“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
― H.L. Mencken
Cancel culture has taken a firm root in the American cultural zeitgeist — and no one is really safe.
By King Lars
In the words of former president Barack Obama, progressives partake in a “circular firing squad,” taking down those of their own who fail to live up to an imagined moral standard. Prominent liberal figures in the media, such as Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, and more recently J. K. Rowling have all fallen prey to cancel culture and the woke Twitterati, the less than one percent of online users who seem to have the power to influence the world around them. Many undeserving civilians have also suffered, losing their jobs or being forced to experience harassment from the horde. As recent as yesterday, ‘conscious’ rappers Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole were ‘cancelled’, by an albeit small yet loud group, on Twitter.
However, this is nothing new in our nation’s history. ‘Woke’ culture, which is distinct from authentic activism, is a new variety of a longstanding tradition in America: Puritanism. In fact, the real origins of cancel culture are deeply conservative in nature. Purity tests, excommunication, sex panic, and canonical rigidity have historically been tools of the religious right.
Reactionary politics is the bread and butter of conservative thought. These policies are often based on deep religious sentiment. Religion used to play a more prominent role in society, and those in power were not afraid to use religion as a cudgel to silence those who were offensive.
In the United States, we can trace this all the way back to the historic Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s. In a fit of religious fervor, innocent women and men were unfairly sentenced to death due to insane allegations concerning black magic and witchcraft.
Prohibition was ushered into being in large part by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Originally a group focused on important issues such as labor laws, prison reform and suffrage, the group pivoted to the prohibition of alcohol before the turn of the century. Of course, their membership took a marked downturn upon the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) in 1919.
Religious control in the United States made a strong comeback with the rise of Evangelicalism in the late 20th century. During this time, that which was offensive had to be purged from American society for the greater good. The famous case with Tipper Gore and the creation of the parental advisory sticker, a concept that seems nearly laughable in the age of endless content, was an attempt to censor the arts and regulate what was acceptable for society. In short, ‘progressive’ minded Tipper Gore had appointed herself and her cohorts as the gatekeepers of a set of morals so pure it allowed them to decide for others.
In the 21st century, it seems that we haven’t learned from our mistakes. However, instead of the religious right, it is now the progressive left who has taken up the mantle of moral politics. Actions, people, and things that are deemed “offensive” are not suitable for the public discourse and must be removed.
In many ways, the movement behind cancel culture embodies a religious fervor. There are many people increasingly arguing that social justice is quickly becoming a cult or religion, complete with a set of dogma, rituals, and definitions of blasphemy. Just like religious thinkers before them, progressive factions create their own epistemologies and assign an extremely black and white outlook to the world. There are no grey areas, and those who cross the lines are excommunicated and demonized. It is no mistake that those that champion ‘non-binary’ language often have binary worldviews.
Unlike the religious right which had a religious text in order to gauge and interpret moral authority, the left has the advantage of being able to move the goalposts.
Famed author J. K. Rowling has recently come under fire for her comments in support of biological sex. Rowling is a self-described feminist and has been a well-respected in progressive circles in the past. However, in the days of intersectionality, it seems that she is no longer in a safe position on the ideological left.
Rowling’s detractors have labeled her a TERF — trans-exclusionary radical feminist — and transphobic. Rowling is well known for engaging in the cultural politics of progressivism, famously retroactively making characters from the Harry Potter series gay, but it seems now that she is less willing to cave in to pressure, vehemently tweeting in defense of biological sex and the unique perspective of biological women. Nothing in any of her statements comes off as slightly malevolent– it merely differs from the lock-step canon in very nuanced ways. To the 3rd wave, any deviance is blasphemy. To be fair, some of what Rowling has said could be seen as insensitive. Nonetheless, she is being derided as a Nazi. Quite the illogical stretch to compare her to the regime that murdered 6 million Jews.
Interestingly enough, Rowling’s sentiments were once considered to be a far-left movement some ten years ago. It is now antithetical to the progressive movement, and those who stray from the doctrine are assigned the nonsensical title of “alt-right.”
The end goal of cancel culture is to deplatform those who disagree with you or impact their ability to influence others. With a constantly moving goal post, there does not seem to be an end to this rinse-and-repeat cycle. Many of those who were calling people out a few years ago now find themselves being canceled. Many celebrities have had their careers impacted, and many everyday people have also suffered by losing their jobs, as well.
As we gear up for the 2020 election, things have seemingly gone into overdrive. Protesters have taken to the streets, and the politically uninitiated are reeling from fatigue in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. We are experiencing our own form of the French Revolution, with a never-ending cast of Robespierres.
And just like Robespierre, the revolutionaries are always the next on the chopping block.