“This Event is Canceled”: Understanding the Mediums of Our Discourse

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Something that I feel is being lost in a lot of conversations about cancel culture, de-platforming, and censorship is more direct analysis of the mediums of discourse themselves. In this short essay, I want to focus on the medium that is THE STAGE. For the purposes of this discussion, the stage can be either a physical stage at a venue or a virtual one like a video conference. The differences between physical and virtual stages are significant and can be further parsed, but I want to talk about THE STAGE as a device, or medium, that provides an elevated platform for particular perspectives and voices.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the phrase, “The medium is the message.” (McLuhan, 1964, p.7)[1] By it, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan meant that human discourse always takes place through a medium, and whatever the medium happens to be—whether speech, print, photography, telegram, telephone, advertisements, movies, radio, or television—it shapes, orients, and controls the way we associate with and behave toward one another. Yet despite its importance, it’s easy to lose awareness of the medium simply because its purpose is to transmit content that interests us. To this point, McLuhan wrote, “it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” (McLuhan, 1964, p.9)

Neil Postman provided further clarification on the phrase by amending it to: “The medium is the metaphor.” (Postman, 1986, p.20)[2] The reason this distinction is important, argued Postman, is because mediums don’t make actual statements. They enforce their definitions of reality by implication. In other words, they’re metaphors. As metaphors, they “classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like.” (Postman, 1986, p.27)

So… a stage isn’t itself a message, but it does a heck of a lot more than serve as a mere conduit of information or discourse. It embodies a host of presuppositions and possibilities that shape our beliefs and perspectives. Plus, it’s entangled in systems of power and profit that are controlled by people authorized to make decisions about how the stage is used, including: 1) which people get to occupy, speak from, or perform on it, 2) how they are presented to the world, and 3) the limits of what they get to say and do while using it. 

It’s essential to understand that those systems of power and profit (and their gatekeepers) operate by specific rules, standards, norms, and sensibilities—all of which have spoken and unspoken components. In our country, those things have historically and largely been determined by men in the dominant culture. They got to the top first, so they set the rules. As a result, people in non-dominant groups have often experienced the stage as a device/medium controlled by dominant-group monopoly. 

Changes in ethnic and racial demographics as well as growth in the value of women’s voices have led to increasing demands for changes in the rules, standards, norms, and sensibilities by which the gatekeepers operate. Naturally, people in non-dominant groups want changes that make things more equitable for them. If it were the case that dominant-group monopoly has produced equitable results for people in non-dominant groups, that would be one thing; but it hasn’t. People in non-dominant groups have frequently experienced the monopoly as a silencing, dismissive, exclusive, sidelining, belittling, and deeply hurtful force. So, calls for change are almost always attached to unresolved trauma

At this point, I have to touch on yet another medium: social media. Due to the way social media platforms are designed, unresolved trauma now has an outlet that enables, even favors, its amplification. But it’s a form of amplification that produces unintended and potentially harmful consequences, even as it empowers voices that were previously silenced or ignored. One of the harmful outcomes is unmoderated, viral harassment that can happen to just about anyone, with real consequences on people’s emotional and even physical wellbeing. But another harmful outcome is that when staged events get canceled or people get uninvited following a significant outcry on such mediums, these consequences aren’t experienced as a movement toward more fairness but less, especially by those in the dominant group, who feel like they’ve had their negotiating power forcefully stripped from them. It can make them even more resistant to change and less empathetic to other people’s perspectives. And that’s ultimately not good for anyone.

But being forcefully denied negotiating power is precisely what non-dominant groups have experienced all along, so it’s almost meaningless to talk about these new forms of control and illiberalism without an honest assessment of the pre-existing forms of control and illiberalism. The latter forms seem less violent only because they’ve been institutionalized. The acute violence that took place to establish them as the norm took place a long time ago, beyond the reach of living memory. The current violence they do is banal; it’s violence in slow-motion.

And somehow, we have to talk about all of those things at the same time we engage in sober assessment of how social media (one of the most powerful sets of media ever created) is reshaping our imaginations and stunting our emotional IQ when it comes to solving or discussing potential solutions to human problems. This quagmire may feel intractable, but it doesn’t have to become permanently unavoidable. If we do a better job of thinking about what’s happening, it will open up new possibilities to us. As McLuhan said in a later book, The Medium is the Massage, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”[3]

[1] McLuhan, M. (1964, 1994, 2013). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (electronic edition). Gingko Press.

[2] Postman, Neil. (1986). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (2nd ed). Penguin Books.

[3] McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. Gingko Press.

Categories: Culture/Social issues

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