A Time to Keep Silent and a Time to Speak

by Andrew Gleeson

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There is a great difference between doing what one does not approve and feigning to approve what one does. The one is the weakness of a feeble person, the other befits the temper of a lackey.

                 –Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

On 6 July 1535, Sir Thomas More, the great English lawyer and humanist, was executed as a traitor for refusing to recognize Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the English Church. Henry had discarded his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. This meant defying and finally usurping the authority of the Pope, who would not annul the marriage to Catherine. Henry would go on to confiscate the property of the Church and have six wives. More was confirmed a saint of the Catholic Church in 1935.

In Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons, More exercises all the expedients of the lawyer’s craft to protect himself and his family. His strategy is a studied silence, carefully measuring his words and acts to ensure – until it is unavoidable – that he says or does nothing that can be construed as disloyalty. What makes it unavoidable, on the one hand, is the conspiracy enacted by Henry’s chief minister and henchman Thomas Cromwell to erase the sanctuary of silence by requiring More to swear under oath to the marriage and the headship: refusal is High Treason. On the other is a no less severe master: More’s own conscience. He can remain silent, but he cannot speak words that betray his God. For his refusal to take the oath More is placed on trial. Cromwell draws corrupt men into the plot like the ambitious Richard Rich who perjures himself to secure a conviction, and More’s old friend, the conventional and timid Norfolk, who conducts the hearing. More is trapped by Rich’s testimony and convicted.

Men of the world, and even his friends and family, are mystified by what they see as More’s quixotic, even egoistic, stubbornness in refusing to take the oath. More offers Norfolk this explanation:

I will not give in because I oppose it – I do – not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do – I.

This ‘I’, this ‘you’ or ‘me’, is what More is trying to protect. It isn’t much in worldly terms. When his wife Alice urges him to give in and “be ruled” by the King, More says:

[t]here’s a little … little, area … where I must rule myself. It’s very little – less to him [Henry] than a tennis court.

But this little area is what is most important. And not just to More but his enemies too: they want it. At trial, when he realises further resistance is futile, More addresses Cromwell thus:

What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.

The distinction More draws between actions and thoughts is important for our present troubles that go under the name ‘identity politics’ or ‘cancel culture’. It is one thing for the state or public opinion to penalise speech that a liberal society would allow. God knows that is bad enough. It is authoritarian. But it is not totalitarian. A country like, say, Singapore is authoritarian without being totalitarian. Speak out against the government and you will be targeted. But so long as you keep your nose out of anything politically sensitive, you are left alone. You can keep your thoughts to yourself and your family and friends. Like More, you have safety in silence. Here, bruised and no doubt cowed, the kernel, the nut in the fruit that is you, can survive, in hope of emerging again someday.

Totalitarianism is a deeper level of hell. Like Cromwell, it wants to control “the thoughts of [your] heart”. By demanding public declarations of loyalty and employing a network of informers – even inside the inner councils of family and friends – totalitarians put your heart under siege. They want you to be like Winston Smith at the end of 1984: to say, and ideally to mean – mean in your heart (in so far as a ghost of a human being can be said to mean anything seriously) – their words. ‘Control’ is too weak a word for this. The totalitarians do not just want to confine you; they want to erase you. They want there to be no more ‘you’. You disappear, absorbed into an amorphous mass-state, the anonymous, mechanical totality of ‘totalitarianism’.

In the play, More extends his silence as far as he can, but when Cromwell resorts to the tactic of demanding a public declaration of fealty on pain of treason, he faces just two options. He can lose his conscience – the ‘I’ or what Bolt calls his ‘self’ – by swearing the oath, or he can lose his head by refusing. But really, he has no choice except in the barest physical sense: morally, humanly, he – not you or I perhaps, but he – has none. His head must go. As he tells Norfolk, who is desperately imploring him to relent:

I can’t give in, Howard … you might as well advise a man to change the colour of his eyes. I can’t.

But so many do. Not all. Beset by cancel culture, there are the Bret Weinsteins and Heather Heyings. There is a Bari Weiss, a Jodi Shaw, a Maya Forstater. Of course, the penalties they have suffered do not compare to More’s; theirs is a courage we can and, ideally, should emulate. However, most of us merely envy it. The consequences of losing jobs, careers and friends, the fear of not knowing how to pay rent, mortgage, and school fees – these things mean people cleave to the path of silence and deft manoeuvring, and hope that unlike More they will not be tested by the prospect of falsifying themselves by pledging others’ words from their own mouths. We honour the few courageous ones. We may despise the rest as cowards if we like, but that is not going to change the reality on the ground. Things are perhaps improving. As the first few speak up, others feel emboldened to follow, fortified by numbers. We can see this in the parental protests springing up in the US against school boards that mandate ‘anti-racist’ policies and class content. Still, keeping the head down is the wide road – it is crowded and until the cost of resistance is rendered low enough it will remain so.

For most people, then, silence is indeed golden, being the means of survival. But today we are told a different message: silence is violence. Those three words declare an ambition to close the wide road. Non-discrimination and equal treatment are not enough. Local councils are expected to fly the rainbow flag and thus declare their subscription to a raft of contentious ideology. Businesses in Portland or Seattle must display a window poster in support of Black Lives Matter or have their property vandalized. The institutions of civil society from your kindergarten to your local medical practice to the military and giant corporations must have mandatory trainings around race, sex, and gender. Public figures and celebrities are under fierce social media pressure to make statements of their support and confess their past sins. This is not about equality. It is about compelled speech and enforced ideology. It is about requiring public declarations of faith so that anyone with doubts, can, by their refusal to make them, be identified and shamed into a public act of contrition – or be ‘cancelled’, a word whose new use has become so familiar we are numb to its ominous potential.

The ‘silence is violence’ slogan expresses the totalitarian aspiration to own you: to crucify your conscience by forcing you to betray it in your public speech and actions. It is what Ibram X Kendi proclaims when he says that you cannot be non-racist, you are either racist or anti-racist. That is, if you are not with us – if you are merely silent – then you are against us; we are not going to allow you anywhere to hide. When Robin DiAngelo says that the question is not “did racism take place?” but rather “how did racism manifest in that situation?” she voices the kindred totalitarian thought that you are guilty regardless of the evidence. When anti-racists tell us that racism is not a personal fault, but a quasi-metaphysical condition called “whiteness” they do not relieve guilt, they make it inexpungeable. Thus “the work [of overcoming racism] is never done” and so the methods and apparatus of totalitarian control are permanently required.

One method is to strangle the private self of its nourishment. It is to our family and friends (real friends I mean, not faux Facebook friends) that we unburden ourselves. Their love and loyalty fortify us against the lacerations of the public world. If we cannot be ourselves here, then the weight on the self threatens to be intolerable. Threats to this citadel should disturb us. Just this year, the Scottish parliament passed a new Hate Crime law. It was partly based on a 1986 act. But a provision of that act which made it a defence that the accused was speaking or behaving inside a private dwelling was omitted from the new legislation. This February then Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf was explicit that he wanted the new law to apply inside the home. A distinction of the public and private for these offences was, he said, “entirely artificial”. But that artificial distinction is one of the most important bulwarks of a citizen’s freedom, the freedom that comes with knowing that one’s home is a refuge from the world of political dissension. No matter how offensive a person’s opinions, feelings and passions might be, if they cannot ever express them, not even in their own home and circle of friends, then they are denied the capacity to live truthfully as who they are with at least some of their fellows. Living truthfully requires the space to make mistakes in attitudes and opinions – serious mistakes – and by interaction with others perhaps to correct them.

For example, the remarkable African American musician Daryl Davis began reaching out to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s. He has attended their meetings. He has hosted them at his house. He asked them: how can you hate me when you don’t even know me? Slowly, painfully, conversation began. Today, as a result of Davis’s work, more than 200 people have left the Klan and abandoned racism. (You can hear him talk about his work here.) Many angry and hateful – and hurtful – things were no doubt said in those private conversations: to Davis’s face and likely more behind his back. Whether they would have been said legally if a law like the new Scottish one had been on the books in the relevant jurisdictions is moot at best. But the conversations could not happen without those hateful and hurtful words being spoken, for such conversations must be honest. No matter how enlightened we may pride ourselves on being, any one of us may have acquired hateful attitudes if circumstances had been different, so we all have an interest in preserving a domain of human life in which the ugliest conscience is free. Even the prisoner in jail has generally been free to express his opinions in private conversation, no matter how shocking his crimes. The offence against his soul in controlling what he must think, and not just how he must act towards others, has been intuitively sensed as a greater violation than the deprivation of his liberty of action and even than some punishments of the body.

