Modern Diplomacy
Cancel and Conquer? Cancel Culture in World Politics

Cancel culture has become an invariable component of the modern political agenda. What was only yesterday a regional phenomenon has spread to more and more parts of the world, and is being used as an instrument of pressure in the international arena.

Cancel culture is primarily an American phenomenon and grounded in American technology. However, even in the United States itself, there are at least two significant interpretations of this concept.

On the one hand, cancel culture is positioned as a tool for protecting the most vulnerable social groups. The mechanism of cancel culture in this case is clear: potential victims are protected from possible aggression in the public space due to the preventive elimination of potential aggressors from this space – those who do not adhere to the ‘correct’ discourse. The correctness of the discourse is determined by certain general standards set by the left-liberal agenda (first of all, the protection of all types of so-called minorities). In this context, it’s even been proposed to abandon the term cancel culture in favour of a more clear message – ‘culture of accountability’ or ‘culture of responsibility’.

It is understood that each individual is responsible for his words and actions and should be aware of the possible consequences. In this sense, cancel culture is, of course, an extra-institutional tool, since there is an expectation that even without formalised rules of interaction society adheres to certain standards that allow for the exclusion of radical ideas and judgment.

On the other hand, many in the US  interpret cancel culture as a tool for censoring and “modernising” the political and social space. This, they claim, primarily works to the detriment of conservative values. For example, there are known cases where the digital mechanisms of cancel culture have been used to target Donald Trump's supporters. After the victory of the Republican candidate in 2016, Facebook allegedly created internal mechanisms that “suppressed conservative content and traffic” Moreover, one of these tools was valid until the end of 2021. The case of Trump being “expelled” from Twitter, by the way, is not unique. Recently, a number of American politicians, publicists and socially significant figures have been temporarily or permanently excluded from the largest social networks - Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In each case, the ostracised person expressed an opinion that did not fit into the mainstream. For example, one questioned the safety of wearing medical masks, while another pointed out excesses in the BLM movement, or postulated that transgender women should not compete in women's competitions. At the same time, the tools of cancel culture are not limited to discrimination in social networks: conservative organisations have faced “cancellation” everywhere from crowdfunding platforms to electronic payment systems

Interestingly, even Pippa Norris, a professor of comparative politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, despite being a critic of Republicans, notes that cancel culture really leads to some values ​​in the discourse beginning to completely push out any others that are not in the focus of the current paradigm. 

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We are used to different acronyms. BLM, GOP, COP and so on. They all make sense, they allow us to save time, and turn out to be symbols which represent very sensitive and important processes. But it looks like it’s time to introduce a new acronym. We can call it NHC in English – “New Humanitarian Catastrophe” or NHD if you use the word Disaster.
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Differences in interpretations have also been confirmed by sociological studies. Pew Research, an authoritative think tank, conducted a September 2020 survey of more than 10,000 American adults to find out how the average US citizen sees cancel culture.  The results are curious: among those who have at least heard of cancel culture (44% of respondents), the most popular description is related to accountability - 49% of such descriptions. At the same time, 14% view cancel culture as a “censorship of speech and history”. Another 9% are sure that “people cancel everyone they disagree with”, and 5% say that this is “an attack on traditional American society”. In open responses, respondents point to the protective functions of cancel culture, but also argue, “this is an attempt to silence those who think differently than you [...] and it violates the civil rights of the people.”

The difference in interpretations of cancel culture in the United States has a pronounced correlation to ideology. According to Pew Research, the vast majority (75%) of Democratic Party supporters believe that cancel culture allows people to be held accountable for their wrongdoings. Among Republicans, only 39% share this idea, and the majority (56%) believe that cancel culture is used to punish innocent citizens.

Regardless of ideological attitudes, these interpretations highlight two essential aspects of the "new ostracism". First, cancel culture acts as a sanction tool, a punishment for unacceptable behaviour (real or potential). Second, cancel culture can be used as a mechanism for managing the socio-political agenda. In the second case, it is not about the “whip” of public censure and expulsion from social networks to influence someone's actions, but about the exclusion of unwanted judgments from the information field. So we see the “cancellation” of the opponent's position in the public space.

The wave of attacks against everything related to Russia (from the Turgenev oak to Degas’ ballet dancers) after the start of the special operation in Ukraine reflects the temptation to extend the domestic political practices of cancel culture to international relations.

The set of tools associated with cancel culture has turned out to be extensive: attacks on cultural objects and images associated with the state and its people, the denial of access to the cultural market and Western mass culture in the form of a ban on the use of entertainment services and mass market and fast food products, and the restriction of opportunities in Western digital platforms. The ultimate goal of these steps was most directly formulated by Polish Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski: “Russian culture must disappear from the public space.”

