The Scarlet C: The New Mob Mentality?

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Until about a year or so ago, most of us felt understandably smug when measuring our modern selves next to our ancient ancestors. We are manifestly more advanced — scientifically, morally and, it can be said, rather literally, since we now know that the universe is expanding. We’ve clearly taken considerable steps along the misty path of improvement. Just look around!

This rosy view of humanity as carried along by a steady current of progress is known among those in my profession as "whig history," after those who cast their lot with Britain's parliament, as opposed to its monarchy. And though it has long been ridiculed by historians, this whig view continues to inform a popular understanding of the passage of time.

The past 18 months, however, have frustrated that reckoning. The pandemic, how little we knew about the virus and how poorly we managed its global spread, shook us out of our complacency. And the brutal murder of George Floyd made us question triumphalist narratives of American history that rely on giant leaps forward from our original sins. Painfully and conspicuously, we were reminded, history is not a linear jaunt toward enlightenment.

In addition to the defiant dismissal of scientific consensus and the devaluing of Black lives, both with devastating consequences, there's another danger now lurking: We claim to have disavowed the vigilante justice of the posse and the lynch mob, only to embrace it on social media, in what many on the right decry as cancel culture. Never mind that the dreaded word — C-A-N-C-E-L-L-E-D — is wielded up and down the ideological spectrum with the thoughtfulness of a rubber stamp.

What is most notable to me, as an historian, is the apparent tribalism that undergirds cancel culture and what it says about the fragility of our social fabric. We are living through an age of public denunciation in which people, objects, art and ideas are under knee-jerk attack. Calls to cancel — and the inevitable dog-piles that form as a result — are not based on careful consideration of evidence or context. They seem motivated by a desire to “perform” belonging, to zealously adopt the approved posture of a group and to be seen to be doing the “right” thing by others of your tribe. Resorting to a predetermined playbook is an indication of just how resistant we’ve become to the arduous, if ultimately rewarding, work of thinking. As the literary critic Alan Jacobs put it:

[W]e suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

How, then, do we see our way past this scorched-earth policy to scrub out anything that conflicts with our own current orthodoxy? Or is it too late? Subscribe to Banished and join us as we attempt to answer these questions — with nuance, complexity and, yes, thinking.

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