In 2018, American lawyer Greg Lukianoff and academic Jonathan Haidt published The Coddling of the American Mind, an illuminating and ultimately depressing account of how the culture wars in America have spawned a generation of young people who are simply incapable of having a rational argument without running to the authorities to complain.
Five years later, the situation is even worse and that’s why this companion piece is so important.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to suggest that The Canceling of the American Mind is probably the most important book of the year.
As a director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Lukianoff enjoys the dubious pleasure of having a front-row seat to all the simmering tensions that have erupted into a full-blown conflagration across American campuses and, indeed, the rest of Western society.
But this is not some dry treatise on the attacks on academic freedom in the US. Instead, it is a fascinating study of how cancel culture — which is employed mainly by the Left, but conservatives can be just as trigger-happy as their ‘progressive’ counterparts — affects everyone.
People, the authors have pointed out, have lost their good name, their reputation, their careers and sometimes even their lives as a result of becoming the target of the cancel culture mobs who, unlike the mobs of old, have swapped their pitchforks and torches for Twitter and social media.
Like all mobs throughout history, they are relentless, ruthless and utterly merciless.
Take, for example, the case of Erika López Prater, an American professor who showed her class a painting depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed and promptly lost her job.
She was teaching an art history class, and the painting involved, The Prophet Mohammed Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel, had been commissioned by a Muslim king in the 14th century and was painted by a Muslim artist. The professor issued numerous advance warnings that she would be showing the painting and before the class began, she reminded the students and said anyone who was liable to be offended was free to leave. None did.
Yet one student who remained decided to complain and start a petition. Before she knew it, López Prater was being smeared as an ‘Islamophobe’ and her contract was rescinded.
It was a perfect example of the tactics used by cancel culture warriors: spurious claims of ‘offence’, claims of ‘psychological harm’; claims that the perceived victims no longer ‘felt safe’ in the college and, also, what the authors describe as “thought-terminating clichés”.
In this case, even López Prater’s fellow professors accused her of ‘punching down’ simply for the crime of discussing a famous and beautiful example of Islamic art.
As the authors point out, cancel culture is about control. Control and, of course, the cowardice of people in charge of the academy, of the corporate world and, sadly, of the arts.
And let’s not forget the parrot-like mantra of insisting that cancel culture doesn’t even exist, while tacitly admitting that it does.
Its defenders quote the reliably dim-witted American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who insists that there is no such thing, that it is instead “accountability culture” which allows the previously powerless to fight back against their oppressors.
This is, of course, a piece of sophistry and those who spout this nonsense know that. After all, innumerable ordinary people have lost their job for saying something on Twitter that somebody disliked. That’s how the British ended up with the ludicrous environment where police officers routinely descend on some unsuspecting citizen’s house to accuse them of committing what is known, in suitably Orwellian terms, “a non-crime hate incident”: If it’s not a crime, then why are the police involved?
To those Irish people who also insist that cancel culture is a right-wing myth, I would direct them to the deeply disturbing case of comedy writer Graham Linehan.
Having decided to become engaged with the trans rights debate, Linehan lost his career and, ultimately, his marriage.
The fact that he has recently published a memoir, Tough Crowd, is held up as proof that he hasn’t actually been cancelled — despite the fact that Father Ted: The Musical was cancelled because of his involvement, several venues cancelled his planned performances at the recent Edinburgh Fringe and he has become a pariah in his old social circles as former friends turned away from him.
Their solution to a seemingly intractable problem is a simple one — people need to remember how to have a reasonable argument and accept that not everybody will agree with them. They also urge people to stay away from ad hominem arguments, to avoid using bad faith lines of logic and, crucially, to learn to accept that someone they don’t like will sometimes make a good point, in a reverse of the current environment where ‘bad people only ever say bad things’.
Ultimately, this is a book calling for a return to common sense and a repudiation of the assumption that anyone who annoys you must immediately be fired and have their lives destroyed.
It’s a must-read.
Non-fiction: The Canceling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott
Allen Lane, 464 pages, hardcover €35; e-book £10.99
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