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Excerpted From: Khiara M. Bridges, Language on the Move: “Cancel Culture,” “Critical Race Theory,” and the Digital Public Sphere, 131 Yale Law Journal Forum 767 (January 26, 2022) (168 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KhiaraBridges02“Cancel culture” has been on the tip of many tongues of late. The folks decrying it have been a true model of diversity--ranging from defendants facing charges for rioting at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 to entertainers Chris Rock and Donald Glover (both of whom blamed the “boring” quality of recent entertainment on cancel culture). “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), meanwhile, has incited just as much conversation. A vocal cadre of conservatives has been on the warpath, seeking to expunge CRT from schools, institutions, and, it seems, all of public life. Those behind both movements claim that cancel culture and CRT are corrupting public discourse--the former by intimidating speakers into silence, the latter by teaching falsehoods about the United States's racial past and present. However, what people mean when they use the terms “cancel culture” and “Critical Race Theory” varies wildly. If public discourse about the terms has deteriorated, it may be attributable to discrepancies in their usage: people are talking past each other. This Essay examines the recent drift around the meaning of these terms, analyzing the role that the digital public sphere has played in generating these examples of language on the move.

The Essay proceeds in three Parts. Part I describes the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, its theorized importance to democracy, and how the digital public sphere has not lived up to the Habermasian ideal. Part II explores how the terms “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” have rapidly shifted in meaning as they have been bandied about in the digital public sphere. Part III cautions that we should not blame the digital nature of the digital public sphere for these shifts in meaning; while technology plays some role in the perversion of the terms “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory,” larger social, cultural, and political processes bear greater responsibility. A brief conclusion follows.

[. . .]

This Essay has sought to be descriptive and theoretical, ultimately proposing that the transformation of the meanings of “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” is worthy of investigation and analysis because they are symptoms of a larger malaise. They are manifestations of a crisis wrought by technology, yes, but also the radicalization of one of the nation's parties, neoliberalism, the antidemocratic design of the U.S. system of governance, and the nation's reiterative denial--from the Founding to the present day--that racism is embedded in the cogs and wheels of our institutions.

Nevertheless, there remains a normative question: what should we do in light of the shift in meanings of canceling and CRT? Some have argued that “an informed and effective response” to language on the move “is not merely to finalize or enforce one definition over all the competing meanings. Rather, it is to acknowledge this gap and decide how and in what ways society should choose to construct the issue and respond to it.” If this argument is applied to online governance, it would suggest that we should not seek to enforce one definition of “canceling,” “Critical Race Theory,” or any term that may be disputed in the future by removing content that challenges that definition. Instead, we might merely flag that content as participating in a debate about the terms and invite the user to explore competing definitions. This approach might be appropriate for low-stakes debates--those where the survival of certain groups is not at issue. But for high-stakes problems, like COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, this approach may be woefully inadequate.

Outside of the context of online governance, the argument that we should not try to enforce one definition would suggest that we should not respond by seeking to declare, definitively, what “canceling” and “Critical Race Theory” mean. The claim counsels a more diplomatic approach. Instead of arguing about whether or not Kanye West has ever been “canceled,” we could simply acknowledge that we mean different things when we say that someone has been “canceled.” We could then engage in discussions about what the consequences should be when people behave in ways that are offensive to others. Instead of arguing about whether or not any public school or executive agency has ever taught “Critical Race Theory,” we could simply acknowledge that we mean different things when we use the term. We could then debate the place that conversations about race and racism should have in schools and workplaces.

Yet, this solution might be a loss in the context of cancel culture. If canceling is a tool that marginalized people deploy to “speak back” to power, then we might lose something by allowing defenders of the empowered to falsely portray the dynamics involved in canceling.

With respect to CRT, this solution feels like more than a loss: it feels like a tragedy. I write this as a self-identified critical race theorist. In not protecting what is meant when we say “Critical Race Theory,” CRT--the actual framework and analytical toolset that legal scholars began to generate forty years ago--might lose its utility as a method of critiquing power and inequity. Is that not precisely the goal of those who have aimed to cancel CRT? In not fighting tooth and nail to attach the term “Critical Race Theory” firmly to the nuanced, valuable paradigm that has yielded a wealth of insights about how racial power moves through our society, it feels like giving permission to a cabal--led by bad-faith actors--to kidnap one's child. In order to honor the people who birthed the framework, my instinct is to assemble all of our resources--including the digital ones--and fight back. My instinct is to wage a counterwar to ensure that the #TruthBeTold.

Khiara M. Bridges is Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law.

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