Abstract. In the West, “cancel culture” is spreading at epidemic speed as a vehicle of the “new ethics.” Although the concept of “cancel culture” remains opportunistic, there is a perceived need to identify the subject of research of this phenomenon from the standpoint of political science and methods of historical and philosophical deconstruction in order to understand the genesis and true meaning of cancel culture and why it has so broadly and quickly acquired such an influence on world politics. My hypothesis is that cancel culture is connected by a socio-genetic code with evolution (moreover, mutation) of the underlying meanings of European culture going back to the sacralization of ancient sacrificial rituals, Aristotle’s tertium non datur principle, the ideology of the Crusades, positivist Karl Popper’s “contractual truth,” and school of analytical philosophy that gave rise to Soros-type “open society” cultural universalism.

New media and especially social networking have become tools of cancel culture pressure at the international level. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the depth of the crisis of the Open Society social project and globalization interpreted as bringing national cultural and political values in line with the standards of American political culture. The measures taken by Russia, China, and a number of other countries to protect their value sovereignty met with a tough reaction from the West in the form of “fencing off” and “punishment” similar to the “canceling of Hollywood movie stars” – i.e., declaring “maverick” countries to be “outcasts” that impede the “effective” project of “democratic globalization.” In this discussion article, the author considers ways to neutralize attempts to “cancel Russian culture” and shows that Russia has a “firewall” in the form of traditional values opposing the “new ethics” as well as in the form of creating new ties and open platforms for interaction at the international level. Considering the cyclic nature of relations of confrontation and cooperation with Western civilization, it is in Russia’s interests to avoid self-isolation from the West and to build relations with it, combining the protection of value sovereignty and the media environment with balanced strategic empathy in order to avoid an escalation of events toward the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.

It is high time to make cancel culture the subject of academic discussion to answer such questions as: can it be seen as a systemic phenomenon and is it developing spontaneously or is it based on scientific sources? Other questions are warranted. For example, can attempts to isolate Russia be seen as a manifestation of cancel culture in world politics? How can this manifestation of Russophobia be combated?

The main aim of this study is to describe the genesis of cancel culture in world politics and outline ways to overcome it, and my hypothesis is that cancel culture is connected by socio-genetic code with evolution (indeed, mutation) of the deep meanings of European culture.

Cancel culture,according to the authoritative Cambridge dictionary, is “a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you” [22]. The initial targets are identified right off: they are first, movie and show-business stars, then politicians, journalists, and opinion makers. According to Paul Hodkinson, a Briton, “celebrities are the ultimate media creation and as such embody the notion of simulacra.” Belonging to the “array of empty simulacra” [8, pp. 271, 272], these stars go out just as they flare up on the firmament of hyper-reality.

The channel of cancel culture is the new media, especially social networks. Information there moves over the discursive field, and if the flow reaches a certain intensity, a socio-political agenda is formed that may “cancel” a “star,” a brand, a political actor, or even an entire country. The mechanism is obvious: “As we are living in this era of new media, this phenomenon is a form of new social movement” [18, p. 266].

The method of demeaning “others,” including state leaders, has been perfected (through politicized practices of bullying, trolling, and hating) over centuries [5], and its new modifications over the past decades. Denis Stukal and Anna Shilina point out that differences between pro- and anti-establishment interpretations of online information have turned trolling into “a new manipulative technology of digital politics” [15, p. 179]. Unlike trolling, canceling humiliates not by attack but by boycott.

The author has used the methods of historical-philosophical deconstruction and analysis of the media environment as set forth by Manuel Castells in his book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age [2].

From the History of Canceling: The Splendors and Miseries

The verb to cancel acquired a relatively new disapproving connotation at the hands of Afro-American Twitter users in the 2010s. Initially, though, it was used in a facetious and ironic context: “You don’t like him? Then cancel him.”

Cancel culture was institutionalized by the #MeToo movement, when the scandal involving Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 opened the floodgates for revelations and many stars first publicly declared that they had been victims of harassment and violence [28]. The practice was adopted by Black Lives Matter activists who demanded the firing of racist police officers. Examples of anti-racist canceling are the canceling of the rapper Kanye West, who was accused of justifying slavery, and film actor Laurence Fox for backing the All Lives Matter slogan [31]. Having started with pop idols, cancel culture then switched to politicians using the stock methods of harassment charges. One of the early victims of “character assassination” was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, executive director of the IMF who was widely tipped to win the French presidential race. He was falsely accused of sexual assault and attempted rape of a New York hotel maid [14]. Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also became targets of sexual harassment charges.…

Escalation then spread to history (with whole eras and major figures being canceled) and the intellectual elite. According to the linguist John McWhorter, one of the 153 signatories of the Letter on Justice and Open Debate [26], university faculty live in constant fear for their careers if their opinions diverge from those of the majority. In a supremely interesting article “Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?” Harvard professor Pippa Norris writes: “Within academia, scholars most likely to perceive ‘silencing’ are mismatched or non-congruent cases, where they are ‘fish-out-of-water,’ ” as imposed values displace traditional ones [10].

