What to Worship, How to Obey: The New Rules of Cancel Culture

Peter Wood

Editor's note: This essay was originally published by Doc Emet Productions on December 30, 2020, and is republished here with permission.

Cancel culture is what we call the effort by leftists to banish people who defy the edicts of political correctness. The idea extends to the inanimate, as when statues of George Washington are toppled, buildings renamed, and innocent objects such as plastic straws are outlawed. But cancel culture has a flip side, consisting of mandates to celebrate people who have achieved little or nothing, to create monuments to leftist ideas and heroes, and to turn banal objects into icons of virtue. Think of George Floyd, Vladimir Lenin, and face masks: career criminal, mass-murdering dictator, and practically useless protection against COVID-19.

We lack a concise term for this impulse on the left to require us to knee to the symbols of its social power. “Virtue-signaling” is part of what is happening, but that doesn’t capture the effort to make everyone else adopt the message or at least pretend to go along. For the moment, I will call these the insignia of “uplift anger.” The idea is make those of us alive today rectify perceived current and past injustices by displaying our deference to the symbols of the new order. Uplift anger aims at forcing the public to submit to its idols. The flip side of cancel culture is compliance culture.

We all know what that looks like and sounds like. Every time you say “he or she” instead of just “he,” you are bowing to the edict of a feminist scorn from a few decades back. Or, if you use the title “doctor” mainly for a medical practitioner and are suddenly thinking that maybe you should address the recipient of doctorate in education with the same august title, you are bowing to compliance. If visitors ever return to the desolate Manhattan, they will no doubt continue to take pictures of Fearless Girl, now standing across from the New York Stock Exchange, and formerly placed mockingly in front of the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street.

These exercises in bending current attitudes towards a political agenda work as both in-group symbols and as arrows against the outsiders. Nothing says me-too like donning a Che Guevara t-shirt, unless it is wearing a pussy hat. These accouterments say not only that the person who wears them upholds a certain ideology, but also that he (or she!) aims to aggravate those who don’t agree. The symbol loses its value if it lacks that cutting edge of aggression. When nearly everyone kneels for the national anthem, the protest will be nullified, and some more flamboyant signal of disrespect will be summoned.

All of this is the ground game of the culture wars. The cultural right has MAGA hats and NRA symbols that function in similar ways to display loyalty and offend the unenlightened in a single glance. But uplift anger also has a collective dimension. When the Cleveland Indians excise the word “Indians” from their name, they signal their new “woke” identity, but they also impose that decision on the Cleveland community and the nation as a whole. This sort of brand redefinition is part of what I called the “angi-culture” in a book I wrote some years ago. (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.) Getting angry has become America’s favorite form of self-validation. What was once seen as a sign of weakness has become a signal of empowerment. Through much of American history, Americans championed self-control and regarded those who gave in too quickly or too easily to provocations as lacking character. We have turned that around and made the hot-headed who participate in cancel culture into champions of righteous indignation through.

Historically, we are fortunate that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t subscribe to the “new anger” formulation, in which a volatile temperament licenses itself to boil over whenever it meets an aggravation.

Of course, the management of the quondam Cleveland Indians didn’t just one day boil over about the name they have worn since 1915. They did market surveys and listened to focus groups, and explained their “extensive process” in their public announcement. Management everywhere is two or three steps removed from first-hand experience. Rather it distills popular attitudes and thus provides something closer to a public marker of currents that are not easily visible at the level of individual actions. To excise the word “Indians” from the name of the baseball team is to acknowledge that members of the public who actually care one way or the other are inclined to think it is demeaning to contemporary Native Americans to deploy an image of their ancestors to promote a team sport. We have had a lot of these battles over such nomenclature in recent years. What’s most interesting about them is the display of ersatz anger aimed only incidentally in a name change but primarily as a status claim. The real point is to register a historic grievance on the part of an identity group. But once the sports franchise concedes, what happens? The opportunity for public display of anger fades away and the status claim vanishes.

