You Haven’t Been Canceled. You’re Just Unlikable.
To assess the threat of cancel culture, we need to distinguish behaviors from ideas.
The high drama on Twitter right now is, as always, about status. Namely, it used to be that if you were a public figure, loosely defined, you could get a blue check that would indicate to other Twitter users that you were, in fact, you. This was a sensible move on the part of Twitter as an organization, because the appeal to many users of the platform, the great deal of whom rarely or never posted, was following names they recognized. And for that to work, they had to be sure that named account was actually the person it claimed to be.
But it also led to an emergent social strata. Having a blue check didn’t just signal that you weren’t an impersonator, it also signaled that you were a somebody, recognized enough to potentially have people impersonating you. The blue checks were the elite, and gaining entry to their ranks a literal badge of status.
Things didn’t need to be this way, of course. Twitter could’ve scaled up its verification operation to let anyone get a blue check if they could prove their identity. Online banks already do this, and plenty of startups offer identity verification as a service. But Twitter didn’t do that, and the resulting bifurcation of its users ended up, as so many minor things do, a flashpoint in the culture wars. For a certain subculture, primarily on the far-right—who hate the people they take to be the elites, because those people control cultural institutions that, it’s argued, exclude, marginalize, or shun this subculture—blue checks were a sign of what’s wrong with America, in need of prestige stripping by a populist movement of, for lack of a better term, the un-woke.
When Elon Musk took over the platform, not just as its new owner but as an avatar of these disaffected (mostly) men of the cultural right, the subcultural fever dream became that he would undertake that prestige stripping from the commanding heights of Twitter itself. The marginalized and shunned would become the privileged and respected. And the ham-handed mechanism by which this status reordering was to take effect would be making blue checks something you could just purchase. Eight bucks a month would get you one, and with that badge you’d be one of the elite, too. All those eggheads, effete cultural influencers, soy boys, mainstream media personalities, and other darlings of society's liberal institutions would have no choice but to take you seriously. Because you were one of them, not in the sense of gaining respect from liberal institutions, but in the sense of compelling, through your monthly fee and the blessing of Elon Musk, those institutions to respect you against their will.
That’s how it was supposed to go in theory. In practice, what everyone who wasn’t lost in the miasma swamps of the right-wing bubbled ecosystem knew would happen in fact happened: Whatever social status—and social respect—a blue check brought dropped to zero. Below zero, it turned out, because buying a blue check became a sign of membership in, or association with, online cultures most people want nothing to do with. And then Musk tweaked the algorithm to make those new blue checks unavoidable, filling the For You tab with them, and elevating their replies above everyone who refused to send him eight bucks a month. Having a blue check became, in a matter of days, prima facie evidence that the account was someone you’d rather not hear from, and so should probably just block.
Watching all of this inevitably play out the way it played out speaks to a basic misunderstanding by many—but certainly not all—of those who, looking to culture more broadly than just Twitter, raise concerns about the spread of “cancel culture.” To be “canceled” is to be excluded, deplatformed, disassociated from, or otherwise socially punished. But why someone suffers that fate matters. The assumption, by people who see cancel culture as a new and grave threat, is that canceling typically attaches to holding opinions, mainly political opinions, that are outside the Overton Window of elite, largely left, consensus. But because there’s nothing inherently wrong with views that don’t align with the consensus, such canceling is unjust. It’s unfair.
Unjust and unfair canceling does happen, of course. There are people occupying the commanding heights of cultural and intellectual institutions who, lacking any humility in their own opinions, wrongly seek to exclude and punish the expression of any views not in alignment. The worst forms of this take the mere airing of disagreement or alternative perspectives as harmful, as rising to the level of a (definitionally weird) kind of violence. We can find stories of people unjustly “canceled”—I personally know people who’ve suffered this fate—and we shouldn’t dismiss those, or let the perpetrators off the hook simply because they are acting out of a commitment to values we might share. Freedom of expression is critical for a well-functioning, liberal society, and those who would do away with it in the name of intellectual conformity deserve criticism or condemnation.
But freedom of association matters, too. And this is where we get to the misunderstanding many in what we might call the “Elon Musk stan” subculture get wrong about the behavior they label “canceling.” They believe that the reason those old regime blue check cultural elites block them, or jump to platforms like Bluesky and Mastodon where they aren’t as represented, is because of their ideas, when in actuality, it’s just that they’re thoroughly unlikeable. And people generally don’t want to interact with those they find unlikable.
Unlikability isn’t just synonym for “Has ideas I disagree with.” Instead it means, “Has personality traits and behaviors I find unpleasant or caustic.” It means, “Being around you makes me unhappy.” And it leads to dissociation. But this isn’t canceling, not in above, and not in the way so many on the cultural far-right characterize it. Incels spin out elaborate theories about ideology and feminism rather than recognizing that maybe they can’t get a date because they come off poorly, are rude, seem condescending, or otherwise behave in ways that make them unattractive. Elon stans spin out theories, though maybe less thorough ones, about how them getting blocked is because the blockers can’t handle their Reason and Logic and Truth—but the rather more mundane reality is that, as anyone with a sufficiently large Twitter following knows, reply guys are simply irritating.
I have made a career out of advancing political positions quite far outside the elite consensus Overton Window. And I’ve done it while having countless friends I deeply disagree with on these issues, and having countless more respectful and rewarding conversations with people who hold political opinions I reject. I did my undergraduate education in Boulder, Colorado, and spent a great deal of time in my philosophy, English, and political science courses defending quite radical views, and was never shut down or punished or given a bad grade because the prof thought I was wrong. Part of that was luck—I didn’t encounter many of the unjust cancellers mentioned above—but part was just that I’m not, to be blunt, an asshole.
One of the features of far-right ideologies, because of their core values of hierarchy, domination, and exclusion, is that they can be appealing to the kinds of people who possess those traits most of us find unlikable. There are jerks everywhere, of course. No political or social ideology is free of them. But the far right disproportionately attracts them. And so when people on the far right are disassociated from, while it can be about just not wanting to hear their arguments, it’s frequently just not wanting to be around people who behave like they do. Learn to interact in more socially appealing ways and, unless your political arguments are outright evil, you’ll find a lot more people willing to hang out and listen.
I think a pro-social/anti-social axis to the political compass would have a lot of explanatory power in today's political context. I think that Trump triggered (or maybe was just a symptom) of that political realignment, and it kind of explains the dynamic where "the left" wants to avoid "the right" but not vis versa.