Free Debate for Free Citizens?

Some remarks on cancel culture and its critique

Thomas Meyer

“Cancel culture […] is a political buzzword that describes systematic efforts for the partial social exclusion of individuals or organizations that are accused of offensive, discriminatory, racist, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial, bellicose, misogynistic, chauvinistic, or homophobic statements or actions” (Wikipedia). Today, many see the freedom and diversity of opinion as threatened by cancel culture. Liberal classics such as Voltaire or John Stuart Mill are often quoted. The critics of cancel culture point out the importance of being able to hear and take note of dissenting voices (because of course, without a plurality of opinions there would be no progress in knowledge), as well as to the danger of censorship and exclusion from civil society (boycott, deplatforming).

As the anthology Cancel Culture und Meinungsfreiheit – Über Zensur und Selbstzensur [Cancel Culture and Freedom of Expression – On Censorship and Self-Censorship] points out, critics also complain that Cancel Culture prevents free scientific discourse.[1] Cancel culture acts emotionally. It operates in the mode of argumentum ad hominem. It opposes the “misconduct” of individuals. The aim is not the truth, but the moral or professional destruction of public figures who have expressed a “wrong opinion.” The opponent is not refuted, but cancelled, i.e. the person is dismissed, he is forced to resign, becomes a non-person. The discourse is broken off. Or so these critics claim.

A fundamental problem of cancel culture, we are told, is its tendency to “equate verbal expression with physical violence” (p. 64). This encourages “censorious thinking” (ibid.) and leads to a “cult of vulnerability” (p. 24). Comparatively harmless statements are scandalized (e.g., so-called microaggressions). On the basis of individual statements, conclusions are drawn about the defendant’s “attitude,” and they are accordingly judged as guilty. It is the fact of being affected and of belonging to a certain group that is decisive for this assessment, not an unbiased argumentation. There is an aggressive protest culture whose central argument is being offended. If certain people or groups felt offended, they feel as if they are on the right side as victims. Being offended is used as justification and reason (especially on “social media”) for militant agitation. This ranges from preventing events (i.e. restricting freedom of speech and teaching) to death threats (e.g. against J.K. Rowling, because she believes that trans women are not “real” women). So far, no representative of “TERF” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism) has been beheaded for insult, transphobia, or the like (unlike people who would have “insulted” Islam, such as French teacher Samuel Paty in 2021). Rowling’s books, however, have been burned[2] (by Christian fundamentalists as well, by the way).[3] Such events are used to argue that “cancel culture” (or what is considered as such) poses a threat to democracy. The consequences are (self-)censorship and a narrowing of the space of discourse. A “climate of fear” (p. 57) emerges. The purge of the classical educational canon in schools, in art, in museums, etc. is also criticized. One can summarize this criticism of Cancel Culture by saying that the agitators of Cancel Culture appear thoroughly authoritarian and self-righteous, but adorn themselves with the halo of being progressive and forward thinking.

According to Stefan Laurin, cancel culture has its origins in postmodernism, “which in turn has its roots both in linguistics and in the rejection of democracy, the Enlightenment, and the market economy” (p. 175).[4] In the United States in particular, Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay[5] point out that identity politics agitators, unlike classical postmodern theorists (such as Michel Foucault), espouse an absolute truth claim (queer theory, “critical race theory”, disability studies, fat studies, and others).[6] According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, it is hardly possible to disagree with these people without this disagreement being quickly identified as part of a pernicious normality.[7]

It is indeed a problem when substantive differences are not resolved through “sober discourse” but when everyone starts a shitstorm from within their own filter bubble (if they are capable of receiving or understanding content outside their own bubble at all). The inability to deal with content or other positions outside of one’s peer group or filter bubble is characteristic of authoritarian and narcissistic subjects.[8] Disagreeing with one or another premise of certain identity politics practices or theories does not necessarily indicate a reactionary point of view (one is not, for instance, immediately a Western imperialist or a racist with a “colonialist view” if one rejects certain aspects of non-Western cultures as authoritarian or reactionary, or if one criticizes Islamist anti-Semitism).[9] Although postmodernism spoke out against essentialist and binary thinking, it falls into these very waters when it acts in an identitarian way. Terry Eagleton therefore accused postmodernism of not applying its methods to itself.

