Modern traditional and social media, in all of their multiplying and increasingly malevolent forms, provide replete evidence of our collective failure in recent decades to raise children properly. The end of scoring and the efflorescence of “everybody’s awesome” trophies that praise mere participation in order to boost self-esteem have created a generation (and more) of young people who, though demonstrating few actual skills, think themselves excellent at everything. Helicopter parenting and the swaddling of the young straight up through college and beyond has left these same young people without sufficient coping strategies or knowledge of the world.
The abandonment of college curricula and speakers’ lists to the strident demands of the most mulish among them has denied them the true value of education. Such education can only really proceed if all parties understand that the primary flow of knowledge must pass from the teachers and to the young people; too many students today make demands about what they will study, when they should instead shut up and gratefully learn the things that people with more wisdom and experience than they yet have think they should know.
All generations face unique challenges, and all of those challenges are both abetted and complicated by the flaws of the dominant parenting and other social fads of the era of that generation’s childhood. Aside from the other, lesser concerns – an overwrought inability to accept criticism; the now long-since-cliched affection for pricey and frilly foodstuffs that require none of the messy preparation skills that no one bothered to teach them – this cadre’s defining tic seems to be the wholesale adoption by its most assertive wing of “cancel culture.” It is the social media mob-generated effort to end the careers of anyone whose opinions now or ever have reflected an insight that is not absolutely au courant, even if it was perfectly acceptable at the time at which it was expressed. Even making the argument that different standards must be applied to different times is itself a sin against wokeness so grave as to require cancellation. (Note: All sins against wokeness are grave to the woke, and require cancellation.)
Everything is wrong with cancel culture. If not the chief then certainly the incipient flaw lies in the fact that we as a society have ceded to the young an authority to destroy the careers and reputations of those of long-standing, stature and experience. This is folly. The young by definition must be relatively ill-informed about most things. The activist, demanding sort of young people are almost as reliably driven by an understandable, though seldom terribly insight-generating, bias for the novel and outré, and a deeply misplaced conviction that they have the world – and truth – all figured out. Why we, the adults, have allowed this cancel culture to flourish is unclear, and far beyond the scope of an opinion column.
Worth grappling with here, though, is a particularly damning aspect of cancel culture: It is almost perfectly designed to end up destroying most completely the very young people who propel it today in its wild and haphazard course through adult society.
Many of the grownups who had achieved a body of accomplishment before their exile by high-tech pitchfork will not find themselves consigned to historical anonymity. Foolish impulses have a way of burning themselves out, as this one will. Afterward, those who have contributed mightily – or even marginally – to the common human conversation will, after this particularly silly moment, be returned with all their warts to the general discussion. The immense self-regard of today’s 20-somethings is insufficient to banish Thomas Jefferson. In fact, it’s almost certainly insufficient to cast Louis C.K. or even Al Franken permanently beyond the pale, despite the undoubted wrong of their actions when they took them. One of the most wrongheaded (or misunderstood) things ever said about American culture was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bon mot that “there are no second acts in American lives.” There have always been plenty, and there will be again.
Perhaps, ironically (and in the narrow sense of Greek literature, tragically), the people most in danger of true and lasting cancellation are the very enfants terribles who are powering the current cancel-culture trend. These young people who have embraced their ill-nurtured power to ruin the lives of those who have preceded them have not, one suspects, thought through the implications of their cancel-culture position (or of many other of their moral stands). For whether they recognize it or not, time and morality have not stopped with their portfolio of profundities.
In a few years, the avant-garde will have moved past them to stake out new showy demonstrations of their own youthful importance. And because so much that the young think is now recorded for all time on Twitter and Instagram and wherever else they have migrated, the evidence of their no-longer-fully-acceptable positions will be forever available for all to see and judge. Will the world, even when it has re-evaluated and rehabilitated so many who have been temporarily written out of our common life, be gentle with those whose first sentient communal acts have been to demand the destruction of anyone who’s ever committed, by the then-current standards of the time, any wrong think?
It would be condign punishment for these young radicals to find themselves hoist with their own petard: to be the one group that is held to its own absurd cancel-culture standards once the dragon of cancelation turns around on them, and to be the only group ineligible for reevaluation and recontextualization, given its members’ eagerness to deprive everyone else of those graces.
The Greek tragedians would have appreciated just such a result, but we must avoid it, and make sure that it does not befall today’s woke brigades when they finally and truly wake up into the full nuance of adult thoughtfulness. Cancel culture is not their fault alone, but our fault collectively for having coddled them too long and indulged them too far. And even if we shared no fault with them, we should still let ‘em up easy, in Mr. Lincoln’s immortal words and thwarted plan. It is, after all, the American Way.
These kids may want to abjure that national tradition of second chances now, but when they very much want it later, we should make sure that it’s there for them, even as it’s there for the people whom they are temporarily trying to destroy.
We can do that best by protecting our places of work, investment and learning from viewpoint discrimination. The bans should ideally be voluntarily enacted by businesses and colleges across the country, but may well require legislation to move along institutions that are reluctant precisely because of their partial current capture by the woke mobs. We adults know, as we should have taught our young but apparently have not, the cultural, social and personal evils that are on the road of McCarthyite denunciations and exclusions, regardless of who is demanding them and against whom they are aimed. Putting these protections firmly in place would protect us all from the possibility of calamity every time social mores shift, in this technological age of pervasive intrusion and genuine “permanent records.”
The young people who now wander, entranced by their own conjurings, into the maw of Greek tragedy, will one day – even if they cannot see it now – thank us for our wisdom, and for our clemency.
Shepard is the coordinator of the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research.