I am not saying that the Scottish government is totalitarian. But the legislation sets an alarming precedent. The line between man and woman as citizen versus man and woman as husband and wife or father and mother protects the family, the nursery in which new human life and individual personality are created and human society renewed. The family’s sanctity is a model for every other social body – a parliament, a university, a newspaper, a private club – with pretence to be a haven of freedom. If the home falls nowhere else is safe. And at the heart of the family is a sacred bond of parent and child. Those American parents protesting to their school boards about controversial ‘anti-racist’ curricula that in fact inflame racial hostility feel the boards are unresponsive to them. The videos of angry parents confronting the boards make painful watching. The nation’s largest public school teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA) has just this month resolved to support these curricula and to combat recent attempts by state governments to prohibit them. Such curricula usurp the place of parents by the state, or by radical activists on the state payroll. If children are taught – or more accurately, indoctrinated into – ideology radically at odds with the beliefs and values of their parents, then the child-parent relationship is poisoned. The intention to carry out such indoctrination is evident in panting passages like this from the NEA which inveighs against “empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and” – just in case something should be overlooked – “other forms of power and oppression in the intersections of our society”. This ugly jargon is a kind of Lego-language (‘cisheteropatriarchy’): one word-block is winched into place after another to form a concrete tunnel which thought cannot penetrate (or the writer, and perhaps the reader, escape). Such language is suited to the disconnection from reality apparent in the dizzying scale of the ambition – every possible issue, the whole world, is at stake. What on Earth makes this part of a teacher’s remit or competence?

That disconnection is also evident in the apologies from time to time exacted by furious on-line mobs from their victims. I am going to give one example (without identifying the author):

I am just beginning to understand how I have harmed communities of color with my words. I am learning that my words – my uninformed, careless words – often express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege. I am learning that my commitment to diversity has been performative, ignoring the pain the Black community and other communities of color have endured in this country. I am learning that I am not as knowledgeable as I thought I was, not as antiracist as I thought I was, not as careful as I thought I was. For all of these, I sincerely apologize.

I know it’s not anyone’s job to forgive me, but I ask for it — another burden of a white person haunted by his ignorance. To consider the possible hurt I have played a role in, the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, aches inside me – a feeling different and deeper than the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.

To all communities of color and especially the Black community, I am sorry for causing pain by ignoring yours. I really hate the idea of hurting anyone. I hate that I have done this: if I had not ignored the pain of so many, this article would have never been written. I hate that my students have to carry my ignorant racist energy with them at all times. … I am sorry. I hate the fact that I have hurt my colleagues … and the field of higher education, especially Black scholars whose careers have been spent studying Black lives. I am sorry for ignoring your scholarship. I hate that I have let down my Black friends and friends of color, whom I love.

In his novel Lost Illusions, Balzac has a character remark that “repentance is a virginity which our souls owe to God”. He means that if penitence is genuine, it need only – in fact it can only – be expressed once. In this passage it is expressed five times, counting where the author asks for forgiveness. It is like he is trying to convince himself, as much as others, that he means it. The language is overwrought. It lacks the sobriety and modesty of a genuine apology; it draws too much attention to itself. Everything is grotesquely out of proportion to the offence, which was to have written an article suggesting that college footballers continue to play their 2020 season despite Covid to help unite the country in the face of the pandemic. Since black athletes are highly represented in football this was said to place them at special risk for the benefit of whites, in effect treating them as “white property”. His article was certainly debatable. But whether it warranted an apology is highly dubious. That it warranted this kind of apology is absurd. I suspect the author’s real offence was to have suggested that being American could ever take precedence over being white or black, even in a national emergency. There is no occasion for being just American or even just human: there is just whiteness and blackness, oppressor and oppressed.

Recall More’s words to Cromwell at his trial: “first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts”. Governments or social media mobs who present us with a choice of disclaiming our hearts or enduring worldly catastrophe put our hearts in the devil’s hands. More hides for as long as his conscience will permit, but when finally cornered he proclaims his heart, knowing full the cost, but accepting it. Convicted, he proceeds to “discharge [his] mind” thus:

The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! And more to this the immunity of the church is promised both in Magna Carta and the King’s own Coronation Oath!

Cromwell, pouncing, interjects that with these words More has shown his malice to the King. But More replies with the calm dignity of a man at peace with his conscience and his fate:

Not so … I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm … I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live … I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I thank Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good.

The same spirit exists in our own time. Winston Marshall, the lead guitarist and banjo player with the English folk-rock band Mumford and Sons, recently left the group after being pounded on social media for tweeting his praise of the book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy by American journalist Andy Ngo. Ngo has reported critically on Antifa for several years (and was seriously assaulted by them in 2019). Stunned by the outcry – “tens of thousands of angry retweets and comments” in 24 hours, he reports – Marshall initially apologised, mainly in order to protect his bandmates, who were also feeling the heat (“a black-hearted swarm on them and their families”). But he has now effectively retracted that apology and – over the pleadings of his bandmates to remain – has left the band so that he can speak unencumbered. In a piece you can find here, he presents an apology in the now nearly lost sense of the word as an explanation and defence of one’s actions, of oneself. It is also a nostalgic and happy-sad love song to the band and their time together. But most of all it is the manifesto of a man who, for fear of losing it, will not again disclaim his heart:

I could remain and continue to self-censor but it will erode my sense of integrity. Gnaw my conscience. I’ve already felt that beginning.

The only way forward for me is to leave the band. I hope in distancing myself from them I am able to speak my mind without them suffering the consequences. I leave with love in my heart …

Today many people suffer in their hearts, afraid to speak out, unable to find the courage. More followed that road as far as he could – and given the penalty for doing otherwise none of us can reproach him. More criticized no one. Neither does Winston Marshall. Jodi Shaw, who resigned from a staff job at Smith College in Massachusetts this year because she would not submit to their ‘anti-racist’ trainings and policies, takes a positive approach, to encourage others. Until recently the banner on her twitter account read: If I can do it so can you. She is now on the team of Counterweight, an organisation founded in the UK by Helen Pluckrose to help, without judgment, people victimised by, or in fear of, cancel culture. In 2020, while still at Smith, Shaw produced a YouTube video (here) calling out the college. It isn’t academic, or polemical, or even angry. Sorrow is closer to its tone. It has the same humble bravery we can hear in Winston Marshall’s words. She says at one point:

I ask that Smith College stop reducing my personhood to a racial category. Stop telling me what I must think and feel about myself because I feel like you do that a lot. I know you do that a lot and I need you to stop doing that. Stop presuming to know who I am or what my culture is based upon my skin colour … Stop asking me to project stereotypes and assumptions about others based upon their skin colour, because I feel like that’s what you ask me to do incessantly, over and over again, for the past three years and I’m not going to do that. I don’t think it’s right.

I’m not going to do that. I don’t think it’s right. With those words Jodi Shaw reclaimed her heart, as More and Marshall did theirs. Compare their words with those of the apology about playing college football during Covid. The latter are the words of servility. The former are the words of someone breaking their fetters, the words of free men and women.

Andrew Gleeson is a retired Australian philosopher. He and Vlad Popescu produce videos on philosophy, politics and religion as The Speaking Lions on YouTube and thinkspot.

89 comments

  1. Cf., Theodore Dalrymple:
    “Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to cooperate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy “

  2. What impresses me is that the author only cites examples of cancelation done by the left. I imagine that in certain parts of Texas these days if you speak out in favor of women’s right to abortion, you’re not going to win friends and influence people and you just might be out of a job.

    I don’t deny that cancelation by the left is to be condemned as is cancelation by the right. However, if you just single out cancelation by just the left or just the right, I suspect that there is a political agenda behind your condemnation.

    I don’t follow these things as closely as some readers here do, but I ended up subscribed to Glenn Greenwald’s blog and I notice that he does condemn cancelations and limits to free speech by the left, right and center. I also notice that he now has enemies in the left, right and center. I’m sure that there are other people with Greenwald’s courage, but to be truthful, I don’t see many of them.

