Cancel culture, sometimes termed call-out culture, is all the rage these days, particularly among young people — primarily young white people, who seem to have pickpocketed the phrase from (again) the Black community.

But wait. Let’s—as they so lamentably say–”unpack this.”

As you may have heard, or been unable not to hear, canceling someone is a form of ostracism in which that person is thrown out of social or professional circles–online, on social media, or in person. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been “cancelled.” The expression “cancel culture” crops up in debates on free-speech and censorship. Cancel culture is a variant on the term call-out culture: shunning or boycotting an individual, often a celebrity, who is regarded as having have acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner.

Critics of cancel culture argue that it has a clamp-down effect on public discourse, is unproductive and doesn’t bring real social change, causes intolerance, and can amount to cyber bullying when online. Defenders argue that cancel culture itself is a form of free speech, that it promotes accountability, and gives the disenfranchised — women, men of color, other oppressed groups, etc. — a voice and a no-longer-invisible presence.

No one knows what to do about it, except seethe with resentment.

So let’s go back to history, and to blessed etymology. If you know how a word was born, you know how an idea was born.

Ostracism (ostrakismos) was an Athenian male democratic procedure in which any male citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years.

All these “male” inserted words are here to remind us that women and the enslaved population in Athens were not citizens: whether educated or not, they had no voting rights, no rights of assembly, no rights of political participation, no legal rights, no economic rights, etc.–so much for the origins of democracy.

Some instances of ostracism expressed popular anger at the citizen, yet ostracism was often used preemptively — as a way of neutralizing someone considered to be a potential tyrant or threat to the state. Ostracism wasn’t practiced across the entire span of Athenian democracy (circa 506–322 BCE); it only occurred in the 5th century BCE.

The name is derived from the pottery shards that were used as voting tokens, called ostraka in Greek. Broken pottery, plentiful and free, served as a kind of scrap paper, unlike papyrus, imported from Egypt and too costly to be disposable. Each year, (male) Athenians were asked in the assembly whether they wished to hold an ostracism. If they voted “yes,” an ostracism would be held two months later. In a section of the agora, (male) citizens–many of whom were illiterate but could vote nonetheless–gave the name of those they wished to be ostracized to a scribe, and the name was then scratched on a pottery shard. The shards where piled facing down, so votes would remain anonymous. An elaborate counting process followed and the accused whose pile contained the most ostraka would be banished, providing that a (male) quorum was met.

The person had ten days to leave the city. If a return was attempted, the penalty was death; but the culprit’s property was not confiscated, there was no loss of status, and after ten years, the accused was allowed to return without stigma. It was possible for the assembly to recall an ostracized person ahead of time; before the Persian invasion of 479 BCE, an amnesty was declared under which, for example, Pericles’ father Xanthippus was known to have returned.

Ostracism was quite different from Athenian law at the time: there was no charge, and no defense could be mounted by the person expelled. The stages of the procedure ran in the reverse order, as if a jury were first asked “Do you want to find someone guilty?” and subsequently asked “Whom do you wish to accuse?” Equally strange in a judicial framework is that the process could take place at most once a year, and only for one person. A further distinction was that ostracism was an automatic procedure that required no initiative from any individual, with the vote simply occurring on the wish of the (male) electorate-—a diffuse exercise of power. By contrast, an Athenian trial needed the initiative of a particular (male) citizen-prosecutor. While prosecution often led to a counterattack, no response was possible in ostracism as responsibility lay with the (male) polity as a whole–an approximate mob mentality and “cover” oddly reminiscent of cancel culture. Last, there was, of course, the basic distinction that women and the enslaved were barred from all aspects of it.

Ten years of exile, however painful for an Athenian to face, were mild compared to sentences inflicted by courts. When dealing with politicians held to be acting against the interests of the people, Athenian juries could inflict such severe penalties as death, unpayably large fines, confiscation of property, permanent exile, or loss of citizens’ rights (for men, since women couldn’t lose what they were denied to begin with).

Tyranny and “democracy” both had arisen at Athens out of clashes between regional and factional groups organized around politicians; as a reaction, the democracy worked to reduce factions as the focus of citizen loyalties. Ostracism probably was intended to work similarly: by temporarily decapitating a faction, it could help defuse confrontations that threatened the order of the State. (This model, by the way, was followed by the Framers of the US Constitution in founding their new republic, and George Washington passionately argued against forming factions and political parties in his famous farewell speech to the troops.)

As an interesting aside, the threat to the Athenian democratic system in the late 5th century BCE didn’t come from tyranny but from oligarchic coups, not dependent on powerful individuals, but reliant on interlocking webs of wealth. In later decades, when the threat of tyranny was remote, ostracism seems to have been used as a way to decide between radically opposed policies.

The motives of individual voting (male) citizens cannot be known. Many of the surviving ostraka name people otherwise unknown, perhaps just someone the submitter voted against in a moment of private spite. Some ostraka even bear the word “limos” (hunger) as a qualifier for banishment, rather than a human name.

