After the release of that ludicrous Harper’s letter that claimed the biggest threat to civilization (civilization defined as the liberal marketplace of ideas) was “cancel culture”, numerous philosophers have gone out of their way to defend this hot take with even worse hot takes. The most asinine and yet pretentiously self-assured of these was Agnes Callard’s Should We Cancel Aristotle that was not only a massive red herring but paradigmatic of the kind of assessments of reality that come out of mainstream [bourgeois] philosophy. That is, as I have noted so many times, there are a lot of philosophers who talk about problematics they haven’t studied in great detail, accepting certain flawed parameters as a priori correct and then, upon this faulty conception of the world, build an entire argument they think is meaningful. It’s a bit like an astronomer of the bygone era accepting the Ptolemaic conception of the world as fundamentally correct, never bothering to really understand the Copernican worldview, and then going on to ask an astronomer dedicated to the Copernican Revolution, “well your theory doesn’t account for retrograde motion!”
Politically speaking, philosophers do this kind of thing a lot. They accept certain ideological “common sense” notions as, well, common sense, and then they construct their arguments within these boundaries without ever bothering to wonder if their thought is prescribed by these boundaries, without bothering to critique the concrete historical/social details behind the object of their analysis, and then end up validating business as usual (but a more “rational” version) with the authoritative seal of philosophy. As more than one person has asked (over and over), we should ask why people who study and teach political philosophy in the US can get away being “authorities” in political philosophy when they have not bothered to rigorously study the history of colonialism and slavery that is the United States of America. What sort of “expert” on political thought in US academia can still refer to the “Founding Fathers” with pride, or shrug away slavery and settler-colonialism as epiphenomenal. Not a very good one, in my opinion, but a shit ton of these intellectuals have tenure. Same north of the border where I work, where an “authority” on political philosophy can teach a course about Indigenous “reconciliation and recognition” (to cite one among many examples), despite never having studied philosophy that examined settler-colonialism––let alone key Indigenous philosophers who have done so––and choose a textbook filled with settlers, compradors, and imperialist editors. (As an aside, I think anyone who teaches political philosophy in Canada should at the very least have to read Tyler Shipley’s Canada In The World, which is the largest project to date of the violent settler-capitalist social relations that make Canada Canada.) I’m getting a bit off topic, but this is all to say that Callard’s hot take of hot takes article about cancelling Aristotle fits into this “philosophical” (scare quotes are intentional because it was a fucking lazy article) perspective of the world.
The thesis of Callard’s article is pretty simple: “cancel culture” is this thing that is happening that is bad because it wants to suppress the insights of people who disagree with you; people who don’t have 100% agreeable positions might have other things that are worthwhile to contribute; look at Aristotle who was a proponent of ancient Athenian slavery and was a misogynist; Aristotle contributed many other things to civilization that are worthwhile; “cancel culture” would mean that we must also “cancel” Aristotle (i.e. not teach him, prevent people from reading him) and this would be a bad thing since Aristotle’s contributions are important; “cancel culture” is threatening education, specifically education that should be buttressed by teaching Aristotle. As I noted in the first paragraph this is largely a red herring, because it avoids even thinking the notion of “cancel culture” and instead leans into a moralistic what-aboutism. And since it is a red herring I want to instead discuss how it’s framed rather than its content, since the latter is the result of a poor understanding of reality and so is in fact rationally inadmissible. There’s a reason I won’t engage with the internal content of moon landing conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, and 6 Day Creationists: they begin from faulty principles, so it is the faulty principles that generate the content of their bad arguments that should be discussed.
First and most obvious point: “cancel culture” is a conservative conspiracy theory akin to “political correctness”. It’s a termed coined by the same people who coined the term “SJW” and anyone who fancies themselves a philosopher should maybe seek to bring clarity to this notion, and rigorously investigate its assumptions, rather than adopting it as the coolest new mind diet plan. The Harper’s article is funny because it is signed by a whole bunch of people who have good jobs, and who have made careers writing articles over and over again about “political correctness gone wild” and yet, for all that, have not been “cancelled”. Some (like Bari Weiss) have even tried to get people with opposing politics fired time and time again. If there is any “cancelling” that happens, it is only reputation on social media and this means very little in the real world. Why is it that the well to do liberal ideologues who signed this letter claim they are fearful of being “cancelled” when nobody is cancelling them? They still get to write their columns, mainstream venues publish their open letters, and if they are “cancelled” (criticized and dragged) on social media, this has meant nothing regarding their careers. The whole #MeToo movement that supposedly cancelled sexual predators only led to some of these “cancelled” celebrities getting Netflix specials. Whatever the case, none of them are being murdered in the streets, as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others were, which is why that Harper’s letter about “cancel culture” was even more gross in its timing. Some of these people supposedly “cancelled”, or at least targeted for being no-platformed, have contributed to the ideology that leads to the cancelling of actual life. Is it any accident, as one of the best critiques of that letter has pointed out, that the propaganda architects of the War on Terror signed that letter?
