There are two different types of “cancel culture.”

The old one, the one we all grew up with, was the demand to fire allies and shun people in one’s own group who have strayed too far from core principles or folkways.

This is the tyranny of Mrs. Grundy. It is inherently conservative, centrist, protective of the in-group.

The newer one, which was always latent but never quite as strong as it is today, is the demand to fire or shun people not in one’s own group . . . for offending principles not of their group (whatever that may be) but of one’s own group.

It is the tyranny of Ms. Grundy.

The first kind of cancel culture is standard operating procedure for an in-group. The second type is generally considered a no-no in an open society, where it is assumed that free association and free speech limit our social power to our own groups.

What must we make of the second type, and its current dominance and association with the very term “cancel culture”?

  1. Its practitioners do not have much commitment to the idea of an open society, for their practice of out-group canceling belies that norm.
  2. The practice is hegemonic, a kind of cultural imperialism.
  3. I associated it with ultra-conservatives in my youth, an expression of their desperate attempt to retain a grasp on their culture as dominant in the greater society. They were failing, and failing badly. The very practice of out-group social controls may have led to their fall from cultural hegemony, for any group that must resort to the biggest guns to maintain position has already lost its foothold on the top of the mountain.
  4. Which suggests to me that the group most flagrantly parlaying this sort of power is on the way out of power.

Am I wrong?

Herbert Spencer had much to say on these matters. “Could we add up the trouble, the cost, the jealousies, vexations, misunderstandings, the loss of time and the loss of pleasure, which these conventions entail—could we clearly realise the extent to which we are all daily hampered by them, daily enslaved by them; we should perhaps come to the conclusion that the tyranny of Mrs. Grundy is worse than any other tyranny we suffer under.”

But that was mid-19th century.

Oh, and “Mrs. Grundy” is the old term for the centrist scold, the imperious marginalizer of non-comformists — the traditional practitioner of cancel culture. My use of the term “Ms. Grundy” not only reflects new standards, the standards of feminism and intersectionalist victimology, it also suggests (I hope) the thoroughly modern millenarianism and imperialistic nature of today’s cancel practice.

The difference is that, in Spencer’s time, Mrs. Grundy was trying to enforce an old and accepted standard upon a diversifying population, while today’s Ms. Grundy is trying to enforce a new standard upon an already diverse population, aiming to make it an ideological monoculture.

But Spencer’s hopeful and assumed progress has no instantiation among today’s progressives:

[T]he essential revolution is not the substituting of any one set of restraints for any other, but the limiting or abolishing the authority which prescribes restraints. Just as the fundamental change inaugurated by the Reformation was not a superseding of one creed by another, but an ignoring of the arbiter who before dictated creeds; just as the fundamental change which Democracy long ago commenced was not from this particular law to that, but from the despotism of one to the freedom of all,—so the parallel change yet to be wrought out in this supplementary government of which we are treating, is not the replacing of absurd usages by sensible ones, but the dethronement of that secret irresponsible power which now imposes our usages, and the assertion of the right of all individuals to choose their own usages. In rules of living, a West End clique is our Pope; and we are all papists, with but a mere sprinkling of heretics. On all who decisively rebel comes down the penalty of excommunication, with its long catalogue of disagreeable and indeed serious consequences.

The liberty of the subject asserted in our Constitution, and ever on the increase, has yet to be wrested from this subtler tyranny. The right of private judgment, which our ancestors wrung from the Church, remains to be claimed from this dictator of our habits.

Herbert Spencer, “On Manners and Fashion” (Westminster Review, April 1854).

To understand the current situation, we are witnessing an attempt to turn progress towards decline, reverse the evolutionary process that Spencer studied and usher in the dissolution his schema mentioned but which his sociology inadequately explored. The new Ms. Grundyites are reactionaries, aiming to shanghai civilization and send it back to a monoculture, by means of constant shunning, expulsion, and ideological harangue.

And much more.

Nation-building, you might say.

To take us away from Spencer’s temporal arc of evolution-equilibrium-dissolution and look at it more in terms of left and right, we could identify Mrs. Grundy as exemplary of right-wing cancel culture, while regarding Ms. Grundy as the exemplar of left-wing cancel culture . . . in that it demonstrates the strategy I have discussed before, to gather individuals and groups said to be on the outs, at the social periphery, and take up their cause as an excuse to subjugate the in-group.

It is fascinating to watch.

But not exactly pleasant, since all Grundies are insufferable.