Canceling Oedipus or a New Oedipus Complex?

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

First off, no, I'm not calling to cancel Oedipus, though I do feel like Freud should be canceled for the Oedipus complex, but that's another thought for another time and one to which I am like 87% joking.  So if you're reading this hoping or fearing that I'm taking down a fictional character from millennia-old mythology, you probably want to move on right now.  It's ok--I'll wait.  

Last year, before the pandemic (so, like 29 years ago in "pandemic time"), I wrote a blog post where I shared a video by Contrapoints on "Cancelling" (100 minutes).  Since then, there have been two other pieces of media that I feel have meaningfully build up Wynn's arguments about the nuance of how Cancel Culture is understood and discussed within the US culture at this time.  The first is Lindsay Ellis's episode, "Mask Off" (100 minutes) where she explores how there was a push to cancel her and she very systematically unpacks the layers, the concerns, where there's something to consider, and where to call bullshit.  (Side note: It's fascinating that both of their videos ended up being exactly 100 minutes!).  They both provide an insider's view of what it's like to be at the center of an incident with thoughtful and critical insight.

More recently, I came across the You're Wrong About podcast and their episode "Cancel Culture" (81 minutes)--which was recommended on the Galaxy Brain substack (which I also strongly recommend!).  This, too, was a thought-provoking discussion that refused to buy into either side of the water-downed argument presented by the right (it's rampant) or the left (it's not happening to people that don't deserve it and/or it's not a thing).  Rather, the episode took a lot of time unpacking where the idea came from within popular culture, significant events that contributed to the narrative of "canceling", and a sophisticated breakdown of how vacuous it is when used as a term to the point that it's meaningless (which not to say the issues behind the idea don't exist but the term can be used in any way to the point of absurdity).  

I know that the above is over 4 hours on "cancel culture", but I assure you, if all you have learned about "cancel culture" is from news media or articles without paywalls, I promise you, any one of those singular pieces will make you infinitely more sophisticated in your thinking.  All three of them won't make you invincible but will make you more intelligent than some 98% of people on the TV who talk about it. 
A black and white photo of an actor playing Oedipus with eyes gauged out.
Image Source

And by now, you're wondering, ok--what does any of this have to do with Oedipus the King and that's where I turn now to explain.  Today (August 20), I was on a long run.  When I do long runs, I sometimes do music but just as often, I do audiobooks and lately, I've been working through a spate of audio plays from L.A. Theatre Works, one of my favorite places to find high-caliber audio productions of plays.  And on my run today, Oedipus the King came on; this version was translated by Nicholas Rudall to be a bit more modern and it is definitely much more accessible than other versions (while I have not read other versions, I've read other translated plays from this time and they're often a bit too convoluted to be accessible to the lay reader).

I don't think I've ever listened to or read Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex).  I definitely have read Antigone, but I don't recall reading this.  Despite that, I knew the story well enough in terms of how it is laid out.  Still, as I listened to it, I realized there was something fascinating about Oedipus the King and some of the ways that the above authors were discussing cancel culture.  

First, let me retell the Oedipus story.  The story begins with Oedipus, the King of Thebes, up in arms.  His people are suffering and the gods are angry but it's not clear why.  From the oracle, he discovers that the gods demand that the previous king, Laius, who was killed years previously, be avenged.  Oedipus wholeheartedly agrees and says that the person will be killed and anyone who has helped him may be killed or banished.  He curses them, regardless of whether they knew what they were doing or not.  For the rest of the play, we follow him and his wife Jocasta as they increasingly realize that it was, in fact, Oedipus who had killed the king and married his mother. When people come to him and try to tell him the truth or prepare him for the inevitable truth, Oedipus curses or casts them out for not being forthright or clear enough. This includes the prophet or seer, Tiresias, and Creon, Jocasta's brother.  While Oedipus refuses to listen and take counsel with these folks, he relentlessly looks to determine how the prophecy of his own life intersects with one that Jocasta has shared.  When they finally connect the dots, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself before facing banishment, rather than death.  