It was a benchmark of the Civil Rights movement in April 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier by playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But it was also the beginning of the end of the old Negro baseball leagues. The Negro National League had its last season in 1948, and a few lesser leagues soldiered on for another decade before all the good players joined up with the integrated major leagues. One would think nothing much could be done about the era of discrimination that created the context for the old Negro baseball leagues. A battle for integration was fought and won, and those segregated leagues were left to memory as another instance of people trying to make the best of unfair circumstances.

But now in the spirit of compliance culture, Major League Baseball has decided to re-write history. It has retroactively declared that the Negro Leagues were, after all, major leagues, and the statistics of the 3,400 players in those leagues from 1920 to 1948 should be blended with those of the white players.

What’s troubling about this certainly isn’t the recognition of the prowess of these players from long ago, but the idea that reclassifying their leagues as “Major Leagues” somehow rectifies the original injustice. How far can this idea be taken? Should the Motion Picture Academy reclassify the low-budget “race movies” of the 1920s and 30s “Hollywood blockbusters?” Should the impoverished black sharecroppers of the Jim Crow era be singled out for their contributions to sustainable agriculture? Can slavery itself be twisted into “lifetime employment with benefits?” These are imaginary outrages against what really happened but once we allow that the past can manipulated to fit the sensibilities of the present, we open a dangerous corridor.

Hurtling down that corridor at the moment is the New York Times’ egregious “1619 Project,” which attempts to rewrite all of American history as the story of white people expropriating the labor of Africans and their descendants. Published in August 2019 on the supposed 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in what would become the United States, the 1619 Project is a great compendium of historical falsehoods and just-so stories strung together on the premise that they add up to a long-suppressed “truth.” At bottom the tale is that whites have oppressed blacks from the beginning so effectively that white supremacy is in “the very DNA of the nation.”

The whole project could, of course, be dismissed out of hand as yet another racial fable, except that this fable comes with the authority such as it is, of The New York Times, which has backed it with a huge advertising campaign. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s chief editor and lead writer, received a Pulitzer Prize for her efforts, and the Pulitzer Center partnered with the Times to roll out a 1619 curriculum suitable for the nation’s schools. So these particular fables are currently in classrooms (or on Zoom) in thousands of our schools. Along with many other academics, I have been pushing back, most notably in my book 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.

But to fight back against exercises in uplift anger and cancel culture is to face the peculiar dynamic of the culture war in which the cultural left declares an opinion and then announces that contrary opinions are by their very nature out of bounds. To disagree is, all by itself, insulting to those you disagree with, or perhaps worse: it is “harmful.” Words are now equated to “violence,” and an act of disagreement can be classified as an “assault.” To criticize ideas currently fashionable on the left about global warming is to be classified as a “climate denier” and then to be “de-platformed.” To doubt that men and women can change their biological sex is to be classified as “transphobic.” We are back of course to the topic of “cancel culture.” But this time, it is to emphasize that cancel culture plays the key role of focusing anger against anyone who perturbs the sanctity of the newly revealed dogmas.

The 1619 Project serves as a psalter for a good number of those dogmas. Racial animus is a versatile tool for advancing claims not only about the oppression of blacks, but about capitalism, democratic self-government, crime, the military entertainment, public investment, medicine, and much more. To allow one and only one of these matters to be spoken of in public space is a form of tyranny. A tyranny of public opinion is no less a tyranny than one of state control, and the two have a tendency to converge.

The excesses of this imposition, of course, excite resentment among those who are imposed on, in this case the “deplorables,” or the 74 million or so people who voted for Trump. As I write this in mid-December 2020, I make no predictions about how this plays out politically, but I’ll venture a cultural prediction. We have as a nation now lost the inhibitions we once had against unbridled expression of anger. The cultural left pioneered this “liberation” from the old ways, but it has now thoroughly saturated every segment of the population. Cancel culture and what I’m calling “uplift anger” are instruments of leftist social control. The political right will adapt them to its own temperament, which won’t include riots and looting or banning free expression, but will very likely include a fierce determination to stand in the way of anything the political left hopes to accomplish.

Photo by Hyunwon Jang on Unsplash

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