The critiques of cancel culture and of the claims to the absoluteness of postmodern “cynical theories”[10] and their agitators described here certainly have their true and justified moments. However, against the background of emerging right-wing or fascist movements and agitations, a critique of postmodern thought and its identitarian derivatives remains highly inadequate if this critique remains based on the idea of a liberalism of “free” discourse and the progress of knowledge through sober argumentation. This critique of cancel culture is therefore problematic in several respects: the first concerns the “idealism of domination-free scientific discourse.” Free discourse at universities is often not possible, even without cancel culture. After all, there is the standard academic pecking order. Then there is the academic filter-bubble thinking itself, which emerges out of hyper-specialization and precarious employment. The latter encourages conformist behavior. If you do not conform, your contract will not be renewed (or your grant application will not be approved). Instead of open and non-hierarchical discourse, ass-kissing is the order of the day. Professional bans are not even necessary in the entrepreneurial university.[11]

It is not that every idea is freely discussed and disproven theories disappear. On the contrary. One example is Peter Singer, the philosopher and animal rights activist. While he wants to grant personhood to certain animals, he simultaneously denies personhood to certain humans. What he proposes is a concept of “life unworthy of life” – as one would have formulated it in earlier times. Today, the right to life is denied to those who only cost money and, according to Singer, would be better off if they had never been born. Misanthropic positions do not disappear just because they have been refuted in a free scientific discourse. Capitalist conditions themselves reproduce Social Darwinist ideologies that deny the right to exist to those who are not exploitable (any longer). Finally, such positions do not remain only “gray theory,” but become a program.[12] And is it really an expression of an authoritarian character and of a ‘hostility to democracy’ to try to prevent events with Peter Singer, who has not revised his position since the 1980s until today, by demonstrations and agitation?

Secondly, we have seen quite a few people (Thilo Sarrazin comes to mind) that have received a career boost and a growing degree of recognition as a result of shitstorms and cancellations (or attempted cancellations), i.e. people who have not disappeared from the public eye or lost their jobs. But to then stand up and claim that the corridor of opinion is being narrowed or something like that shows nothing other than that those who criticize racist or anti-Semitic etc. positions are being excluded from the supposedly free discourse. Cancel culture can thus also be classified as a right-wing rallying cry that isinstrumentalized to deny legitimacy to the political movements of those who are marginalized and discriminated against. This rallying cry is meant to immunize against criticism. Of course, no one is racist, anti-Semitic or sexist anyway.[13] Nor is the lumpen intelligentsia. From this point of view, any accusation is pure denunciation: Criticism of racist positions is not criticism, but a shitstorm and a suppression of freedom of speech (which is ironic, given the fact that these opinions are pushed by the mainstream media and the “victims of leftist do-goodism” are invited to a thousand talk shows). Criticism of discriminatory language is not criticism of the linguistic devaluation of certain people or groups of people (think of the endless denigration and harassment of the unemployed!),[14] but nothing other than the unacceptable paternalism of “free citizens.” Privileged people[15] feel that they are being “trampled on” when the official channels of criticism are not followed, or when they encounter any opposition at all (what were the times when sexist and homophobic hostility could be expressed without those affected having the opportunity to complain!).[16] Criticism thus becomes “censorship.” If Friedrich Merz regards cancel culture as the “greatest threat to freedom of speech,” it is not exactly difficult to guess what he will probably invoke in the next election campaign in order to avoid criticism of himself and his reactionary positions. Merz thus instrumentalizes “cancel culture” in order to be able to delegitimize and denounce his political opponent from the outset.[17]