However, the attempt to transfer internal political practices to the external circuit demonstrates the significant limitations of this mechanism.

In order to use cancel culture as a means of sanctions, it is necessary that the target consider such a sanction meaningful. The consequences for the object must be tangible. If in relation to an individual disconnected from social networks, services and career options, such effects are observed, then in relation to states, this effectiveness is doubtful. A conditional “ex-communication from the West” can only be meaningful when a country considers its connection with it vital to its own identity. Obviously, in the case of Russia and China this is out of the question.

As with sanctions, cancel culture can be effective against allies, and can have the opposite influence on other participants in international relations.

The use of cancel culture tools as a form of sanctions is grounded in the notion that Russia, like the rest of the world, thinks of itself as a secondary part of a cultural space it shares with the West, and therefore separation from the civilisational patron will be a painful blow. In practice, this perception reflects Western colonial phantoms rather than the real state of affairs.

This was most evident in a hastily deleted tweet by Josep Borrell threatening to deprive Russians of shopping in Milan and partying in Saint Tropez. Outside the self-proclaimed North Atlantic oecumene, the West has not been thought of as a desirable model for emulation for a long time, and outright attacks in the cultural field only add arguments in favour of hostility against the United States and its allies. 

The use of cancel culture as a tool for moderating one's own public realm seems to offer more promise. The exclusion of the opponent from the cultural space narrows his possibilities for using public diplomacy and “soft power”.

However, even here, on the surface, there are significant problems. First, who cares about soft power now?

Second, active resistance forces one to admit that the opponent who is subjected to “cancellation” has a significant resource of cultural influence, which must be limited. For the West, this means recognising its own vulnerability in the face of alternative cultures and values. Third, cleaning up one's own culture and public realm from everything connected with such a large country as Russia is nearly impossible. At the same time, the articulation of intention necessitates a demonstration of its implementation. For all the resonance of individual steps, they cannot pull off a “cultural abolition” of Russia.

It seems that the further scaling up of the “cancellation of Russia” is hardly likely. Foreign politicians who loudly proclaimed “the first geopolitical cancellation of the 21st century” [ obviously do not fully understand the consequences, including for themselves. After all, the very essence of cancel culture implies that its supporter is in a vulnerable position and is being forced to resort to serious collective measures in order to resist the opponent. It also assumes that everyone or at least the majority should take part in someone's “cancellation”, whether voluntarily or through compulsion. Even at the US national level, it has been quite difficult to do this, and, as can be seen from the polls, it hasn’t been completely successful. In the international arena, achieving such unity is simply impossible.

The trap of cancel culture is also that it further erodes the basic values ​​of Western society: the right to private property, freedom of thought and speech, and freedom of business. Netflix, which lost more than 700 thousand subscribers when it left Russia (which, by the way, could have prevented its poor quarterly results), was not formally forced by anyone to refuse to work in the Russian Federation.

Doesn't this mean that here, as in many other cases, businesses are leaving Russia not because they want to punish the Russians and “repudite the Putin regime”, but because they themselves are afraid of becoming victims of cancel culture?

After all, then it wouldn’t just be their business in a separate, albeit rather large region that will be threatened; it would be the whole business in general. The top management of corporations around the world knows very well what happens to those who are cancelled inside the Western world.

The indicated limitations of cancel culture as a tool for achieving foreign policy goals do not cancel the risks associated with the use of its practices.

Ultimately,  ordinary people get hit first. An example of this is the flow of threats against compatriots and harassment in social networks. Cancel culture in international relations leads to the further autonomisation of cultural spaces. The very fact that there have ben attempts to use the information, cultural, scientific and educational space as a foreign policy weapon creates the risk that these channels of interaction will be blocked in anticipation of new threats. 

As noted above, cancel culture involves extra-institutional pressures. In the original sense, this is grassroots ostracism, a digital “lynching” by social groups that are limited in their capabilities.

The potential for the reproduction of cancel culture in world politics appears to be limited.

Against the backdrop of sanctions, information attacks and arms supplies to Ukraine, the attempt to “cancel” Russia in the cultural field looks secondary. Among the West’s strategies to contain Russia, the rejection of everything Russian and demonstrative distancing from our country has hardly been decisive. With regard to Russia, cancel culture acts rather as a psychotherapeutic tool for the domestic Western audience. Elements of fashionable and already-familiar tools are used automatically. Why not try to cancel a country that causes irritation with its disagreement with the Western narrative; remove it from the visible field and forget about this irritant? In the logic of modern Western practices, such a simplified reaction, unfortunately, seems quite natural.

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