The middle-aged sadness behind the cancellation culture panic

It has been difficult to move from an intellectual culture that values ​​transgression to a culture that controls it.

In this AP file photo from August 1966, Chinese leader Mao Zedong meets representatives of revolutionary teachers and students in Beijing and other parts of the country. Mao launches the Decade Cultural Revolution to reassert his authority. Schools are closed, young Red Guards attack political enemies and intellectuals are persecuted or driven to suicide.

“The Chair,” a Netflix academic comedy drama starring Sandra Oh, revolves around a particularly absurd and unfair cancellation. In the first episode, Bill, a former superstar English teacher who collapses after his wife’s death, gives a lecture on modernism when, linking fascism and the absurd, he gives a fake Nazi salute .

After some students capture the gesture on their phones, a campus collapse ensues and – spoiler alert – Bill, played by Jay Duplass, gets fired from his job. Bill has a very specific sort of aging hipster sensibility laden with irony, one that is in many ways mine. (The Joy Division T-shirt he’s wearing in another scene is a good idea, since Joy Division is both a quintessential Gen X group and one whose name, a reference to sex slaves in Nazi concentration camps. , would never fly today.) He is much nicer than the literal-minded malicious students who rally against him and think, or at least pretend to think, that he is a true white supremacist.

I don’t think Bill’s story really reflects what happens on college campuses; few examples of actual cancellations are so simple in fact or ethically ridiculous. But it’s an almost perfect reflection of the generational anxiety that drives many discussions about the cancellation of culture, which prompts otherwise sane people to make crazy historical analogies between today’s intellectual climate and the Chinese cultural revolution, the USSR or the theocracies of the seventeenth century.

A few weeks ago, Anne Applebaum published an article in The Atlantic entitled “The New Puritans“, About people who have” lost everything “after breaking, or have been accused of breaking,” social codes related to race, gender, personal behavior or even acceptable humor, which do not maybe not five years ago or maybe five months ago. . “Around the same time, The Economist posted a cover story on the illiberal left, warning that as graduates of elite US universities have moved into the workplace, they have “brought in tactics to uphold ideological purity, not not setting up their enemies and canceling allies who have transgressed “.

I agreed with parts of Applebaum’s argument, particularly about how political attacks can be a cover for petty power struggles. But it’s weird to be serious about Mao and Stalin in a discussion of the hardships of figures like Ian Buruma, who lost his job as editor of the New York Review of Books after publishing a deceptive and self-righteous essay. . by a man accused of serial sexual assault.

In a sharp essay in Liberal currentsAdam Gurri looked at empirical evidence that could tell us just how serious college cancellations really are, and he came away bemused. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example, has documented 426 cases of academics “targeted for sanction by ideological opponents” since 2015, a relatively small number given the size of US higher education. “If another problem in social life were to occur at this frequency and on this scale, we would consider it effectively solved,” writes Gurri.

Yet for many in the elite enclaves, the problem seems far bigger than that – so big that it’s tempting to seek dramatic historical analogies to describe it. The Economist compared today’s progressive cultural avant-garde to state churches of the 1600s.

“In Restoration England, the University of Oxford burned the works of Hobbes and Milton in the big quad next to the Bodleian Library,” he said. “Today, academics put trigger warnings on books, alerting students to the dangers of reading them. Young publishers are trying to get controversial books “canceled”. “

It’s so histrionic that it suggests that the usually sober economist is in the throes of extremely strong emotions. One of those emotions, I believe, is loss. A lot of people I know over 40 – maybe 35 – resent new social mores that require inordinate sensitivity to cause damage. It has been difficult to move from an intellectual culture that values ​​transgression to a culture that controls it. The shame of becoming a sort of old man repelled by the sensitivity of young people is a cause of real psychic suffering.

As Maggie Nelson writes in her new book “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” it “may be tempting for those of us who are, say, 40 years old to judge the present moment against the circumstances. idealized from our own coming of age, and finds it less fun, less free.

In “The New Puritans”, Applebaum reveals a blind spot on the true source of intellectual repression in America. “There is currently no law that determines what academics or journalists can say; there is no government censor, no ruling party censor, ”she wrote. This statement is incorrect. A number of state laws shape what academics may say, but these laws, aimed at critical race theory, censor the left. There is a crisis of intellectual freedom in this country, but the victims are overwhelmingly people in Red States who teach racism.

It is extremely unlikely that a real-world tenured professor like Bill would lose his job for making fun of the Nazis in the wrong way. However, he could see his status eroded because his worldview has gone out of fashion. For the individual, this can be a source of anxiety. This does not make it a political emergency.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola / The New York Times)

Michelle goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.


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