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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb

Anathema and Absolution

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

In 2013, Mark Fisher wrote an essay called Exiting the Vampire Castle. The titular castle is his metaphor for what we now call "cancel culture." The Vampire Castle, he said, specialized in propagating guilt, driven by a priest's desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic's desire to spot a mistake, and a hipster's desire to thin the crowd. Attacking the Vampire Castle can result in the accusation that in doing so one is upholding racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. This castle is born the moment the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories becomes an embrace and reification of identity.

I am skipping ahead here, however, because the essay opens with a defense of Russell Brand, who was at the time being praised for an interview in which he espoused communist beliefs and masterfully outwitted BBC reporter Jeremy Paxton, yet at the same time came under criticism for a recurrent pattern of casual sexism. In his essay, Fisher can barely contain his sneering contempt for the "moralizing left" making these criticisms. He lists a set of laws for the Vampire Castle: individualize and privatize everything, make thought and action very difficult, propagate as much guilt as you can, essentialize, and think like a liberal (because you are one). It's a familiar refrain from left critiques of identity politics, or "IDPOL."

Now, a decade after this essay, Russell Brand is in the news again, this time for multiple allegations of rape and sexual assault, some dating back to the very time period that Fisher scolded the "moralizing left" for making such an issue of his sexism. It's a vindicating moment for those who criticized him at the time, but obviously we didn't know about these incidents at the time. We would do well to heed the saying "where there's smoke, there's fire," but that's not always true. Some red flags never go further than the flag. Plenty of men with sexist attitudes have never raped anyone. Nonetheless, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the fact that people who raise these issues may have valid reasons for raising the alarm.

The year 2013 is one I remember well. It was the mother died, the year I had roommates for the first time since college, and the year I had my first serious relationship since college. It was the year I discovered I was autistic, despite having been diagnosed at age 14. It was also a very transformative period of my life in terms of my values. Two years prior, I became radicalized by the Occupy movement. Like many people, I got involved because of the deep economic injustices I saw as the banks who destroyed our economy and devastated the lives of millions were rewarded with massive bailouts to prop them up while people throughout the country with these toxic mortgages were thrown out on the streets. Yet when I got involved with other radicals, I was introduced to a number of other political ideas I was less familiar with. I liked to think that I was pro-feminist and anti-racist, but the truth was that I was rather complacent and uninformed about these issues, and had a lot of toxic ideas about them that I needed to deconstruct. I am eternally grateful to my radical comrades for having the patience to educate me about these issues and correcting my ignorance. Something this correction was a gentle nudge, but sometimes it was a full-blown callout. It's an uncomfortable position to be in, and I can't say I always handled it well, but I was willing to learn, and I'm a better person for it.

I don't believe that criticisms of cancel culture are entirely unfounded. The "woke crybully" is definitely a type of person, and I have encountered many such people throughout the years. One such person threatened physical violence against me for using the phrase "playing dumb." I have seen several abusers use social justice language as a shield for their abuse. More broadly, I have seen how the social media ecosystem creates an opportunity for an Orwellian "seven minutes of hate" in which the "main character" for the day gets "dunked on" by hundreds or thousands of people online, with the more nuanced critiques getting drowned out by those who just want someone to hate on. There is something libidinal in this mob mentality - a kind of catharsis in collectively taking the Bad Person down a peg.

Yet for every person who has been unfairly canceled, I've seen people rally around an abuser who was "too important to the movement." It's easy cancel an abuser you never liked in the first place. It's a lot harder when it's someone you know and admire, whose values you share and who may have made some valuable contribution. Patriarchy being what it is, even people who profess all the right values may still be capable of heinous acts. All too often, it is the victim of abuse who ends up getting chased out of the movement by people who value their abuser over their own safety. Mark Fisher's protestations about Russell Brand's proletarian consciousness, about the fragility of class consciousness, have a similar ring.

