It’s not news that Americans live in a new Age of Magical Thinking. The Enlightenment is seen as the start of hate speech, feelings must always overrule facts, and transubstantiation has taken on a whole new meaning. Men can become women simply by wishing it so.
Over the last several years, much ink has been spilled about whether there are similarities between cancel culture of the 21st century, particularly in Anglosphere countries, and China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Pundits warn of the dangerous implications of cancel culture.
Both social media and real-life mobs target people who dissent, aiming to ruin their reputations and sometimes getting them fired, all while toppling statues of the Founding Fathers and looting in the name of social justice.
Contemporary events come nowhere near the scale of violence and repression associated with the Cultural Revolution. Thankfully, social ostracism and unemployment are not the same as firing squads and gulags, but they are still harmful, especially to those committed to free speech.
The ordinary American lives in an age when they witness “high-tech” lynching, to borrow a phrase coined in 1991 by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The core features are public smears, ridicule, along with the moralistic mob forcing victims to publicly recant their sins.
Between 1949 and his death in 1976, dictator Mao Zedong directed a radical transformation of China. He grew increasingly suspicious of government apparatchiks and Chinese Communist Party intellectuals, leading him in 1966 to launch a stunning attack on the establishment in the form of a “Cultural Revolution.”
He encouraged youthful Red Guards, his shock troops, to destroy the “four olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits). In practice, this meant widespread beating, denunciations, and mob-instigated “trials.” Red Guards roamed the country attacking establishment elites, including government officials, managers, intellectuals, and former members of the bourgeois class. The goal was to purge the country of anyone who was insufficiently leftist.
Today, America and other Anglosphere countries are going through an admittedly more genteel cultural revolution of activists preoccupied with identity politics and cancel culture preaching the same old shibboleths. As under Mao, people suffer disproportionate consequences for small ideological heresies.
Cancel culture involves public shaming, boycotts, online harassment, and calls for removing people from positions of influence due to perceived offensive comments or behavior. It can lead to reputational damage, loss of employment opportunities and social isolation without due process. Cancelling people who disagree with you is straight out of the playbook of dictators and cults.
For example, when former NFL quarterback Drew Brees stated he could “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” citing his grandfathers’ military service, he was accused of violating contemporary social justice dogmas. Acquiescing to the pressure less than 24 hours later, Brees issued an apology on Instagram. He soon followed up with another apology. Then his wife apologized. Any wonder why public figures spend their days walking on eggshells?
It remains to be seen where America goes next in its nascent cultural revolution. Where this trend goes and how long it lasts will ultimately depend on whether Americans stand up for their convictions or cave before online mobs. Maybe nothing permanent will come of it, despite the best efforts of today’s Red Guards. It may well turn out that the worst harm from legitimization of censorship and cancel culture may befall those on the right or the left who wield these weapons.
We would do well to remember the words of John Stuart Mill:
“He who knows only his side of the case (argument) knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no grounds for preferring either opinion”.