Bonfire of the Vanities 2.0

On the Horrors of Cancel Culture, Past, Present and Future

“Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.”

            Maximilien de Robespierre, author of The Terror in Revolutionary France, late 18th century. Is it just me or does the quote feel frighteningly relevant?

            Terror in the name of justice. Prompt and severe, and, worst of all, inflexible. Despite my overall confidence in 21st century Western civilisation, my belief that we are living in the best time in human history, I can’t help feel that those words are brutally apt in describing what is going on in the realms of social media, traditional media, campuses and the streets today.

            Imagine you were an alien who, by some cosmic miracle, could decipher human language and hack our news channels and Twitter accounts; on just scrolling through the pages or listening to some headlines, you would think, O horror, these lowly human creatures are nothing but vile, xenophobic, intolerant, racist, rapist perverts!

            Should you have the appropriate technology you might even think, hell, might as well wipe out this disgusting species.

            Is that really the case though?

            All human beings are intimately familiar with the lesser angels of our nature. We are all capable of being racist, sexist, intolerant and nasty in general. We even make jokes about it. Or laugh at other people making jokes about it. Does that mean we deserve the terror of justice, prompt, severe and inflexible? Or are we allowed the mercy of forgiveness, a second chance, precisely because all we are is human?  

            Remember how horrified we all were when Otto Wambier, an American college student accused of being a spy in North Korea, was, no doubt after brutal torture, forced to ‘confess’ everything on state television? What a terrible, tragic scene it was, a man destroyed, forced to confess falsities, especially knowing now what poor Wambier’s fate was to be.

            Isn’t this a regular occurrence now on social media? I am not interested in celebrities. As much as I don’t think Piers Morgan should be cancelled and, as arrogant as he might be, is entitled to his views on Meghan Markle, and even, hell, Sharon Osbourne, a culture-less celebrity of nothing is entitled to defend him and not be cancelled; these people will bounce back, their loss is not a great loss to civilisation. (Although, I do think that criticising a person of colour for something unrelated to colour automatically getting you tarred a racist is a dangerous slippery slope.)

            But what of the countless academics who are routinely being called out and cancelled by the online inquisition for the most banal and inane reasons?

            Here is a short but worrying list (there is far more that you can find online).  

            J. Mark Ramseyer, Harvard historian called out for claiming that Korean women volunteered to be comfort women during WWII rather than being simply kidnapped and forced into war-time prostitution. Here is an established historian who wrote a detailed, researched paper, suddenly being called a ‘pseudo-scholar’ and ‘money-grabber’. He may be wrong, of course academics make mistakes, but why be so offended? Why not argue with him, debate him, work towards the truth by the marvel of disagreement?

            Melissa Hargrove, a professor at the University of Tennessee was called out for writing Never Ignorant Gets Goals Accomplished – in case you haven’t worked it out, that’s an acronym that spells out the N-Word. This was in reference to a Tupac song. After the backlash the university was forced to apologise: “even though to our understanding, this is why our professor wrote it— knowing that speaking it was a power even she should not have, which was a point she made in her lecture. We most sincerely regret and apologize that this action was in poor judgment, given the nuances and hurt that it presents.”

            Jason J. Kilborn, a professor who included the N-word and the word bitch in an exam – obviously in context and for a thought-out reason. One of the students petitioning to have Kilborn removed said “I had to seek counsel immediately after the exam to calm myself after what I had just experienced.” A bit dramatic, perhaps?

            Perhaps most ridiculous of all: a USC professor of communications actually being forced to take a ‘short pause’ for saying the Chinese word nei ge (meaning ‘that’) because the word sounds like – you guessed it – the N-word, and was accused of using a racial slur. Here is the North Korean statement the university was forced to release: “Recently, a USC faculty member during class used a Chinese word that sounds similar to a racial slur in English. We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language,” and further: “offering supportive measures to any student, faculty, or staff member who requests assistance.”

            All these cases happened in the last few months. They are not high profile cases. But they are happening all the time and everywhere. And if a society cannot trust the nature of debate and enlightenment university and academics are supposed to provide, what is left but the just terror of barbarity?

            Of course this kind of ostracism and censorship is nothing new in history. Even the scion ofprogress ancient Athens was guilty of it. Every year Athenian citizens would gather and vote for a fellow citizen to be ‘ostracised’, i.e. exiled from the city. If a single citizen got more than 6,000 votes, he would be ostracised. Did you need any specific reasons to put forward a name? No, not liking someone sufficed. Déjà vu?

            Ancient Athens, like our own times, was contradictory and an oxymoron. A democracy built upon slaves and a culture of ostracisim who also happened to give us the tools we need to overcome all those evils. I’m thinking, naturally, of Socrates.

