―So you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
―Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
―I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
―Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
—Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons
Allusions to the Maoist cultural revolution launched in 1966 are sometimes used to deride the current wave of Social Justice activism. It’s easy to scoff at such hyperbolic comparisons, but the analogy isn’t mere caricature. It expresses a genuine preoccupation about how a moral movement can go astray. In this view, the Chinese cultural revolution is an extreme example of a social dynamic that can take many forms, with wide differences in scope and gravity. Most historical examples are far worse than contemporary cases: being cancelled is not equivalent to being tortured to death. But there is a warning here that must be heeded.
In spite of its dramatic overtones, the expression cultural revolution captures the idea that an abstract evil, lurking in our culture, manifests in pervasive ways, and must be purged by extraordinary measures. Crucially, when such an evil is also believed to manifest when people are critically discussing the phenomenon itself, the movement that fights that evil risks losing track of reality, because it becomes unable to correct its own errors. This dynamic can take place even when the evil in question actually exists.
This phenomenon can take various forms: such as pluralistic ignorance, purity spirals and the madness of crowds. We should not discredit concerns for social justice—but rejecting criticism leads to extreme danger.
The Faults in Our Culture
The expression moral panic is sometimes used to refer to a similar phenomenon—but moral panics are generally understood to occur spontaneously, on smaller scales, and are not necessarily linked to extensive ideological theorizing (for example, they are sometimes triggered by hoaxes, urban legends or scary internet memes). A cultural revolution does not occur spontaneously. It starts when part of the population—usually young intellectuals—develops an abstract understanding of some systemic threat. This threat can be dominant and reactionary (the capitalist, patriarchal ideology underlying an exploitative system) or clandestine and progressive (subversive ideas threatening the prevailing order, such as anarchism or communism). It can consist of evil practices (witchcraft), dangerous opinions (heresy, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary tendencies) or deep-seated moral errors (the belief that certain groups of people are innately inferior). Whatever the nature of the threat, its presence explains several problems in an elegant and unified way. Such theories are often enthralling, and the problems they expose can be real. They can contain a lot of truth and wisdom, and be motivated by genuine moral concern. Crucially, they bind their adherents into a cohesive moral culture, dedicated to the detection and expurgation of the threat.
When the threat takes an abstract, systemic and highly theoretical form, it’s easy to detect its manifestations in a myriad of subtle occurrences. In fact, the more vague and abstract it is, the easier it is to see it reflected in benign actions and ideas. Ideas that are deeply woven into the fabric of culture are bound to show up in how people talk and behave: with enough creativity, many anodyne remarks can be construed as expressions of inadmissible ideas. An old woman yelling at her neighbour can be suspected of witchcraft. In authoritarian regimes, even applauding with insufficient enthusiasm can raise suspicion. The actors in these kinds of moral movements often compete in ingenuity to formulate the most ambitious and radical interpretations possible. Used pejoratively, the term woke refers to a heightened awareness of evil: for example, the ability to detect dog whistles in political speech and scientific hypotheses.
This is why some areas of scientific research, such as evolutionary psychology and IQ research, look so suspect to the woke. Because certain facts, especially those pertaining to group differences, could be used to bolster repugnant moral views, people who advance such theories are easily suspected of holding those repugnant views, even if the views are logically independent of the theories. For people like me, such fields of research are interesting precisely because of their uneasy relationship with morality, because their potentially controversial scientific findings need to be interpreted in light of a deep, principled understanding of equality and human dignity. For those who don’t share my interest, however, I can understand why it looks creepy.
Reprehensible actions of varying degrees of gravity are often interpreted as part of a continuum of evil, explained by common cultural factors. A sexist joke can be the manifestation of the same pervasive cultural misogyny that normalizes rape and the sexual objectification of women. According to this interpretation, the moral seriousness of the worst offense on the spectrum can contaminate the others: everyday sexism, immoral as it is, seems much worse when it is connected to sexual assault. In much the same way, ideas that are deemed adjacent to nefarious ones—maybe because they are often held by the same people—can contaminate each other and be condemned together, for example, as scientific racism. That is why criticism of the beliefs by which minority groups define themselves is often interpreted as a discriminatory attack upon them—even though we know that people often get attached to bad ideas. This explains, in part, the current preoccupation with microaggressions: subtle slights inflicted on marginalized people which, although real and commonplace, can be taken as expressions of something much more sinister. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued that this catastrophizing mindset, which encourages us to interpret other people’s behavior in the least charitable way possible, is a mental health hazard.