Cancel culture is thus becoming an instrument of political control: it obviously democratizes discourse, as each voice deserves to be heard, but on the other hand, the networking model enables marginal voices to speak from a position of strength [33]. Paradoxically, networking democracy promotes the dogmatization of ideas and mob rule.

Lavrov: The Iron Curtain Between Russia and the West Is Already Falling [25]

The West’s attempt to spread “cancellation” to Russia elevated it to the level of world politics. Today, Russia – through no fault of its own – is facing a dilemma similar to the one Alexander Nevsky faced in the 13th century: it is forced to “search for the optimal positioning of historically Russian lands in the ‘West-East’ coordinates … expanding the area of being and increasingly claiming civilizational independence in relation to both the West and the non-West” [16, pp. 9-10].

The particular problem of canceling, having gone beyond the internal framework, is already perceived by society as an existential threat to national security. Members of the Copenhagen School of security studies, Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, write in the book Security: A New Framework for Analysis that “securitization on the international level (although often not on the domestic one) means to present an issue as urgent and existential, as so important that it should not be exposed to the normal haggling of politics but should be dealt with decisively by top leaders prior to other issues” [1, p. 29].

The move to “cancel” Russian culture targets its highest achievements in literature, the arts, and sports. In March 2022, Valery Gergiyev was fired from his post of principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic for refusing to “adjust” his assessment of Russia’s policy. The maestro’s symbolic tit-for-tat reaction was a new production of Wagner’s tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelung” (Der Ring des Nibelungen) to enthusiastic reception, in striking contrast to the ban on the performance of Tchaikovsky at the Cardiff Philharmonic [21] (later withdrawn). Among other instances of obscurantism, mention should be made of the scandalous cancellation by the University of Milano-Bicocca of public lectures about Dostoevsky by Paolo Nori [35]. Reaction was swift, and the “cancellation of Dostoevsky” was itself canceled under pressure from indignant Italians.

In Russia, cancel culture did not take root because of the nation’s totally different socio-cultural code. But some cases are indicative. For example, the case of TV presenter Regina Todorenko, who made a shocking “misogynous” statement in an interview with PeopleTalk saying that if husbands batter their wives the women are themselves to blame. The brand’s firms boycotted her. The “influencer” lost her Woman of the Year title from the trendy magazine Glamour,but then apologized, donated to the No to Violence Fund (Nasiliu.Net) and was forgiven by the magnanimous Russian public.

There are, however, some images so deeply ingrained in popular mentality that attacking them can be perceived as an attempt to destroy the Russian identity, “the whole thousand-year country, our people” [32]. Russia’s reaction to attempts to cancel Russian culture turned out to be ironic-tolerant, even condescending: “Excommunication from the West can matter only if the country considers its link with the West to be vital for its own identity. Obviously, in the case of Russia and China, for example, this is out of the question,” writes political scientist Daniil Parenkov [30]. A survey conducted by VTsIOM showed that 33% of respondents saw nothing new in the attempts to “cancel” Russia, 25% think the harm will be insignificant, 23% believe that such a policy would stimulate the development of Russian culture, and only 12% said the boycott would do substantial harm. Interestingly, only 10% of Russians support a similar “cancellation” policy in Russia, 12% “somewhat agree” with such a measure, 27% say that retaliatory sanctions are “probably not a good idea,” and 46% are definitely against such sanctions (the survey sample was 1,600 persons over the age of 18) [34].

To plan measures to reduce harm from cancel culture, we should look at its historical and philosophical roots.

Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Roots

There is no doubt that cancel culture was born at the early stages of history. Only its forms have been changing. Likewise, cancel culture is undeniably linked with the ancient practice of ostracism, “the action of intentionally not including someone in a social group or activity” [29], although there are of course some differences. The cultures of Antique heritage have the archetypical term “scapegoat” (French bouc émissaire, German Sündenbock). This capacious stereotype denotes an outcast, a person expelled from society, sometimes for imagined misdeeds. The term originated in the times of the Jerusalem Temple (10th century B.C. – 1st century A.D.) when the ancient Jews celebrating Yom Kippur, “released” an animal into the wilderness,1 symbolically charging it with the sins of the whole people. The animal was called a scapegoat. In other words, cancellation is akin to expiatory sacrifice. It is a symbolic forgiveness of the sins of all those who cast out the scapegoat (translation: reject what is alien).

Contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk observes: “By their violence-fraught rituals with the help of which they protect themselves from evil and try to drive it out of their inner domain, archaic groups consolidate themselves like some conspirators against evil and form themselves into a team, as it were, to exclude and banish it.” In fact, little has changed over some 2,000 years: “Sacrificial rituals on which the cultural or religious continuity of ancient societies was based in one way or another, is routinization of these solidarity-generating impulses; in modern societies, which seem to be doing without sacrifices, they are played out in the form of periodic scandals and outbursts of mass indignation” [13, pp. 179, 181].

But the main “cancelation” ritual was erasing from memory. Ancient Egyptians scraped the names of unloved pharaohs off slabs. In Rome, there was symbolic execution (damnatio memoriae,“curse of memory”), which was how the names of Caligula and Nero were rubbed off gravestones.

The logical prototype of cancel culture was offered by Aristotle in his day (today, by a strange twist of fate, he himself is being “canceled” for justifying slavery). According to Aristotelian logic, we use the law of the “excluded middle” (tertium non datur).2 Now we are offered not a choice between “us” and “them” and are recommended to cancel not only the “middle,” which is not given, but also the second term.

Ancient Manicheanism, a religious-philosophical teaching born in Parthia in the Middle East in the 3rd century and prevalent until the 11th century in an area from Rome to North Africa and China, drew a stark distinction between the light forces of good and the dark forces of evil [27]. Excommunication from the Christian church (anathema) and the insanity of the inquisition come to mind.

From the Tricky “Occam’s Razor” to Popper’s “Contractual Truth”

I have often had occasion to recommend to my students to use “Occam’s razor”3 to improve verbose texts. In other words, do not use complicated explanations when simple ones will do. This principle effectively formulates the rule of choosing between hypotheses when “they may be equally true, yet are mutually exclusive” [19, p. 95]. But that amounts to “canceling the odd term.” Strictly speaking, the artifice of “Occam’s razor” consists in its reductionism.

One of the forefathers of cancel culture, the Austrian positivist philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994), denies the existence of a pat criterion for declaring various products of human reason (hypotheses, concepts, theories) to be true. “The method of science is rather to look out for facts that may refute the theory. This is what we call testing a theory – to see whether we cannot find a flaw,” Popper stated [12, p. 466]. He divided all societies into “open” and “closed” ones and considered rigorous moral universalism to be a key principle of an open social system. “Do not forget that I consider my book The Open Society and Its Enemies to be my contribution to the hostilities,” Popper wrote in the last year of World War II [11, p. 471]. The ideas of “openness” advanced by Popper and his pupils underpin, for example, the “cancellation of history,” i.e., the tendency to interpret it as a subjective narrative. “History itself – I mean the history of power politics, of course, not the non-existent story of the development of mankind – has no end nor meaning, but we can decide to give it both. We can make it our fight for the open society and against its enemies,” wrote Popper [12, p. 482].

Opposing the dualism of facts and decisions, Popper included among his enemies Hegel with his dialectics and negation of the negation. He did not hide his hatred of the great philosopher. Hegel is the middle term in this scheme. Popper demanded a single interpretation that practically cancels dialectics. To separate truth from falsehood, he came up with the principle of falsification, which uses the criterion of rational consent: a fact or concept is considered verified if a number of authoritative experts or researchers agree to consider it to be true. In other words, that which is “ours” or is good (convenient) for us is true, and that which is not “ours” and is not good for us should be cut off. This is nothing if not “the structure of cancellation.”

The positivists criticized the concept of “objective truth,” because it makes no sense to speak about the object without the agent and its goals. But then this was the essence of the post-non-classical approach to truth that dominated thanks to the analytical philosophy school (Bergmann, Frege, Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, Carnap, Searle, Dummett, and others).4

Thus, the present-day Western narrative and cancel culture are the result of the transfer of the attitudes of logical Positivism from the philosophy of science to socio-political reality. Logical Positivism sorted all phenomena like abacus beads (right-left) into true and false, rational versus irrational (nowadays, this can be done easier by pushing Accept or Cancel on your smart phone). The heirs to Popper’s ideas, members of the Vienna Circle, having fled from Europe under Nazism to the US, imported the framework to American universities. There, on campuses, logical Positivism, fused with American pragmatism, set about constructing a new ethics and a new political reality.

