Cancel Culture as Collectivist Fragility

A conversation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the celebrated Somali-born writer and activist based in the United States, has convinced me that “cancel culture” is not just a fleeting academic perversion or a fad for silly Millennials, but the new ideology that threatens liberal democracies.

Cancel culture also takes other names: identity politics, critical race theory or, as some African-American activists would like, “woke”. They all point to the same thing. Those who profess this ideology divide the world between oppressed and oppressors because what defines all relationships is power that cannot be shared: I cannot progress and achieve some influence or success (power) on my merits, I can only do it at your expense.

The indigestible academic jargon connected to this ideology uses the tongue twister “intersectionality”. It is a word that claims to be a theory demonstrating how aspects of identity such as race and gender imply privilege and discrimination. The oppressors are all white men, though not as individuals, not even as groups, but as a system. Behind this idea is a collectivist, totalitarian view of society. What system is being targeted? Liberal democracies under the Rule of Law, of course.

According to this ideology, the United States, Europe, and other democracies are not countries and regions where there is racism, but entirely racist and exploitative constructions, a set of institutions that are flawed at the root. Hence, they must be destroyed. To make matters more interesting, this illiberal ideological perversion was not born in China, Russia, Turkey or North Korea, but in American universities and has now taken to the streets and spread to many other democratic countries.

Cancel culture loathes the liberal culture and everything that it represents: the presumption of innocence, the Rule of Law, free expression and experimentation, diversity of opinion. It adopts the inquisitorial approach, that is, immediate punishment.

Ayaan drew my attention to a book, White Fragility, which is enjoying success in the United States and which, in addition to giving credence to this charlatanism, implies that refusing to accept that one is racist is proof in itself that one is part of a “systemic” racism. That is why every day we see people fired from their jobs, censored in the media, harassed on social media or physically attacked (and so many products targeted by consumer boycotts, as has happened with Goya Foods, whose CEO has been savagely vilified and threatened for expressing a political opinion with which others may or may not agree). And others have simply stopped expressing their opinion on various issues for fear of the consequences, as a poll by the Cato Institute indicates.

For cancel culture, identity is not individual-based, multiple, ever-changing. Rather, it is made up of a few permanent traits (skin color or sexual inclination) that define everything about you. Identity reduced to this simplistic category automatically places you in one of the groups into which these ideologues segment society. Thus, a person is not a person, but a being dissolved in a collective entity: that of the oppressors if he is a white man, or that of the oppressed if not.

To impose this intellectual aberration, the search for truth and the scientific method (in Karl Popper’s sense) must be abolished, since truth must be replaced by a narrative. If the basic premise of the liberal system is accepted, which is individual freedom and free expression, it will be impossible for cancel culture to prosper: its essence is to replace the truth with a manufactured story.

Welcome to the delirious 21st century.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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