All too often, I see "canceling" equated with criticism. Any criticism of someone for doing real harm can be readily dismissed as the woke mob coming to cancel them. A great deal of right-wing grievance politics comes down to the belief that everyone should be required to like them, and it's left-wing equivalent found in the likes of Mark Fisher or Ben Burgis is very concerned that we might have criticism of their faves. I for one think it's fine to have problematic faves, as long as we are willing to acknowledge where they fall short and listen to those who claim they've been harmed by them. One of my problematic faves is Pope Francis. I have been inspired by his sense of openness, his insistence upon a welcoming church, and call to remember the poor and oppressed. Yet when he spoke against "gender ideology," I couldn't let it slide. I wrote to him to rebuke him, calling him to repentance for the harm his words caused, including to some friends of mine who are very dear to me. When Slavoj Zizek made very similar comments, which constantly come across my YouTube feed accompanied by the most offensive stereotypical imagery, I saw a group of self-proclaimed "Young Zizekians" run interference for him, trying to "both-sides" the gender debate and lending credence to the idea that "gender ideology" is a real problem. I don't expect that my rebuke of Pope Francis will impress anyone who feels hurt by his comments, nor do I expect these Zizekian theorists to abandon their hero, though a little acknowledgement of harm done would go a long way. Perhaps that in itself is sufficient for some to cancel me, but that's okay because I don't need everyone to like me or want to associate with me. I'm used to standing alone.

I recently learned of an upcoming conference to honor Dr. Iain McGilchrist, whose ableist slander against autistic people I've written about before. Some people I know are speaking at this conference, and worst of all, it's sponsored by an organization my own grandfather founded. I struggled with how to react. As a cishet white Western man, I have a whole bundle of privilege, yet one axis of oppression I do occupy is neurodivergence, and here I was being thrown under the bus. I hesitated because I don't want to be a wokescold and a wet blanket. I don't expect these people I know to cancel their appearances or for the organizers to cancel the conference and deplatform Dr. McGilchrist. What I would like is for him to be confronted with the harm he has caused by using his credentials as a psychiatrist to spread harmful myths about my community and take accountability for it. Failing that, I would at least like for people who unthinkingly absorb his ideas to be confronted with the prejudice underlying them and have to grapple with that. That's how learning and growth happens.

For all the catastrophizing about the toxicity of cancel culture and the discomfort of being called out, I think a lot of people don't understand the discomfort of being on the other side of it: the temptation not to rock the boat, the fear that everyone is just going to turn against you, the worry that you may be starting more trouble than it's worth, the prospect of having to stand alone in your truth as friends abandon you. While to the outside it may appear that people just want a reason to complain, you will find among every oppressed group internal discussions about how far to push, what battles are worth fighting, and which ones may be counterproductive. There are even those who adopt a "pick-me" attitude, assuring their oppressors that they're in the right in order to gain acceptance among their ranks. For all the libidinal enjoyment that the Lacanians and Zizekians may posit about the woke brigade, there is little understanding of how much agonizing and soul-searching goes on in knowing when and how to speak up.

The panic about "cancel culture" goes back further than we imagine. Before it was "cancel culture" or "callout culture," there was gossip, and one can find denunciations of this going back as far back as we have records. To this day, we tend to have negative associations with the term, and indeed there are many abusive ways in which it is often used. However, in the history of patriarchal societies in which women had little official recourse for harm done to them, gossip served as a means for keeping one another safe by warning each other about which men to avoid. In the excellent 2008 movie Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Fr. Flynn, a popular and charismatic priest at a Catholic school in the 1960s. Sr. Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep, suspects not all is well. She notes that he is getting uncomfortably close to Donald, a black boy in an overwhelmingly white school, isolated from his classmates. She suspects abuse, and confronts him with it. In one key moment, Fr. Flynn delivers a sermon on gossip, in which he compares it to cutting up a pillow with a knife and scattering the feathers that are carried up by the wind, unable to be retrieved again. Sr. Aloysius stands firm and eventually pressures Fr. Flynn out of his position. Yet true to its title, the film denies us any comforting sense of certainty as to his guilt, and in the closing scene, Sr. Aloysius tearfully confesses to another nun "I have doubts...I have so many doubts!"

