of our resources—including the digital ones—and fight back. My instinct is to wage a counterwar to ensure that the #TruthBeTold.168
Khiara M. Bridges is Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. Thank you to Arni Daroy and Mallory Hale for superlative research assistance.