The true danger begins when a movement starts to interpret criticism as one of the manifestations of the enemy it fights. Of course, those infected with the cultural evils will fight back, and a backlash against activism can be read as evidence of this. We should expect the deeply immoral to ignore or attempt to discredit those who fight against deep moral errors. As a consequence, any attempts to denigrate, oppose or even moderate the activism can easily be seen as—at best—attempts to conceal the moral urgency of the cause and, at worst, as a form of complicity in the evil. Imagine an oversensitive Geiger counter for evil that went crazy when you tried to dial it down.
It’s easy to confuse the moral condemnation of evil with specific empirical beliefs about its causes or prevalence. People who share our moral outrage at racial hate crimes can disagree with us as to how many of them are committed each year. Even if we agree on the prevalence of a particular crime, say sexual assault, and just how atrocious that crime is, we can disagree with a hypothesis about its causes. However, any argument that tends to scale down the prevalence of a problem, or cast doubt upon a popular explanation of its pervasiveness, can easily be construed as an attempt to play down its moral gravity for sinister motives. As David Brooks has argued, one can get the feeling one is doing something wrong by not maximizing the size of the problem. In extreme cases, asking for evidence or pointing out contradictions is taken as a moral affront: only people acting in bad faith could ask to be convinced of the ubiquity of such a glaring problem.
The Disruption of Criticism
This systematic interpretation of criticism as a manifestation of evil is an implicit assumption of infallibility and compromises the capacity of the proponents of the moral cause to stay in touch with reality. The problem is not that this interpretation is necessarily wrong: the problem is that, if it were wrong, it could not be corrected. There will always be a way to deflect criticism.
The rejection of criticism can give rise to a purity spiral, a kind of moral vicious circle whereby the most extreme opinions tend to escalate unchecked. Problematization—the art of detecting the enemy—can attain dizzying heights of sophistication. Protesters can even detect subtle forms of transgression in the ideas of their fellow activists themselves (the revolution eats its own.) Fuelled by the intoxicating rewards of moral righteousness, a climate of paranoia can easily set in and opponents find themselves locked inside a Kafka trap, in which denying an accusation is interpreted as evidence that it is true. The punishment of dissenters can lead to a situation of pluralistic ignorance, the illusion of a wide consensus on issues about which, in reality, most people are skeptical. As Steven Pinker has argued, if dissenters can anticipate that they will be punished for disagreement, a situation can arise in which no one actually believes something, but everyone believes that everyone else believes it, and therefore no one is willing to be the little boy who says the Emperor is naked. This dynamic is part of the reason why entire societies sometimes fall prey to collective delusion in what Charles MacKay called “the madness of crowds” in his famous 1841 book.
What this all amounts to is a catastrophic breakdown of epistemology. A seductive moral theory that finds endless confirmation everywhere and interprets any form of criticism as a manifestation of the problem it fights is a blueprint for disaster. And this dynamic can emerge even if the problem the movement arose to address actually exists (racism, white supremacy, misogyny) just as easily as when it does not (witchcraft). However, under these conditions, it becomes impossible to measure the true nature and extent of the problem. In particular, it becomes impossible to calibrate our response to evil. When a movement disables all forms of error correction, it risks cutting itself off from reality and beginning the slow slide into madness. It is a virus of the mind—a meme that hijacks our culture by destroying its immune system.
Of course, a theory immune from criticism and designed to find evil everywhere can lead to flagrant contradictions. It’s easy for outsiders to laugh at the inconsistencies in the discourse of some activists, where a thing and its opposite can both be evidence of the same problem, but from the inside, these don’t look like contradictions at all. They look like an awe-inspiring ability to explain everything and a terrifying demonstration of the scope of the problem. They are the reason the theory is so appealing and energizing.
One tragic aspect of cultural revolutions is the erosion of due process and the rule of law. When individual offenses are interpreted as merely instances of an urgent general moral threat, careful analysis of each case at hand conflicts with the need to include it in a larger narrative. The witch trials of the early modern period are a tragic example of this in which all evidence was systematically construed as incriminating—but one need not go to such extremes to find similar corruption of justice. Whenever the right to a fair trial is compromised because of the nature of the alleged crime, the judicial process supposed to ascertain the commission of the crime in the first place becomes a parody of itself. When that happens, it can’t be taken seriously and therefore can’t adequately protect victims either. As Canadian lawyer Marie Henein has said, historically, when people were believed or disbelieved on the basis of who they were or the nature of the crime, this has never benefited the most disadvantaged or marginalized. Some of the most egregious violations of human rights happen when the will to remedy social evils interferes with the impartial consideration of individual cases. This problem can take the form of collective punishment, whereby social evils are blamed on entire categories of people, regardless of individual actions and opinions, and group identity unduly impacts assessment of guilt.
