Cancel Culture and Liberalism

Paul Berman, “Lynching and Liberalism,” Tablet, August 16, 2020.

Berman defends the Harper’s letter on justice and open debate by tracing the recent history of what is today referred to as “cancel culture.” Most recently, thus movement derives from the activities of the American Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s. As then so today, progressives seek to impose their views on others by silencing all opposition. All such efforts pose a grave threat to liberalism. Their techniques include shaming, bullying, and working to ruin the careers and reputations of those who do not share their views.

Cancel culture is a threat to liberalism. Berman insists that “Liberalism is not, in fact, the same as a more radical leftism…Liberalism, properly understood, is its own tendency of thought. It upholds its own concerns. The first of those concerns is not even political. It is a commitment to a particular state of mind – f to the mental composure that lends itself to rational though and a playful imagination. And liberalism is a commitment to ensuring the political and social conditions that favor a mental composure of that sort.”

Cancel culture is thus the enemy of true liberalism, which Berman insists is “a temper of mind, a set of ideas, perhaps a sense of tradition.” Liberalism holds out for “the principle of independent and creative through, which ought to be the vocation of writers and scholars and artists, and in some degree ought to be within reach of everyone in a democratic society.”

Cancel culture – the latest mantra of progressivism – opposes this by working to create absolute conformity to its views and agenda. It brooks no room for disagreement and works to silence or shame every view that does not agree with its own. It tries to identify one overarching form of injustice and devotes its energies to defining and attacking everything with that mindset.

Cancel culture is not an expression of liberalism, but its opposite, and therefore its greatest threat.


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