Why The Left Must Stand up to Cancel Culture, Part Two: It's a House of Cards Driven by Dehumanization and Mass Hysteria
Salem. 1692. The Puritans have formed a a tight knit, isolated community outside of Salem called Salem village. They were in the clutches of strict religious doctrine and church attendance was mandatory. It was bitterly cold. All night every night no one was safe from attacks from Native American tribes who were not going away quietly and continued fighting to keep the Puritans off their land. They killed their livestock. They murdered their parents and their children. An attack could happen at any time. The surrounding woods were full of strange noises, and things that slithered and moved. Devotion to God and fear of the Devil were the only forms of education on offer. The Devil was the the thing you most feared because he was waiting in every shadow, responsible for every unexplained event and the biggest threat to the utopia of the shining city on the hill.
That year, 1692, the residents of Salem were in the grips of fear when a few adolescent girls began having convulsive fits. Were they imaginary? Was it an emotional reaction to the mounting pressure cooker of fear? Was it a way to check out of the daily ritual of God work and labor?
The afflicted children caused a wave of panic throughout the entire village. It had to be witchcraft. The Devil had come to Salem. Prosecuting and hanging witches had been a worldwide phenomenon and even had come to Massachusetts before 1692. But here, the children’s behavior was traumatic. The reaction to that trauma was yet more hysteria. All it took was for one of them to start making accusations and before long, no one was safe. The choice: admit you were a witch and the girls were telling the truth - or deny it and be hanged. One man felt so strongly in his denial he was pressed to death with heavy stones, though he never confessed. When a slave named Tituba (an Indian, not an African slave) first cracked under understandable pressure, she told a wild story about the Devil coming to Salem.
Who was it, demanded Hathorne, who tortured the poor girls? “The devil, for all I know,” Tituba rejoined before she began describing him, to a hushed room. She introduced a full, malevolent cast, their animal accomplices and various superpowers. A sort of satanic Scheherazade, she was masterful and gloriously persuasive. Only the day before, a tall, white-haired man in a dark serge coat had appeared. He traveled from Boston with his accomplices. He ordered Tituba to hurt the children. He would kill her if she did not. Had the man appeared to her in any other guise? asked Hathorne. Here Tituba made clear that she must have been the life of the corn-pounding, pea-shelling Parris kitchen. She submitted a vivid, lurid and harebrained report. More than anyone else, she propelled America’s infamous witch hunt forward, supplying its imagery and determining its shape.
She had seen a hog, a great black dog, a red cat, a black cat, a yellow bird and a hairy creature that walked on two legs. Another animal had turned up too. She did not know what it was called and found it difficult to describe, but it had “wings and two legs and a head like a woman.” A canary accompanied her visitor. If she served the black-coated man, she could have the bird. She implicated her two fellow suspects: One had appeared only the night before, with her cat, while the Parris family was at prayer. She had attempted to bargain with Tituba, stopping her ears so that Tituba could not hear the Scripture. She remained deaf for some time afterward. The creature she claimed to have so much trouble describing (and which she described vividly) was, she explained, Hathorne’s other suspect, in disguise.
The people of Salem could see it in their mind’s eye because she painted such a vivid picture. Turns out, telling those fanciful tales would be contagious. The villagers believed them because they were too afraid not to. They could make a picture in their mind’s eye and that made it something real.
Either the children were lying, or Salem was infested with witches. But the idea was Believe Children, because God would never allow children to lie.
By the fall, somewhere between 144 and 185 witches and wizards had been named. Nineteen men and women had hanged. America’s tiny reign of terror burned itself out by late September, though it would endure allegorically for centuries. We dust it off whenever we overreach ideologically or prosecute overhastily, when prejudice rears its head or decency slips down the drain, when absolutism threatens to envelop us.
Eventually, the whole thing toppled once enough people, previously too intimidated, began speaking out - and the bubble was pierced. Afterwards, the town was so ashamed they tried to hide the evidence - to this day, you can’t find graves of those killed. But one brave Quaker spent a year in jail making sure the story was told and remembered.
It worked, for a while, as a way to address irrational fear. Mass hysteria is an evolutionary trait because it must have meant survival for tribal humans. If fear could spread fast enough throughout the tribe they could avoid danger. You can see it in animals too - if they hear a noise they don’t understand, or feel a threat - it spreads quickly throughout the herd or the flock and they can all run at once. Maybe one of them will be killed but they have an advantage in shared paranoia. If some of them were like, nah, don’t worry about that coyote. They’d be coyote food.
