Why intellectuals are scared of ‘cancel culture’

There used to be something called people intellectual.

A class of thinkers — mostly writers with prestigious degrees and academics with a knack for writing — set the Discourse. They told other folks what to think, or rather, they told the unwashed masses the thing that was going through their very own heads lately. These disclosures were taken with great seriousness, even when they tended toward rambling, incoherent, or obvious. From there, the educated and people who wished to be seen as educated would pick and choose the opinions they wished to align themselves with. It is through this technique that politics were created, refined, and rehashed. (Indeed, the phrase “Overton window” was popularized by them.) This was part of what it meant to be involved in the public sphere.

I explain this, partly out of facetiousness, but partly because I participate in the last generation to remember this of the opinionators. I used to be told, in all seriousness, to read the opinion sections of major newspapers being an edifying activity. But by the time I was in my own mid-20s, words like “think piece” were already jokes at the expense of the opinionating class.

Part of this revolved around the rise of blogs. It was cheaper — and faster — to create opinion pieces than to accomplish reporting, and anyone could create a weblog. It became a broader trend in media, as a result of the economic pressures exerted first by Craigslist and later Google and Facebook, which ate up the marketplace for ads. Writing up facts takes work, and work should be paid for. On the other hand, opinions are cheap. Everyone’s got one.

It was a tidy means to fix generating content, especially as social media became popular. Social media and opinion writing fed off one another. Editors sought after writers predicated on tweets they liked. (My own career began in this manner.) Opinions were written quickly about whatever the writer had seen on social networking the other day. And social media descended en masse on whatever opinion writing caught its imagination. Occasionally, the reaction was laudatory, but the loudest reactions were that of outrage.

The size of the opinionating class was once constrained by the physical size of a newspaper page. Now, anyone with a cellphone and a nice turn of phrase can roast an anointed opinionator into a corncob.

In some ways, the fall of the opinion class mirrors the rise of the democratized, secular press at the trouble of the church. After the Enlightenment, Western public life moved toward a group of secular institutions that included a class of public intellectuals — and away from the pulpit.

When societies remake themselves, it doesn’t happen because of a few of pamphlets (or a hashtag or two). Just like the opinionating class first used social networking for its own ends, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press existed for centuries — printing religious pamphlets, sermons, and Bibles — before it begun to undermine religion’s monopoly on public life. And the printing press is only one piece of a picture which includes a scientific revolution, religious strife, industrialization, and economic exploitation. Similarly, our current cultural moment is happening against a back ground that can be most readily useful described by that cartoon dog sipping coffee amid a house in flames.

Still, the production of the French libelles — vitriolic political pamphlets that frequently sought to cancel various public figures, particularly royal family — wouldn’t have been possible without movable type, and the libelles themselves played an undeniable role in the French Revolution. Likewise, the protests of 2020 and the sudden shift in public opinion around policing and race would maybe not have happened without social media and the mass adoption of smartphones.

To be clear, the opinionators are not in danger of an actual guillotining — except maybe metaphorically, which is not at most of the same. They will continue steadily to publish. Some of them will continue steadily to make excellent money! But they’ll be less essential — maybe not least because they’ll no further be setting the Overton window.

Indeed, there may not even be an Overton window. Engaging in political life could even become indistinguishable from being part of an internet fandom. I don’t mean to say facts or logic will disappear. But we will no further pretend they persuade the others in a free of charge marketplace of ideas. We have long conflated civic life with “engaging with ideas” or “participating in debate” or entertaining a “broad political spectrum.” But with the fall of the opinion class, the mask rips off, revealing politics very little but clashes between competing cults of information that primarily convey values in terms of emotionality, as opposed to rationality. No thin veneer of “fair and unbiased” will cover these bastions of information dissemination.

This is not as dire since it sounds; most internet fandoms behave more responsibly than at least one (or maybe even both) of America’s major political parties.


This week, Harper’s Magazine published an open missive that I’ve since taken up to referring to as “The Letter.” Signed by a number of opinionators, and then also J.K. Rowling for whatever reason (just kidding, I know exactly why), The Letter decries the “censoriousness” that is overpowering the culture, describing it as “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

This is not a really clear formulation of the cultural phenomenon they condemn, and so the meaning and intent behind The Letter are subject to multiple interpretations. This is evidenced by the near-instantaneous backpedaling on Twitter by a number of signatories who were unaware of the identities of all their fellow signatories. “Censoriousness” in the abstract is bad, and “free speech” in the abstract is good. But without further elaboration, it’s super easy to talk at cross-purposes about both.

To the extent that The Letter features a point at all, it’s about opposing “illiberalism.” Here, the “liberalism” referred to may be the general philosophy that society ought to be predicated on free and equal discussion from a plurality of viewpoints. “Illiberalism,” therefore, is a fancy stand-in for what opinionators have alternatively called “campus culture,” “cancel culture,” and “wokeness.”