Ok--so that's the basics of it.  And before drawing too much into it, I want to draw on a few points from the above-mentioned media.  Lindsay Ellis does a particularly good job of discussing how much of what she witnessed in attempts to cancel her came from trolls and white folks who wanted to feel like they rooted out a false idol in their ranks. She goes on to say that these antagonists are trying to pretend to do something rather than actually confront genuine issues of racial injustice, especially that they themselves are actually doing.  That is, calling for Ellis's bandishment for small mistakes, is more egregius than the mistakes or things they will not even entertain doing in the name of social justice. Additionally, Ellis and You're Wrong About podcast emphasize how it's past events--without context or consideration of the past that are drawn out to become undefendable crimes, to which there is no answer but to exile the person from the community.

Ok--got all that?  My thinking as I listened to the play with that context helped me think about Oedipus and cancel culture in a new way.  To be clear--I'm looking at a narrow window of cancel culture, more specifically, when it happens within and is focused on left-leaning, self-professed progressives, liberals, or those who are trying to engage in some modicum of social justice.  By contrast, I have distinctly different thoughts about how cancel-culture works in the right/alt-right/white-supremacist circles as its own publicity machine for reinforcing a persecution complex that helps them tell the culture that they are somehow the real victims--bleh.  Of course, there are other flavors to be sure such as how "canceling" seems to overwhelming impact people of color and women and what does that mean for those who actively participate in it regularly, but for now, when I think about Oedipus the King, I'm focused on the narrow window above.

In many ways, those of us caught up in progressive beliefs and actions (or inaction), are all like Oedipus.  We're recognizing that there has been a great injustice done and the result is that people are suffering in our communities (i.e. the previous King's death was not avenged and the gods are punishing the citizens of Thebes).  We're angry and feel for those who are suffering today.  We wish that no one should suffer and that those responsible, those helping the perpetrator to live, or providing any kind of support should be punished:  banished or even killed as their efforts are producing bigger harm to the world at large.  When we realize that people that we trusted or cared about (Tiresias, and Creon) play some role in all of it, either by commission or omission, we are fired in our anger to banish them (cancel them).  We feel justified because even though we can't fully explain or detail the harm that they have done, we can point to something and thus say, we are doing something.  We can look to the gods for approval and say, "I may not have found Laius's killer just yet, but look what I did to someone I suspect of helping the person who did." 

When we're at that point of banishing others, we are Oedipus at his worst--unwilling to entertain other ways of understanding or to accept the context or apologies for those people who did things they may not have fully understood.  Some of that crowd stay forever in that position, toiling away at false threats to the people, while ignoring deeper truths.  However, some will push past this stage and move into rooting out their own sins and indiscretions, "After all, if a noble person and a prophet can do harm, why can't I" is how the thinking might go.  In pursuit of their own misdeeds, they scrutinize and revisit their past misdeeds and learn more deeply about the truer elements of their upbringing from a lens that was not their own.  Like Oedipus, they soon discover that the events of their own upbringing were not as simple as they imagined. They discover their initial take on some set of deeds was not entirely as progressive or earnest as they might have understood them to be.  Before they know it, they have uncovered their own nest of mistakes which contrast greatly with the accusations they laid at the feet of their noblemen and prophets.  

And there, they are left with a burning question. Do they, like Oedipus, cast out their eyes, realizing their own eyes have failed to help them see the truth, or do they repress and forget what they have done, doubling down on hunting those who have helped but clutching to hiding their truth? Do they take some other route that might be less clearly demarcated than these two?  

Now, none of this is to excuse, explain away, or disregard the many nuances that are present in each incident that involves or invokes elements of cancel culture (whatever we mean by that).  Rather, I found this a useful exercise in thinking about how and why it might happen by using a piece of literature.  And I thought by sharing it, that it might spur you to look at it differently, explore some of the resources on cancel culture mentioned above, or even pick up Oedipus the King to look at what you find in it.  

What are your thoughts on this particular approach?  What literature or other storytelling mediums have you found interesting to help think about this topic in a deeper way that doesn't give into simplistic dismissals and provokes your thought into new realms?

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