    1. I don’t deny that cancelation by the left is to be condemned as is cancelation by the right. However, if you just single out cancelation by just the left or just the right, I suspect that there is a political agenda behind your condemnation.

      = = = =

      This is a non-sequitur. Why not ask, rather than presume some “agenda”?

    2. I recognize that there are ways the right in the U.S. probably tries to “cancel,” and I’m open to the idea that the right’s cancellations are worse than the left’s. Maybe the former are pervasive and more coercive in a way the latter aren’t. I’m not going to criticize “whataboutism,” largely because if we change the subject, I’m just as likely to do it, too–and I don’t think whataboutism is always wrong, even if it’s almost always a distraction.

      For me, however, the cancellations from the left are of more immediate concern. I work in an academic-adjacent job where the culture is edging closer and closer to the types of declarations of belief Andrew Gleeson describes. I feel it’s increasingly difficult even to qualify some of what’s said in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I find increasing pressures to state publicly I agree with things that I can agree with only partially.

      In my opinion and in my experience, it’s as suffocating or “totalitarian” as Mr. Gleeson describes. In my workplace, one would have to go out of their way and be a big jerk about it before they face anything that can be termed “cancellation.” Even so, things are edging in a quasi-forced direction.

      For the record, while I can’t speak for Mr. Gleeson, I, too, have wondered whether I myself have some sort of agenda that’s not quite right. I guess I buy into the modes of thinking promoted by Kendi and DiAngelo just enough to think that as far as I’m personally concerned, they might be on to something. So I feel a bit inconsiderate having any objections at all. In that sense–and in many senses–I am no Thomas More. I’m not sure enough of what I believe in order to decide whether I’ll stand by it or not. But I’m increasingly settling on things I find it difficult to assent to without compromising my own integrity.

      1. I work in academia, directly. My fear of Trump and what he has wrought on the Right — with its own version of cancel culture — is orders of magnitude larger than my fear of the progressive version.

  3. While I dislike “Wokism” and the “cancellation” it engenders as much as anyone, I am not at all a fan of Weinstein, Heying, and the other IDW types. Weinstein and Heying have become Vacc kooks — they’re on the Invetermicin train — and James Lindsay — another IDW type — argued that Wokism was a good reason to vote for Trump in 2020.

    S. Wallerstein is absolutely correct that cancellation has no particular political valence. Every side does it. My reason for focusing more on the Left than the Right is because I think at this point, the Right is entirely hopeless and beyond saving. It will spend a decade at least in the wilderness. The big fight now, is over whether the progressives or liberals will control the Democratic Party. If it’s the former, and there is no viable opposition, we are finished.

    1. Liberalism in the sense that I believe you’re using the word (Mill’s sense) is a very important political variable, one of the most important to me at least. Yet you can be progressive and liberal, even leftwing and liberal, for example, Chomsky, who even signed a letter, along with people like John McWhorter, condemning cancel culture.

      Now it may be that current woke progressives in the U.S. are not liberal (in Mill’s sense), but that is only a contingent relation.

      1. Progressivism and liberalism are not on the same political axis, so yes, one can be both.

        However, in the US today, progressives are largely anti-liberal. Of course, so are the Trumpers, but as I said, they are beyond saving.

  4. “No matter how offensive a person’s opinions, feelings and passions might be, if they cannot ever express them, not even in their own home and circle of friends, then they are denied the capacity to live truthfully as who they are with at least some of their fellows. Living truthfully requires the space to make mistakes in attitudes and opinions – serious mistakes – and by interaction with others perhaps to correct them.”

    The space in which to make mistakes should be protected. I will propose further, though, that this space is not just for the testing of one’s thoughts and sentiments but for the very forming of thoughts and sentiments to be tested — a space required to give enough definition to what can thereby so much as count as a candidate for testing.

    I’m inspired here by Merleau-Ponty’s idea, from Chapter 6 of Phenomenology of Perception, that “expression does not simply translate ready-made thought; it accomplishes it.” Expressing myself is often a matter of giving some shape and identity to something previously inchoate and diffuse, to something previously not even recognizable as my own, until it is taken up and recognized in conversation with others. That a thought or sentiment is my own does not make it wholly “inner”: its very status as a thought or sentiment is bound up with its possible expression in culturally available modes (from the primitive to the sophisticated).

    The point is that being able to so much as form thoughts and sentiments of one’s own, to the extent that doing such a thing is amenable to one’s intentions, is surely an important part of “living truthfully as who one is.” And this is just another reason why the freedom of expression is so sacred.

  5. Some remarks relevant to comments above about left and right. I agree absolutely that there is sometimes cancellation from the right and that it should be equally condemned, though my own estimation is that, at present, it is significantly less common than on the left. This is partly because while, God knows, there is enough to object to in the right, and especially in Donald Trump, I think a lot of these things are not matters of cancel culture. But I won’t argue that here. Instead I want to make a more philosophically interesting claim. Let’s take what is arguably Trump’s most egregious offence, his campaign to discredit the 2020 election culminating in the Capitol riot, which one can read as an attempt to cancel the operation of the national parliament. The riot, though not I think intended by Trump, was a product of his pernicious and reckless rhetoric. Something like the riot was certainly foreseeable (at least as a serious possibility) if he persisted in this rhetoric, so he certainly bears some responsibility for it. And though I am sceptical that it amounted to more than a riot (that it was an organised coup attempt or anything like that) one can hardly deny its profoundly disturbing authoritarian meaning. This brings me to my point. Which is a bigger threat to liberal-democratic order? A rogue authoritarian president or governor or legislature? Or the creeping capture of the institutions of civil society – the civil service, the military, business and industry, the K-12 schools, the universities, the media, the arts and entertainment, the local tennis club or your knitting circle – by an authoritarian ideology? I fear that the latter may actually be the more dangerous. A president or governor is hampered by the courts and the legislature (and in a Westminster system like the UK and Australia, a prime minister, and indeed an entire government, can be brought down at any time by a simple vote of the legislature) and unless he can stage a coup, for which he needs military support, a president or governor faces the decision of the people every four years or so. I think history supports this idea – when totalitarian movements came to power in the twentieth century the sweeping away of a government and of a constitution (written and unwritten) was the culmination of a much longer, less visible, process of the revolutionaries capturing various key institutions of civil society. Certainly armed force played a crucial role as well, but when that is unavailable the emphasis will be on a ‘long march through the institutions’ to undermine public faith in the basics of the existing society, so that the willingness to fight for it is lost.

    One might also add that a lot of the content of the far-left cancel-culture ideology is directly targeted against the basic institutions of American liberal democracy – the constitution, the system of government, equality before the law, free speech – which are demonised as inescapably implicated in white supremacy, capitalism, ‘cisheteropatriarchy’ and so on. This is not generally the case on the right, not even Trump. Of course it is different if you go to the KKK, neo-Nazis and so forth, but these groups are marginal.

    1. This is indeed a philosophically more interesting claim, and I might even agree with the bit about how the ideological capture of civil society is more dangerous, but I’m not sure it’s relevant to the question of whether there are more, or more severe, cancellations from the left or the right.

      Civil society might be vulnerable to ideological capture from the left, and might be succumbing to it. But I think — correct me if I’m wrong — that this has been happening for some time, and not via the mechanism of cancellation. Cancellation is certainly unworthy of a liberal society, but I think the ideological capture of civil society has roots that reach far deeper than the comparatively recent flurry of blips on our cancellation radars. (The capture of the ACLU by Ivy-League-credentialed progressives, for example, is arguably not due to cancellations.)

      In brief, unless the ideological capture of civil society by the left is or has been accomplished largely by cancellations — which it doesn’t seem to be — your larger, philosophically more interesting claim seems to be beside the point.

      1. “… the ideological capture of civil society is more dangerous, but I’m not sure it’s relevant to the question of whether there are more, or more severe, cancellations from the left or the right.”

        Well they are certainly connected, or at least one could argue they are more severe on the left. Taking the ACLU example, due to ideological capture, they have engaged in some cancel campaigns like the one described here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/us/smith-college-race.html. One could argue that the cancellations are worse on the left based on their origin in ideological capture, which in turn engenders more cancellations–not to mention that the ideology continues to spread far and wide.

        Ideological capture has definitely been happening for some time but one could argue that the recent cancellations have made it more dangerous in that they perpetuate the capture and vice versa.

        I think I could have said that more clearly… so if anyone replies steel man me please.

