America’s Ecstasy of Sanctimony


The Human Stain (2003)

To map with any accuracy the present lie of the land, we have to be able to triangulate between these two truths. On the one hand, the questions that have to be dealt with are real and longstanding. They are not the products of a hysterical wokeism. They arise because people who are spoken about have, against great odds, claimed the right to answer back. Those who have enjoyed the privilege of consequence-free pronouncements—overwhelmingly white, university-educated men—find themselves challenged and scrutinised. Many of them don’t like it.

On the other hand, politics and culture really have become more and more tribalised. Tribalism is binary: the grey zone of subtlety, ambiguity, complexity and hesitation shrinks almost to nothing. Mistakes become crimes. Momentary lapses are fixed forever like stars in the digital cosmos. The muddle-headedness to which everyone is prey becomes potentially suicidal. Human frailty becomes unforgivable. And the rest of the anglophone world imports what Roth calls in The Human Stain “America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.”

“Cancel culture is turning healthy tensions into irreconcilable conflicts”, Fintan O’Toole, Prospect

If you write such drastic language—especially if in life you would hesitate to mock someone’s bereavement to their faces or accuse them of violent sadism—a doubt will probably follow. Who am I if I write such things? On the other hand, who am I if I don’t? The doubts, like the images, will be alive, intimate and painful, sending you back to Twitter for more reassurance and comradeship.

A contrary argument won’t soothe you at this point, and nor will an apology.

But my accusers needed to feel justified in the language they had used and the taboos—such as mocking bereavement—they had crossed, so they needed me to be a monster, not an apologetic writer, and continued to construct me in that way.

Ostracisms are a basic, human, social mechanism. People have always needed to fight and kill, and rid themselves of burdensome people; therefore we have within us the capacity to join with others to blot out rationality and empathy. It’s particularly human to use imagination and words to refresh bonds, excite ourselves and dehumanise the target. Social media isolates that imaginative and linguistic process and speeds it up. The call is powerful. Crowds are rapidly drawn to the festival of invective. Even people determined not to be involved are made into pressured, guilty, witnesses. Everyone feels helpless, and anxious, and urgent, because they are gearing up to kill.

Which of course they will not. This is only words, only Twitter, and we are talking about books. Or will they? The thing that most astonished me about the experience of being cancelled was the strength, clarity and immediacy of the suicidal ideation. It took shape by my every action: in the bathroom, telling me to reach for the razor blade; by the side of the road, telling me to walk into the traffic; in the river while I was swimming, telling me to sink. I had never met this force before, but everyone who has been through an ostracism agrees the shadows coalesce for them, too, as an inevitable part of the cycle, the shape of our collective shame. I feel a strong need to tell people about this.

“Cast out”, Kate Clanchy, Prospect

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