There’s been a lot of talk about cancel culture recently. People have been really riled about children’s books and potatoes. There’s been a lot of talk about censoring certain ideas and perspectives. I’ve done an episode on cancel culture before, but I thought it worth re-visiting this week since we have been so immersed in the conversation for the last few weeks. And it should come as no surprise that I’m here to tell you – cancel culture is not censorship.
Censorship is speech about speech – it defines the norms and boundaries of public discourse. It becomes an instrumental rhetoric unto itself, creating an argument for what speech is acceptable and, by extension, what speakers can partake in discourse. That is, in creating marginalized speech, it marginalizes speakers as well. Censorship is an attempt to strike certain speech from available discourse or remove speech from the public topoi. This is a kind of silencing – while a rhetor is not totally silenced, choices of speech are removed. This act of marginalizing some speech while affirming some elevates some speakers and audiences over others.
Philip Wander described the theoretical process of creating silenced audiences in his piece, “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory.” Wander describes ways in which speech silences or negates audiences, creating a “rejected” audience. Censorship does this in the most literal and straightforward way. The law is speech to a national or communal audience, and censorship law speaks to audiences who, in turn, may be speaking. It is a discursive relationship. Censorship articulates the Third Persona in an effort to excise certain speech from public discourse, in a constitutive move that signifies not only what is and is not acceptable speech but also establishes who are acceptable speakers. Those who are censored are identified as silenced members of the audience.
In the case of censorship, the Third Persona’s action of silencing members of the audience is multi-layered. It not only labels speech as unacceptable, but it also labels speakers, and those who would accept that speech, as deviant. So it is not just those who have engaged in inappropriate speech that are identified by censorship laws as being unacceptable audience members: those audience members who do not condemn, or who accept the offending speech, are “guilty”, just as the speakers are, of offending community norms. In short, censorship itself is an instrumental, constitutive, ideological argument. It is a rhetoric in and of itself that makes use of the Third Persona. Censorship is constitutive rhetoric which creates identity by means of articulating the audience that would be silenced.
Expression is the means by which we create the ethical, normative, and even deviant spheres in which the mental life of society grows. If this is the case, censorship aims not just to change the way we express ourselves but also the way that we think. Censorship aims to strip certain speech from acceptable discourse, altering our understanding of what is and is not a viable means of expression. Expression is the means by which we create norms. It is the very foundation of intellectual life, then to proscribe certain speech could fundamentally affect the way a society understands itself.
When their aim is to strike other forms of communication from public discourse, the constitutive argument is that our identity does not include whatever we officially excise from our public topoi. We cannot partake in certain speech and still be operating within the bounds of the acceptable norms of our identity. What the law establishes as outside the realm of acceptability is automatically constituted as not part of our communal identity. Censorship then, is a constitutive argument because it codifies that which we are not. It silences particular portions of the audience by rejecting their speech.
As a result, censorship is rhetorical. It is a category of speech within the rhetoric of the law that serves a specific purpose. Like other forms of law, it makes an argument in the negative. It defines what one should not do. In doing so, it eliminates certain choices of behavior from the hearers of that rhetoric. As the receivers in this discourse, our identity becomes more narrowly defined because of the directives the law gives us in terms of what is and is not allowable speech. In this way the law creates a reciprocal relationship between those who establish it and the text of the law itself. The people have agency in creating their own identity, as the law is a creation of the people, but the law posits an argument for who the people are, and constitutes the identity of the people, which can then be tested and re-interpreted.
The particulars of the text, down to the smallest unit of communication, create a community. Edwin Black touches on this notion of rhetorical choices creating community when he argues that an assessment of a speaker’s rhetorical choices can aid in understanding the ideal audience, leading to an understanding of the ideology of the rhetor. These rhetorical choices let the audience know who is part of the ideal group and what their common ethos is. As Paige K. Turner and Patrician Ryden explain, “personae can be used to evaluate the rhetorical stance and operating ideologies of a specific discourse.” Rhetorical analysis of a piece of rhetoric can evaluate the “ethical implications” of a constructed speaker and audience. Essentially, “personae are instrumental discursive effects that work to change material reality through symbolic manipulation.” Constructed personae are arguments for a particular identity, and that particular identity reveals the ideology of the speaker. In making such an argument, the speaker works to constitute identity for herself and invite or dissuade audience members to join in that identity. As Brenden Kendall observes, “rhetorical texts persuade audiences through the construction of personae that call upon the addressed person(s) to act according to certain principles or in accordance with certain demands.”
Wander’s Third Persona builds on Edwin Black’s Second Persona by identifying another particular audience. There is, firstly, the audience that is the aim of a speech, or the primary audience, and of course those who are reached inadvertently by said speech. However, “the actual audience” does not “reveal the audience or persona commended through the speech.” The speaker may reach the audience but may want the audience to become something else entirely.
This audience creation is a matter of language choices. The Second Persona is “meaningful in a society made up of competing groups and rival ideologies.” It allows a critic to look at the ideology it recommends. This is the “Second Persona” – it is the “you” of a speech. That is, it is an invitation to a particular community from the rhetor. It affirms certain characteristics, ideas, and values of the ideal audience member. But, Wander posits, in the process, there is an action of negation. By affirming what “you” are there is an affirmation of what “you” are not. Wander notes that “the potentiality of language to commend being carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable, undesirable, insignificant.” The Third Persona is an audience that is negated through language. In becoming negated, this audience may be perceived as “alien” or “diseased.” It is in some way aberrant. It will be “unacceptable, undesirable,” or “insignificant.” The Third Persona means being negated in language and being negated in history. It is what we are “told” to avoid becoming. The implication in that, of course, is that there is a “we.” This ideological position illustrates the multi-faceted nature of identity. It can be crafted and managed from multiple angles and positions. Rhetors from a number of ideological positions can imply an identity or that there are certain audiences that are unacceptable. The law, in this case censorship law, is simply one means by which identity can be shaped.
