The Cancellation Machine
What really surprises one about Shane Gillis’s rise and fall is its swiftness. Just a few weeks ago, the stand-up comic found himself elevated to the top of his field, a new cast member on Saturday Night Live. Within hours, racist jokes he had told on obscure podcasts “resurfaced.” Within days, he had been dumped.
Gillis’s hiring and firing precipitated another round of debate about “cancel culture.” Did Gillis deserve to be “cancelled”? Is it healthy for a culture to “cancel” people, or a sign of incipient Maoism? Does the current wave of offense represent common decency, or the whims of a hard-left vanguard? Does “cancel culture” even exist?
All of these questions are, in essence, about the “why” of cancellation. They ask: should society discipline people, and if so, which ones? This question implies that the novel element of cancel culture is its existence, that “cancellation” is somehow a recent (and therefore debatable) invention, even though it obviously is not. Cultures, by their nature, always define boundaries of acceptable discourse, and ostracize those who transgress them—a culture with no borders is no culture at all.
What has received surprisingly little attention in the fracas is how we ostracize people today. The swiftness of Gillis’s cancellation is both typical of our moment and peculiar in history. Americans have been “cancelling” people forever; the difference is that McCarthy could take ten years to cancel someone, while today we do it in ten minutes.
This speed goes hand-in-hand with cancel culture’s expanding domain. The unique features of modern cancellation include the possibility of censuring even the most insignificant person, the post hoc cancellation of people for previously approved words and actions, and a widespread sense that we need to self-censor. What has permitted these novelties?
Nothing Forgotten, Nothing Forgiven
The answer lies not in why we cancel, but how. More specifically, it lies in the way that the historical practice of censure is now mediated through modern technology, which plays an understated yet fundamental role in making today’s cancel culture different. Modern technology has reworked our society’s relationships: to the past, to memory, to justice, and thereby to condemnation.
For most of human history, recording was both costly and low-fidelity, constrained by limited materials and talents. The disciplines of history and archeology attest to this reality: both are exercises in drawing inferences about the past using incredibly limited records, usually based on the sort of people who could afford to have their lives preserved.
But over the past several hundred years, humans have experienced a recording revolution. Part of this revolution made the storage of information substantially easier and cheaper: the printing press, then the telegraph and typewriter, then analog and eventually digital memory. The other part consisted in disintermediating humans from the process of recording, replacing our imperfect perception with machines: the early camera and the phonograph gave way to high-fidelity audio and video recording.
Over the past twenty years, in particular, we have reached unparalleled heights of cheap, plentiful digital memory. Today, essentially free, ultra-high-quality video devices are in more-or-less every American’s pocket. Where understanding the past used to mean imperfect inference from too little information, now it means pawing through too much.
The costliness and imprecision of memory used to serve as a limit on punishment. This is why, for example, Moses instructed the Israelites that one witness was not enough to charge a man, but that two or three were required. Before the age of ubiquitous security cameras, a crime needed at least two witnesses to merit adjudication.
The limits of pre-digital memory necessarily meant that only a small subset of the transgressions against society’s orthodoxy were actually punished. The little heterodoxies of day-to-day life—telling your wife an off-color joke, blaspheming the king in the privacy of your home, etc.—were unrecorded, forgotten, and therefore unsanctionable.
In our age of easy recording, however, everything is written down. Every thought can be tweeted; every video posted to YouTube or TikTok. In fact, because so much of our social interaction now takes place in record form, there is actually a strong social incentive to record every action. The social prestige afforded to self-documentation explains why in one recent survey the American teen’s top career goal was “Vlogger/YouTuber.”
But because we record everything, human memory’s finitude no longer constrains justice. Every personal act, and therefore every transgression, is transcribed forever, instantaneously searchable and retrievable. Not only will we be found out if we do something problematic—we will also now be found out if we have ever done something problematic, because digital memory never forgets. Self-documentation necessarily begets self-incrimination.
Rage Against the Machine
Too often, critics complain that our society has grown too punitive, too unforgiving. To such commentators, the “cancel culture” is a failure of individual character—if we were more understanding, it would go away. The presupposition here is that the decline in forgiveness comes from some internal moral failing.
In reality, it is not so much that we are less forgiving, but that forgiveness has become much harder. After all, there is a relationship between forgiving and forgetting. The absence of perfect memory is what permits us to “let bygone be bygones,” to let go of a past wrong. But forgetting is no longer possible, and so our historical mode of approaching forgiveness through it is also no longer possible.
This is why “resurfaced” tweets from years ago can be used to cancel an individual in the present. If recollection is perfect, the past does not decay but is always immanent in the present. Past wrongs are, for all intents and purposes, present wrongs, because digital memory destroys the process by which they once receded into the past.
All of this more aptly explains the cancellation of Shane Gillis—and others besides—than do analyses which focus on why someone was “cancelled.” It is not that we are more punitive or less tolerant today. It is that we know more about, and forget far fewer of, people’s past wrongdoings, even those that were not then considered wrong.
What should be concerning to us is not that people are being cancelled per se, but the sheer power of digitally-enforced orthodoxy. The Twitter mob is really just an appendage of this machine—it is humans doing what humans do when they are presented with a social transgression. Cancellation is merely a necessary consequence of digital memory.
As long as we continue to analyze the “why” rather than the “how,” no discussion of cancel culture will be fruitful. The question is not how punitive to be, but how to not be absolutely punitive in the era of perfect memory. It is how to mutually disarm, how to do by law or social norm what the limits of technology used to do.
If we cannot, we all become beholden to a beast of our own invention. Justice is no longer a human affair. It becomes the task of a million cameras, a million tweet-scraping scripts; the ever-watching eye and perfect mind of the cancellation machine.
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