CANCEL CULTURE AS OLD AS SOCRATES

The demands to remove Joe Rogan from Spotify and, for some, silence him altogether, are the latest iteration of “cancel culture.”

Cancel culture is not new. It can be traced back to ancient Greece when intolerant Athenians cancelled Socrates by executing him with hemlock. His crime? Socrates asked the leading authorities and experts of his day to explain their own arguments.

LOVE & HATE

Cancel culture is old because it’s sown into human nature. Human beings naturally want to protect what they love; they hate whoever or whatever threatens the objects of their love.

Where there’s love, there’s hate, and hatred fuels the desire to shut down, silence, or destroy those perceived as enemies. Today, we use “cancel” as a euphemism to ease our consciences — silencing others isn’t so bad, right? 

Cancel culture is most dangerous when promoted by those in positions of power, especially those wielding government power.

Large numbers of people were excommunicated, executed, persecuted, and otherwise “cancelled” during the medieval ages for questioning or rejecting the doctrines promoted by leading government and church authorities (which were often the same).

The past century — the most progressive century to date — has been a century of the most murderous totalitarian tyrannies in history. How were large populations fooled into thinking those despotisms were legitimate? Answer: Tyrants claimed the authority of modern “science.” They were totalitarian precisely because they “cancelled” anyone who did not “believe the science.”

CANCEL CULTURE AMERICAN-STYLE

Cancel culture has been in America from the earliest days of our republic. The Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, for example, were attempts to “cancel” those who questioned U.S. government policies.

Prior to the Civil War, many southern states that rejected the ideas of the American founding “cancelled” the voices of those who cared about protecting the natural rights of slaves. Southerners blocked abolitionist mail from being delivered. Southern governments criminalized public speaking about the injustices of slavery because, after all, the “settled science” of the day proved that within the hierarchy of races, black people were at the bottom.

Even in the north, in Lincoln’s Illinois in the 1830s, a mob cancelled Elijah Lovejoy — with a bullet blasted through his brain — for publishing an abolitionist newspaper. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth cancelled Lincoln the same way.

The Sedition Act of 1918, signed into law by Woodrow Wilson, “cancelled” and criminalized speech critical of Wilson’s decision to enter World War I. A generation later, under Franklin Roosevelt, federal laws “cancelled” and silenced business owners and critics of FDR’s New Deal.

American history, like human history, is filled with sad stories of cancel culture, all of which stand in contrast to the goodness and importance of free speech and in contrast to the principles of the American founding. 

If the first purpose of speech — what the Greeks called “logos” — is to help the human mind discover truth, then the second purpose of speech is to challenge the first. 

Any assertion of truth should be openly questioned, challenged, debated, and disputed. Socrates accepted a death sentence in order to demonstrate the importance of questioning those claiming to know truth, thereby blazing the trail of what would later become known as “philosophy” and “science.”

The American founding itself was free speech. After speaking freely and questioning the European model of kingship, including the divine right theory of kings, we Americans rejected monarchy of all kinds. 

The liberty principles of the founding were good for scientific discovery because they enshrined the idea of free speech and the free, open, public examination of ideas, theories, and opinions.

THE REMEDY FOR FALSE INFORMATION

Early in his career, Thomas Jefferson resolved: “That truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when [truth] is permitted freely to contradict them.”

Later, Jefferson said of those who speak untruths: “Let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Jefferson was right. The spreading of erroneous opinions and untruths is dangerous. How, then, is untruth best checked? By open, free discussion and debate — by free speech — not by cancelling those who question the most powerful and influential among us today. Truth is not vindicated, and lies are not eradicated, by silencing Joe Rogan. Be better, Americans. 

Dr. Krannawitter is Cofounder of The Vino & Veritas Society. If you enjoy his scholarship and inspiring presentations, please consider becoming a member.

Responses

  1. Another great essay, Tom. Thanks for authoring it and for including Jefferson’s observation about responding to errors of opinion with reason freely expressed. I will remember that message and will use it myself.

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