Wander describes the Third Persona as a tertiary audience that lives in the silences of the text. The text oppresses certain members of the tertiary audience through its chosen silences. Censorship lacks the subtlety of an oppression of silence – it is the blatant articulation of what speech must be removed from the discourse. In doing so, censorship voices the once silent indications of the Third Persona. If speech is the means by which a rhetor indicates ideology, as Black has posited, then censorship is speech that mandates our ideology. It restricts the speech available to us in our attempts to express ourselves, thereby codifying what can be a part of our community ideology.
This intersection of silencing and the persona is the rhetoric of censorship. The Third Persona indicates a silenced audience. Censorship is one means by which that audience has been silenced. It is the rhetoric that institutions use to articulate and create the Third Persona. Censorship argues against speech and speakers that are outside of the norms of a society, forced into silence by the text of the law. In creating personae, institutions reveal their ideologies. Personae are a function of norms and parameters for audiences, and as institutions try to manage those norms, there is inevitably a marginalizing effect
“Cancel culture,” especially as it has been manifest in the last few weeks, does not fit into these parameters for a number of reasons.
Most recently, with the Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, it was the source themselves who chose to make the changes. They were not being canceled or censored, they were altering their own message. This is what made the reaction to Dr. Suess especially silly. The Suess estate chose to stop publishing certain books, people got upset, so they bought a lot of Suess books, pouring money into the Suess estate.
But the larger reason that “cancellation” doesn’t fall under the banner of censorship is because nobody is saying you can’t speak. We are saying we won’t listen.
As we have noted before, the government allows US to fashion our own rules and contracts in terms of appropriate norms. People get upset because they claim that there is a lack of open debate on ideas, but that displays a misunderstanding of debate. In debate an idea or policy is proposed in which the two sides accept the premises of the debate so they can argue the merits of the proposed solutions or concepts in order to come to a solution but in these situations it’s not a debate because both sides do not accept the premises. When somebody says something racist, sexist, or homophobic it’s not a debate because both sides do not agree on premises on which you can build an argument. There is no agreed upon starting point. That’s why the public says, “we’re not going to listen when you say that.” They’re saying, “we’ll wait for you to come back with something worth debating.”
The marketplace metaphor is problematic for a few reasons, but it DOES remind us that the whole purpose of the free speech part of the First Amendment isn’t speech anarchy – it’s to empower the people in terms of speech. We can hold our government accountable. We can hold EACH OTHER accountable. And that means accountability to the community. That means community standards. That means you are beholden to your audience in ways that you are not beholden to the government because THEY, the community, decide what is and is not appropriate. The government has given them that power.
But the real question is what is the apparatus, here? Is this a function of free speech? Is this the INTENDED nature of speech in a liberal society? That’s a more complicated and nuanced question. Those who bemoan “cancel culture” claim this is illiberalism run amok. And maybe they have a point – is simply stifling ideas really the way to protect people FROM those ideas? And is it really our job to protect people from ideas in the first place? Shouldn’t people have the right, and maybe the responsibility, to assess ideas for themselves and make decisions? But on the other hand the whole purpose of keeping government out of speech is so a society can regulate its own speech – so how illiberal is it?
It is tempting to say cancel culture is censorship because we are silencing part of the audience, but that is not the case. Nobody is being silence. We are saying we won’t listen to certain speakers. So it is different from censorships, and the Third Persona, in specific and nuanced ways.
Cancel culture DOES put power in the hands of the audience as opposed to the speaker, however, and for speakers who are used to places of privilege that can be disorienting, to say the least. Speakers who are used to being empowered because of their social status, thinking they deserved to be listened to, may find an audience that reclaims the power frightening and “dangerous.” But an audience that reclaims the power is no more dangerous than a speaker that has all the power. It is just a redistribution of power. Why are we so comfortable with speakers having all the power and the audience having none? Why is it threatening when a group of people says, “I’m not listening to you anymore?” Why are we so accustomed to one person monopolizing discourse?
One would think with the populist groundswell of recent years this redistribution of power to the audience would be popular, but when we analyze it in terms of a power relationship, we see it for what it is: authoritarian maintenance. When people reclaim the power and say, “here is what we are going to do” and the one person who initially had all the power suddenly is left high and dry, some people freak out. Because some people believe that the speaker, the one singular voice, should have all the power and the audience should simply remain quiet and submissive. A responsive audience is a dangerous audience. They claim they are protecting free speech and robust debate, but in reality, they are protecting authoritarianism. Robust debate would require a responsive audience that had input about ideas. But the moment the audience says, “here’s what we have to say on the matter” they cry foul and want to change the rules of the game. It’s a rigged system, and we are all beginning to see it.
Cancel culture is simply the audience participating in the ways they have always been told they should participate – and their response is, “I don’t like it.” When some people hear that response, they do their best to belittle that audience in order to keep the original message a loud and clear part of public discourse. The proliferate outcry against cancel culture isn’t a defense of free speech, it is a movement against the will of the audience.
And what is most important is that nobody is telling anyone they can’t speak. People who are “canceled” can still say what they want to say, and generally do. They have an audience. It’s not like the state has swooped in and told them they must be silent. They are just facing the consequences of a section of the audience who didn’t like their message. There will always be portion of the audience who did. It just may be small and, perhaps, less to their taste.
So when you hear somebody complain about cancel culture, know that their real complaint is that the audience has too much power. We have shifted the balance from the speaker to the hearer. And some people can’t handle that. That’s on them, not you.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.