We can see that the public discourse has shifted more and more to the right in recent years. So-called “taboo breakers” have played an active role in this.[18] The aim of the right-wingers was to push back the “limits of what can be said.” This was apparently successful. Fighting the extremism of the center is entirely justified and necessary (those who see it differently may be part of the problem). The repeated demand to “talk to the right” because freedom of speech requires it can be interpreted as an unconscious desire to let the right say what one has secretly been afraid to say.[19] The liberal critique of cancel culture thus suffers from the fact that freedom of expression – freedom of opinion – is formally conceived and usually depoliticized. There is a reluctance to admit that there are social struggles and antagonisms that cannot be erased by arguing with each other in the lecture hall. The connection of certain positions with a social (crisis) dynamic that promotes anti-human viewpoints is ignored. Instead, all opinions (except, of course, those that violate the law, i.e., Holocaust denial) are made equal. A supposedly free and neutral scientific and democratic discourse, i.e. a free exchange of arguments, is supposed to pave the way to truth. Of course, this presupposes a positivist understanding of science, which makes no distinction between a natural order, which would be what it is even without human intervention (e.g. the movement of the planets), and an objectified social order, which is, however, historically contingent, i.e. has only come into being through human action itself. Positivist thought can only trace reality, but cannot criticize it as a false or alienated reality. It makes “the existing reality appear as the only possible and historically necessary one.”[20]

The prevailing conditions are not soberly “analyzed” by the critics of cancel culture at all. Rather, they blindly assume them, and their catastrophic consequences for man and nature are trivialized, distorted, naturalized, or denied altogether. That the critique of cancel culture remains only a bourgeois critique, i.e. one that is unable to establish a connection to the capitalist enclosure of bondage, is shown, for instance, by the publicist (and Novo editor) Kolja Zydattis when he documents the following example of cancel culture from 2017: “A planned lecture by the federal chairman of the German police union Rainer Wendt at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main on the subject of ‘Everyday police work in an immigration society’ was cancelled. Left-wing groups had previously mobilized against the event. An open letter from 60 academics at Goethe University and other German universities also demanded that Wendt not be allowed to speak. The head of the police union reinforces ‘racist thought structures’ and positions himself ‘far away from an enlightened discourse.’ Wendt had spoken of Germany ‘not being a constitutional state’ in reference to Merkel’s opening of the border to refugees in 2015 and claimed that police officers in Germany do not engage in so-called racial profiling.”[21]

Positions that promote isolationism, view refugees as disruptive factors and security risks, and trivialize racist police violence should apparently still be discussed “with an open mind.” The demand to open discussion ignores the fact that there are already “results.”[22] You don’t have to discuss all the shit people say, especially when it is clear that what’s being discussed is meant to shift the discourse and public opinion further to the right,[23] and criticism is dismissed as unfounded leftist intolerance anyway. A leftist critique would certainly say that such agitation is insufficient and that the reference to “enlightened discourses” initially sounds somewhat naive. But a more far-reaching critique that goes beyond this, one that addresses the causes of migration[24] and places them in the context of the crisis of capitalism, would not even occur to the liberal critics of cancel culture in their wildest dreams. No critic of cancel culture would ever think of calling the closure of hospitals, libraries, and swimming pools for “economic reasons” cancel culture (or all kinds of IMF austerity policies and structural adjustment reforms, etc.). If people cannot successfully sell their labor power in order to participate in the valorization process of capital, if they are thus only “social waste” and a “security risk” for the allegedly “open society,” their existence is cancelled in real terms, they can freely and openly discuss different opinions as much as they want… But at the same time, on the contrary, the space of the free opinion and discussion may not be so wide after all, if in it people dare to question the sanctified capitalism. To take the liberty ofcriticizing and pointing out the limits and restrictions of bourgeois freedom[25] would certainly be considered by some an “abuse of freedom” by the “enemies of freedom,” especially if this criticism were not limited to language and argumentum ad hominem, but went as far as the realization of this freedom. The mendacity of the bourgeois critics of the cancel culture lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeois public itself is unable or unwilling to argue neutrally, soberly and openly when, for example, there is talk of expropriation (to the detriment and not the advantage of capital)[26] or if the “C-word” is even mentioned, i.e. when capitalism is considered as a fundamental problem! There is no mention of Voltaire here, but right away comes an aggressive shitstorm from the liberal Twitter mob (again, just a coincidence that they are mostly men).[27] The bourgeois ideal of an open-ended debate is disgraced by the reality of its bourgeois bigotry!