    2. I don’t live in the U.S., and so I don’t follow U.S. politics as closely as some do, but from what I read, Republicans are preparing to run Trump in the 2024 election and this time have designed a number of legal loop-holes to make sure that he “wins” this time, the idea being that state legislatures, controlled by Republicans, can over-rule the electoral vote in that state. I won’t go into the details nor do I recall them all, but it seems clear that the Trump wing of the Republican Party represents a threat to U.S. democracy, more in my opinion, than the woke set do, who seem to represent more of a threat to academic free speech and open intellectual inquiry in the humanities than to democracy per se. If the woke set gets their way, the quality of intellectual life in the humanities will go downhill: I doubt that it will affect the sciences, engineering or medicine. If Trump gets his way, the U.S. will end up as a rightwing populist
      fake “democracy”, much like Russia under Putin or Hungary under Orban.

      1. “If the woke set gets their way, the quality of intellectual life in the humanities will go downhill: I doubt that it will affect the sciences, engineering or medicine”

        Yet just this morning, I came across this item, which argues that it is fact affecting STEM: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/barbara-kay-academias-gender-bias-how-men-are-being-pushed-out-of-higher-education

        I’m not American either, so perhaps that is why I find the preoccupatation of trying to decide which of the various political factions pushing civil society in illberal directions is the worse, to be a distraction from the real issue, which is that it crosses the political spectrum, probably one reason that it has been so succesful – ‘wokeism’ is just one particular political flavour of contemporary illiberality, which knows no political boundaries, or so it seems.

  6. I agree with Andrew. And the relevant difference between the progressive left and the populist right today is that the major centers of power in our society are dominated by the progressive left. Consequently, the progressive left actually has the power to enact its illiberal attitudes much more than the populist right. Institutions like Big Tech, all the media with the largest platforms, Higher Education and much of Secondary Education, are all dominated by the progressive left. That puts them in a position of power to implement their illiberal attitudes. But of course a riot, in which no one ever displayed a firearm, or fired a single shot, is the “insurrection” that we should fear. Humbug. What that riot demonstrated, more than anything else, is that a group of people with a history of financial hardship (60% of them had suffered bankruptcies, foreclosures, etc) is no match for the power that is now wielded by the progressive left in the real centers of power in our society.

  7. Obviously the riot was a very nasty, illiberal act that never should have happened. My point is just that it’s failure shows that the people involved were actually powerless. By contrast, the progressive left is often succeeding in suppressing freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

  8. As regular readers know, I believe Trump — and Trumpism — represent a degradation of politics to a degree that is unprecedented and represents a unique threat. I have explained why not just in multiple essays, but in the dialogue I did with Robert Gressis and Spencer Case before the last election.

    https://theelectricagora.com/2020/11/02/us-presidential-election-2020-roundtable-discussion/

    Spencer made the case — as have a number of Intellectual Dark Web types and esp. James Lindsay — that left wing cancel culture is such a threat that it justified voting for Trump. I disagreed vehemently and explained why. And it was the political flirtation with Trump in the last election that really pushed me over the edge towards disliking the IDW.

    I am only saying this here, because I know that the OP and some of the comments here may raise some serious ire from those on the other side of things. I want to remind everyone of EA’s commenting policies and ask people to remain civil. And I also want to remind everyone that I will publish pieces that I think are of high quality, regardless of whether or not I agree with them. I’m sure readers will have noticed that Kevin Currie-Knight and I disagree quite a lot, and in those circumstances, I am probably, proverbially, “to the right” of him. This time, however, it seems to me that I am likely — again somewhat proverbially — “to the left” of the OP and some of the commenters.

    1. Looking back at the comments on your dialogue with Gressis and Case, one commentator says this:
      “corporate money isn’t going to let this SJW ‘sweeping’ happen! Corporations will do what they always do – sell whatever people are buying, play the stock market, swap investments.”
      But the SJW sweeping of corporations is already happening, and it has for quite some time. Diversity training is now required in corporations all over the country. Major corporations like Disney will fire people for political statements. Every other Marvel movie is a just another woke sermon, even if it makes terrible entertainment and sales decline. And corporations have now joined in the parade of people constantly virtue signaling, even if it costs them money. (I guess they’re people after all.). Of course, this is all possible because some corporations are now monopolies or near-monopolies, with so much concentrated economic power that they are better described as private governments. But I digress…

      1. I have been very critical of Woke Business here at EA. But understand that they will only do this so far as they perceive it as being profitable. Their actual commitment to progressive principles is Zero.

        1. Eh, I don’t know. It seems to me–from listening only to my gut, rather than, like, doing any empirical work or even reading any empirical work or even looking for any empirical work–that the vast majority of employees at Fortune 500 corporations are either vocally woke or unwilling to push back against wokism. Corporations will need to satisfy these people, even if it cuts in to their profits. It’s not like corporations try only to satisfy shareholders, and anyway, there’s a big ESG movement (Environmental, Social, and Governance) among investors too, who might be willing to support corporations that become less profitable if they think it’s better for the world.

          I agree that corporations won’t do this if they think it’ll cause them to go broke, so if they have to choose between staying afloat and being woke, they’ll stay afloat. But, I think there is some (probably significant) degree of wiggle room between those two alternatives.

          See this really excellent article for more of where I’m coming from: https://houseofstrauss.substack.com/p/nikes-end-of-men

          1. Perhaps. But I don’t believe for one second that people who are happy to employ third world slave labor and deforest whole countries are sincerely Woke.

          2. Dan, I agree with you. I’d say that Silicon Valley and Wall Street want to recruit students from elite universities, who tend to be woke and so they pretend to be woke themselves, knowing that after a few years in top jobs in Silicon Valley
            or Wall St, the once woke students will become as cynical and greedy as I imagine Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are. The Woke Corporate leadership also realize that the woke consuming public is huge and has money, more money than the Trump rust belt public and so they polish their corporate to appeal to the consumer public with more buying power.

          3. The notion that corporate capitalists have any political position other than their own bottom-line is at best amusing. Corporate capitalist involvement in ‘politics’ and any gesture towards ‘ethics,’ is entirely opportunistic and self-serving, and always has been.

            Commercial for Bayer Aspirin, 2002: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAIkgAyJjf8
            Joe Scarborough “Rat of the Week” segment report on Bayer’s distribution of possibly HIV tainted drug world-wide, after forced to withdraw it from US markets, 2003(?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spnEaO3yumk

            “In 1925, Bayer was one of six chemical companies that merged to form IG Farben, the world’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical company. The Allied Control Council seized IG Farben after World War II, because of its role in the Nazi war effort and involvement in the Holocaust, which included using slave labour from concentration camps and the purchase of humans for dangerous medical testing. It was split into its six constituent companies in 1951, then merged again into three: BASF, Bayer and Hoechst.
            Bayer played a key role in the Wirtschaftswunder in post-war West Germany, quickly regaining its position as one of the world’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical corporations. In 2006, the company acquired Schering, in 2014, it acquired Merck & Co.’s consumer business, with brands such as Claritin, Coppertone and Dr. Scholl’s, and in 2018, it acquired Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered crops, for $63 billion. Bayer CropScience develops genetically modified crops and pesticides.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayer

  9. I get the sense that, while both are illiberal, unjustified exercises of power, the typical instance of right-originating cancellation is done out of a reactionary, comparatively unsystematic do-what-we-can-to-own-the-libs spirit whereas the typical instance of left-originating cancellation is done out of a more systematic attempt to punish (what is deemed) wrongthink. It’s just a sense, and I’m happy to be shown otherwise. But what do you all think?

    1. That’s how I see it. The Right seems more ardent at effecting change through policy legislation and politics whereas the Left works on the individual and social level through media and institutions. As Gleeson so eloquently opined, the Left would have you go against yourself whereas the Right will control from without and not really concern themselves with what you think.

  10. Some years ago, in the evening, I was driving from the little town of Anting, where our automotive company had its factory, towards Shanghai, when I was involved in a minor traffic collision. Arguably it was not my fault(but don’t we all say that!) The Chinese police duly arrived, took statements, measurements and the rest.

    Early the very next morning my interpreter came to me, telling me that the police had found me guilty of dangerous driving. I was to be fined and had to write a letter of self-criticism. Yes, in China, for minor crimes the police are enforcement, prosecutor and judge. A most efficient system. Audi alteram partem is seen as a waste of time. Does all of this begin to sound like the pernicious new left?