In true Nietzschean fashion, Mark Fisher lays blame for the Vampire Castle at the feet of Christianity. I find this puzzling, because if anything, the worst aspects of cancel culture seem to have more in common with pagan honor culture, in which transgression is met by shaming and ostracism. It even resembles a Girardian sacrificial crisis. Christianity's problematic approach has more often been to weaponize forgiveness and redemption to support those who abuse their power. Yet in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus offers a more nuanced approach: if someone has sinned against us, we are first to go to that individual privately to try and resolve it. Failing that, we should bring two or three others to witness for us. If they refuse to listen even then, we are to involve the church (one may translate this to whatever other community organization might be relevant). If they refuse to listen even then, treat them as outsiders to be shunned. That last step may indeed be a kind of canceling, but crucially, it is the last step.

I have wrestled a great deal with forgiveness. It is not healthy or sustainable to live in constant search of enemies. Yet people continually let me down by embracing reactionary stances, defending problematic people and actions, and making me feel like the problem for not signing off on their behavior. There are precious few people in this world who I truly trust, but there is a much wider circle of people who I would like to get along with, and that has forced me to take stock of where my boundaries are, of where to draw the line, of when to speak up and when to let things slide. There is a certain level of forgiveness that is necessary to even fuction with ethical principles.

For those of us who are prison abolitionists, this matter takes on new stakes. Prison abolition cannot limit itself to those we regard as innocent. We need systems in place by which people can make amends for their transgressions and be restored to the community. Yet we do ourselves a great disservice if we imagine that everyone can or should be rehabilitated. Some people intend their harm, and continue to be a threat to the community. It is the community's right to protect itself from such dangerous individuals. Prison abolition ultimately aims not just to create alternatives to prison, but alternatives to crime, building a society in which it is easier to be good. Part of this means dismantling the systems of oppression in which we all participate, even if it requires causing a scene.

I think a lot more "calling in" needs to take place. People are more likely to listen to those closest to them who raise their concerns as concerns rather than ammunition against them. But when someone is doing harm, not all of us will be in a position to call them in, so calling them out may be our only recourse. We must build the kind of communities that are capable of producing this kind of accountability, which is all too lacking in this polarized world. We need communities built on share values that can help people live up to those values.

Mark Fisher's appeals to "class consciousness" are symptomatic of a problem known as class reductionism. The problem of class reductionism, however, is not that it reduces everything to class so much as it has too reductionist a view of class. Black people are a class. Women are a class. Queer people are a class. All of these identities are constructed and positioned within a socioeconomic system of power and control. Hardt and Negri propose the concept of "multitude" as a class concept that encompasses all these identities. Class reductionists like Fisher uphold the primacy of the proletariat as a class category because it seeks its own self-abolition through the overthrow of capitalism, while these other identities remain what they are. Yet while the overthrow of racism will not erase anyone's ethnic history and the overthrow of patriarchy will not destroy the existence of women, there is a way in which these identities exist within these systems of domination that we do seek to overthrow, and only by organizing within these groups can that happen, because those outside of them simply refuse to understand what's at stake for them. This is why Malcolm X, following his transformative pilgrimage to Mecca, said of his organization that white people could help them but not join them. One must first inhabit one's identity before reaching beyond it in solidarity with others.

We are fallen creatures, and none of us makes it through this life without doing harm to others. Figuring out how to navigate that and make room for human frailty is a task that any culture has to address. There is no easy answer to this, but a starting point is to cultivate humility within ourselves. When I was first confronted with these social justice issues, I had to eat my share of humble pie. Every now and again, I still do. I just wish others were willing to do the same. We need a society where we can be more vulnerable with each other, and that's not easy, especially when combined with the imperative to protect the victims. Yet we must find a way to proceed and truly meet each other where we're at.

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