The emptiness and meaninglessness of the monstrous capitalist self-purpose (M-C-M’) finds its expression in the emptiness and groundlessness of positions charged in an indentitary manner (“free ride for free citizens” or the like). Just when identities fall into crisis because their social foundations are breaking down, they are defended all the more fiercely. Their disintegration or obsolescence is blamed on an “external threat” (leftists, politicians, migrants, feminists, the “gay agenda,” etc.). The insistence on the formal correctness of a “dominance-free” discussion ultimately leads to what is called “dominance-free” and “democratic” – what is considered “normal” – shifting further to the right. This does not make all bourgeois criticism of cancel culture wrong (it is right to criticize senseless purges of historical artifacts and affective shitstorms instead of discussions), but it would have to grow out of its bourgeois bigotry if it wanted to contribute to the critique of ideology against widespread brutalization. However, the bourgeois critique of cancel culture, with its idealized liberalism and its adherence to capitalist real-metaphysics (sometimes summarized as “common sense”), makes it more compatible with right-wing positions or, as it is called in popular jargon, connectable [anschlussfähig]tothem. It is therefore no coincidence that some Novo authorsalso write for magazines such as Achse des Guten or Eigentümlich frei. In fact, the focus of the bourgeois critique of cancel culture is not the critique of right-wing cancel-culture: think here of “political masculinity,”[28] which aggressively mobilizes for patriarchy, and the agitation against Fridays for Future.[29] The ban on gender studies in Hungary apparently did not count as cancel culture to liberal/conservative and right-wing critics.[30] On the contrary, gender studies is considered by many to be a pseudo-science that should be abolished!

The decisive factor in criticism is the question of content and not the formality of a so-called domination-free discourse. If one follows the liberal critics of cancel culture, and only focuses on the freedom or openness of discussion, the question of the historical and social context of “controversial” positions remains unanswered. Likewise, the constraints and structures of domination that prevent (or at least make very difficult) an open discussion – for example, about the possibility of a non-capitalist mode of production – remain unthematized. But that is exactly what ison the agenda![31]

[1] See for the following remarks: Sabine Beppler-Spahl (ed.): Cancel Culture und Meinungsfreiheit – Über Zensur und Selbstzensur, Frankfurt 2022.

[2] Cf:

[3] For example, in Poland:

[4] Stefan Laurin: Ein Angriff auf die Aufklärung, in: Sabine Beppler-Spahl (ed.): Cancel Culture und Meinungsfreiheit – Über Zensur und Selbstzensur, Frankfurt 2022, 175-190.

[5] Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, Durham 2020.

[6] Authoritarian tendencies have also been noted in the German queer scene, as is well known: Patsy L’Amour Lalove (ed.): Beißreflexe – Kritik an queerem Aktivismus, autoritären Sehnsüchten, Sprechverboten, Berlin 2017. The situation is no better in the anti-racist scene: Vojin Sasa Vukadinovic (ed.): Freiheit ist keine Metapher – Antisemitismus, Migration, Rassismus, Religionskritik, Berlin 2018.

[7] On the critique of postmodernism, see: Terry Eagleton: Die Illusionen der Postmoderne, Stuttgart/Weimar 1997, first, Oxford 1996, as well as Robert Kurz: Die Welt als Wille und Design: Postmoderne, Lifestyle-Linke und die Ästhetisierung der Krise, Berlin 1999, and ders: Der Kampf um die Wahrheit – Anmerkungen zum postmodernen Relativismusgebot in der gesellschaftskritischen Theorie, in: exit! – Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft No. 12, Angermünde 2014, 53-76.

[8] Cf. Leni Wissen: The Socio-Psychological Matrix of the Bourgeois Subject in Crisis – A Reading of Freudian Psychoanalysis from a Value-Dissociation-Critical Perspective,

[9] Cf. Sama Maani: Respektverweigerung – Warum wir fremde Kulturen nicht respektieren sollen. And neither should we respect our own, Klagenfurt/Cleovec 2015.

[10] Pluckrose & Lindsay cannot be discussed further in the following.

[11] Cf: Gerhard Stapelfeldt: Der Aufbruch des konformistischen Geistes – Thesen zur Kritik der neoliberalen Universität, Hamburg 2011.

