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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, September 03, 2021

A terrific article in The Atlantic, and some observations on "cancel culture"

This piece, by Anne Applebaum, in The Atlantic, is important and excellent. It concerns what is now called "cancel culture" - not a term that I find particularly apt, but it's the one that seems to have stuck.

On a daily basis, I see many people - often people whom I otherwise like and respect - denying that this phenomenon exists, even though it is all around them. There are constant pressures to conform in act and (especially) speech. 

This is not entirely new. Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed nearly two hundred years ago that there was no freedom of opinion in, specifically, the United States. This was not because of government censorship, but because of a culture where anyone who dissented from the popular view would be subjected to so much opprobrium that it would not be worth their while to say what they really thought. This is now very much the environment within what could be called the academic and cultural Left. The slightest dissent from the current package of popular ideas within that environment will lead to a vicious backlash that will upend your life.

I've experienced this myself, if only in a relatively mild way - mainly in the years from 2011 to 2013, when I expressed some views that dissented from those of my online "liberal" (in the strange American sense) peer group. I have not had my actual, real-life friends go after me, but I can report that what I experienced in 2011 in particular was emotionally devastating at the time. Many people have experienced far worse, and have been subjected to punishments massively disproportionate to anything wrong that they might have done or were accused of doing.

Individuals who minimize the impact of cancel culture have, I suspect, never been on the receiving end. Frankly, though, if they haven't experienced it that makes me suspicious. As I've seen, and experienced myself, it's so easy to be on the receiving end of cancel culture, even for very mild dissent from locally popular positions, that if you haven't ever been, I can only assume that you've never publicly expressed even a mildly heretical thought on social and political issues.

Tocqueville notwithstanding, it doesn't have to be like this. Perhaps I was fortunate in coming of age in the 1970s, a period when we actually made fun of the idea that we might be "politically correct" or "ideologically sound" in a Maoist or Stalinist way (note that leading Marxist thinkers such as Mao always emphasized the need for a so-called correct political line - this wasn't something just made up by 1990s right-wing culture warriors).

There was a general assumption back in the 1970s that a variety of opinions was a good thing and that we could and should enjoy political and philosophical arguments going late into the night - with no hard feelings attached. Perhaps we were naive and innocent in that way, but I do think something was lost when this freewheeling, tolerant culture was largely erased in the 1980s. In frightens me that most people under the age of, say, 55 have never experienced it.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, the use of social media to enforce conformity has made the environment much worse. It is now far easier for a mob to engage in a concerted campaign to go after an individual, and thus enforce conformity. We are back with a vengeance to what Tocqueville wrote about all those years ago. The environment is now scary, and even I am somewhat afraid to say - beyond my most intimate circle of friends - what I really think on important social and political issues, even though I think I have a contribution to make and despite the fact that I am fairly well buffered (financially and otherwise).

The victims, of course, are not the real enemies of the Left, such as fascists and right-wing culture warriors, who have their own supporters and are largely immune to cancellation. The victims tend to be humane people whose politics are at least somewhat liberal or left wing, but who are independent thinkers and don't go along with every view that happens to be fashionable within their milieu at the particular moment. Those people have valuable things to say and appropriately complex arguments to make. But it is dangerous for them to raise their head above the parapet. When they do so - and they are conspicuously shamed and punished - others with similar ideas learn that it's safest to conform.

This is an intolerable situation, and I wish we didn't have so many people minimizing it or denying that it exists.

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