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Cancel Culture and the Renormalization of Society
The illiberalism being ushered in by wokeism.
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Cancel culture is the revolutionary aggression of the authoritarian Left made manifest. There’s no singular definition, but at its worst it’s when unaccountable groups successfully apply pressure to punish people for wrongthink. Like medieval mobs always on the lookout for someone to burn, our new cultural fascisti increasingly demand that no one criticize their worldview or “harm” those who fall under a kaleidoscopically changing hierarchy of victimhood, gleefully punishing those who do.
Contrary to what mediocrities like Charles Blow claim, cancel culture is very real. The examples are too numerous to count, but some of the more outrageous ones include:
A teacher was fired for inadvertently failing to address a student by his self-identified gender pronoun.
A professor at the University of Southern California was placed on leave for using a Chinese word that some people think sounds like the n-word even though it’s simply the Chinese word for “that.” The professor, a member of the USC US-China Institute, was teaching a communications course when he used the word to illustrate how different languages have different ways of filling in conversational pauses.
At Skidmore College in New York, a professor was boycotted for merely attending a pro-police “Back the Blue” rally. He didn’t participate in any way, he just wanted to hear what the demonstrators had to say. But later that night, an email circulated at the college demanding his immediate dismissal “for engaging in hateful conduct that threatens Black Skidmore students.” The professor found a notice on his classroom door saying “STOP. By entering this class you are crossing a campus-wide picket line and breaking the boycott against Professor David Peterson. This is not a safe environment for marginalized students . . . By continuing to take this course you are enabling bigoted behavior on this campus.”1
A top executive at Boeing lost his job because of an article he wrote in 1987, in which he argued that women shouldn’t serve as fighter pilots. The executive apologized, writing: “My article was a 29-year-old Cold War navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time. The dialogue that followed its publication 33 years ago quickly opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since.” That wasn’t enough to save his job.
John Gibson, the former president of American gaming studio Tripwire Interactive, lost his job for tweeting in support of Texas’ new pro-life legislation.
Kieran Bhattacharya was a student at the University of Virginia School of Medicine who was banned from campus after he questioned a speaker’s definition of microaggressions during a panel discussion.
Scott Cawthon was the creator of the hugely successful “Five Nights at Freddy’s” video game series who was cancelled in June 2021 after fans decided to search Open Secrets (a website that lists political donations) for information regarding his campaign contributions. When it was revealed that Cawthon had donated money to several Republicans (including Trump—the horror!), calls for him to retire began circulating online. Eventually the pressure became too much, and Cawthon announced that he would be leaving the series.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman was fired from a popular boutique video-game publisher after an online pressure campaign was launched against her employer by a transgender activist. Her crime? Enjoying Harry Potter and following Libs of TikTok on Twitter. (I’m not joking.)
The Church of Woke promotes a culture in which every slight, real or perceived, is greeted with outsize demands for disciplinary consequences. These millennial Maoists often terrorize by engaging in “grievance archaeology,” poring over old tweets or yellowing screen-shots of Halloween parties past, looking for things you might have said or done a decade ago that, judged through the mores of the present, are now deemed morally impermissible.
No transgression of sensitivities is so trivial that it will not invite repercussions. Rarely are the punishments and attacks commensurate with the perceived offense, but that’s the point. They will hurt whomever they perceive standing in the way of their cause without regard for proportionality or accuracy, reveling in the schadenfreude like a bunch of pious sadists. Once it becomes clear that attention and praise can be garnered from organizing an attack on someone’s reputation, plenty of people discover they have an interest in doing so.
With cancellation, the true target is never the specific person being cancelled, but the broader public that’s being disciplined and conditioned to adopt a range of politically acceptable norms and behaviors. This is why a climate of cancellation is so pernicious. It can succeed in changing the way people talk and argue and behave even if it doesn’t succeed in destroying the careers of some of the more famous people who are targeted.
J.K. Rowling is a perfect example. She’s constantly attacked by rabid, mouth-foaming LGBTQ+ activists for believing biological sex shouldn’t be subordinated to post-modern conceptions of “gender identity” and expressing concerns that the trans agenda is marginalizing and harming women,2 but she’s essentially un-cancelable and can say exquisite things like this:
However, the attacks still serve to discourage other people from saying what they think. The goal isn’t just to punish someone, but to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform. When opening your mouth is liable to get you ruinously accused of committing a long list of -isms, this obviously has a chilling effect on speech. People self-censor.
According to a poll by the Cato Institute, more than six in ten Americans say they fear saying what they think, including a majority of liberals, 64% of moderates, and fully 77% of conservatives. Only self-described “strong liberals” feel confident in saying what they believe these days.
The prevailing woke orthodoxy sees free speech as an inconvenient disruption. Adherents believe mean words and dissent are ICBMs, and they constantly conflate offense with harm, claims of which they magnify for leverage. The preferred censorship tactic seems to be expanding and distorting the concept of “harmful” speech and behavior so that it encompasses that which makes them “uncomfortable,” and then demanding such conduct be prohibited accordingly.
Their political culture has inculcated them to believe not only that they can comfortably silence whatever views they arbitrarily place into this category without being guilty of censorship, but that if they employ vague language about oppression, they can essentially operate however they’d like and attempt to ruin the life of those with whom they disagree. This follows the progressive pseudo-religion more broadly. Your standard woke progressive identitarian like Susan from Oberlin, who carries around a New Yorker tote brimming with grievances and moral certitude, reacts with such vitriol because dissent isn’t tolerated in cults of conformity. No charity or benefit of the doubt is given to apostates, and interminable crusades must be led against perceived deviationists within their own ranks.
