Theses On The Current Moment

[followup to The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars]

1. The Salem Witch Hunts might not be the right metaphor

We usually stick to the same stock examples of repression and retaliation against nonconformists - the Salem Witch Trials, the Red Scare, the Cultural Revolution. These are rightly remembered as awful, and reminders of them make good rallying cries.

But they were also short and abnormal - brief orgies of violence, after which people mostly regretted what they had done. They were bizarre unstable extremes in the history of authoritarianism.

If we zoom out a little, we find that most of human history involved enforced ideological conformity, censorship, and repression. Maybe the most available reference point for this sort of thing is the US in the 1950s. There were certain ideas everyone knew were off limits - atheism, communism, marijuana legalization, gay rights. If you supported those things, you might not go to jail, but you'd be excluded from most good careers and most of polite society. This system was very stable - everyone knew the limits, and people generally didn't push against them unless they really wanted to and knew what they were getting into.

This isn't to say the 1950s US was good! I think atheism, marijuana legalization, and gay rights were correct! It was an ethical disaster that their progress was held back for decades, and immensely unjust that the few people who spoke out for them got punished! My point is that the 1950s cultural regime was good at censoring things quietly and through general social pressure, with a minimum of Red Guards breaking people's kneecaps. This is good, insofar as getting your kneecaps broken sounds painful, but bad insofar as the repression was so subtle that it was hard to convince anyone that anything was wrong.

Instead of thinking of ourselves in the middle of a new Salem Witch Hunt, we should think of ourselves as just coming out of a rare period of unusually high freedom of thought - a weird 1990s moment that gave us South Park, the phrase "if you don't like it then don't watch it", and most of the early Internet. That period wasn't part of an inexorable trend toward rising freedom, it was a weird anomaly that has to be actively defended lest we sink back into the normal regime that typified the 1950s and pretty much every other time period ever.

2. There's an oversupply of tweeting and an undersupply of everything else

I don't want to say angry tweets never accomplish anything, but there is a massive oversupply of angry tweets compared to almost any other part of the machinery of change.

When I was writing the first draft of this essay, the big news story was the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. I saw about 10,000,000 tweets dunking on it in one way or another, and zero trying to make a solid case against it that could convince an impartial observer. For example, if I remember correctly, there's actually a huge amount of formal academic evidence showing that policing decreases crime a lot, that decreasing policing increases crime, that the alternatives to policing that CHAZ etc propose don't work very well, that increasing crime hurts minorities the most, and that minorities are generally against this kind of thing. I'm not linking any of the evidence here because right now I'm going off scattered memories of having seen this kind of stuff. If someone were to write this all up into a 2000 word blog post "Here's Why Defund The Police Probably Won't Work" which is sober and friendly and decent enough to send to your leftist aunt, then you could send it to your leftist aunt and maybe convince her. Instead we have 10,000,000 people dunking on some stupid thing someone in CHAZ did which may or may not even turn out to be real, and zero people writing the blog post. The tweets preach to the choir and make angry people angrier; the blog post might make a real difference.

(I haven't written the blog post because I have only a limited amount of involvement in the culture wars before people write me off as a culture warrior and stop listening to me, and I try to ration this pretty heavily. But if I was going to get involved by making 100 tweets about it, I would decide not to make those 100 tweets, and write the blog post.)

I'm not saying you have to write blog posts! Get in a discussion with a real Defund The Police supporter you know and like, and see if one of you can change the other one's mind. Sign a petition or something. Campaign for a politician whose policies you agree with. Just do anything, anything at all, other than tweet.

3. Crushing hope is actually bad

Liberals lose the culture war if there's ever such a strong culture of fear that nobody is willing to assert any unpopular opinion, publish any heterodox research, or stand up for anybody who's gone against the mob.

Note the key words in that sentence: "culture of fear". Individual victories and defeats matter most when they're changing people's expectations about the future. If an innocent baker or high schooler gets destroyed quietly, that's a tragedy for the person involved but irrelevant to the broader conflict. The broader conflict gets fought entirely in the theater of how afraid people are.

So all else being equal, liberals' goal should be to prevent a culture of fear.

Partly this is an actual battle, one where we try to protect people and stand up against the forces of authoritarianism.

But partly it's a psychological battle. An attempt to keep morale high. When the authoritarians win, we need to be there reassuring people that the victory was a fluke, that academic freedom remains mostly intact, that there's still hope and space to fight back.

This isn't how I see real liberals behaving. The real liberals are shouting about how academic freedom is already dead, the Maoists are at the gates, you should be despairing and panicking a hundred times more today than you were yesterday.

I understand the impulse! There are so many people putting their heads in the sand that you feel like you've got to convey the magnitude of the threat.

But keep in mind that if you tell people "the enemy is all-powerful and omnipresent and if you make the slightest effort to fight back he will destroy you", most of them will answer "wow, thanks for the tip, I'll make sure not to fight that guy". If you're too good at conveying the magnitude of the threat, you risk doing authoritarians' work for them, creating exactly the culture of fear you hoped to prevent.

How does one balance these two considerations? I don't know, but usually if I feel like I'm not being truthful, I expect I'm doing something wrong.

4. There are some surprisingly strong reasons for hope

I partly made this case already in The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars, but I think it's worth emphasizing here.

