The revolutionary roots of cancel culture

What do New York Times opinion editors, Jeffree Star, Winston Churchill, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Paw Patrol have in common? They have all been canceled.

Cancel culture is the growing trend of social media and real mobs demanding anyone who violates the most recently-held politically correct position is erased. It’s a culture which is dangerously toxic, to those targeted, those who participate in it, and to the country as a whole.

Where does it come from?

The term “politically correct” was first used by Marxist-Leninists after seizing power in Russia. Positing facts that were bad for the party could get you killed; being politically correct was a matter of survival. Falling afoul of the party line meant a forced confession and show trial, the gulag, or death. “The machine gun became for them the principle instrument of political persuasion,” as the great historian Richard Pipes wrote in The Russian Revolution (558).

Imposing their version of reality would not be possible if people could criticize or ask questions. As soon as radicals seize power, they institute tight censorship. “Enemies of the people” had to be “isolated and destroyed” as Lenin put it.

While the term arose from Bolshevik use, the impulse is far older.

In France, the Reign of Terror against “enemies of the revolution” was spurred by the same impulse. Robespierre put it simply: “all those who do not think as we do must be eliminated from the city.”

The French and Russian revolutions were driven by radical intellectuals, who measured society against “an imaginary society in which all was simple, uniform, coherent, equitable and rationale in the full sense of the term,” de Toqueville wrote.

“For intellectuals of this kind, the criterion of truth was not life: they created their own reality, or rather, sur-reality, subject to verification only with reference to opinions of which they approved. Contradictory evidence was ignored: anyone include to heed such evidence was ruthlessly cast out. This kind of thinking led to a progressive estrangement from life,” Pipes noted (130).

What the politically correct radicals –French, Russian or modern day—have in common is they are all collectivists. Collectivists believe that human beings are a product of their economic, social and political environment. A perfect environment will create a perfect human. Bad human behavior is not the result of individual choices, but rather a bad system. Most collectivists also believe that intellectuals and experts, as the keepers of rational knowledge, should lead society.

The belief that environment creates people is what links moderate liberals and radical revolutionaries. They just disagree on whether the system should be remade over time or torn down immediately.

Collectivism’s major flaw is that it discounts free will. Individuals make choices based on beliefs and desires not just economic, social or political circumstances.

Revolutionary collectivists seek immediate overthrow of the system. In America, collectivism primarily began with early 20th century Progressives who sought to bring about their “perfect environment” utilizing slow “evolutionary” change in education, the administrative state, and through eugenics.

One man, Hebert Marcuse, the “Father of the New Left,” would bring together revolutionary and progressive collectivist ideas into the toxic witches’ brew that drives today’s cancel culture.

Marcuse popularized cultural Marxism in America, as practitioner of the Frankfurt school. The school was created by Marxists who explained that the international revolution Marx promised failed to materialize because ‘true’ class interests were suppressed by Western culture. All inequality was explained by systems of oppressors and oppressed: men oppressed women, white people oppress all other races, Christians oppress all non-Christians. They proposed “Critical Theory” as a means to foment radical change by undermining Western institutions -such as family, law, tradition, capitalism, and personal responsibility.

Marcuse argued that free speech wasn’t truly possible in America because people were too indoctrinated and liberation would require intolerance for anything outside the Left’s worldview.

Socratic method –the cornerstone of western education—requires questioning and reevaluating your thoughts. Cultural Marxism destroys critical thinking, so that all that is left is emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning assumes that feelings reflect reality – feeling bad is evidence that something is objectively bad.  If there is always an oppressor and an oppressed, if someone feels bad it is the result of someone else’s gain.

“This new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff write. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that this “vindictive protectiveness” on college campuses is contributing to the rise in mental illness.

If people believe they can only be happy if their external environment is perfect, happiness is impossible. There is always another person, symbol or institution defiling their view of the perfect. Teaching people that they are entirely at the mercy of others for their own happiness doesn’t liberate – it damages.

This gave birth to the notion of “safe spaces”. Conservative speakers are disinvited, shouted down and require police escorts, least the political correct crowd’s “safe space” be violated by any opinions which may cause them emotional harm. Colleges are now expected to protect students from anything that may offend.

From the campus the demand for safe spaces has spread, requiring more and more of the American way of life –the cultural superstructure which Marcuse and the cultural Marxists sought to destroy—be “cancelled” to avoid offending the fragile egos of the new youthful revolutionaries. Because the threat is internally generated by their own emotions, and because their critical theory training tells them that literally any cultural symbol is oppressive, there is no limiting principle. Statutes of George Washington, cartoon dogs, beloved literature. Everything must go.

The horrors of the 20th century—genocide, labor camps, war – were the result of collectivists en route to the perfect society. While for some time America’s fierce culture of individualism protected it from the collectivists the totalitarian instinct –bred by cultural Marxists on college campuses, and making its way through America’s institutions—is on the march.

About Morgan Wirthlin

Morgan Wirthlin is the Chief of Staff at the Center for Security Policy. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Political Science.