Humans supposedly have the ability to use common sense and reason. But not when we’re afraid. It flies right out the window and the lizard brain takes over. FEAR. RUN. FEAR. THE ENEMY.
Cancel Culture is Partly Based on Mass Hysteria
So what caused us to arrive in the place we are now, ruled once again by a mass hysteria event of the Salem kind? Obama’s utopia threatened by Trump’s destruction of it. While the rise of “social justice warriors” and cancel culture existed before Trump, it was Trump’s win that was so shocking, so traumatic it kicked the community gathering online into a kind of ongoing mass hysteria event.
The best documenting of the phenom is this series by Benjamin Boyce on YouTube - he attended Evergreen College in Washington and graduated after the now infamous blow up. Why his series is so good isn’t just that he documents the actual mass hysteria around Bret Weinstein, but he also shows the culture out of which it was born and the culture that both social justice and “cancel culture” come from. It might baffle some who aren’t familiar with it but if you go through the entire series you will get an education on what kind of utopia they are trying to build. And what threatened it.
The problem is that Trump’s win, as you can see, has named two types of “devils.” One, rapists, harassers and abusers that launched the Me Too movement after the traumatic Weinstein allegations, and now, after the traumatic murder of George Floyd that has launched an “anti-racist” movement. Both of these things target mostly white men, but the latter appears to be targeting all white people as being somehow complicit every day of their lives in oppression and racism. During Me Too we were so afraid we saw rapists everywhere. Every one of our own experiences in life with men suddenly seemed like rape. Now, that has been replaced with racism. Racism is everywhere. And you can’t escape it. Like accusations of witchcraft that were based on “spectral evidence,” that which you can not see with your own eyes but only some people can see, racism is suddenly in everything, in every movie, in ever article written. Whether it exists or not is merely a matter of whether one person is offended by it.
Trader Joe’s had to change all of its product labels not because they were racist but because a white 17 year-old high school girl determined they had to be.
Bret Weinstein took a stand against a policy at Evergreen of asking all white people not to come to school one day. The past demonstrations of this kind meant people opted themselves out of the school for the day. Women, immigrants, etc. But when they asked white people to leave that is when they crossed the line of basic human rights, according to Weinstein. He had a right to voice his objection. They, in turn, demonized him as a racist and white supremacist, chanted for him to resign, trapped him, intimidated him and stalked him - basically, he was dehumanized. When Charles Manson taught his impressionable followers that rich people were pigs and deserved to die, or cops were pigs and deserved to die or anyone deserved to die because Charlie said so - that is dehumanization. We must always push back when waves of hysteria lead to dehumanization.
They didn’t hurt him and they didn’t murder him but dehumanization is never okay.
What happened at Evergreen as documented carefully and thoroughly by Boyce, is what happens on Twitter frequently and has, in fact, now trickled up to academia, science, and press. The fear of the blowback, the boycotts, the mob has intimidated people from doing research, writing important stories and speaking their mind.
We must stand up to it because that is the only way hysteria ever ends. And the things we value so deeply are threatened - for everyone, not just white people. Freedom of expression, of speech, telling the truth in journalism and science are things we can’t lose.
Being on social media means we are all vulnerable to getting caught up in mass hysteria - on the right and on the left.
A New Zealand sociologist says social networking websites can lead to mass global hysteria similar to the scale that took hold of Salem in Massachusetts, in the late 1600's where 20 people were hanged during the infamous witch trials. [Source]
The Game of “Telephone”
Just like the elementary school game, “telephone,” where an original message is passed through whispers from person to person until the last person announces what they’ve heard, news stories are often distorted from original factual information when posted on social media walls, like Facebook, or pictures taken and short captions used on Instagram or twitter. This research study found that the manner in which news stories tend to be distorted is along the lines of becoming more negative, increasingly inaccurate as well as taking on a tone of hysteria when passed from person to person through social media. [Source]
A good method to practice: listen to opposing points of view. Then take a breath and think about it. Do you agree or disagree? Do you passionately disagree? Does that take you to a place where you want to HURT THEM for what they think? That five minute break can often make the difference.
Most people want to get along with other people. Most people are good at heart. Most people have the best of intentions. Remembering that makes it less likely we will dehumanize each other.
To listen and watch:
Sam Harris confronts a young science journalist who basically led to his cancellation. She too admits that a grant she was writing was defunded because of fear of blowback.