Another perverse effect occurs when people are convicted of offences of which they may be unaware. Here, it is no longer a matter of unmasking hidden enemies, but revealing how everyone can be guilty despite themselves. When it is believed that our culture suffers from a profound evil, it is easy to imagine that we all absorbed that evil via socialization. Culture can implant its moral errors in the subconscious of well-meaning people, in the form of bias, prejudices, unconscious assumptions and feelings, such as aversion towards other ethnic groups or contempt for women—a plausible idea, as long as it can be empirically tested. The danger is that this may turn into something similar to cult indoctrination: convincing people that they are morally defective and offering them a path to redemption through public rituals that alienate them from their social circles. Suggestible and fragile people are especially vulnerable to this discourse. When denying a moral defect is taken as an expression of that defect, a red flag should go up. This obvious methodological flaw has been duly flagged in the popular theory of white fragility, where denying that one is racist demonstrates an inability to accept the pervasiveness of racism.
When evil is unintentional and a path to redemption is offered, admissions of guilt can be relatively safe, even rewarding. People will often, as a preventive measure, confess to crimes they did not commit and blame others for not doing the same, reinforcing the illusion of a widespread social evil. When a prestigious scientific journal calls itself a “white institution” and says that science has been complicit in systemic racism, without citing any concrete examples or specific problems, some people can’t help but feel that something is amiss.
The Deconstruction of Knowledge
This breakdown of critical thinking takes an exceptionally acute form in the current wave of activism. The Social Justice movement is heavily influenced by Critical Theories and postmodern philosophy, according to which iniquitous systems of power maintain their domination by shaping our culture and ideas, and the validation and propagation of knowledge. These are perfectly valid concerns, and an examination of the place of knowledge in the world can be part of the scientific approach to reality. However, this insistence on focusing on the construction of knowledge takes a corrupt form when it loses all interest in objective reality, and locks itself into a recursive spiral of deconstruction and problematization.
Debating people who think like this is a deeply unsettling experience. No matter the discussion, they will constantly and automatically change the subject to the conditions of the discussion itself, in order to unmask subtle forms of domination and injustice. Whenever people are talking, their discussion takes place in a cultural context laced with hidden assumptions and power dynamics. It is this context that activists want to address, not the content of the ideas being expressed. Who is talking and why? How is their relationship conditioned by their positions in the social order? How do their ideas reflect their identities? Who benefits from the opinions expressed? Which viewpoints were excluded?
This game is endless. Whatever the topic, there’s always something to be said about how ideas have been tainted by injustice and exclusion. They will keep retreating to meta-discussions, without ever getting to grips with the object of the discussion itself, or trying to harmonize their objections with substantive views about the topic at hand. Pretense to objectivity and truth can be taken as a sinister strategy intended to ensure the domination of one identity group over another, by imbuing its ideas with an air of authority. Social justice activists inherited this evasive rhetorical strategy from Critical Theory. Against it, critical discussion becomes powerless. Behind every argument, they see a tangle of intersecting lines of power. And they see the same thing behind every argument about that argument. And behind every argument about that. It is a dark, scary and depressing vision of the world: a world where knowledge is not possible.
We’re not going through anything close to the Chinese cultural revolution—and we must guard against interpreting any moral movement as delusional hysteria simply because we disagree with it, or falling into the same error of detecting our own abstract enemy in an ever increasing number of occurrences. But some disturbing things are happening right now and they have far-reaching influence, especially among younger activists and intellectuals. Moral errors in our culture can produce systemic effects through the actions of well-meaning individuals. However, when pursuing evil, it is essential to maintain a fallibilistic mindset. Moral outrage can easily disrupt the fragile alignment between objective reality and the mechanisms by which we correct our ideas about it. It’s never too early to push back.
Ray Andrews: I was asking why the people who do the firing can’t ignore mobs.
It is really simple: do not write racist, homophobic stuff, and no one will be mad at you. How about that for an epistemological theory?
What annoys me about Cultural Revolution analogies is the implication that Twitter mobs are some all-powerful force who everyone is helpless against. So some idiots on Twitter hate something? So f***ing what? Why does everybody insist on treating the opinions of Twitter trolls as the last word on every matter? What about ignoring them? Or if that fails, telling them to f*** off? What can they really do to you if you refuse to fire someone whose firing they’re calling for? They can’t put you in jail or have you executed. The only reason they have so much power now is because we give it to them. If people stood up to them and stopped caving in to their every demand, all their power would be gone.
“No matter the discussion, they will constantly and automatically change the subject to the conditions of the discussion itself, in order to unmask subtle forms of domination and injustice.”
Which of course is a way of asserting their privileged social status relative to you.
Thanks for an interesting and informative article!
Equating present day activism to Mao’s cultural revolution is indeed hyperbolic. But comparing is a different matter. The Red Guards’ rampage sparked a Cerebrospinal Meningitis epidemic that killed 160,000 people. We may never know how much recent protests and riots spread the Coronavirus and how many died as a result.