    I could easily afford the fine but what really troubled me was the time honoured Communist practice/requirement to write a self-criticism. This is beginning to sound even more like the pernicious new left. I balked at this and told my interpreter that I refused. She blanched because she understood very well that my refusal would lead to my expulsion from the country, the end of a lucrative contract and would seriously blemish a promising career.

    I was on the brink of a precipice and yet I could not and would not compromise my integrity by humiliating myself with a false statement. I was at that awful moment, that irretrievable tipping point, where my very innermost character was put on trial. Was I an honest person of integrity? Was I doing a wise thing? Did I have the strength to stand on principle no matter what the personal cost? Or would I fold and despise myself thereafter?

    In small ways and large, this is the test that the new left is imposing on us. They are confident that prudence will trump principle. Once we yield and fail the first test, we are enervated, rendered passive instruments of the will of others, as prudence becomes ever more attractive than principle.

    I did not yield, despite my interpreter’s earnest entreaties. Looking back I am astonished by my stubborn pig-headed nature. What got into me?

    But what happened to me? My interpreter left the office sadly, to report to her ‘other’ superiors, while I stewed in my anxiety. She was after all a member of the secret police. She returned a while later with a sly smile. Mr Smith, she said, I will write the self-criticism for you in Chinese. It will be in my handwriting, will be signed by me and you will never know what it said. All you have to do is initial it.

    And so it came to pass that I saved my career. All thanks to a pretty little Chinese interpreter displaying the wisdom worthy of King Solomon. Regrettably the Chinese dodge is no longer available in these testing times when the old left is aped by the new left. My old Communist Party boss would be nodding with approval.

  11. I actually agree with the progressive left on many of the issues, if not all of them. I believe that we owe substantial reparations to all African Americans for historic injustice, for example. But the progressive left refuses to face the fact that most of them are now much more powerful, socially and economically, than the populist right. Not only is that very ironic, it is relevant to concerns about abuse of power because it tells us who really has the most power to abuse. Thomas Piketty published a paper in 2018 showing that over the last sixty years, the demographics of left and right parties has completely flipped. In the 50s and 60s, left-of-center parties were predominately low income and low education, while right-of-center parties were high income and high education. Today that has completely flipped. Left-of-center parties are now predominately high education and middle-to-high income, while right of center parties are now predominately low education and middle-to-low income. In our society, having more wealth and education gives you more power, so in that respect most of the progressive left now has much more power than the populist right. The only exception is the power of the populist right to elect someone like Trump. So if the progressive left abuses it’s position of power in society over those beneath them on the social ladder, then we should not be surprised if the populist right resorts to something like Trump. That’s an explanation, not an endorsement. And that is precisely why the progressive left, for the sake of everything they care about, should not use illiberal tactics to fight its culture war against the populist right. It will backfire.

    1. Ostensibly nothing has changed. The Republicans are still basically the party of big business and the Democrats the workers party. But that once important distinction has lost its once powerful draw because of the confounders of cultural, social, psychological ideologies and economic dynamics favoring the more educated.

  12. …so to reduce at least part of this argument to its nubbings (admittedly simplistically, for the sake of brevity), right wing fascism, “authoritarianism,” is tolerable because it allows citizens to think what they want as long as they remain silent (Kant’s “think what you will but obey!” defense of Frederick the Great); left-wing fascism, “totalitarianism,” is intolerable because it mandates that we speak allowable language. It is not clear (from this essay) that Andrew Gleeson has any faith in the ability of liberal democratic government and social structures to survive political crises, so this is the choice the argument implicitly leaves us with.

    It may possibly, even probably, be true that liberal democracy as an aspiration has failed; but that does not at all mean that we are left with the choice between two fascisms.

    I am anti-fascist (and I do think that Black lives matter). Despite a profound pessimism concerning the ability of people to properly and civilly govern themselves, I remain a Deweyan social democrat and unabashed liberal, who also believes it is possible to correct mistakes and stumble forward for the betterment of the community, in a manner that assures that as many people as possible have a voice in their own government. I must reject the implicit choice between fascisms this essay seems to leave us with.

    It opens with a fair reading of A Man for All Seasons, but ultimately does injustice to it. It is notable that the issues of Bolt’s play are primarily religious in nature, a fact Gleeson glosses over. But readers should not. As a child in American public schools, day in and day out, I was effectively forced to utter loudly and in unison with the rest of the class, “one nation, under God.” No one, at home, in school, especially not in church obviously, ever asked whether I would choose to believe in god – it was a given that I would, and it was a given that I would profess this any time I was asked.

    Religion is the first totalitarianism, as we now are being reminded in Afghanistan. It brooks no dissent, it demands professions of faith, it ostracizes apostates – even, sometimes, punishing them physically. The primary threat of fascism in America comes from Christian fundamentalism. (In Texas, it is now asking citizens to spy on women and doctors to intervene in case anyone should have any thought of performing abortion.) If the left mimics totalitarianism, it does so because it also mimics religious faith.

    I don’t hold to Neoplatonist identitarian politics, because it cuts the left off from the general community, leading them into lala-lands of stupid optimism, smug holier-than-thou rhetoric, and grand projects with no hope of achievement. It narrows their base, and while they may win administrative or legalistic successes, in the long run it disempowers them. This will reveal itself unpleasantly if the right successfully dismantles democracy and establishes the kind of authoritarian governance (“Constitutional” in name only) that it is now well positioned to achieve. Then the totalitarianism on the Christian right will be made manifest through legislation against any number of ‘dangerous ideas’ and private practices – legislation that we have had before, and needed decades to undo.

    We should remember here that Thomas More’s actual political vision – Utopia – was essentially anarchistic. And there is a far simpler solution to the Thomas More dilemma than choosing between fascisms – get rid of the king or any semblance there-of – or as Huey Long put it – “Every man a king!” Democracy depends on free speech because it depends on, and necessitates, politics. It also demands of us, ethically, that we speak, that we say something, that even our silence is an utterance. Every vote is a speech, every failure to vote also speaks.

    The solution to the problems Gleeson presents us with is neither silence, submission, nor even defiance. It is re-dedication to active politics, and to a secular (i.e., non-religious) involvement in community interactions, especially at the level of government. It does not require faith, it requires dogged determination to continue the awkward, stumbling, process of democratization, and to endure set-backs of many kinds presented by bigots of many faiths.

    1. A significant part of the reason that Trump and Trumpism are such a catastrophe for the nation is because they represent the impossibility of democratic politics.

    2. “It is re-dedication to active politics…”

      I don’t fundamentally disagree with your point, but isn’t part of the problem that some feel they cannot speak their minds? That makes active dedication harder. I’ve been on the left almost my whole life and used to dedicate myself more to my school’s union, academic senate, local groups, etc., but in the last couple years the groupthink has really set in. After enough awkward interactions due to questioning the gospel, I’ve decided it’s just easier to mind my own business and not risk anything. After all, I’ve got a good income and a meaningful life outside academia too so I’ve got no problem focusing my attention there.

      You might say I should buck up and consider engaging in different ways than I have before, which I have thought of. But even then, the type of engagement I’d do would be, for instance, to get more involved with The Heterodox Academy–yet in this intellectual environment I could honestly see that backfiring since calling for centered, rational debate is increasingly seen as a dog whistle to the right. Let alone creating a Heterodox group for students!

      Again it’s just easier for me to lay low than to re-dedicate, and I suspect quite a few others are in a similar boat.

      1. I know the feeling. And some political discussions seem more wearying than others. Sometimes silence is only “tending one’s garden” ala Candide; but sometimes it is also a speaking. Sometimes it speaks loudly, perhaps saying “no, just no.” Other times, it is mere assent. Politics generates anxiety, and can very exhausting. But the choice is to let the tides wash over us, and perhaps wash away or weaken our values.

        I am a pessimist – I don’t engage in political activity (including writing here, for instance) thinking that my effort must succeed, that somehow my side will “win.” Indeed, very often I think it will not. But I continue the effort because I have come to believe that the effort is itself the right thing to do, succeed or fail.

        At the end of the Seven Samurai, Takashi Shimura as Kambei Shimada, replies to another samurai, who muses that the surviving samurai have managed to win by surviving, by remarking of the villagers they were defending, “In the end, we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.”

