Conservatives used to love cancel-culture

They called it shame.

Been thinking about cancel-culture and shame recently. There have been good and interesting discussions about cancel-culture, but I think it’s simpler than people are making it out.

American culture has a complicated history/relationship with shame. “The Scarlet Letter” was required reading for 11th graders for years. That book, embodies the relationship. Public shaming is both widespread endorsed by social and political power, but is also unjust and illiberal.

Generally, shame and shaming have meant to serve conservative values and enforce conventional norms. Public shaming is a mechanism to enforce social norms and maintain hierarchies and authority. And conservatives, historically, have embraced shame as both a tactic and a social mechanism. There was a time, not so long ago, when conservatives loudly embraced public shaming as a way to establish “right and wrong” in a decadent society.

Conservative paragons of public virtue extolled the moral panic and issued books like Bill Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.” Conservative thinkers wrote essays like “Ostracism and Disgrace in the Maintenance of a Precarious Social Order” and argued that criminal punishment should be done in public, like flogging and executions, to express the public condemnation. “The GOP is pushing major stigma.” Public humiliation was a necessary mechanism to maintain social probity.

Public shaming is social and can operate separately from state-enforced sanctions, although that never kept conservatives from trying to legislate morality. Shaming was a majoritarian device that aimed to suppress minority views, behaviors, identities.

These days, the conservatives who once waxed poetically about virtue and embraced public shaming are screeching about “wokeness” and “cancel-culture.” So what changed?

Well, for one thing America changed. Year by year, generation by generation, community by community, America is growing more diverse. It becomes harder to claim and enforce a unitary history, culture, or moral code. An old white guy yelling about virtue just becomes…irrelevant.

In fairness, shame has never been very effective in America, notwithstanding the Puritans and Bill Bennett. Being “shameless” and flouting convention is a popular value. And being shamed has never been an impediment to success in America. Bennett himself was shamed when it was revealed he was a high-stakes gambler and lost millions. But, he never suffered much for it and, 20 years later, he’s still on TV, running his mouth.

America is the land of second-chances. Running away from your shameful past and reinventing yourself is as American as apple pie. People who were shamed at home, moved to the city and could remake themselves and find a like-minded community in New York, or San Francisco, or New Orleans.

Anyway, America is changing and the culture evolves as do social norms. And old-style shame-loving conservatives have become an historical relic. It’s harder and harder to use these majoritarian tools when you’re not even close to a majority.

I’m not sure there’s much difference between the shame endorsed by conservatives and the cancel-culture they now protest. The distinction is who becomes the target and who does the shaming. In the old days, it was gay people, or misfits, unwed mothers, people who deviated from the imagined normalcy of white middle-class, Christian convention. In cancel-culture, the target is bigots, sexual harassers, and holdouts against social progress. In the old days, shame was the considered project of philosophers, political leaders, and the powerful and mostly oriented toward how to instill better compliance to conservative social norms among the public. Cancel-culture is more populist, driven by a disorganized activist public, which can access tools of communication and lateral organization easily and organically. Cancel-culture is more usually targeting the powerful, celebrities and leaders. Cancel-culture is shame up-ended; not the reverse of shame, but shame turned against the powerful and in support of progressive values and norms.

In other words, the public shaming has been turned upon many of the conservatives who once embraced it. Conservatives argue that cancel-culture violates free speech and open debate. But what they are really defending are increasingly obsolete- archaic- norms and social values.

Whereas, I had thought of public shaming as an inherently conservative mechanism, cancel-culture is often deployed in support of newer and emerging norms and social values. Conservatives criticizing cancel-culture in defense of free speech is a decoy against being held accountable to values and standards they don’t agree with.

But that’s not how shaming works. You are held accountable to the norms whether you agree with them or not. And, as much as conservatives complain, the public shaming of cancel-culture may be painful and embarrassing, but is note especially effective as a sanction. “Cancelled” people seem to carry on as they were, or can take the opportunity to recover and re-invent themselves.


I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.