Second point: if “cancel culture” even was a thing, it has nothing immediately to do with Aristotle and ancient writings. Largely, the criticisms that are being branded “cancel culture” (again, today’s version of “political correctness gone wild!”), are criticisms of people who are lending ideological support to normative political power. So, for example, attempts to push Charles Murray back into the margins of unacceptable debate is being branded as “cancel culture” when, in point of fact, this is a response to the concerted efforts of white nationalists to use “free speech” discourse to mainstream him yet again. Not cancelling Charles Murray means real harm: he has been proven wrong, his ideas have been debated and demonstrated to be shit, but clearly the vaunted “marketplace of ideas” doesn’t work because he is being mainstreamed yet again. Him and other racists are being mainstreamed through some weird free speech mechanism while, at the same time, progressive academics are being fired and threatened. But I digress: the point here is that the majority of the people targeted by so-called “cancel culture” (and still get to keep their jobs, get book deals or television specials) are simple minded asshats who aren’t akin to Aristotle. (Actually they probably never read Aristotle which might mean that they are cancelling him in their own actions!) How is someone like Brett Stephens––who also spends all his time writing about the “danger” of cancel culture––akin to Aristotle and how does he still have a job when he has supposedly been cancelled? The assholes criticized by this supposed “cancel culture” (which has no ability to actually cancel) are white nationalists, conservatives, simpleton liberals, and nobody that qualifies in any way, shape, or form as a modern Aristotle. 99% of them wouldn’t bother to read Aristotle. Honestly, can you imagine Brett Stephens or David Brooks actually reading Aristotle? Callard attempting to making common cause with these anti-intellectuals who pedal “cancel culture” canards is disappointing at best.
Third point: philosophy is all about this supposed “cancelling” if we treat it as what it actually is (criticism with the intention to get those criticized pushed outside of the bounds of acceptable discourse) rather than some weird metaphysical notion of destroying civilization. Aristotle was a canceller; he wanted to cancel Plato’s philosophy and replace it with his own. All of philosophy in fact his a history of various philosophers telling their readership why other philosophers were wrong and should be forgotten. The history of philosophy is largely a history of “fuck x philosopher” and that’s how we teach it even we don’t put in this crass language. Funnily enough, Heidegger was all about “fuck Aristotle” but since he was Nazi so many philosophers have been “fuck Heidegger, too” and Callard wasn’t out there defending his Nazism. There’s a reason she chose Aristotle. She treats the construction of a philosophical canon as a priori.
So fourth point: for a long time radical philosophers have been questioning the construction of the philosophical canon that roots itself in Plato and Aristotle. This questioning has not been about denying the meaningfulness of Plato and Aristotle, but only about decentering a particular construction of Eurocentrism that fabricates an eternal Europe from ancient Athens to the present. If Callard was even attentive to this long standing critique from the radical wings of philosophy, that has been going on for decades upon decades, she might have written a different article. But no: she is really bound into the canon; her article was written as if she was unaware that any such critique even existed or even mattered. “How dare you cancel the basis of philosophy,” she asks, completely blinkered that critiques of the canon’s supposed basis haven’t existed for a long time, “And let me tell you about what philosophy is!” As I noted at the outset of this blog entry, any philosopher who dares to think the political should at least do the relevant political investigation. So Callard should have, at the very least, read Martin Bernal’s Black Athena and Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism to familiarize herself with the construction of the “Western Canon” of philosophy before treating it as a priori. But she did not, and so her worries about Aristotle and its red herring relationship with supposed “cancel culture” is based on a lot of presupposition heavy lifting.
Final point: it’s not supposed “cancel culture” that wants to delete history but, rather, those who constructed this fiction that want to preserve a false history and delete (that is, “cancel”) any challenges to this status quo. The worst hot takes about cancel culture have made bizarre assertions about “SJWs” suppressing history. Callard is asserting similar things regarding her imagined suppression of Aristotle that has nothing to do with what is at stake. What is actually going on is that reactionaries want to keep history suppressed; they are offended that critical historians reveal that the history they want to celebrate as pure was not so pure––they are offended, for example, by those who expose the historical fact that the “Founding Fathers” were slave owners. In fact, most of the signatories of the Harper’s letter would prefer if history was deleted, and are the kind of people who are greatly upset when historical facts are presented to them. They’ve actually gone out of the way to attack these historical facts, “cancel” the academics presenting them, or manufacture propaganda. And then sign this letter about “cancel culture” while rebellions were happening across their country, convincing apparatchiks like Callard to write articles in support of their ruling class status quo nonsense. The point, here, is that the people who have constructed this narrative of “cancel culture” are those who want to delete history because they never want to study it critically––and they definitely don’t want to study Aristotle (sorry Callard)––but in fact want to actually cancel critical interventions about this history and have worked hard to suppress and deny empirical data.
But yeah, okay, we are supposed to accept that the real problem is that the real problem is an imaginary cancelation of Aristotle? Like I said at the beginning: this is a red herring, the entire boundaries that contain Callard’s argument are a joke, but here we are. Welcome to bourgeois philosophy.