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Why it is impossible for terms like "cancel culture" and "identity politics" to possess universal meaning
A few months back, we ran a sharp piece by Nathan Allebach on the difference between liberals and leftists. He started his article with a brief meditation on language:
Nothing fuels online discourse like fights over language. New terms will popularize in a subculture then trickle into the zeitgeist until they lose universal meaning, if it was ever there to begin with. Terminology such as “weaponize,” “virtue signal,” “identity politics,” “moral panic,” “bad faith,” and “cancel culture” gets diffused so widely and unsystematically that it feels impossible to pin down what someone means without a litany of qualifiers and caveats.
Allebach describes how terms start out in a particular subculture only to lose their capacity to convey a shared meaning once they graduate into discourse ubiquity.
He’s right, this often happens—and it’s worth wondering why. Why do terms like cancel culture exhibit “meaning leak” as they travel from the underground and into prominence? How come virtue signal starts off as a meaningful concept but eventually loses its way?
In Allebach’s explanation, he highlights what happens when terms start getting used “more widely and unsystematically”; over time, people need extra qualifiers and caveats for them just to make sense. That’s understandable, as now there are many more instances of these terms in the wild, and that means less precision and more vagueness.
But it’s not necessarily the case that the more a word is used the more it will exhibit variation in meaning. More instances doesn’t necessarily mean less precision. It’s more instances of a particular kind that ends up mattering—specifically, more instances of those terms being uttered by discourse actors with rival incentives and objectives.
The terms don’t forfeit their coherence merely by being widely used—they lose it on account of being widely used in a particular context: the context of political contestation.
What happens is the broader discourse, being basically an arena of ideological conflict, a theater for the forever culture war, provides warring factions an opportunity to superimpose their preferred meaning onto terms in a way that suits their objectives.
This is how you get cancel culture being, for one side, a phenomenon whereby people’s access to platforms, livelihoods, and reputations are unjustifiably threatened, for another side, reactionary hysteria over mere cultural accountability, and for yet another side, the squirming unease felt by the socially privileged as they are increasingly divested of their cultural power.
Now, couldn’t we all just live and let live? Can’t Community 1 enjoy its own definition of the term and allow Community 2 to enjoy theirs?
No, our shared discourse environment won’t allow it. Community 1’s conceptualization of cancel culture is necessarily hostile—not in and of itself, but in the way it must exist within a context of rhetorical battle. It can at first appear as though the term has been given a perfectly neutral definition, but that only lasts until it gets used. Once it’s used, once it’s no longer suspended in the undefiled air of abstract expression and actually gets applied to specific situations, it is forced to show its teeth.
At that point, it becomes obvious why Community 1’s application of the term is inherently conflictual; at that point, the views and behaviors of the people who make up Community 2 have been implicated.
Usually, a term’s prominence in one subculture will prompt a rival subculture to offer either an eliminativist counterdefinition (“actually, x doesn’t exist”) or one that sees the original subculture as mostly to blame (“it exists but you’re actually the guilty party”). In other words, the alternative definition will either deny the existence of the thing altogether, or suggest that it’s actually the people originally uttering it who are most guilty of it.
None of this is mysterious or all that deep. It’s obvious that in an ongoing discourse arena of political contestation, the terms that one group uses to advance its positions (“the other side is all about identity politics”) get challenged and even repurposed against them. Again, this is expected.
The more important question is whose definition is right—and for that, like always, you’ve got to look at the reasons and arguments put forward by each side for their preferred conceptualizations.