Predatory Moralism

“Cancel culture” is often treated as some kind of new phenomenon, developed on American university campuses. But in certain aspects it seems to be rooted in traditions going back to the earliest stages of barbaric society. Or what the sociologist Torsten Veblen describes as “predatory culture”.

Cancelling vs. censorship

“Cancelling” has both a negative and a positive expression. In the negative it is a kind of trophy hunting, only the trophy itself is the capitulation of the victim; the cancelling of something or someone. It’s affirmative side is the framing of the attacker as morally superior to the victim. The norms with which this superiority is reached are moral feelings belonging to a certain social class. Moral feelings govern all human action, indeed much to the best a society can achieve. But they become predatory when they are used to liquidate a rival’s social persona.

Veblen traces “predatory culture” back to the development of big game hunting. By that the first division of labour was introduced. Killing the animal was held in higher esteem than pulling the carcass back to the village and preparing it for different purposes. The rest is history: Farming took over from hunting and Man instead began “hunting” other groups of humans. Ever since then the leisure class, as Veblen designates the highest strata in a society, has been intimately connected to violence. Just as the lower group of criminals. The leisure class, Veblen shows, is engaged in “a refined waste of time”. Their activities belong to a world of leisure, not of workmanship. From this distinction the moral values of the leisure class is formed. The double purpose of these values is to lead the class members to fulfilling the right way of living, the “refined waste of time”, and at the same time exclude all life forms which are not submissive to these norms. Useless beauty and good tastes signify this class rather than the practical tasks of the mundane everyday.

The will to design one’s surroundings into the most comfortable situation by necessity conflicts with the fabric of matters of facts that we call ‘reality’. In relation to public debate, opinions and personal associations will be treated just as other class distinctions. What does not belong to the class of comfort and pleasure is instinctively destroyed. Cancelling and censorship in this context is all about getting rid of “pollution”.

The peculiar thing about predatory moralism, however, is that the victim not necessarily carries the opinions or political affiliations they are accused of. Some of those accusations function as a judgement in advance. For instance, accusations concerning the person’s intentions or sympathies. The accuser holds the power to impose a certain reading of something, which is morally obligatory to the public. And thus, difficult to confront without the risk of having the same accusations directed against oneself. If, for instance, someone is attacked for being “a right-wing extremist”, deliberations about the basis of such an accusation can be seen as an expression of an alliance or sympathy with the accused.

The accuser is in a position of nearly complete dominance over the victim. At the same time the victim is framed as a perpetrator, while the accuser, in this moral scheme, can enter the position of the victim, so to speak, acting in self-defence. And not only on part of him- or herself, but of society, the world and History. The accuser, in short, is confronting evil. But in predatory moralism the evil which is confronted is basically there because the accuser invents it.

A few examples from the art scene in Denmark can serve to illustrate this sequence. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the spring of 2022, Danish art institutions were encouraged to break all contact with Russian state entities. This led to a string of cancellations of exhibitions and performances. But on a closer scrutiny it turned out that none of the cancelled activities had any ties to the Russian government. One dance company was performing “Russian National Ballet” and therefore forced to cancel all remaining shows; but it was based in Germany, and many of the dancers were from Ukraine. The Russian artist and dissident Sergei Prokofiev had his work at the Charlottenborg art Hall in Copenhagen cancelled at first, but were later, as a very unusual exception, rehabilitated. In these cases the falseness of the accusation lies open for all to see.

While the attacks on “Russian art” follows the lines of nationalism, misrepresentation is also present (none of the accused were connected to the Russian state). Misrepresentation is, naturally, a basic feature of predatory moralism and the invention of evil in order to confront it.

One famous example of misrepresentation and ensuing accusation is the treatment of the Swedish artist Lars Vilks ( -- ). His sketchy drawing called “The prophet M. as a roundabout dog” made him instantly world famous in 2007, after BBC and CNN reported on a cancelling of the work’s first public show. The drawing is openly denounced as “conveying hateful iconography”, “only made to insult the moral feelings of innocent people”, and likewise. As one can see, the criticism, or rather condemnation, is speculating in the intentions and feelings of the artist himself. The cause of the indignation is a certain reading of the artwork: the critics of some reason choose to agree with his terrorist persecutors and insist the work is “a mocking of islam”. Yet “mocking of islam” can’t be the full description of an artwork, since the piece must contain ambiguity in order to be a work of art. It is a demonstratively simplistic reading. More than that it is a reading that devaluate the artistic status of both the work and the artist. They are expelled from the “art world”. In this way one could say the “art world” is secured from being drawn into the fight between the artist and the terrorists. But that is not entirely true, is it. Given that the “neutrality” is based on accepting the terrorist’s simplistic interpretation of the work. The neutrality could indeed easily be mistaken for submission to the rule of the terrorists.