        There’s nothing else to be done. That’s why to do it; there isn’t any other reason.

      2. Not to be trite and as only a concession; as long as one can keep one’s internal beliefs true, there is always the privacy of the voting booth.

    3. So we all have to dedicate ourselves to activist politics? Any citizen who wants to help his co-citizens by, say, being a doctor, a teacher, a charity—worker, or just a very good businessman who provides a great product and treats his employees justly—to all these citizens we must say, “not enough. You must also be politically active”?

      1. The implication of what I said, as to the nature of speaking in a democracy, is that if the democracy is healthy, then we are all always already politically active; we are participants in the polis, the shared community. It is certainly preferable to be aware of this and participate accordingly, but we all do participate in one way or another, to some extent or other. As people withdraw from that, the democracy weakens; for the system in which there is no politics is some form of authoritarianism. I will quote my own comment on a previous article:

        “I recently saw an old NBC documentary (ca. 1952) about Franco’s Spain. They included an interview with a Madrid history professor who said that one good thing about Franco was that, with him in charge, there needn’t be any politics. The urge to ‘overcome’ politics is the greatest danger to a thriving democracy. And the fact that an intelligent and educated professor could celebrate that urge in Franco’s Spain remind us that the danger with fascism is that, when it arrives – nothing changes; it is just that no further change is possible. Except, of course, as the Strongman wills.”

  13. Andrew Gleeson:
    There is no question about it, the purulent centre of this evil nonsense is America and the cauterising cure for it is satire so searing that it becomes intellectually disreputable. That won’t come from philosophers, this is a job for artists. The former bask in the warm glow of peer affirmation. Reading Daily Nous (blog) on the vaccine and masks the other day, I thought ‘yes, this is it – Let me through, I’m a philosopher’. I concur Dr. Twerp.

  14. To be fair, I do want to remark the story of Daryl Davis and his work with KKK members, and I think Gleeson draws the proper inference, that this represents an alternative politics that remains active. But such a politics can only be active in a society democratic or at least with democratic aspirations.

  15. Re these comments from ejwinner:

    “…so to reduce at least part of this argument to its nubbings (admittedly simplistically, for the sake of brevity), right wing fascism, “authoritarianism,” is tolerable because it allows citizens to think what they want as long as they remain silent (Kant’s “think what you will but obey!” defense of Frederick the Great); left-wing fascism, “totalitarianism,” is intolerable because it mandates that we speak allowable language. It is not clear (from this essay) that Andrew Gleeson has any faith in the ability of liberal democratic government and social structures to survive political crises, so this is the choice the argument implicitly leaves us with.”

    Just to make it clear, my piece does not identify right-wing fascism with authoritarianism and the left version with totalitarianism. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism both come in left and right forms. (I should also add that what I say about totalitarianism is not intended to be anything like a full account of it, or even of its essence. Just one important dimension.) I do have faith in liberal democracy and I do not believe that we have reached the situation where we have only a choice between two kinds of fascism. But we need to fight for liberal democracy and my piece was intended as a contribution to that (as well as exploring associated philosophical issues).

  16. Bari Weiss?! Bari Weiss is no Thomas More. Hell, Thomas More was no Thomas More [not The Paul Scofield version, anyway], but a Catholic fanatic, not above torturing heretics. “A Man for All Seasons” is rank propaganda.

  17. Animal said

    The space in which to make mistakes should be protected. I will propose further, though, that this space is not just for the testing of one’s thoughts and sentiments but for the very forming of thoughts and sentiments to be tested — a space required to give enough definition to what can thereby so much as count as a candidate for testing.

    I’m inspired here by Merleau-Ponty’s idea, from Chapter 6 of Phenomenology of Perception, that “expression does not simply translate ready-made thought; it accomplishes it.” Expressing myself is often a matter of giving some shape and identity to something previously inchoate and diffuse, to something previously not even recognizable as my own, until it is taken up and recognized in conversation with others. That a thought or sentiment is my own does not make it wholly “inner”: its very status as a thought or sentiment is bound up with its possible expression in culturally available modes (from the primitive to the sophisticated).

    Bravo. I consider your comment and striking insight to be the only intelligent response in the entire conversation. It is right on point and deals with the heart of the essay.

    The courage to realize oneself by giving expression to one’s thoughts presupposes that one’s thoughts have sufficient value to justify the risk of expressing them. But where does that value come from and where do we derive the courage? I don’t routinely offend my dinner hosts by expressing my opinion of their decor or their children’s table manners! Nor am I normally a noxious querdenker.

    With maturity, experience and deep reflection we begin to discern what really matters. With that realisation comes the understanding that one’s internal sense of value is rooted in, founded on a set of principles. Further, that internal sense of value is anchored by integrity, that is the extent to which we live truly according to our values. This then is a well formed character.

    Following on from this, each of us discovers there are sticking points in our lives, where we deeply sense that it is a case of this far and no further, as Saint Thomas More did. This is where we discover greatness, each in our own way. According to Carlin Barton,

    This was the Roman discrimen, the “Moment of Truth,” the equivocal and ardent moment when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were. This was the agon, the contest when truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way, the truth of one’s being, the truth of being.

    Carlin Barton described this as having a glowing spirit, “To have a glowing spirit one needed to expend one’s energy in a continuous series of ordeals.

  18. The philosopher Peter Boghossian has resigned from his job at Portland State University citing his inability to do his job due to the attentions of SJWs. His letter to the Provost is on Bari Weiss’s substack

    https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/my-university-sacrificed-ideas-for

    His ‘conceptual penis’ hoax paper is amusing: published in ‘Cogent Social Sciences’:
    https://www.skeptic.com/downloads/conceptual-penis/23311886.2017.1330439.pdf

    1. OMB,
      thanks for the link to that powerful piece by Peter Boghossian.
      His final sentence says it all:
      Who would I be if I didn’t? [defend our system of liberal education]

      Naive, immature and unformed minds now hold powerful sway over the public consciousness. Little wonder then that the presidential choice was between the chaotic tyrant Trump and that vacuous idiot, Biden.

      How did things come to this pass?

      1. Peter Smith:
        It occurs to me that many of those SJWs in American and British elite universities will be in leading positions in society in the next twenty years and beyond and will have to deal with the Chinese who by that time will be putting up the price of their manufactured goods after having gutted Western capacity. Build more safe spaces will be the response.

    2. I hope I’m not putting myself out on a limb here by saying that I’ve never actually bothered to read The Conceptual Penis before, I just took it as a prima facie example of Woke and SJW culture running amok. Having given it a quick perusal, I have to say that the premise isn’t all that farcical in the use of the penis as a symbolic metaphor for male hierarchical supremacy. But, it never really says more than that and the often used rape as a verb for insulting and ravishing the environment does get a bit rich.

      The Dog Rape thesis is another matter all together.

  19. OMB,
    It occurs to me that many of those SJWs in American and British elite universities will be in leading positions in society in the next twenty years

    Yes, but they will no longer be SJWs. It is a mistake to think they hold those positions as a matter of sincere, principled belief. A more useful lens is to see the youth on a journey from being powerless to exercising power. As an infant you attempt to exercise power by being a brat. This is largely successful because it taps into innate parental instincts. As the infant grows older brattish behaviour has diminishing returns, for the most part, and the youth must adopt alternative strategies to claim and exercise power. One of the strategies is to discredit the incumbent holders of power so that they can usurp their power. This is what SJW is really about.

    Eventually they do move into positions of power and a different dynamic sets in. Power holders essentially want to retain power and that means resisting the young usurpers who will in the future try to discredit them. Thus holding power essentially converts one into a conservative, since one wants to conserve power by conserving the situation that gave them power.

    1. Peter Smith:
      These are not children, they are young adults who have worked very hard pounding their books to get into these elite institutions and have developed a carapace of boundless self-esteem. Their teachers often share their attitudes, abetting them in their cancellation projects. Why should they change; affirmation surrounds them? They are on the right side of history.

      On the Chinese angle. There are operative 36 Confucius Institutes (down from 103/ 2017) operative in the U.S. and world wide 541. A news report in the Irish Times shows the unease felt at the not very inscrutable mission of these outfits:
      https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/ucd-staff-say-college-institute-teaching-chinese-studies-devalues-reputation-1.4641042

      1. Terranbiped:
        Lacan puts the French letter on that. That’s the thing about a good wind up, you are drawn into it by degrees of semi-plausibility verging by slow process into outright bizarro mondo. “Win us by honest trifles to betray us in matters of deepest consequence”. That journal is apparently not of the highest calibre so the hoax was not an almighty coup.

