In 2008, Facebook was the hot new thing, and social media had just started rising. One of my high-school classes was about trying to understand that shift better.1 We read about past problems with mass media, and thought about how they might manifest in new media. To that end, we read a German novel called The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll. In recent years, with social media-induced cancel culture becoming a hot issue, that novel has been on my mind frequently.
A quick summary:
Katharina is a 27-year old housekeeper. She’s frugal, earnest, and hard-working – a model citizen. One evening, she meets a man named Ludwig at a party, and sleeps with him. Next day, the police knocks on her door: he’s a known communist terrorist, and suspected for robbery and murder. Katharina is taken in for questioning, and released.
This episode is observed by a reporter for the tabloid NEWS. The reporter inquires with neighbors, stretches any statements, and publishes a piece declaring Katharina to be a gold-digging communist criminal, the depraved bride of a murderous terrorist. Katharina is swiftly excluded from society and receives death threats. Under the onslaught of harassment, her hospitalized mother dies from stress.
In the meantime, Ludwig is found to have committed no robbery or murder, but by then, the campaign against Katharina has become its own force. One sympathizer argues that the actual facts are good, and that other newspapers are reporting the facts, but – as Katharina points out through her sobs – it doesn’t matter, because everyone reads the NEWS.
For no fault of her own, Katharina’s life is in shambles: her career is over, and her friends distance themselves for self-preservation. In desperation, she tries to meet with the reporter who has been hounding her. The reporter tries to extort her for sex, whereupon she shoots him. Remorseless, she turns herself in to the police for justice.
The 70s were a heyday for tabloid newspapers. Printing any scandal, no matter how thin the facts, the tabloids were like the clickbait outrage mills of today. Their reach was wide and deep: the NEWS of the novel was a depiction in all but name of the leading tabloid in Germany, BILD, which printed six million copies every day, purchased by one in ten Germans. To be depicted unfavorably in BILD was social execution, and – as a paper dealing primarily in outrage and gossip – BILD executed plenty. Capricious and careless, their reporters had the power to ruin lives effectively at random.
That sounds a lot like getting cancelled: for effectively no fault of your own, the outrage mob, whether online or offline, can unperson you. While today’s media are global and more plentiful, it’s not clear that there’s been a net change in impact. Getting smeared by your local tabloid was just as radioactive as is getting smeared on Reddit, a career-ender all the same. Further, even though traditional, local media has a much smaller reach than global media, its local reach is what really matters to the person affected. Local media has a much deeper local reach, and a much greater capacity to “investigate” and report locally. While modern media operate at much greater scale, it also carries a dilutive effect. Net-net, people have always been getting disgraced, and I don’t think it’s much likelier now than it was in the past.
In my view, cancel culture is an example of a pattern I like to call there’s nothing new under the sun: there are always scary changes between generations, but usually they are just new manifestations of issues as old as time. For example, many people today complain that the young spend less time on necessary schoolwork than the previous generation. But even Socrates said the exact same thing. In many domains, perceptions of progress have been pessimistic since antiquity – perhaps because memories of times past are always rose-colored by nostalgia – but reality works out.
If today’s severity and randomness of cancel culture is not actually new, is it different in any important respects? Today’s cancel culture is one of escalating purity tests: born out of the more punitive contingents on the left, it’s not enough to not be a racist or a sexist, but one must take stronger, more condemnatory views, which function as powerful in-group signals.2 Cancel culture is thus somewhat performative, and strongly ideologically motivated – some people are likening it to the witch hunts for communists in the 50s under Joseph McCarthy. The left is in a curious, self-damaging position, where lots of center-leaning moderates – who are genuine progressives – are not meeting the ideological standards of those further left, which functions to their exclusion, thereby weakening the left overall.
Is that bad? Yes, probably. While I view the aims of social justice as largely correct and well-intentioned, cancel culture seems to produce unnecessary collateral damage that hurts its own cause. It both fragments the left – infighting over purity is a devastating waste in a time beset by serious problems requiring collective action – and it is unfair to the people it ultimately affects. But is any of this new? I don’t think it is. It’s the same old patterns and motivations under new cover. Thus, like everyone else, we acknowledge cancel culture as a trend, but unlike everyone else, we see it as a trend that is very old rather than new. In turn, the question we ask about is radically different: while everyone else asks “how has technology given rise to cancel culture”, we know that it hasn’t, and instead ask “how can we use technology to mitigate cancel culture?”
In retrospect, this was remarkably progressive and prescient for a school. The Arab Spring protests hadn’t even happened yet, and I think few people really understood at the time how large the media shifts in years to come would be. My teacher, who was a journalist by training, had a more forward-looking attitude than most. ↩