The drawing marked a radical shift in the oevre of Vilks. He came from huge works of wood, stone and concrete on the coast just north of Helsingborg in south-west Sweden. For decades he fought in courts to save his structures, which violated numerous laws preserving the landscape. It was this long fight, he said to me, that prepared him for the fallout of “the Roundabout dog”. The drawing was created by blending two different cultural phenomena at the time. In Sweden people had begun making dogs in their garages and place them in roundabouts. This drew a lot of media coverage. In Denmark, just across The Sound, the “cartoon crisis” had been raging for more than a year. The two images, the dog and the prophet, were the most frequently circulated figures in Scandinavian media, Vilks observed. And that was the criteria for the sketch. The bizarre familiarity in the coupling of them is also why the drawing caught such enormous attention. And what is even more nightmarish: the sketch, one intuitively understand, is, to some extent, a vision for something to happen or being made. The sketch is the origin of something that is intended to be realised. What would Sweden look like if such roundabout dogs were littering the country’s network of roads? It is an apocalyptical scenario.

Some critics claim that there is a categorical difference between Vilk’s land art and the drawing, but actually the opposite is true. The common denominator is the social sculpture. Artists can, by power of some kind of media – a wooden structure, or a sketch - trigger a discourse. The unfolding of this discourse is the sculpture.

Vilks worked in the field of relational aesthetics. Instead of marble the sculptor is making an imprint on relations between people. Court cases, debates, fights – it all adds up and become the body of the sculpture. What Vilks had learned from his years of hard physical work in the landscapes was how little can be necessary in order to achieve the desired effect. A hasty scribbled sketch could be enough. It may sound simple, and yet Vilks is one of very few artists to achieve the prominence of being on a death list.

By now the aforementioned criticism, that the piece “is mocking islam”, sounds just completely off. First, it’s motive is a combination of two (not one) symbols; second, the sketch itself is not ‘the body of the artwork’ (but the combined amount of social reactions is).

One sublime reading, however, can enlighten a class aspect in the controversy. The roundabout dog is something made by ‘ordinary people’ in their garages, for entertainment. There is something silly over it, a mocking of public beautification, so to speak. In a way it could be seen as a parody of art. After all Vilks was asked to contribute with an artwork to an exhibition where the theme was ‘dogs’. The dog motive he chose was essentially “völkisch”. The double horror of the sketch is this: that mocking Islam should be something commonly accepted as part of the everyday. Vilks is taking on a taboo that has grown into a trauma. The society envisioned in the sketch can be contrasted with a recent incident in England, where some kids were playing with a Koran. The book was scratched. The local police launched an investigation for “hate crime” and the kids were suspended from the school.

Sharing an almost similar fate, the London-based, yemen-born artist Tasleem Mulhall for years were under a constant barrage of attacks on phone, mail or by strange “visitors” to her house. Tasleem Mulhall is concerned with the plight of women in Islamic countries. In sculptures and photos attention is brought on subjugation, submission, torture and barbaric punishment. This part of her practice carries a strong documentarist current. Her works does not only tell the fate of others. Having escaped a planned forced marriage at 17, she has been under a constant threat ever since. What is on display in her works are true events taking place in numerous countries. Those events are truly horrific, and she can tell about them with credibility. Her situation is in that respect opposite of Vilks, who’s controversial content is a fictional idea. Still their works have something in common in describing something horrendous, something, real or imagined, to be avoided at all costs.

Most actors in the art world refused to work with Vilks due to the security threat connected to his person; at the same time those who actually did were denounced as “right wing radicals”. On this basis the work cannot be included in public art collections in Sweden.


All censored and persecuted artists are misrepresented before being attacked. One would think the controversial part was the mistreatment they are exposed to. According to the predatory moralists of the Western leisure class it is talking about it which is the main problem.

However, the presence of the internet makes traditional censorship practically impossible. A statement might find an audience and ways of communication no matter how much censorship is being applied. And this is something that drives moralism in a predatory direction. It is not enough to condemn and ban something: The sender must be socially liquidated. Only then will the audience disappear.

This highlights the difference between cancelling and censorship. The most common definitions of ‘censorship’ covers both state and private actors. In a dictatorship like Iran censorship is obviously something performed by the state. The regime itself can openly impose censorship, like the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. In such cases the censorship is part of the political communication of the state. Yet censorship in practical terms only means negating something from being present or accessible in the public space. At this point “cancelling” and “censoring” becomes synonymous.

This is a problem for “cancel culture” since there are laws in democracies meant to prevent censorship. Cancelling, in order not to be seen as too close to censorship, thus differ from censoring on some important parameters. The most evident difference is the change of focus from substance matter to the individual; in “cancel culture” the person, and only indirectly the work, is censored. In order to deny that cancelling is censorship one could start by pointing to the fact that private actors who deny someone a platform to present their works or ideas are not preventing them from doing it elsewhere.