Cultural Universalism of the “Open Society”: From Popper to Soros

Step-by-step analysis of the normal development of Western thought in the analytical philosophy mainstream reveals how cancel culture grows out of Positivism. Linked by the socio-genetic code with Popper’s philosophy and intrinsic meanings of European culture, cancel culture was the result, not of evolution but of mutation, which happened due to the combined effect of the ideology of “open society” universal values and a breakthrough in the field of communication technologies.

First a word about “open society.” The universal morality of the open society was an idea that, after Popper, was taken up and turned into a sophisticated weapon by George Soros, who founded first foundations and then branches of the Open Society Institute in various parts of the planet. That the name coincides with the title of Popper’s book is not accidental. It has been fostered by his theory, with the concept, like the kindred term “globalization,” quickly becoming a meme. The philanthropist invested the project of American-style globalization with an added idea of the cosmopolitan standard. He turned Popper’s idea of the open society into a hallmark of the latter-day Order of the Brothers of the Sword, generously financing new Crusades, i.e., the “color revolutions” that swept several countries.5 At the 2022 Davos forum, Soros declared that the world is increasingly involved in the struggle of two opposing systems, the open democratic society and the closed authoritarian society, a statement that drew this wry remark from Yevgeny Primakov (grandson of the late Russian prime minister), head of “Rossotrudnichestvo” (targeted by sanctions): “The ideological confrontation is coming back on a new turn of the spiral. Now we and the Chinese are called ‘authoritarians’ ” [24].

“Soros globalization” stood to gain from the weakening of national sovereignty of states, the creation of an amorphous human mass from which it would be easier to mold the new social project. The COVID pandemic strengthened borders and demonstrated the weakness of global organizations. Like plague in former times, the coronavirus struck existential fear into the world, throwing humankind back to the New Middle Age and undermining attempts to impose cultural universalism. Slavoj Žižek, one of the most colorful philosophers of our time, debunked the anti-racist pathos of the cancel culture, showing that self-humbling of white liberals was counter-productive: by belittling their identity in favor of the special identity of minorities, proponents of political correctness are arrogating the right to be heralds of “universal human” positions, making decisions for others.

As for “common values,” Žižek ironically confesses that he dislikes UNESCO universalism and “disgusting books”published a decade ago under titles such as “Every Culture Is Beautiful.” “No,” he exclaims, “every culture is horrible – in its own way! Every culture has, how do you say, a body, a dead body in a closet!” [36]. The message of this tongue-in-cheek hyperbole is that in promoting the slogan of globalization, the US interpreted it as universalization and the leveling of the values of other cultures, including political cultures, according to the templates of Western culture (or rules). But national cultures are more specific than common features and they cherish their inherent values. Russia, China, and some other countries (even Turkey, a NATO member) have refused “to march in lockstep.” In the face of the crisis of globalization, the West found it easier to “fence itself off” from the rogue states rather than delve into the “niceties” of cultural differences, which impede the “effective” project.

Why Did the Media Turn Kickstart the Cancel Era

How was it possible at all? The non-linear development of the world did not only upset the centuries-old balance of interests, but “canceled” the ability to maintain that balance. The speeding up of the flow of time made the picture of the world more complicated, and the scientific and technological breakthrough which brought about the media turn also brought with it the threat of such a level of media monopolization (above all of the social networks) that “the fourth estate” is now able to “cancel values” as easily as Donald Trump’s social media accounts were blocked. The Internet and social networks, having become tools for promoting the open society, put everyone in a situation of “information overload,” provoking a reaction, from pathological fear of missing out on information (FOMO) to “information detox,” i.e., the total rejection of digitalization (“back to the woods”!). Alla Mitrofanova, a cultural researcher and cyber-feminist from St. Petersburg, claims in SocioDigger that “unproductive cognitive distortions are growing in society; psychopathy and, accordingly, unmotivated aggression are on the rise” [9, p. 14]. Aggressiveness is whipped up by anonymity and hence, impunity. Thus, “a new ethic” is taking shape caused by the imagined invulnerability of networking actors who hide behind their online monikers; an ever larger segment of cyberspace (37% by the early 2020s [20]) is occupied by automated fake accounts of social networks (bots) that create a political landscape design of astroturfing. Cognitive distortions in the human segment are compounded by the growing circulation of fake news. Media politics and “the new ethic” lead to the growing modality of information, the degradation of humanistic values plunging us into the era of post-humanism because “the perception of post-politics and post-truth tends to shift toward the recently popular context of debates on post- and trans-humanism” [6, p. 232].

