Musings on “Cancel Culture”

If you knew that someone in your circle of acquaintances had once said or done something, whether in jest, in anger, or in ignorance, that might be regarded as impolite or offensive in certain company, or even just objectionable to people of certain points of view, and further knew that if you highlighted that knowledge in public, you could — due to a climate of heightened social self-righteousness and/or corporate squeamishness — effectively destroy that person’s chances of getting (or keeping) the job he had worked toward for years, or obliterate the reputation or respect he had garnered in his chosen field of endeavor, would you go out of your way to highlight that knowledge? Or would you, on the contrary, regard that knowledge as the one thing you would never dare to draw attention to in a public or unlimited context, out of sheer human decency toward a person who had never tried to harm you?

The collectivist tribunal mentality that is commonly referred to today as “cancel culture” has, under various names, been actively fostered and exploited by all totalitarian despotisms (hard or soft) as a means of social control, through its mechanisms of mutual spying and aggressive self-censorship. The most pernicious result of the totalitarian tribunal, however, is not the life-destroying terror or social ostracism it imposes on its show-trial victims (the “cancelled”), but rather its character-incinerating effects on the general population, as fellow citizens and neighbors become vigilantes without a cause, stalking one another as de facto mercenaries whose only imagined reward is the hope that if they stay active on the “accuser” side of the social ledger, they may somehow evade the anxiety-inducing prospect of waking up to find themselves on the “accused” side. (That they will wake up to that terrifying discovery one day is of course a reality over which they have no control whatsoever, a fact which makes their cowardly motivation all the more revolting and absurd.)

Faced with the awareness that one has the power to ruin another man’s practical life, to destroy his family’s security, to undermine all his accomplishments and aspirations, and to do so not by revealing a legitimately terrible crime from his past, but simply by reframing some of his past words or choices (public or private) as damning evidence against him, the man of character — the gentleman — will refrain from using that power at all costs, for the sake of his own dignity, and on the utterly reasonable and humane principle, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The man who would exploit such power over another is hardly worthy of the name “man” at all. He is a sniveling, wormlike thing, driven by fear or hatred to harm others merely for the sake of aggrandizing, promoting, or protecting his weak and cowardly self. He has sold his soul to the devil of public authority, making himself a willing agent of social corruption and division, of suspicion and community ill will, in exchange for the lowest and most worthless reward of all: the approval of the presiding purveyors of brute force, whether these be the mindless mob, the molding masterminds, or the manipulative media that slobbers over both.

I was a regular viewer of the silly sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati as a boy. In one memorable episode, the radio station’s manager, the foolish but good-hearted Arthur Carlson, decides to run for city council. On the eve of a televised debate, he learns that the incumbent against whom he is certain to lose is secretly a terrible alcoholic. Carlson immediately determines that using such knowledge, even to defeat a political opponent, would be wrong. However, during the debate, as the incumbent repeatedly mocks and ridicules him, Carlson, in a moment of anger, blurts out the nasty gossip about his rival’s drinking habit in spite of himself, thereby suddenly becoming the leading candidate. Horrified by this fact, Carlson, on election day, goes to comedic lengths to undermine his own newfound popularity in every possible way, even to the point of presenting himself as a wife-beater, in order to ensure that he not win the election in such a shameful manner. This is how even the most unserious popular entertainment used to address the topic of “winning ugly,” or specifically of knowingly harming another man by dredging up and exposing his personal weaknesses or misjudgments. In other words, this was the typical view of such matters in mainstream quarters as recently as forty years ago.

Today, by contrast, the man who would eagerly use such gossip against a rival would be considered a champion of public morals. He would be presented in the mainstream media as a defender of righteousness and the social good, a redresser of wrongs, and a sincere lover of justice. For today, prostrating oneself before the ever-changeable gods of correct thinking, in the name of “social duty” (a euphemism for cowardice, envy, and wrath) has replaced good character and gentlemanly forbearance as the leading principle of morality.

This is the final remnant of the spiritual and political deterioration Kant set in motion. “Do not think of the orderliness or goodness of your own soul,” our new morality insists. “Act only in accordance with that maxim whereby you may will today’s rules of politically correct right thinking to be a universal law.”

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