In his dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates (I know, I know, I'm sorry, bear with me) lays out the problems with writing. First, if everyone starts jotting things down, no one will be able to remember anything on their own anymore. But more importantly, writing separates language from the human behind it. According to Plato (who unlike Socrates did write things down, this dialogue for example), Socrates said:
When words have been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.
That is, words are formed by a human mouth, and the person with the mouth is able to explain what they mean. When you rip words away from their “father,” they can be misunderstood, rendered meaningless, or worse.
At the risk of giving away where I am going with this, I want to say that Socrates is talking about what we now call “context collapse.” The concept, probably coined by technology scholar danah boyd, describes the feeling of not knowing who your audience will be, because of new technology (back in 2003 boyd, now a researcher at Microsoft, was talking about posting on the erstwhile social network Friendster).
But back in 4th century B.C. , Socrates was talking about an earlier technological advancement. Writing itself — that is, the quite remarkable innovation that allows vocal cord vibrations to be visually represented with markings on durable objects — threw up all kinds of interpretive problems. If you read his dialogue with Phaedrus now, and think back to a moment where they were using writing for the first time (Socrates didn't actually live in that moment, he had to make up a story about an Egyptian god and king to make his point, but let's not worry too much about that), it’s striking how much sense it makes. Why let your words get away from you, and give up control? You get why Socrates chose to forego the activity entirely.
You also get why humanity went ahead with writing. It is a useful tool. It made things a lot easier.
Of course, over the last 2,400 years we did sort of figure out a way to navigate the problems caused by writing. Those solutions might be called, very simply, “the humanities”: we have literary criticism and philosophy classes; we have trained students to understand genre and history and figurative devices so they may read as well as possible; and the tiny minority that actually wrote and published things learned to be as careful as possible, and (not always effectively) steeled themselves for negative reactions.
For thousands of years, writing was a tiny, tiny fraction of human communication.
But in 2019, we don't just have writing, and we don't just have the quaint, early iterations of social networking like Friendster. We have billions of people maintaining multiple social media accounts. And we have the voluntary panopticon. While the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham theorized a panopticon as a prison structure in which inmates could be observed at all times, we have crowd-sourced a system in which anyone on the street can be filmed by everyone else’s phones, in addition to the security cameras probably catching everything we’re doing. Even wordless unrecorded interactions can be written up and quickly take the form of a text being analyzed all across the world. And all of our supposedly private messages, emails, texts, Instagram DMs, and so on can easily be screencapped and go viral in seconds.
Think of all the language your brain produces on a weekly basis. How much of it is delivered orally, to someone who can ask you what you mean, and then disappears forever afterwards? For thousands of years, writing was a tiny, tiny fraction of human communication. Now a majority of language is likely writing — and indeed, not just words but almost all of the movements of the human body have become writing in that Socratic sense. Though he couldn’t see them coming, videos and voice recordings and photographs are also texts, at least in the way that Socrates thought was worrisome. Almost everything is recorded, and almost everything anyone has ever said or done can re-surface ad infinitum, and be placed in ever-changing contexts. This throws up all kinds of new interpretive problems.
There’s a new category of commentary that blames the problems with “cancel culture” on Millennial Ideology. In 2019, this concept went mainstream — “cancellation” was transformed from kind of a self-evidently ridiculous joke to something serious commentators take for granted as part of our world. Cancel culture is one term for the phenomenon in which a bunch of people (online, but everything happens online) find out someone said or did something bad, and demand that person be “canceled” by losing their job or public status or place in proper society and sometimes all three. Critics might use other terms, like “call-out culture” or “the Twitter mob” but these (usually older and successful) writers complain that this “culture” has gotten out of hand, because people in my generation are too left-wing, too Puritan or righteous, too anti-racist or feminist, or too intolerant of sexual assault.
First, we need to acknowledge that “canceling” people doesn’t really work. Men very credibly accused of heinous sexual assault remain in positions of power everywhere; racism threatens to become the official national ideology (again) of the world’s most powerful country; billionaires quite clearly run the planet for themselves; and bad writers keep getting paid a lot of money to write badly.
The futility of simply declaring someone “canceled” is why many people online used to find the term kind of funny. But when conservatives write about cancel culture, they’re not talking about nothing. They’re pointing at a phenomenon that does exist, even if they’re getting it wrong. People do unearth things that someone has said or done and complain loudly about them. Sometimes there are consequences, that can range from feeling bad as they watch these complaints roll by, to actual professional or legal repercussions. People certainly get their words and actions taken out of context. They also get their words and actions taken in context, and the consequences can be obviously well-deserved and long-overdue. Most famously, the 2010s saw a number of monstrous men removed from the worlds of entertainment and media (though it’s worth noting that this often took dogged reporting, not just online call-outs, and even Harvey Weinstein remains a free man).
This new state of affairs has been disorienting, and divided opinion, sometimes even within individuals. It has clearly been a chaotic process. Whether you think “cancel culture” is a good or bad thing overall, you can probably think of one example in which someone was justifiably punished through this process and at least one when someone was targeted unfairly.
But it’s a big mistake to blame this messiness on cultural norms. It’s not ideological; it’s material. Much like Socrates, we are grappling with a new set of tools. While attitudes always shift from generation to generation — we get stricter here, more lax there — it’s certainly not the case that mine has radically expanded the list of things that are considered unacceptable. It would be incredibly difficult to claim that our real world is significantly more just, less racist, and less abusive towards women than the world 10 years ago.