        Peter Smith:
        When society has taken a certain set, with symmetrical conflict where the other crowd are wrong about everything, what can bring peace defined by Augustine as the tranquillity of order? The dominant group can fail utterly to meet some challenge internal or external and the other crowd takes over. There can be civil war and after that if they share the same territory, towns, villages, streets, a subdued politics ensues or benign amnesia. An uneasy rapprochement is possible particularly if a third complementary force arises. Pareto has written about the recycling of the elites, the foxes and the lions an eternal dyad.

        The bemused youth when he is a ‘big boy now’ will become someone with a stake in society, the one marking the perimeter of his property. With increasing precarity and erosion of real incomes that may not happen. Enter fantasy politics.

        1. Speaking of the French, are we not all frogs in ever increasing water temperature from the moment we leave the stasis of the womb? We, if lucky by nature or nurture, have acquired a sufficient threshold sensor warning us that if we don’t jump out, we will soon simmer then boil into believing the unbelievable. Then again, the more troubling aspect is that there are others who willingly dive in and luxuriate in the hot spas of ideas and beliefs we might find implausible,

          1. terranbiped,
            there are others who willingly dive in and luxuriate in the hot spas of ideas and beliefs we might find implausible

            Intellectual curiosity and exploration are greatly to be admired.

          2. Yes, but, I was metaphorically referring to the process of being unduly influenced or indoctrinated into beliefs by partisans or governments (usually authoritarian or totalitarian) in order to maintain their ideologies and power. I was responding to ombhurbhuva’s comment about people being slowly suckered in with trivialities until they finally believe absurdities. I likened that to a frog who doesn’t notice the water is slowly getting dangerously hotter.

        2. OMB.
          what can bring peace defined by Augustine as the tranquillity of order? The dominant group can fail utterly to meet some challenge internal or external and the other crowd takes over.

          Yes, this has been the problem of settled, property owning society for thousands of years.

          what can bring peace defined by Augustine as the tranquillity of order?

          The absence of peace is the violent conflict that has bedevilled our species with interminable bloodletting. However we have made remarkable progress, not by eliminating conflict, but by changing the nature of conflict. Violent conflict is being replaced by a rules based, orderly system of symbolic conflict. This is the adversary system as practised in our law courts. Although not given that name, the adversary system characterises the way we conduct our politics, science and media operations.

          The adversary system has a symbolic arena that replaces the real arena of Roman times. It has a ‘neutral’ arbiter, as well as a set of rules and procedures that govern its operation. It decides who the virtual winners and losers are and they keep their heads.

          This works because the best known way of arriving at the truth of a given matter is to arrange a virtual contest of opposing viewpoints, according to accepted norms and procedures. The contest of ideas clarifies, refines and eliminates the bad.

          However, for this to work all parties must subscribe to the system and subordinate their interests to the outcome.

          This in requires that there must be an underlying system of virtue ethics that regulates individual behaviour so that they subordinate themselves to the adversary system.

      2. OMB,
        These are not children, they are young adults

        Not really. These are adolescents experiencing a delayed transition into adulthood. This is now well documented. But that is not the key thing. The key thing is that students lack power. Power allows one to initiate change, stamp your own personality on the status quo and to get access to rich rewards. This power only comes once you enter the business/industrial corporate world and work your way up the management ladder. To gain this power you must subscribe to the system and work within it. Once you gain the power you need to conserve it by conserving the system that granted you power. Hence you inevitably become a conservative.

        a carapace of boundless self-esteem

        Don’t I know that! I have managed so many intakes of such students who know it all and are confident that their predecessors screwed up everything and that they alone have the boundless wisdom to fix up the messes of their predecessors. One of my first tasks was to instill a healthy respect for reality. Those who would not learn became casualties. And then I have watched them ascend the corporate ladder, screw things up in their turn and be challenged by the new insurgent usurpers. The wheel turns, and turns again, as it has done for hundreds of years.

        Their teachers often share their attitudes,

        Are teachers adults? Or are they the leftovers who failed in the competition for power?

        Why should they change; affirmation surrounds them?

        They change because they begin to recognise the route to power.

        They are on the right side of history.

        No, as they get older, subscribe to the system and start to get access to power they move on to the right side of history[pun intended].

      3. On the Chinese angle. There are operative 36 Confucius Institutes (down from 103/ 2017) operative in the U.S. and world wide 541. A news report in the Irish Times shows the unease felt at the not very inscrutable mission of these outfits:

        Most large nations have operations to advance their culture in foreign spheres. The French have the Alliance Francaise and the Germans have the Goethe Institute. And of course there is the inestimable BBC. We should expect this. But what the Chinese are trying do in Dublin is a step too far. The judgement of the Dublin University College in playing along is execrable. What the Chinese are doing should never be given academic cover.

        On the other hand I have a lot of sympathy for the Chinese. My period of employment in China has left me with huge admiration for them. Take a look at the map and see how we have surrounded them with proxies for American power. As a result they feel insecure, constrained, confined, hounded and persecuted. They are a proud intelligent nation and they will not submit to this. And nor should they. The arrogant stupidity of American strategy has created this problem.

        1. I don’t think the Free World and China’s surrounding nations are worried about the traits of pride and intelligence.

          1. terranbiped,
            I don’t think the Free World and China’s surrounding nations are worried about the traits of pride and intelligence

            They should be because these traits are driving Chinese behaviour. As a consequence the Chinese are rapidly re-arming and are adopting a hostile, belligerent stance. In alliance with Russia they are truly formidable.

            This is a situation we have created. We could defuse this by returning Taiwan to China, where it rightly belongs. We should withdraw our forces from Japan and Korea.

            You should try to understand how the Chinese feel. The best way to do this is imagine how America would feel if China occupied Cuba, creating large air bases and missile bases there. It would be untenable for the Americans. And in the same way the situation is untenable for the Chinese. They cannot and will not allow it to continue. This is why they are so rapidly re-arming. And I agree with the Chinese.

          2. I’m not going to get into a political brawl about sucking up to a dictatorial, authoritarian nation that’s run like a Skinner box, that in my estimation needs little provocation to push its new found weight around. Yeah, they are proud,intelligent and boxed in, just like post WWI Germany. Screw the Uyghurs, Tibet and hand over the free people of Taiwan and then what, Kumbaya?

            Peter, that’s my emotional response. I agree we have to accept the reality of a rising power and do everything in our power to not blow up the planet. But, it’s a two way street and if they think they will use their home-brand hegemony in order to create a new world order based on their Emperor Xi’s top down commie hybrid blueprint then we must engage carefully and to our own interests. They represent our antithesis but I hope we can coexist till the paradigms change to a more liberal world. Let them flush their Yuans down the toilet like we do on arms. I don’t know if turning the other cheek or acting like Neville Chamberlain will cut the mustard. All we can do is bide our time and act like two primates screaming at each other at the border of our respective territories.

        2. Peter: You surprise me. I would like to know how this view (which I would ascribe to the CCP, but not to many of the Chinese people) differs from the theory of Lebensraum? The issue has, for me, far greater weight than the one posed in Andrew’s essay, important though that is.

          Alan

  20. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying are interesting champions and throw a weird light on your essay. In the common story, they were two professors at Evergreen where a traditional Day of Absence was turned on its head. Instead of blacks absenting themselves from the campus for events addressing racism, they demanded that whites absent themselves (or else!). Bret objected to this tyranny in an email (subsequently leaked) which raised a furor of protests among the students who proceeded to harass Bret and Heather off of the campus and out of their lucrative careers.

    In fact, it was an entirely voluntary event in which students would have to enroll. It was taken for granted that 90% of students wouldn’t. Bret’s email was a gross distortion of the event. And yet, tho it pissed people off, it did not inspire protests. It was only months later that protests erupted when a fight broke out in the cafeteria and only the black students involved were detained. During one of these protests, Weinstein came out of his classroom and engaged them, and they got in a heated debate of the “JORDAN PETERSON DESTROYS STUDENTS” variety (emphasis on quote-unquote) where a reactionary professor contests a motley rabble of students. Much of it surrounded the interpretation and relevance of his email. Weinstein later took to Tucker Carlson, spread his misinformation about the Day of Absence, and placed himself at the center of the protests. He’s remained there ever since.

