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Politics

Cancel Culture: The Digital Panopticon

The panopticon is a hypothetical surveillance and control system first imagined by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. It’s envisioned as a tool to control the behavior of a large number of people with as little effort as possible. Here is one description: “The panopticon is a disciplinary concept brought to life in the form of a central observation tower placed within a circle of prison cells. From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate but the inmates can’t see into the tower. Prisoners will never know whether or not they are being watched.”

Essentially, the panopticon would function in a similar way to the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell described the function of the television sets this way: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment . . . you had to live . . . in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

In the past few years, we’ve created a live panopticon–and the Far Left are the ones running it. The panopticon is cancel culture. The guards are the cancelers, an online mob that exacts brutal punishment on those whose sins they can see. You can find story after story of decent people losing their livelihoods for the sin of deviating from Far Left orthodoxy.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2020, trans writer Isabel Fall was outed and forced offline after she wrote a short story that critics said was transphobic (Fall published under a pseudonym).
  • Recent college graduate Griffin Green was fired from his software company for the crime of making fun of bodegas (no, really).
  • Bestselling children’s author Gillian Philip was fired from her publisher for changing her Twitter handle to include #IStandWithJKRowling.

These punishments function in part to cow other people who might otherwise be inclined to deviate from approved opinion in similar ways.

The prisoners in this panopticon are ordinary Americans, whose online activity can be viewed at any time by pretty much anyone (including the guards) and who self-regulate in order to protect themselves. A New York Times poll found that “Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they had held their tongue over the past year because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism.”

On a college campus, it’s even worse. Emma Camp noted that “According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time.” Socialist writer Freddy DoBoer summed up the whole system: “Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish.”

It’s true that cancel culture isn’t as perfectly widespread as the panopticon that Bentham imagined, in which no prisoner can ever deviate from the guards’ desires. But that’s not for lack of vision. Prominent targets of cancel culture like Jordan Peterson and J.K. Rowling still have careers, but this is in spite of the best efforts of a certain strain of social justice warriors who tried to get them removed from public life.

These folks tried to stop the publication of Jordan Peterson’s book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, tried to stop the publication of Rowling’s children’s book, The Ickabog, and launched boycott campaigns against both. In one sense, every time a cancelee rebounds and continues to have a career despite the best efforts of these Far Left activists, it is a failure of cancel culture. It is a sign that the panopticon they’ve built doesn’t operate perfectly.

But we should never let the imperfection of the apparatus distract us from the totality of its end goal. For the most die-hard proponents of this new culture, the goal is a culture in which no one is allowed to deviate from Far Left orthodoxy without suffering punishment.

When we understand that those activists who engage in cancel culture are the guards of the panopticon, we see through one of the central myths of cancel culture. Proponents of this culture are keen to paint themselves as the underdogs: marginalized voices punching up against powerful actors.

Anne Charity Hudley, the previous chair of linguistics of African America at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argued that cancel culture is just about giving marginalized people a voice. “For black culture and cultures of people who are lower income and disenfranchised,” she says, “this is the first time you do have a voice in those types of conversation.” According to procon.org, one argument in favor of this new culture is that it “gives a voice to disenfranchised or less powerful people.” This argument, however, is mistaken.

Cancelers are not disadvantaged people punching up to hold the powerful to account; in many cases, they are themselves the powerful ones. When an online mob gets a recent college grad fired from his first real job for not understanding what a bodega is, it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to say that the mob are the ones who are being marginalized. When professors speak privately about their fear of being canceled for not toeing the ideological line, it’s clear that the Far Left activists they are afraid of do in fact wield substantial power. Cancelers need to reckon with this reality and come to terms with the fact that in many cases, they’re the enforcers of this new system.

The good news is that, unlike a physical panopticon, there are no walls keeping us in our cells. The guards lack guns and bullets. The only tool they have to make us conform is fear, built on past examples of what happened to people who did not conform. When we find the courage to refuse to self-regulate, to say that 2 + 2 = 4 and dare the cancelers to do what they will, the fundamental weakness of the cancelers will be revealed.

We can call their bluff by virtue of the fact that we are many, and they are very few. Faced with a culture that refuses to bend the knee, the cancelers will be revealed for who they are: simply a few regressive souls, stripped of power, who need to accept that disagreement isn’t a sin.

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