Cancel culture is part of the same counterproductive moralism at the forefront of the Left’s cultural revolution, and that cultural revolution has hijacked nearly all of Americans’ major institutions. Within these institutions, the authoritarian Left’s incremental demands have been taken up, one by one: from DEI bullshit to Maoist struggle sessions, from critical race theory to ideological iconoclasm.
How did this happen? How did basically the entire American corporate-bureaucratic-nonprofit-media-academic oligarchy get swept up in this illiberal, intolerant, neoracist orthodoxy? Why is every public and private power center falling over itself to accommodate this ascendant leftist cultural paradigm?
The answer lies in a process that author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “renormalization.” This process allows a motivated minority to cow a disinterested majority into going along to get along. Taleb gives a simple enough example: a family of four, including one daughter who only eats organic. This presents the mom with a choice: she can either cook two meals, one for the non-organic family members and one for her daughter; or she can cook one meal with only organic ingredients. She decides to cook only one meal. Thus, the family has been renormalized and converted from majority non-organic to universally organic. Taleb then posits a scenario in which the family goes to a barbecue attended by three other families. The host must make the same choice that the mom did—and the host chooses to cook organic for everyone. This process of renormalization in which the “new normal” is solidified continues until greater and greater numbers have been moved by one intransigent individual.
This process is equally applicable to politics, but can only go so far unless a tipping point is reached. This does not require a majority. Far from it. All that’s needed is for the intransigent actors to form a core. Physicist Serge Galam has suggested that in some cases, only about 20% of a population is needed to support an extreme view in order to cause radical renormalization. One way of creating such an intransigent minority coalition, according to Galam, is the activation of what he calls “frozen prejudices.” Basically, you start with a motivated core group that doesn’t care about alienating people and instead focuses on appealing to the prejudices of vulnerable groups, who are then forced to choose between the core group and its opponents. You simplify the equation by making the choice binary.
Ben Shapiro notes that this is, in a nutshell, the strategy for the authoritarian Left:
By putting together an intersectional coalition of supposedly dispossessed groups motivated by a common enemy—the system itself—they can move mountains. They can build a coalition of people who look the other way at revolutionary aggression, who endorse top-down censorship, who believe deeply in anti-conventionalism. And when the ascendant authoritarian leftist coalition uses its momentum against those who populate the highest levels of institutional power, offering job preservation or temporary absolution in return for surrender, institutions generally surrender.
These institutions then mandate authoritarian leftist values. See for example Coca-Cola, a company with over 80,000 employees, training its workforce to be “less white,” which apparently means to be “less arrogant, less certain, less defensive, less ignorant, and more humble”—and then claiming that this discriminatory content is necessary to foster “inclusion.”
Those uninterested in joining the Church of Woke and becoming one of its postulants or proselytizers are viewed with suspicion at best and as heretics at worst. If Joe briefcase at Coca-Cola expresses anything but enthusiastic acceptance of the Be Less White training he has to attend, one of the Karens at the company — doubtless an affluent, college-educated white progressive — will begin implying he’s a racist. The possibility of that taint is crippling. Better to signal his progressive bona fides with unqualified agreement to preempt any potentially damaging insinuations.
This is all the woke have to do to get one to heel. The result is self-censorship and discretion, contributing all the more to the illusion of unanimity.
Inch by inch this renormalization process is happening. The goal is to shift the Overton window — the range of political and cultural policies considered acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time — far enough leftward that society is gradually made anew in accordance with the woke agenda, which is driven by top-down narrative constructions based on theories of identity and power. We’re watching this happen in real time as idiocies are introduced as inconveniences, with the intent being to slowly acculturate the public.
Their favored policies and changes are often imposed through the administrative state, sidestepping public opinion and democratic deliberation. This is made possible because the “social justice reckoning” has radically transformed our key institutions — which have purchased indulgences from the Church of Woke — with countless cascading consequences. Those who work within these hijacked institutions remain a small fraction of the population, but they wield disproportionate influence over the direction of society, and that direction currently entails cleansing the country of conservatism and the political de-Baathification of Trump supporters.
Increasingly, mainstream conservative views at universities and companies hermetically sealed against any non-left dissent are seen as a violation of HR rules in and of themselves. If you’re not 100% convinced Bret Kavanaugh is a serial rapist, or you don’t think everyone who manages to scramble across the border should be allowed to stay here permanently, or if you believe police brutality can be a serious problem without literally every police officer being a racist murderer, you are deemed “problematic.” The childish moral calculus of wokeness gives ideologues the green light to root out the baddies engaged in wrongthink or uncompliant with the latest arbitrary definition of Acceptability.
How, then, to stop this renormalization?
People need to push back. While each minor demand made of the broad majority might seem reasonable, over a long enough period of time, a continuous series of minor demands amounts to a major imposition. As Ben Shapiro points out, even the American Founding Fathers were willing to tolerate a “long train of usurpations and abuses” for a period. It was only after it became clear that those demands pursued “invariably the same Object, evinc[ing] a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism” that they declared independence.
The mainstream majority must supplant the extreme minority. It’s really as simple as that. There’s a yawning gap separating the woke agenda from the priorities of ordinary Americans. We are simply being subjected to the dictates of a very vocal progressive sect that blindly desires to uproot modern society and First Amendment norms and replace them with a deeply illiberal identitarian caste system and the repressive tolerance of Marxism. It would behoove us to “resist.”
As a result of the boycott, he had no remaining students in one class and only a very small number of students in his other two classes. The university also launched an investigation “for possible bias.”
God forbid someone believe it’s wrong to sacrifice women’s rights for the sake of an infinitesimal minority. Should trans women be allowed to use the women’s restroom? No, because the definition of a “trans woman,” as decided upon by the Left, is any individual who says they’re a woman. If you cannot understand the comically absurd — and dangerous — implications of that stipulation it’s because you’re as stupid as pig dribble and have probably been lobotomized by woke politics.