So, back again to cancel culture.

We live in a judgmental society, one that is nervously flirting with becoming a shame culture. It’s true that cancel culture muzzles free speech. But then one must ask who has benefited–and still does–from freedom of speech, who has profited, and who has been silenced, perhaps for centuries, perhaps forever? We need look no further than the origins of ostracism itself, Athenian “democracy,” in which all women and enslaved people were not permitted citizenship. Then fast-forward to today, when “free speech” tropes are still trotted out to defend violent, misogynistic pornography, despite causality research on femicide. Consequently, free speech for whom and when and how becomes the central question. It seems to me that that question is answered by more free speech for more people, not less for some. BUT, if there is justifiable paranoia about “some” greedily gobbling up what should actually be an infinite resource, then we must change/heal/fix that first.

As a further irony, the term cancel culture itself appears to have entered contemporary vocabulary via white people stealing the concept from Black people (repetitive theft). “Cancelled” was a dismissive adjective used by a character about another character in the 1991 film New Jack City, with Wesley Snipes; it meant “You’re dead to me.” This popularized the term in African-American Vernacular English, soon to be ripped off by young, white progressives eagerly famished to be hip and cutting edge. Soon, peer pressure morphed it into being crucially in lockstep with the herd–other young, white, progressive, etc. As with the Athenian elite, the solution is being brought to us by some of the same folks who brought us the problem. So you get the identical tedious drawing of lines and sides, amounting to much sound and fury, signifying tweets.

Item: an open letter signed by 153 public figures published in Harper’s Magazine set out arguments against “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” Well, that’s true.


Item: a response letter organized by lecturer Arionne Nettles was signed by over 160 people (ha! seven more!) in academia and media. It criticized the Harper’s letter as a plea to end cancel culture by successful professionals with large platforms who wanted to exclude others who have been “cancelled for generations.” The writers ultimately stated that the Harper’s letter was intended to further silence already marginalized people. Well, that’s also true.

I’m not trying to fudge it here, merely attempting to be rational. Clearly, there are some benefits to cancel culture, such as less powerful people gaining a voice, marginalized communities holding others accountable when the justice system won’t, and being a tool for social change. I wouldn’t call that cancel culture, though; that’s just good politics, that’s revolution, even evolution as a species. Whereas cancel culture these days seems to be more like something 14-year-olds would do while hiding under their desks to dodge school shooters.

I think it is stupid, racist, and insane for right-wingers to attack critical race theory as something dangerously threatening – when in fact CRT is educative, enlightening, and inclusionary! I think it is just as stupid, racist, and insane for left-wingers to refuse to teach Mark Twain’s <Huckleberry Finn because it accurately depicts racist dialogue during an era in the American South while being a brilliant work of literature against racism.

Blame, blame, blame. You want blame? I’ll give you blame.

I blame a great deal of this maelstrom on Donald Trump, for having released his personal vitriol to run wild through the American politic and, at least so far, having endured little or no consequences. I blame social media, which has given everybody a megaphone to blabber and blare contagious rage whether anyone else wishes to hear it or not. I blame peer pressure and a lemming-like mentality which is not, unfortunately, restricted to the young. I blame the Comstockian purists on campuses who set arbitrary rules for everything from politics to literature and language itself (oh, those pronouns!) and leave no room for discussion, no climate for empathy, no possibility of nuance. I think no one should be barred from campuses because of their politics, or afraid to speak out because of threats–but by god if those politics are odious then the free assembly should march and demonstrate! I blame the Louis CK’s and Charlie Roses and Bill Cosby’s carrying on their careers as if nothing had happened, with no remorse or even minimal understanding (at least Harvey Weinstein is still in jail). Some media commentators, like Levar Burton, have stated that cancel culture should be renamed consequence culture; that’s at least interesting, because it focuses on the idea that those who write or publish opinions or make statements should bear some responsibility for the effects of these on others.

Look, we’ve had cancel culture, for real, in this country. It was called McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and it had teeth. It meant that someone “named” as a communist during the 1950’s could not be hired, employed, befriended, defended. Careers, entire livelihoods, were utterly demolished, families destroyed. With then-Senator Joseph McCarthy on the rampage, the return of witch hunts was literal. Some victims committed suicide. Seemingly less major, contemporary campaigns like “slut shaming,” also shows us victims choosing suicidal exits. Bullying is still bullying. The witch hunter mentality runs deep in our species, thrives in anonymity, profits from accusation, and exults in self-righteousness.

Frankly, our fights against racism and sexism deserve far more honorable champions than cancellers, who get off way too easily. Then again, I tell myself, the Athenians, too, gave it up as unworkable, and in this country we periodically suffer social and political fads that sweep over us like locusts, but then move on. So I tell myself that this too will run its course. Fingers crossed.