The disciplinarian and the reformer

Here’s the fundamental problem with #cancelculture. The disciplinary instinct and the instinct to genuine social reform are opposed.

To be a disciplinarian- to hunt after people who have breached the rules- is to assert implicitly that “We need to root out the bad ones”.

To be a reformer, to seek to change the rules, is to assert “This problem is so large that there are no bad ones or good ones.”

The disciplinarian can never indict the whole all at once, yet this is what the reformer requires. To put it slightly differently, because discipline is about enforcing the rules, it is very difficult to put it into the service of changing the rules.

Every time you catch “one of the bad ones” and make an example of them, you are implicitly signalling that the problem is individual misbehaviour, and that if only the existing rules were enforced, things would be better. Seeing things in terms of individual wickedness is opposite of seeing structural problems, and so each conviction provides ideological cover for the status quo.

I’m not suggesting we stop punishing people who do bad things. The world is too difficult for such absolute measures. Disposing of the disciplinary instinct would not fix things because wicked people do need to be reigned in from their worst excesses through the threat of opprobrium and other sanctions. Still though, we should never imagine that social sanctioning is a radically transformative power.

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