Some Academic and Practical Conclusions

Sporadic manifestations of cancel culture in various forms have existed since ancient times, but today, in the era of Web networks, it has acquired a concentrated, almost totalitarian character, generating a disturbing pulse of the “era of moral anxiety.” It has been well studied by social psychology, but as a new phenomenon in world politics, it is a challenge for the professional community of international affairs and political scholars.

The least studied facet of the “new ethic” is forecasting the reaction of those who are “canceled.” In the classical terminology of Albert Hirschman, it is a choice between: (a) compromise (loyalty),(b) quiet exit, or (c) (most frequently) protest (voice)[7], which in extreme cases takes the form of revenge for “cancellation.” “The strength of revenge can be disproportionately great. The cycles of humiliations and revenge are prone to take the form of a tornado and are very difficult to stop” [5, p. 531].

A promising area of research to which I would like to draw the attention of my fellow political scientists and politicians is working out the norms of sovereign media space and an agenda to tackle the key question: how to return to normal forms of communication that make it impossible to “expel” a whole country from such communication. However, as long as there exist closed spaces (classrooms, social groups, or broader associations) trolling and “cancellation” are possible. The task, then, is to open up the political space or secure the sovereignty of that space, thus rendering cancel culture irrelevant.

Analysis of cancel culture in world politics shows that states that are on the receiving end of cancellation technologies are simply obliged to guarantee sovereignty in matters of values and information.6 This implies: (1) the possibility, at any time, to introduce alternative autonomous social networks in the national and friendly media space; (2) the creation of a new system of education on the basis of healthy traditions and innovations that develop the capacity to think independently and creatively; (3) the stimulation of robust development of social sciences and humanities oriented toward Russia’s national interests. Judging from the results of opinion surveys, Russian citizens by and large have immunity against “cancellation.” The great culture and history, literature, and the arts form the linchpin that will preserve Russia’s identity and integrity.

Relations with the US and its allies have been seriously marred, perhaps for a long time. However, we may recall lend-lease during World War II, even if it was not entirely unselfish (the concept of “permanent cancellation” would have prompted the West to push the Soviet Union toward defeat at all costs). Nor should we forget the relief effort mounted by the American Relief Administration (ARA) during the 1920s famine in the USSR, large-scale support of the West (above all the US) for the “crash” industrialization of our country in the 1930s. Think of the dozens of bilateral agreements between Moscow and the European countries as part of bilateral partnership with the EU, an initiative launched in 2010. Relations with the West develop cyclically and will sooner or later be put on an even keel. We should bear in mind, first, that an alternative to cooperation could be escalation of the conflict to the point of a nuclear disaster, and second, that normalization of relations is fully consonant with Russia’s interests. The wisest thing would be to avoid self-isolation and build the relations with the West, combining the defense of sovereignty and its media space with strategic empathy (see [3]) to prevent the world from slipping toward the brink of nuclear war.


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22. Cancel culture. Cambridge Dictionary. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/cancel-culture.

23. Evans R. What is cancel culture? And who has been cancelled now? Grazia. September 10, 2020. Available at: https://graziadaily.co.uk/life/in-the-news/what-is-cancel-culture.

24. Yevgeny Primakov: I would not underestimate Soros. Radio Sputnik. May 25, 2022. (In Russian.) Available at: https://radiosputnik.ria.ru/20220525/soros-1790580369.html.

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28. Molloy P. Right-wing media helped usher in the age of “cancel culture,” but now pretend it’s an invention on the left. Media matters for America. January 26, 2021. Available at: https://www.mediamatters.org/new-york-post/right-wing-media-helped-usher-age-cancel-culture-now-pretend-its-invention-left.

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1 We find a description of the release into the wilderness in the Old Testament: “Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness” (Lev. 16: 8-10).

2 Non-Western thought, for example, in East Asia, seeks to resolve the contradiction outside the “either-or” dichotomy. But that is the theme of a different project – the study of cancel culture according to the method of comparative analysis of Western and non-Western types of thought.

3 The maxim is attributed to the English scholastic philosopher, Franciscan friar William of Ockham (1285-1347). As all analysts know, the principle of “shaving off” superfluous arguments reads: “Do not multiply entities needlessly” (Non sunt entia multiplicanda praeter necessitatem).

4 Note the contribution of Michael Anthony Dummett (1925-2011), a British philosopher for whom a fact of the past is what has been publicly recognized by the community [4].

5 In 2015, Russia’s Federation Council effectively accused the Soros Foundation of subversive activities and the Prosecutor General’s Office declared George Soros to be persona non grata in Russia.

6 See this article by Anatoly Torkunov [18].