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Throne Culture

When someone demonstrates messed up values, speaks cruelly, reasons in us-vs-them terms, affirms kyriarchy, or even performs more directly illocutionary speech acts (like swatting or doxing)… I often see one of two reactions, and more rarely a third.

Most commonly, I see “lol, they did nothing wrong, creativity is an act of love, it’s just the marketplace of ideas, it’s all in good fun, don’t be such snowflake”.

The second most common response I see is a call for cancellation. “How can anyone work with such-and-such after this? Fire them!”

Much, much more rarely than either of those two, but it does show up, is “I think what they did is wrong but I am ready to forgive them.” (Kind of rare for a reason: it’s difficult for C to forgive what A did to B. It’s easier for C to forgive what A did to C.)

I wanna take a step back from these three reactions here and see who the actors in this drama are.

It seems to me, but I don’t have hard data on this, that often the accused is a person that has some amount of power, and the people expressing one of the above three positions are anonymous, nothing-to-lose voices in a mob. (Especially those who express it most strongly and with least nuance.)

It is a disproportionate punishment for any offense to be sentenced to death by starvation, utter cancellation in its most slipped slope sense, no livelihood, hope you like digging through trash because you now bear the mark of Cain.

I’m not, however, convinced that “of course we don’t mind, here’s the keys to your throne back, your majesty” is a good response either.

It’s easy to realize that a prerequisite for cancel culture is the mob, and that multicast media has been a stronger enabler for mobs than pitchforks and torches ever was. The internet is a huge, crashing, roaring ocean of voices. Express any criticism, no matter how nuanced, and you’ll find yourself part of a megaphonous wave, a dogpile completely burying and smothering the person you wanted to set straight.

The other prerequisite, though, is this world of thrones. We live in a world where instead of just listening to the best li’l garage band in your own neighborhood, you can listen to the best songs in the entire world. Instead of listening to grandma’s stories, you can read the best-selling author. Competition is tighter than a vice. For everyone on a throne, there are many who were denied that chance—sometimes denied it because of kyriarchy, racism, sexism, classism…

With great power, there must also come great responsibility. Right now, neither the regents on their thrones, nor the mobs with their megaphones, are acting responsibly.

I’m daydreaming of a world where the thrones aren’t as tall, where we don’t need to have a boot stamping on our face forever.

Throughout this essay, I’ve used the word “cancel” and the phrase “cancel culture”, but that phrase isn’t great. It’s affirming a conservative frame of view. The timing isn’t great either; right-wing media loves to create and latch on to wedge issues, and “cancel culture” is right up their alley.

A more zoomed-out way to look at it is that we are living in power culture. Power from mobs and power from thrones.

Maybe there is another way for us to set up our personal and professional relationships, and our fandoms and admirations, so that the power gaps and the stakes don’t have to be so intense.

One of the components in the world of thrones is centralization (which, in turn, is a consequence of capitalism’s externalities problem). Large groups of people loving the same books, the same shows, the same apps, the same services. That’s also what makes the falls so big, the disappointments so heartbreaking. Messing up so badly wouldn’t’ve mattered so much if you weren’t so loved by so many. We’re angry because we mourn the person we had fooled ourselves into thinking you were.

The first thing I will tell my child self when the time-machine comes is to stop expecting other people to be perfect. It’s OK if people are wrong and bad. Doesn’t mean it’s OK that they remain good or bad, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone else who deserves a chance on that now-vacant throne. Just means that I shouldn’t be so hung up on who I expect other people to be.