Opinion | Civil Rights

The battle over 'cancel culture' may not end well — its guardians seek power at all costs

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

To list the myriad examples of what constitutes "cancel culture," one would risk becoming a statistician of gutter trivia. It would involve elevating a great deal of journalistic minutiae to the level of moral contemplation in a manner that eventually would become exhausting.

Whether we are dealing with an Oregon teacher removing the American flag from the classroom on the premise that it stands for menace, violence and intolerance; statues and monuments being taken down in many cities; canonical texts being scrapped from college syllabi under the new "decolonization" movement, or people losing their jobs because of some transgression they might have committed decades ago - there are fundamental characteristics shared by all iterations of cancel culture. There is a conceptual common denominator that unites all manifestations of their varied expressions.

Cancel culture asserts itself as a form of Puritanism. It attempts to establish a homogeneity of social codes, moral attitudes and framing of narratives around issues of sex, politics, economics, cultural proprietorship and the politics of identity.

It purports to function as a comprehensive doctrine in the realm of conflict resolution by holding ready-made infallible and agreed-upon values and norms that, really, is a form of prescriptivism that has usurped the organic and democratic unfolding of ways in which language changes overtime.

Cancel culture, in effect, cancels the traditional ways of adjudicating disputes and competing truth claims by dispensing with the methods of adjudication: rational argumentation, philosophical give-and-take, the production of tenable evidence, and a dispassionate appraisal of the meaning tests that judge claims, arguments, assertions and competitors to competing viewpoints.

Cancel culture annihilates that which makes us human - not just by abolishing reason, but in compromising the process of reasoning together in a dialogical and social manner. We make sense of the world often by reasoning together as members of a social community. Since none of us is infallible, we rely on the reasoned scrutiny and philosophic meanings tests of others to test the validity and soundness of our truth claims. Although, in the end, each must exercise his or her thinking for himself or herself, in the beginning we think as members of a community by sharing our thoughts and ideas. We offer up reasons (not feelings or unsubstantiated assertions) for our viewpoints, values and ideas. Those reasons are appraised by others according to objective standards.

Cancel culture is a hubristic phenomenon in that it bypasses the dialogical processes by which social reasoning takes place. The proclamation of its edicts is by fiat, and it destroys the community in which shared exchanges take place. At its core, cancel culture is arrogant, misanthropic and anti-social. It recuses broad swaths of moral and social reasoners from the domain of the ethical and the pantheon of the human community, and it asserts the orthodox sensibilities of the anointed few onto humanity at large. You obey the diktats, and you atone for past sins - or you are "canceled."

In canceling the shared vocabularies on which we rely to remedy seemingly irreconcilable tensions or intractable problems that may not yield a consensus but, instead, require concessions and compromises on anything but fundamental principles, the advocates of cancel culture attempt to bypass the subtle ways we do arrive at concessions and mutually agreed upon compromises - via an appeal to subtext, irony, ambiguity, paradox and an appreciation for the metaphorical nature of language.

The vanguards of cancel culture not only hold that feelings are infallible and are tools of cognition and reliable gauges to apprehending truth, but they also assume something much worse: that the emotional discomfort caused by the vagaries of navigating life's complexities are a sufficient condition for silencing and punishing dissent and unorthodox discussion.

Theirs is a well-thought-out plan for establishing compliance and conformity vis-à-vis norms, protocols, mores, values, beliefs and principles by way of invoking the moral notion of unity. A phalanx of cultural gatekeepers, appointed by no one in particular, controls the framing of narratives around all aspects of human life.

Cancel culture turns out to be a comprehensive doctrine that aims to define a totalizing conception of the good in all spheres of life for human beings. Part of what constitutes a good liberal order is that it prioritizes the right over the good - which means, the liberal state allows persons to choose their own conception of good for themselves, and to live by it.  

When a phenomenon such as cancel culture begins to involve itself in this comprehensive life enterprise, we should not be surprised that its practitioners are advocating for the erasure of history, toppling statues of historical figures and destroying monuments. The cancelation of cultural and personal history results in the same disaster: a failure to appeal to one's historic track record, the codified record of one's values, principles and traditions that function as defenses against crises and tragedy. They are the source of one's goodness, upon which one will draw for healing when bad things happen. They are part of our moral apparatus that constitutes our humanity. We hold these up for moral appraisal for others to judge us by.

The biggest threat to cancel culture is that phenomenon known as the "marketplace of ideas." The guardians of cancel culture seek power and control at all costs, along with the concomitant elimination of autonomy and sovereignty and liberty in human beings. Sovereign and autonomous individuals cannot and will not permit their culture, or themselves, to be canceled. It is only those whose agencies have been expropriated and whose dignity has been eviscerated who are candidates for cancelation. Confident and efficacious people who wield their agency confidently are existential antipodes to those bereft of life-affirming counteracting values and vitality.

This battle between the upholders of civilizational values and those who are the perpetrators of cancel culture may not end well. Cancel culture is made possible by a value vacuum in the souls of persons, and in the culture at-large. The right to choose for ourselves, and the right not to be punished for manufactured crimes by moral inverts unwilling to face their malignant narcissism, will need to be asserted.

The battle is being lost right now by default - by the moral masochism of the apologists of American and Western civilization, and by those who are afraid to stand up and intransigently defend their unassailable values. But it is not too late. A vacuum not filled by the sacrificial and cowardly sanction of its victims eventually will atrophy and die. It is up to those who care for liberty, freedom and American civilization to destroy that vacuum by steadily exercising our fundamental values, first principles and virtues.  

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming book, "What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression." Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

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