[NOTE: The following is adapted from Mark Bauerlein’s new book, The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.]
Those moderate and sensible liberals who’ve told me that cancel culture has gone too far and believe that the pendulum is swinging back are fooling themselves. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that they know that America has taken a one-way path into totalitarian political correctness and they are too anxious to admit it. Either way, they’re wrong—wrong about the enduring force of cancel culture, and wrong not to open their mouths and voice old-fashioned liberal arguments against it. In fact, the latter is proof of the former. Cancel culture is in high gear, and it will be so for a long time. U.S. demographics ensure it.
That came through in a July 2020 poll of registered voters by Morning Consult and Politico that included questions about cancel culture. Asked whether cancel culture has gone too far, not far enough, or neither, 36 percent of respondents age 18-34 answered “too far,” only one-third of the age group, a dismayingly low figure. Older cohorts showed greater concern: 41 percent of 35-44 year-olds believing it has gone too far, 47 percent of 45-64 year-olds that it has done so, and 59 percent of those sixty-five and older. Worse, nearly one in six of the younger respondents (16 percent) claimed that cancellation hadn’t yet claimed enough victims (the wording was “not far enough”), a bit higher than the next older age group (14 percent) and much higher than the other two (seven and five percent).
That “not-far-enough” number is worse than it seems, for two reasons. First, 23 percent of 18-34 year-olds answered “neither”—that cancel culture had gone neither not far enough nor too far, implying that the current level of cancellation is just fine with them. So if we add together the rates for not-far-enough and currently-just-fine, Millennials who wish to restrain or reverse cancel culture are outnumbered by those who don’t. We should note, as well, that another 25 percent of the age group answered “don’t know/no opinion”—an apathy that favors the aggressors.
Given this breakdown, the advantage that the last group (the indifferent ones) gives to extremists helps explain the success of cancel culture. It’s a pattern one sees all the time. In episodes of protest, an inspired minority can often influence the course of events far more than their numbers would suggest. There is the “chill” phenomenon, of course, whereby one case of censorship and punishment compels others to stay quiet for good, but there is more to the power of the minority than that. Squeaky wheels are the ones that get the grease. If, for example, three students complain of a teacher’s prejudice, while the other thirty-two students say nothing about it, the few complainers inevitably take priority.
The “Law of Group Polarization”— the tendency of groups in which most members hold to a particular opinion to drift toward more extreme versions of that opinion as they discuss it—is an instance of the same phenomenon. The Law was outlined in a 1999 paper by Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, who examined certain deliberative bodies such as trial juries and found the phenomenon repeated again and again. In product liability cases, for instance, when an individual sues a company whose product resulted in an injury, if the jury generally regards the company as liable, but ten members initially favor a modest award to the plaintiff while two push for a stiff award, in the deliberations to follow, the two will pull the ten far in their direction. The final judgment will end up much higher than the average figure as calculated from the beginning.
The psychology is perfectly comprehensible. The extreme members feel more strongly about their opinion than the others. That’s the way extremists are. But the moderates basically agree with the extremists about (in this case) the culpability of the manufacturer. The difference lies in the intensity of feeling, and so the moderates don’t regard concessions to extremists as a compromise of principle. They are more flexible, willing to defer to people more passionate about a principle they share.
Thus the 16 percent rate of young Americans who want cancel culture to move farther and faster is worse than it seems, particularly in light of the 23 percent who regard cancel culture as at just the right level and the 25 percent who don’t-know or don’t-care. If young social justice warriors find someone who has raised objections to homosexuality on Facebook or wrote once on Twitter that Americans of African descent are low-IQ, the extremists spring into action, coaxing peers to sign petitions, send emails, and make phone calls to the culprit’s employer. The moderates may feel uncomfortable about getting someone fired, but they don’t like homophobia and racism, either, and so they sign and send, the pressure of the extremists works, and the numbers of protesters swell. What starts as distaste over a politically incorrect opinion turns into a campaign of intimidation. The moderates can’t resist joining in because the extremists paint the original crime in the lurid colors of historic oppression, which calls for a hammer response, and moderates don’t want to argue over the severity of the original misdeed. In this hothouse zone, it’s impossible to say, “C’mon, it was just a stupid remark, we all do it sometimes.”
And so the extremists set the tone. Their “idealism” and commitment bring a fair number of their more easygoing peers on board. Another recent survey, the American Worldview Inventory 2020, shows the reach of such illiberalism. On the very virtue for which Millennials were hailed but a few years back, tolerance, the survey found a stark divergence by cohort: “findings show Millennials—by their own admission—as far less tolerant than other generations. In addition, they are more likely to want to exact revenge when wronged, are less likely to keep a promise, and overall have less respect for others and for human life in general.”
As for the call for mutual respect commonly heard from Millennials, the survey concluded: “Millennials are also twice as likely as other people to say that the kind of people they always respect are those who hold the same religious and political views as they do. Despite their well-known advocacy of ‘tolerance,’ they emerged from the survey as the generation that is the least tolerant—by their own admission—of people who possess different views than they do.”
If you think that this passion for punishment will wane as Millennials proceed in life and deal with kids, taxes, mortgages, healthcare and other adult burdens that temper the schoolyard mindset, keep in mind that Millennials aren’t youths anymore. The oldest ones are 40, and they have grown more intolerant as they’ve aged. Don’t expect them to change their attitude any time soon. The mindset has been decades in the making, reinforced in classrooms, in popular culture, on social media, and by Democrat politicians (and many Republicans, too). We have, indeed, raised a generation of illiberal, closed-minded leftists. The progressivist transformation of schooling, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, news media, the art world, publishing, academia and professional schools, and human resources has done its job.
Only thing will stop Millennial cancellation: a few cases of the cancellers themselves being cancelled for what they’ve done. This is how adolescents grow up, through punishment for misdeeds. Without fear of retribution, a Millennial will not long resist the joy of virtue signaling, the high of scapegoating, not to mention the danger of rejecting the mob and becoming a suspect person himself. As long as there is no cost for emailing a dean and demanding an “insensitive” teacher be fired; if the perpetrator of a hate-crime hoax walks away unscathed; if signing a petition to get someone fired for mocking a minority group is painless; if pushing to de-platform a group because of its conservative positions only boosts your status . . . the behavior will continue.
It is not enough to call for free speech and pluralism and an open marketplace of opinion. That doesn’t impress the motivated Millennial. Conservatives must face an unfortunate conclusion: the freedoms they honor have licensed the undoing of traditional America. The open society they respect has allowed “soft” totalitarians to prosper within it. Most of all, conservatives have failed—failed consistently and completely—to pass along to the young the precious inheritance of the First Amendment, Valley Forge, Walden, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Grant and Lee at Appomattox, Booker T. Washington, Citizen Kane, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Airlift . . . and all the other things of American Greatness that should endow them with the very thing that would end cancel culture for good, namely, gratitude.
Mark Bauerlein is Emeritus Professor of English and an editor at First Things Magazine.