    The rightwing backlash against Evergreen was swift, effective, and persistently encouraged by Weinstein, a campaign of harassment and intimidation of students and faculty. Now the university won’t even support the original version of The Day of Absence (which Bret claimed to support and later mocked), apparently a case of free speech not worth protecting. Bret and Heather sued the university, settled for a fraction of what they demanded, and quit in favor of lucrative careers as reactionary pontificators and peddlers of crackpot cure-alls. They still have a large audience. This was, in the end, a quite effective weaponizing of “free speech” as a slogan to silence speech the right detests.

    https://psmag.com/education/the-real-free-speech-story-at-evergreen-college

    But what comes out of this isn’t some virtuously unique voice steeling itself against a stultifying collective. It’s contested narratives, clashing ecosystems, different individuals wanting to be heard and to dominate the conversation. It’s about contesting what should and shouldn’t fall within the ambit of acceptable discourse. Consider the mess of a debate he had with the students over his emails. One of the main areas of contention was its effects and his responsibility. The students didn’t make a great case, but I didn’t find Weinstein’s much better, and it set a strong precedent for him. In the end, he doesn’t consider himself responsible for spreading falsehoods about the Day of Absence. He doesn’t consider himself responsible for spreading falsehoods about individual students that lead to harassment campaigns resulting in them having to move multiple times. He doesn’t consider himself responsible for spreading falsehoods about the effectiveness of vaccines resulting in the deaths of his fans. He doesn’t consider himself responsible for spreading falsehoods about ivermectin also resulting in the deaths of his fans. I don’t consider this at all tenable. There are relevant distinctions being egregiously trampled. When Edouard Dumont wanted to get an innocent man imprisoned, drum up antisemitic riots, and encourage revolt against the state, he did it in a paper he called Libre Parole. Speech has consequences and we all deal with it, no matter what side of the National Assembly we sit in. Free speech is a right, but it’s not an excuse.

    If the author thinks Evergreen is worse than lawmakers making broad-sweeping legislation against anti-racist discourse, far and away more comprehensive and deleterious to the suppression of free speech, then I’m afraid his priorities lie more with reaction than free speech.

    Whatever our differences, I’m much more in sympathy with Dan, wallerstein, and ejwinner, far as this fight goes.

    1. Zac:
      Evergreen paid a 500000 dollar settlement to Weinstein and Heying which seems to indicate that they had a good case. The college has suffered a 27% decline in enrollment since those days of absence even though they have a 98% acceptance rate and they can’t find someone who wants to be president. That’s a lot of absence.
      I watch little segments of the Bert and Heather show. It has its comedic elements; the over large microphones, the strange bunker-like ambiance, the cat, ugly cabinets, Dark Horse pub sign, Heather smiling to herself in a sibylline fashion. But are they killers?

      1. ombhurbhuva:

        “Evergreen paid a 500000 dollar settlement to Weinstein and Heying which seems to indicate that they had a good case. The college has suffered a 27% decline in enrollment since those days of absence even though they have a 98% acceptance rate and they can’t find someone who wants to be president. That’s a lot of absence.”

        And they’d asked for 3.85 million. The college claimed no liability and rejected Bret’s accusations. It sounds a lot more like they just wanted to be rid of Bret and Heather because they were sick of dealing with the controversy. Note that two months later, Naima Lowe, the black professor who stood with the students and went viral berating her white colleagues, received almost the same settlement from the college (10,000 less than what they got individually), echoing the students’ claims. Which again, has the same whiff to it, them wanting to put the story behind them. Or you can bite the bullet and say that it implies that her and the students’ claims had legitimacy.

        “I watch little segments of the Bert and Heather show. It has its comedic elements; the over large microphones, the strange bunker-like ambiance, the cat, ugly cabinets, Dark Horse pub sign, Heather smiling to herself in a sibylline fashion. But are they killers?”

        You can’t really beat a grown man publicly drinking breast milk as a prophylactic against COVID. As for killers? Well, they don’t have Presidential numbers, but some of their followers have died from COVID due to following Bret and Heather’s crackpot guidance.

      2. Only to unvaccinated Rightwing talk show hosts.

        They are an unintentional hoot. But I’m a sucker for evolutionary biology so give them a long leash.

  21. From those who claim that canceling these days only comes from the Woke set, here’s an example of canceling from the far right, of a tenured professor resigning his position.
    https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2021/09/nathan-jun-has-resigned-his-tenured-position-at-midwestern-state-university.html

    Leiter, who tries to be balanced about canceling from the woke set and far right, has documented several other cases of canceling from the far right.

      1. Dan,
        Cancel culture has no political valence. Every side does it.

        Yes, but anecdotally, at least, the left tend be the most frequent and enthusiastic practitioners. I would love to see a careful study that documents the frequency of cancellation/silencing on both sides of the political spectrum. I predict that the left would win hands down.

          1. Disagree

            Be my guest.

            But would you like to take a stab at giving some rough relative proportions? Remember that, thanks to Google, we all have access to the data!!!!

        1. Peter Smith:

          “Yes, but anecdotally, at least, the left tend be the most frequent and enthusiastic practitioners. I would love to see a careful study that documents the frequency of cancellation/silencing on both sides of the political spectrum. I predict that the left would win hands down.”

          Closest thing:

          https://freespeechproject.georgetown.edu

  22. Dan,
    Nah, these are all hunches based on what we perceive.

    How about giving your perceived hunches some more precision? I am sure your hunches must have some basis in reality.

    1. Cancelation is more common on the Left, within academia, for obvious reasons. But in other sectors, one sees it just as ferociously exercised by the Right. Trumpers are famous for their cancellations.

      1. The very process described below by Peter Smith himself about how people learn to “fit into” the corporation structure is a form of cancelation and basically, as Peter Smith himself says, done by the right.

        A relative of mine, who is quite leftwing, worked for years in two different Manhattan investment banks as a programmer. He’s now about 50 and having received a sizeable inheritance, returned to graduate school to study linguistics, that is, to an environment where he feels more comfortable in political and spiritual terms. In the bank he felt that he could not express his true opinions, they being too leftwing and that he could not ” be himself”.

        Given his opinions, he is not going to be cancelled in academic life.

        1. SW,
          and that he could not ” be himself”.

          There is something to be said for being a team player.

          Is his work environment the appropriate forum for expressing himself in “political and spiritual terms“. There are many more appropriate and more effective forums for doing this.

          1. Peter,

            He was a team player. As I said, he’s about 50, which means he worked in investment banking for around 25 years, but he got tired of playing on a team that he wasn’t rooting for.

  23. Zac:
    Surveys and Polls. That settles it, those are highly reliable indications of public sentiment.

    There is no campus free speech crisis: The right’s new moral panic is largely imaginary
    (Salon mag)

    1. ombhurbhuva:

      “Surveys and Polls. That settles it, those are highly reliable indications of public sentiment.

      There is no campus free speech crisis: The right’s new moral panic is largely imaginary”

      Hey, by all means, disagree, but at least he’s shown his cards. What are you holding?

      “(Salon mag)”

      Lol. Niskanen is named for a former Reagan advisor and is packed with former Cato folks. It’s a think tank staffed by libertarians and liberals of the moderate variety.

  24. Hi Andrew: That’s a brave essay. Good to see you writing for Electric Agora.

    An article by the battle-hardened journalist and author Christina Lamb brought home to me how deep cancelling can go. Quote: “Wanting to contrast the duke as her great love to the old man who had become a figure of fun to many of us, I wrote the line that would cause all the problems: ‘To her subjects, Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history — an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.’”

    The next day she saw that this was offensive and apologised quite sincerely on social media. This had no effect. “As a female journalist I am sadly used to online abuse, from jihadists who hate western women, or Pakistani hardliners because of my association with the activist Malala Yousafzai, whose autobiography I worked on. This was different. People apparently thought it was a perfectly reasonable response to abuse me, my husband and son. The jihadists were polite in comparison.” She got death threats, had the chance of winning an award taken away from her, and was investigated by police.

    The whole story is not on her excellent website (http://christinalamb.net). I read it in The Australian.

    I suppose it is better to have two lunatic fringes, as opposed to just one lunatic organisation such as the one running the world’s number two power.

    Alan

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