The social dimension

To reject something, or someone, is part of one’s freedom of judgement. However, cancelling is not only to reject something for oneself but, obviously, also for others. ‘Cancelling’ is precisely not a single individual’s own rejection, but the rejection of other people’s freedom of judgement. The point is to block the connection between the sender at the receivers. Cancelling thus represent an expression of power.

Adding to that is the aspect of excommunication. This mechanism is associated with sectarianism. Cancelling establish a social community, from which the cancelled is expelled. But it is also a movement of forcing this group’s own social order upon the surrounding society. What is cancelled, then, is not only the individual victim but also the existing social order. “Cancel culture” constitute a parallel society. In this new society the power does not lie in the democratic, political processes; rather a few private individuals hold the keys and decides who can be part of society and who can’t. The political structure in this parallel society resembles the power structure in authoritarian states. Yet Western authoritarians lack control of the institutions. The social domain is a substitute for the lacking institutions. And by all means it is not a bad one, especially not considering the influence of social media in people’s lives. Exclusion in the era of social media somewhat has broader implications than, say, being expelled from a traditional religious sect. It is the liquidation of someone’s public persona. In essence this is what happens to a person when being jailed. It is no coincidence that a temporarily closed Facebook profile semi-wittingly is named “Facebook prison”. To some extent, due to the role of social media in people’s lives, such a sanction shares some features with actual imprisonment: the deprivation of social communication.

Where censorship is associated with political power, as in the case of authoritarian governments, ‘cancelling’ is a way to achieve the same result in a democracy by bypassing the political process. In short, “cancelling” represent a political power rivalling with parliamentarism. It is only by nature informal.

Order vs. force

Both censorship and “cancelling” represent a limitation to the public sphere. But so do many other things. Like norms, morality and the law. The difference is that norms, morality and laws can be adjusted. And they are dependent on people’s voluntary acceptance in order to be valid. They must deliver on their promises of creating order. ‘Cancel culture’ on the contrary does not accept to be scrutinized. Cancelling is motivated by indisputable moral truths. These “truths” make up an entire fabric of propositions, and their indisputability is what makes them useful for political mobilisation. It is a one-way form of communication.

A basic motive in Scandinavian self-understanding is the idea of being a “humanitarian superpower”. The first word tends to deflect the authoritarian meaning of the latter. A superpower is essentially not very ‘humanitarian’. It serves interests and applies ruthless pragmatism in reaching them. The concept invokes emotional goodness as a quality of Scandinavian statecraft. This somehow echoes Eric Voegelin’s conclusion that the nation state is “theomorphic”. The “humanitarian superpower” is, in the final analysis, sanctioned by God. Yet again religion and political power seem to overlap. To stick with the example of Iran, this is precisely what the regime says to legitimize hangings of protesters: That they are “revolting against God”.

Censorship, suppression and cancel culture share this point of departure: That the opponent is morally illegitimate.

Faith-based politics

Just as the liquidation of someone’s social persona is categorically different from actual murder, cancelling is different from state censorship. But now that social media has changed the role of the social persona, predatory moralism can certainly be seen as an adaptation from the forces of censorship. Fear of losing customers, or even just access to them, obviously has a disciplining effect on many, and prevent robust and free online debate. Which was precisely what the internet once could offer in competition with traditional, or ‘edited media’. Both with respect to commercial customers (marketing) and to governmental funding, ideological communities, etc.

Artists constitute a group which, at least in some cases, can be hard to discipline in this way. They tend to lead independent lives and be timid, not fearing attacks on their personal reputation. To some extent they are always expected to thread outside of the trail. Some artists produce “social sculptures” in a dialogical relation between the artist, the society and the so-called “gatekeepers of the public sphere”. The “gatekeepers”, eager to regulate what is acceptable and what is not, provides them with knowledge of what is considered illegal to think or say in any given time. What the majority or “consensus” hold sacred. This then can become the subject for mockery which, if done in the adequate manner, can capture the attention of the public.

When the artist succeeds in this, the gatekeepers will attack the work with the intention to cancel it. In a certain way this is the promotion of the work, like a wave of indignation that the artist can ride on. From that process the public will draw several lessons at the same time: it will become visible both where the gatekeepers draw the limits of free speech, and what will happen to anyone transgressing it. Predatory moralism in this context is the gatekeeper’s modus operandi.

In a sympathic reading “predatory moralism” display the most sacred values of a society in a given time, aggressively defended by people who claim they have been profoundly hurt. On a more sceptical note, however, what comes to light might as well be a poorly camouflaged will to power.

Jon Eirik Lundberg

Jon Eirik Lundberg urodził się w Oslo, w Norwegii, 1 maja 1974 r. Uzyskał tytuł magistra filozofii na Uniwersytecie w Kopenhadze. Jest autorem powieści i poezji, kompozytorem pieśni ludowych oraz założycielem i obecnym liderem Laesoe Art Hall
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