They Guillotined Robespierre, Didn’t They?


The Pont Royal and the Pavillon de Flore (seat of the Committee of Public Safety and General Police Bureau) Paris, 1814

From the Atlantic:

Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.

Yet despite the disputed nature of these cases, it has become both easy and useful for some people to put them into larger narratives. Partisans, especially on the right, now toss around the phrase cancel culture when they want to defend themselves from criticism, however legitimate. But dig into the story of anyone who has been a genuine victim of modern mob justice and you will often find not an obvious argument between “woke” and “anti-woke” perspectives but rather incidents that are interpreted, described, or remembered by different people in different ways, even leaving aside whatever political or intellectual issue might be at stake.

John McWhorter, a Columbia linguistics professor (and Atlantic contributing writer) who has strong and not always popular views about race, told me that if you are accused of something unfairly, you should always push back, firmly but politely: “Just say, ‘No, I’m not a racist. And I disagree with you.’ ” If more leaders—university presidents, magazine and newspaper publishers, CEOs of foundations and companies, directors of musical societies—took that position, maybe it would be easier for more of their peers to stand up to their students, their colleagues, or an online mob.

The alternative, for our cultural institutions and for democratic discourse, is grim. Foundations will do secret background checks on their potential grantees, to make sure they haven’t committed crimes-that-are-not-crimes that could be embarrassing in the future. Anonymous reports and Twitter mobs, not the reasoned judgments of peers, will shape the fate of individuals. Writers and journalists will fear publication. Universities will no longer be dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge but to the promotion of student comfort and the avoidance of social-media attacks.

Worse, if we drive all of the difficult people, the demanding people, and the eccentric people away from the creative professions where they used to thrive, we will become a flatter, duller, less interesting society, a place where manuscripts sit in drawers for fear of arbitrary judgments. The arts, the humanities, and the media will become stiff, predictable, and mediocre. Democratic principles like the rule of law, the right to self-defense, the right to a just trial—even the right to be forgiven—will wither.

“The New Puritans”, Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic

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