This very vague illiberal force is called “a successor ideology” by Wesley Yang, along with his coinage being immediately taken on by a number of conservative commentators like Ross Douthat (whose name doesn’t appear on The Letter) and Andrew Sullivan (whose name does). But this term seems to only muddy the waters because the thing they are concerned with isn’t actually a concrete ideology but an inchoate social force with the hallmarks of religious revival.

It is perhaps not surprising that Douthat, a devout Catholic, has the capacity to put his finger on the aspect of “spiritual renewal” sought by Americans in this moment, though that he seems to be struggling to go further with that observation. But I suspect he also senses what I sense, as some body raised within an evangelical Christian family: the sensation of charismatic spirituality that pervades the marches and rallies of 2020, the fervor of the newly converted, the unsettling hunger for moral righteousness.

Matthew Yglesias (a signatory of The Letter) has referred to this cultural moment as “The Great Awokening,” comparing it somewhat cursorily to the 19th century religious revival that fed into the fire of the movement to abolish slavery. He doesn’t mention another Awakenings of American history, like the 18th century precursor to the American Revolution or the more recent 20th century big tent revivals that paved the way for the evangelical Christian politics that marked the Bush era. Our current era has been mostly defined by the pretense that religious fervor and emotional sentiment are incidental to politics, and that all can and should be grappled with through rational discourse. This was never true, but we at the very least pretended.

This Fifth Great Awakening is what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm-shift” and what Martin Heidegger called “world-collapse.” In the words of St. Paul, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” What is happening at this time cannot be acceptably described in the language of this paradigm — and for that reason, most of us sound like complete morons wanting to talk about this.

Part of it’s to do with the different fallacies implemented by people that decry “cancel culture.”

First, you will find the ongoing conflation of “wokeness” — around defined as the concept white superiority and patriarchy permeate our own society — with illiberalism. As my buddy Ezekiel Kweku, a good editor from New York Magazine, provides observed, none springs coming from nor requires the other. There are plenty enough of public intellectuals that champion “wokeness” while using the terminology of apparent civil argument, with all the rigmarole of “I concur,” “with all due respect,” plus “to play devil’s advocate for a moment.”

Then there’s the motte-and-bailey fallacy around exactly what “canceling” actually means. Is someone terminated because they happen to be vigorously belittled? Or is usually someone terminated because they obtained death risks? Or is usually someone simply canceled since they lost their own job? Presumably, politicians should lose their own jobs should they stoke enough outrage. Does this principle also apply at prominent numbers who have been possibly formally or even informally chosen as associates of general public opinion? Where should a single draw the cloths line between the really outrage-inducing as well as the undeserving sufferers of an online mob?

But this particular general incoherence about the issue of “cancel culture” isn’t completely the mistake of typically the anti-woke commentariat. They are working with aged tools that are crumbling in their hands and within an old workspace that is disappearing into nothing.


Despite typically the talk about illiberalism and the risk to free of charge speech, the true fear that will motivates The Letter gets obvious within the text alone, right around wherever its freelance writers are re-writing in sectors about the evident contradiction that the pro-speech cabale has come collectively to ask the critics to seal the bang up: “It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” The opinionators are not really actually scared of getting silenced. They wish to use up column in . without a package of nobodies telling these people how inappropriate they are.

For all the pretense to logic and debate most importantly of all, the old paradigm bred an irrational and incomprehensibly unjust society. The opinionators frequently circulated debunked or faulty science, and they kept alive a “debate” around climate change that has maybe not existed among scientists for many years. They suffered the intolerant and dealt with dehumanization like a difference of opinion. They were — despite getting held because the paragons of rational task — in no way particularly realistic. One simply needs to point out the battle in Iraq as confirmation of that will.

I was nonetheless anxious about the times to come. I actually admit this really is partly due to the fact I am a specialist opinion article writer who has already been aggressively terminated online, yet really, mainly because I will be past the age group of 30 while looking down the clip or barrel of size societal modification. But damage is not a similar thing as anxiety. And even though Reign of Terror could have followed typically the French Revolution, the dangers wrought from the system that will preceded it were much larger. In Mark Twain’s words:

There were a couple of ‘Reigns of Terror,’ whenever we would somebody it plus consider it; one wrought homicide in warm passion, another in heartless cold blood vessels; the one continued mere a few months, the other got lasted 1000 years; one inflicted loss of life upon five thousand people, the other after a hundred hundreds of thousands.

To my other uneasy olds, I get you to remember that damage is not bad, change is not really wrong, discord is not physical violence, and meaning is not a runner right. All things alter. And when you have a to have harm feelings regarding it, don’t end up being surprised whenever your feelings miss the boat in the fresh marketplace of emotion.



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