            I presume, and I would hope, that even the people who are out there doing the cancelling, the ostracising, the calling out, also admire and look up to Socrates. If so, shouldn’t they stop and think how they were taking up the role of the Athenians who accused Socrates of corrupting youths and making them question the authority of the gods, the same censors who made him drink the hemlock?

            Socrates would have been cancelled today as well, no question. And yet, by re-killing him we are doing our culture, our ethos, a double disservice. Socrates taught us to be humble, to question everything, even that which makes us uncomfortable, including authority, to admit that, since we know nothing, all we can do is seek out wisdom by doubting and inquiring.

            It is often said that we can’t put our finger on what civilisation is, but we know what it’s opposite is. And while, yes, vile racism, degrading of women and ethnicities, inequality and all manner of oppression are all barbarisms we would do well to eliminate, our quest to eradicate them should not become a crusade against the innocent.

            It is easy to recognise barbarism in this world. History, science, philosophy, art, even religion – they have taught us well. When we see priests systemically raping children, we know it is barbaric. When we see women in India being routinely gang raped and murdered, we know it is barbaric. When we see women being treated as chattle in Saudi Arabia, we know it is barbaric. When we see the rise of the far-right all across the West, despite everything that’s happened, we know it is barbaric. I can go on.

            I won’t make the cardinal sin of placing the systematic acts of worldwide censorship we call cancel culture on the same pedestal as the horrors I’ve just mentioned. And yet, the need for justice, at all costs, prompt and inflexible, can very easily lead to terror.

            Let us not be as arrogant as the British Empire and believe ours is a civilisation upon which the sun never sets. Let’s be humble, like the Roman general, who, when looking at the burning city of Carthage wept for he knew that one day that would be Rome. Let’s cherish what we have and were an uncomfortable opinion is voiced, don’t seek out the hemlock, but rather debate. Don’t cancel people you consider your enemies, question them, doubt them, argue with them. Let’s cherish the dialectic over the sword.

            As a quick, random footnote: I wonder if it is Marx who shat on the nobility of the dialectic with his obsession with historical materialism? The idea that the only way to read history is as a class struggle, a struggle over material. I’m not saying he is necessarily wrong, but for the Marxists of today with their hands glued to their phones, this idea that the dialectic is about struggle, about us vs. them, one class against another, a good idea against a bad one, rather than thesis, antithesis and synthesis (as Hegel put it) is the root of modern cancel culture?

            I do get genuinely afraid, and the comparison with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire comes to my mind, when it’s not just our academics that are cancelled, but our foundational culture, our literature, our art. When I see headlines like ‘Great works of art not immune to cancel culture’ (Washington Times) a debilitating chill goes down my spine. (Maybe I should seek out counseling?) This is a story about how the Odyssey was removed from a Massachusetts high school curriculum. One teacher even tweeted: “very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” My god, that is terrifying.

            I do sometimes fear that this postmodernist, woke, far-left – call it what you will, maybe history will eventually settle on a name, and I hope it’s not a happy one – will lead to a 21st century bonfire of the vanities. Just as Torquemada and the Inquisition drove the people of Florence to burn all art, literature and items that the church deemed heretical, are our custodians of high morals on the Twitter-verse now asking the masses to deny, cancel, burn all that they deem heretical?

            If you look at anything with such postmodernist perspectives, everything humanity has ever done ought to be cancelled, everything is offensive. The Parthenon, the Bible, all comedy, the science of biology, the Odyssey, the paintings of the Renaissance, all the great men, like Jefferson, who owned slaves, the writings of Freud, Plato, Joseph Conrad who dared title a novel ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, Gone with the Wind, Shakespeare (I quote a teacher in America who teaches Romeo and Juliet “with a side of toxic masculinity”) – would you have all of that cancelled, thrown on the fire of your vanities?

            This might just be about vanities after all. More an act of institutionalised (I can use that word too) narcissism rather than genuine morality.

            I hope the flames of the bonfire don’t rise to block out the light of everything we’ve so far achieved – for civilisation’s sake.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Many things to agree with here in this carefully argued post, Justin. My only question would be, given most societies are not level playing-fields and still discriminate against minorities, is it entirely fair to characterise a demand for respect and civility towards relatively powerless groups as ‘cancel culture’ – a phrase that implies a strength that isn’t there?


    1. justinfenech says:

      How can the fight to greater equality be won through censorship?


  2. Good question. I suppose race and gender fairness legislation is a kind of censorship, a brake on liberty to accelerate equality and solidarity. An unregulated market place can be cruel to any underclasses. There is always a balance to be struck in anything aspiring to be called a society.


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