[12] Cf: Peter Bierl: Unmenschlichkeit als Programm, Berlin 2022, and Gerbert van Loenen: Das ist doch kein Leben mehr! – Warum aktive Sterbehilfe zu Fremdbestimmung führt, Frankfurt, 2nd ed. 2015, first Amsterdam 2009.

[13] The satirical magazine Titanic put this denial and downplaying of anti-Semitism in a nutshell a few years ago

[14] Cf: Anna Mayr: Die Elenden – Warum unsere Gesellschaft Arbeitslose verachtet und sie dennoch braucht, Berlin, 3rd ed. 2021. As if it were the most normal thing in the world, the culture industry is also busy generalizing and hounding, see Britta Steinwachs: Zwischen Pommesbude und Muskelbank – Die mediale Inszenierung der “Unterschicht,” Münster 2015.

[15] As, for example, Herfried Münkler: Cf. Peter Nowak: Münkler-Watch – Neue Form studentischen Protestes?, Telepolis, 11.5.2015, Cf. also

[16] No kidding: Jasper von Altenbockum (of the FAZ) writes in all seriousness, in the Novo anthologyI listed here, about the Adenauer era: “The question is, however, whether political mores were not much more open, tolerant, interested, and argumentative back then than they are today. Debates about Thilo Sarrazin, Boris Palmer, Sahra Wagenknecht and Hans-Georg Maaßen show a degree of political prudishness in the respective parties and beyond that even the Adenauer era, which was truly uptight and taboo-laden in other respects, seems like a haven of freedom” (p. 73f.). What a mockery of the victims of the Adenauer regime! (Communists, opponents of rearmament, homosexuals, etc.).

[17] Cf. The Dark Parabolic Knight: Fritz Meinecke and the Cancel Culture Danger:

[18] Cf: Annett Schulze, Thorsten Schäfer (eds.): Zur Re-Biologisierung der Gesellschaft – Menschenfeindliche Konstruktionen im Ökologischen und im Sozialen, Aschaffenburg 2012.

[19] Cf. Christine Kirchhoff: Gefühlsbefreiung by proxy – Zur Aktualität des autoritären Charakters, in: Katrin Henkelmann, et al. (eds.): Konformistische Rebellen – Zur Aktualität des autoritären Charakters, Berlin 2020, 213-230.

[20] Miladin Zivotic: Proletarischer Humanismus – Studien über Mensch, Wert und Freiheit, Munich 1972, first Beograd 1969, p. 39.

[21] Kolja Zydatiss: Cancel Culture – Eine Begriffsbestimmung, in: Sabine Beppler-Spahl (ed.): Cancel Culture und Meinungsfreiheit – Über Zensur und Selbstzensur, Frankfurt 2022, 50-65, pp. 53f.

[22] Cf: Herbert Böttcher, “Wir schaffen das!” – Mit Ausgrenzungsimperialismus und Ausnahmezustand gegen Flüchtlinge, 2016,

[23] On Rainer Wendt, see

[24] Cf: Georg Auernheimer: Wie Flüchtlinge gemacht werden – Über Fluchtursachen und Fluchtverursacher, Cologne 2018.

[25] Cf. e.g.: Leo Kofler: Zur Kritik bürgerlicher Freiheit – Ausgewählte politisch-philosophische Texte eines marxistischen Einzelgängers, Hamburg 2000 and especially: Robert Kurz: Blutige Vernunft – Essays zur emanzipatorischen Kritik der kapitalistischen Moderne und ihrer westlichen Werte, Bad Honnef 2004.

[26] Tomasz Konicz: “Comrade Kühnert,” Telepolis, 12.9.2020,

[27] Cf. Der Fall Elisa Avesa – Das Gespenst des Kommunismus, Neues Deutschland, June 9, 2022,

[28] Cf.: Susanne Kaiser: Politische Männlichkeit – Wie Incels, Fundamentalisten und Autoritäre für das Patriarchat mobilmachen, Frankfurt 2020.

[29] Cf: Enno Hinz, Lukas Paul Meya: Headwinds for the climate movement, of 12.11.2019 or Analyse & Kritik No. 654.

[30] Cf.

[31] Cf. Tomasz Konicz: Emancipation in Crisis,

Originally published in Grassroots Revolution No. 475 (January 2023)

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