So what to make of the apparent growing strength of cancel culture and affiliated movements? Here is the fundamental point: With the rise of social media and low-cost communications, virtually everything that can be said, will be said.
It might be said on Twitter rather than on the evening news, or on 4Chan rather than on Facebook. But the sentiments will be out there, and many of them will be disturbing. The world has arrived at a place where just about every politically incorrect statement — and a response to it, not to mention every politically correct statement and a response to that — is published or recorded somewhere.
So the policing of speech may be vastly more common than it was, say, 15 years ago. But the discourse itself is vastly greater in scope. Political correctness has in fact run amok, but so then has everything else.
As a general principle, people notice what disturbs them more than what doesn’t. Therefore opponents of political correctness — and I include myself in this group — have a never-ending supply of anecdotes to be concerned about. I am not suggesting that this cycle will end well, but it does put the matter in perspective.
The issue is how social norms will adjust to cope with a world where everything is being said all the time. That path will not be smooth — but anxiety about it is different from fear of political correctness simply swallowing up everything and canceling everybody.
I’m no optimist. In fact, I suspect it will be harder to rein in the chaos and bewilderment from the say-whatever-you-want culture — have you checked out the pandemic discourse lately? — than to curb the intemperance of the you-can’t-say-that culture.
Consider also the evolution of internet communication. For all of its diversity, there are significant trends toward centralization. The English language is more focal than before, national politics command more attention than local politics, and the U.S. itself has more soft power in some crucial directions, thanks to its central role in the internet’s intellectual infrastructure. It is striking, for example, how much the entire world responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That means Americans will be subject to more cancellations and to more political correctness than people in the rest of the world. For better or worse, Americans are the central nexus that so many others are talking about, not always favorably. To quote Joseph Heller: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you — and Americans have good reason to be paranoid these days. If you published your politically incorrect column in your local Croatian newspaper, the rest of the internet just wouldn’t care all that much.
Yet note the underlying assumption here — namely, that American soft power is indeed growing. And if you are an American intellectual, your relative influence around the world is likely to be growing as well. With that greater influence comes greater scrutiny, and greater risk that you will be treated unfairly by the PC brigades. Is that really such a bad trade-off?
At first I was afraid that “all the wrong people” would like this piece, but so far so good.