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.
In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche called active forgetting “a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette,” without which “there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present.” Those who lack this ability to actively forget may, he said, be accurately compared to dyspeptics: “he cannot ‘have done’ with anything.” Injustices, insults and slights, if not properly digested and eliminated, cause upset stomachs, irritable personalities, and overall vengefulness. Healthy people, practiced in the art of active forgetting, feel free to act, to create, to live deeply without feeling crushed by an overabundance of historical sense, or paralyzed by a sense of the futility of action given the endless flux of existence. Sickly people with reactive over-awareness spend too much time locked in their own heads, breathing in the dust and mold of decaying memories, losing perspective while rooting around in the footnotes and minutiae of historical trivia. (Tim Short provides a nice summary of this recurring theme in Nietzsche’s writing.)
There’s no doubt the resentful and vengeful are still with us today, thriving in the new technological environment which vastly extends the jurisdiction of their bitter quest for “justice.” But Lehman, I think, brings up an equally important but overlooked point: the complicity, through laziness, of the rest of us. As is often the case, we’d rather outsource the unwelcome burden of agency to technology. Machines will do our thinking, and our remembering, for us. We have no choice but to follow their prompts. If the Eye of Google says you’re guilty and wrecks your social credit score, well, what do you expect us to do about it? The techlaw is the techlaw. Those unfortunate enough to be born in the age of digital memory, faced with audio/video evidence of that time in fifth grade when they used a “problematic” taunt toward a classmate, or that time in high school when they flirted with socially unjust ideas, will have to summon the strength to declare such gotcha-moments off limits, to consign them to the landfill in the name of active forgetting. Those “laws or social norms” will have to be created by people who refuse to be intimidated by resentful inquisitors, who refuse to be sacrificed to a narrative of historical injustice which can never be appeased.
September 25, 2019 @ 10:28 am
Thanks for the link.
You make good points. I wonder if we could imagine a scenario of solidarity, whereby everyone declares certain moments/memories off-limits and does so because they can themselves benefit therefrom? However — how do we draw the limits of acceptability here? Nietzsche would see very few I feel.
September 25, 2019 @ 11:02 am
Hi, Tim, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your useful one-stop summary. I find myself wanting to revisit a lot of what Nietzsche said about forgetting.
Yes, I’ve wondered about this for a long time without coming any closer to an answer. Those with a more libertarian ethos of free speech sometimes seem to miss the point, I think, however much I sympathize with their arguments — the evolution of social norms involves no small amount of coercion rather than debate. Sometimes people on the losing side of an argument simply count the costs and decide it’s not worth the personal or professional risk to keep fighting. In a way, they do their own active forgetting, choosing not to dwell on what can’t be changed. But if we lean too far in that direction, we seem to cede territory to those who see social life in Foucauldian terms of powerful vs. powerless, and that seems even more unhealthy.
On a individual level, I think it’s easier to “sense” when it would be better to forgive and forget. On a broader social level, I don’t know how we could translate those intuitive feelings into abstract principles or laws that most people could accept. Sometimes I fear that once a society loses that organically-developed sense of solidarity, that ability to think in healthy terms of “us,” there’s no way to reverse-engineer it. Maybe we’re already too far down the path of mutual, identity-obsessed ressentiment. Of course, I hope I’m just being unduly pessimistic.