Policing Is a Bad Metaphor

I read the policing metaphor on Facebook for the first time a few years back, posted from the account of a thinker I value dearly. It goes like this: cancel culture reproduces the oppressive logic of disposability–i.e., cancel culture reproduces the same shitty kind of thinking that gets people cancelled. I took it to heart, and have regularly used it to justify my own cowardice in confronting people about their oppressive turns of phrase. 

But “cancel culture” describes a form of social cancellation that has nothing to do with carcerality. The policing metaphor only works if “cancellation” refers to social death, which it does not. Social death is not the consequence of our actions, but the consequence of preexisting hierarchies like class, race, gender, and sexuality, that confer social legibility the second we come screaming into this world. Here’s what I mean.

People are only ever “cancelled” in equal measure to their legibility within a certain community, re, no one can cancel you if they don’t know who you are, so “cancellation” only retracts previously accrued social capital/visibility–the very concept that enables disposability (carceral logic: some people are inherently less valuable to society and deserve disposal). While no one deserves literal disposal, what is being disposed of in “cancel culture” is social capital, not social meaning or participation. Or, you are no less materially a citizen of society for your cancellation–you still get the same vote, same stuff as everyone else–but you no longer get to enjoy the fruits of status, which were inevitably bestowed by measures beyond your control like your beauty, ability, race, and gender. 

In flip, Dad-ish terms: you want to know who’s been getting “cancelled” for years? Black people–by police and prisons! There’s a reason why “cancel culture” has entered the public lexicon during a new time in which cishet, able-bodied white men are the ones getting called out. “Cancel culture” as a historical term has nothing to do with the cancellation of one’s material rights, which are always secure when you’re a cishet, able-bodied white man–and everything to do with status bestowed to you by broader systems of social capital that have made you unfairly visible. 

This is all, of course, assuming that anyone gives a flying fuck about cancelling people, which, dear reader, they do not!

As much as we love to bitch and moan about “cancel culture,” very few circles are out here cancelling people. Realistically, there are so many people sympathetic to others’ cancellation that “cancelling” a prominent member of society (and, as we just went through, one’s “prominence” is absolutely germane to their cancellation) more often than not winds up garnering them more social capital. (Nearly $1 million was raised to support Kyle Rittenhouse’s legal fees. George Zimmerman has made bank off marketing himself as a white supremacist celebrity. Even Al Franken got a whole New Yorker article by a prominent liberal journalist deeming his cancellation–his voluntary withdrawal from public office in light of sexual assault allegations–a witch hunt.) “Cancel culture” bestowing any kind of meaningful cancellation is a fiction, and a bad one to boot.

More often than not, calling out others for bad politics will result in people treating you like a total narc. To call out another person requires sacrificing your own social capital to defend everyone’s social meaning, or, putting your own visibility on the chopping block to insist that, no, Brian, you really cannot keep using the word, “r*tarded,” because disabled people are valuable and deserve that meaning even if everyone at this party appears able-bodied enough to you.

“Don’t police me bro,” Brian might respond.

But policing is a bad metaphor. Policing is the physical enforcement of the white supremacist patriarchy via state-sanctioned violence. Or, policing is the enforcement of the preexisting -isms that confer social meaning–one’s very real, material participation in and representation by the state–whereas “cancel culture” is the attestation of everyone’s social meaning via an individual (or sometimes, multiple individuals’) social capital. The police enforce a system that upholds disposability, “cancel culture” describes individuals divesting from this system by risking their own social capital to “enforce” everyone’s social meaning. “Enforce” is in quotes because, importantly, “cancel culture” is never about physical force. The force at play is always one’s own social capital, which is nothing compared to the literal military of police occupying the United States.

Al Franken willingly stepping down from public office is not a “witch hunt;” this is idiocy. “Witch hunts” describe our bizarre current historical understanding of a centuries-long genocide waged in Europe and then the New World against European women and Indigenous and African people, not an individual famous white man’s loss of political privilege. This is terribly imprecise writing. Genocide is not a metaphor.

So get out of town with, “policing language.” The integral, intrinsic social meaning of every community member must be defended with voracious contempt for our own social capital. We must get ourselves cancelled for upholding “cancel culture;” this is the only way to end this weary conversation–by starting another, by meaning who we say.

Sophie Dillon

Sophie Dillon


is still figuring it out.

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