If cancel culture is the equivalent of the 1950s American consensus, we should remember the fact that that consensus eventually failed. You’re now allowed to promote gay rights, cite scientific research showing marijuana isn't a deadly poison, campaign as a socialist, et cetera.

I still don't have a great sense for how 1950s-era conformity and repression failed, but my best guess is something like a respectability cascade and the barberpole model of fashion. The most interesting intellectuals of the era became disillusioned with the consensus, a few halting and dangerous attempts to speak up produced common knowledge of this, and the new set of ideas spread outward. First a few mad geniuses, then the coolest artists and writers, then the brightest academics, then journalists, then well-educated people in general, then the population in general, and the last step was reaching the government (still not really complete; marijuana remains illegal at the federal level).

If we can draw some kind of general principle from that, then I like where this is going. Five or ten years ago, it felt like 5% of my social circle was openly concerned about social justice. Now it's more like 50% or 60%, including a lot of the brightest people who I respect most (I don't think this is because I've changed my social circle - it's stayed pretty constant over that period).

I admit that my social circle is tiny and highly atypical. It's just a bunch of weird Bay Area intellectuals and creative types who are really into sex and drugs. And they're up against the forces of an establishment so vast that it merges seamlessly into the very idea of American culture. Still, we had exactly that same fight in the 50s, and the weird Bay Area drug users won completely and overwhelmingly.

5. "Don't cancel people" is not very well fleshed-out

In some ways that's fine. The hippies didn't have many well-fleshed-out policy proposals either. "Don't ostracize me for being gay" is a perfectly fine thing to demand even if you don't have a beautiful crystalline philosophy telling everyone exactly what to do in every possible edge case.

Still, it might be worth having coherent principles, at least in order to assuage our own consciences. Are we actually committing to never exerting social pressure on anybody in any way? Like, what about boycott campaigns? It seems intuitively obvious that if Coca-Cola is using child slaves to pick cocoa beans or something, boycotting them until they stop is a perfectly acceptable and even commendable thing to do. And if it's okay to boycott them yourself, surely it's also okay to use social media as a platform to ask other people to join your boycott. But once you're using social media to arrange boycotts of companies you don't like, how is that not "cancel culture"? Is it just because child slavery is actually bad but the occasional offensive tweet isn't? A lot of people I know got really angry at Gawker when their CEO said that that bullying nerds was good and people should keep doing it until the nerds shut up and removed themselves from the discourse - were those people morally obligated to continue giving Gawker money anyway? Was that offensive tweet actually bad, but the one where somebody uses the n-word or something not so bad? Good thing everyone agrees on objective standards for badness!

(I’ve tried to start fleshing out my position here, but there’s still a lot of work to be done)

Or - some straw man libertarians have argued that the government shouldn't have banned discrimination against black people, because individual companies could choose whether or not to discriminate, and ones that didn't would succeed on the free market. Cancel culture itself has shown us how wrong that is - when the culture is pressuring companies to behave a certain way, they'll all cave in together, and nobody will dare try profiting off bucking the trend. Less straw-mannish libertarians (including myself) have occasionally made a weaker version of this argument, that if you've got a powerful enough voting bloc to make the government ban discrimination, you also probably have a powerful enough voting bloc that companies will pander to you without you doing that. Cancel culture has proven that one wrong too - a small minority of very dedicated people can impose a heckler's veto on the entire rest of the culture, and nobody else will stand up to them. But does this mean we should get the government to force companies to do things? Getting eg the government to eg ban colleges from having ideological litmus tests seems pretty violation-of-everything-we-believe-in-y. But what is the government's responsibility in breaking cultural strangleholds, and when is it appropriate to appeal to that? Again, it's a good thing we have objective standards for goodness, so we don't need to wrestle with these questions.

(I’ve tried to make a start on answering this question too, this time here)

Nobody will ever have a complete solution to these problems, and that's fine. It's like government authoritarianism. We all agree government authoritarianism is bad. But is banning guns the bad type of government authoritarianism? Nationalizing industries? Banning gender transition? Forcing everyone to wear a microchip so the police can track them at all times? There will always be debate about the exact limits of what's unacceptable, but our lack of coherent principles doesn't mean we're not allowed to object to specific acts of government authoritarianism in the meantime.

Still, if we're arguing against cancel culture, we're proposing that our current social norms should be replaced by different social norms, and it would help to have at least a vague sketch of what those norms are. This is another thing you can work on instead of tweeting.

6. Somebody should explore the fall of Puritanism in Massachussetts

Massachussetts in 1692 may have been one of the most repressive societies ever to exist. Anyone who spoke out against it was burned as a witch or exiled. Fine, okay, point taken, don't speak out against Puritanism. But by the 1820s, Massachussetts was one of the most open societies in the world. The Puritan Church turned into the Unitarian Church (I swear this is true, the Unitarian Universalists are the direct descendants of the 1600 Puritans). Intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau explored exciting new ideas like "what if Christianity sucked and the real religion was my headcanon of Hinduism I made up after learning three Sanskrit words?" How did this happen? I would love to read a book or a paper about it but I don't know of any.

And what about the Victorians in England? What about the gradual secularization of Ireland during the end of the 20th century? There are so many interesting stories of societies going from more to less repressive without obvious outside intervention. This is yet another thing someone should work on instead of tweeting! If we had a general theory for how repressive societies transitioned into open ones, we would have a better idea which levers to push.