What has expanded — and expanded exponentially — is the amount of evidence every human action, good or bad, leaves behind. Almost everything we do “roams about everywhere,” as Socrates put it, forever. We produce a whole lot more writing, in other words, both of the type that can indicate guilt, and that can be used to publicly condemn the guilty.
It would be downright hubristic to think for-profit social media could fix racism and patriarchy.
For thousands of years, societies have calculated the way they dole out punishment and forgiveness based on how easy it was to catch someone in the act of doing something wrong (very hard) and how hard it was for society to misinterpret someone’s words (unless they were a writer, almost impossible). Since it was so easy to get away with things, penalties imposed on the unlucky minority who got caught were big enough to (ideally) deter everyone else from taking their chances. Now that nearly everything can surface, and resurface, we may need to re-calibrate everything.
If Socrates couldn’t see how the world would learn to live with writing, I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to figure it out quickly, and I definitely do not have a solution. But some preliminary suggestions might be: first, perhaps we need to be more forgiving, especially to the weak, and mindful of how ineffective these new communication tools are against the truly powerful. Like all tools, they are submerged in a network of material relations, and the strong (those with a big platform, in command of the contemporary language) can put them to use a lot more effectively than say, an immigrant cleaning hotel rooms (the work of whom is constantly monitored so that they can be punished).
Secondly, we may need to learn to be better critical readers. Given current material conditions, I’m skeptical that we’re going to pull off either of these soon. Of course, it serves the interests of conservative writers to suggest that everyone just needs to move to the right politically, but that seems the most illiterate response possible.
It’s also important to remember that we don’t have a neutral “internet” to use however we please. Its architecture has been profoundly shaped by incredibly powerful forces that pit us against ourselves for profit. You can’t just do whatever online — you have to use the tools made available for you by the big, all-seeing companies, which have created intentionally addictive environments, quantified popularity, and heavily incentivized the production of sensational interpretations, all with the goal of violently extracting as much data from you as possible and showing you ads for things you don’t need. It would be downright hubristic to think for-profit social media could fix racism and patriarchy.
Humans use the tools they have at their disposal; we take the path of least resistance, and this dynamic is important for understanding the phenomenon people have been calling “cancel culture.” What mechanisms exist for us to change the harsh, material realities that so brutally contradict the ideals of contemporary liberalism? For example, we live in a world profoundly shaped by white supremacy. Within the United States, the wealth gap between white and black families is 1,000 percent. White families in the U.S. have 10 times as much money as black families, obviously the result of centuries of racism, and that’s in the richest country on Earth. The vast majority of U.S. citizens are in the top 10 percent of the world's income distribution, and have no idea how rich they truly are. A cursory glance at the size of the world’s economies indicates that much of the cash is controlled by white countries that engaged in some kind of imperialism, while the countries victimized by colonization remain far behind.
What are you supposed to do to change the real hierarchies, racial or otherwise, on the planet? Who do you vote for every few years? The racial wealth gap increased under the first black president. What could a person do, when they wake up tomorrow, if they wanted to bring about global social democracy?
What people do now is concentrate our energy on the way people speak about race and gender; or rather — they write about it (whether intentionally or not) in the Socratic sense.
It seems that one thing that we can do is post. Because we don’t see a way to change structural inequalities, a huge amount of energy is poured into policing what has been said. People take the path that is open. There is a huge desire to do something, and it is channeled into a tiny, tiny space. This imbalance generates a huge amount of heat, directed mostly at the small number of people with public profiles. The explosion of global posting power has led to cases in which a few people rightfully got their just deserts. But this imbalance has also created some ridiculous situations. And this brings us to the darkly funny side of “cancel culture.”
For example, the corpses of both John Wayne and Ronald Reagan were dragged up earlier this year so that they could be canceled. Some new, or at least new-to-Twitter, evidence surfaced and circulated indicating that they had said especially racist things. But what were we doing here? I mean, of course. Wayne’s public life was dedicated to being an action figure for a genocide that really happened. Reagan’s government backed a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people and which still profoundly affects Central and North America. The “cancelation” of Wayne and Reagan is a case of bad reading, of failing to understand historical context, that back then, people were allowed to say they supported white supremacy instead of just constantly benefiting from it. It's not like anyone with power is really trying to confront, let alone recognize, the legacy of those two genocides.
What people do now is concentrate our energy on the way people speak about race and gender; or rather — they write about it (whether intentionally or not) in the Socratic sense. Since anyone on Earth can seize the tools of social media, there’s suddenly a whole lot of writing around, and since global elites (and to be clear, almost everyone writing for U.S. media is a part of this class) can or will do little to change existing material hierarchies, we work on little linguistic innovations in order to try to patch things up — or just absolve ourselves of guilt — often while still sitting very comfortably at the top.
This is what a lot of this “You can’t say anything anymore!!!” stuff is about. There’s so much more writing, so much more text, and even more inequality. You can actually say so much more than ever before. But it’s a lot easier to attack the words than the inequality, and for the vast majority of people, it’s all that can be done.
Smartypants readers will know that the aggressively French philosopher Jacques Derrida zeroed in on the same passage in the Phaedrus to make his own point about the metaphysics of presence, which is interesting, but not for us right now. The interpretation offered by contemporary philosophers Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff is more useful for our purposes. The exchange between Phaedrus and Socrates is about “the trustworthiness of a new and not yet understood mode of communication,” they write. “We judge the new medium according to its ability to communicate the type of ideas for which the older one had been designed, and it is no surprise that it fails.” If everything is now in writing, we’re going to have to come up with a new way of thinking.
Oh, and Socrates was right about the memory, thing, too. I bet you don't remember shit anymore without your phone.