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Cancel culture, political intolerance and faux authoritarians

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus
Opinion
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Lady Justice perched atop the Nevada Supreme Court building

With candidate filing behind us, the partisan politicking of election season is officially here. The beginning of such electoral politics signals the imminent arrival of attack ads, hyperbole and unhinged partisan hatred toward “the other side.”  

To be sure, it’s exhausting — but it’s also instructive. As mind-numbingly grotesque as some of the rhetoric will be in the remainder of the year, we should nonetheless celebrate the fact that we live in a society liberal enough to tolerate such diverse views in the public square… regardless of how hostile we might find much of it to our sense of decency.  

And yet, many Americans seem to feel we don’t actually live in a world where such freedoms still exist. As The New York Times recently put it, there’s clearly “a dissatisfaction with free speech as it is experienced and understood by Americans today.”

To a large extent, such dissatisfaction is well founded. The propensity to censor, shame or silence the demagoguery that counters our own ideological leanings has grown among swaths of the American public — with an increasing number of people on both the left and the right growing intolerant of speech they consider abhorrent. (Of course, they also disagree on what constitutes “abhorrent” speech.)  

Indeed, we live in a culturally censorious time, where one’s virtue is seemingly determined by who one chooses to vilify and malign, rather than any adherence to liberal principles — principles such as the basic freedom to voice stupid, absurd or even injurious opinions. 

Colloquially referred to as “cancel culture,” the trend has become so ruinous to our public discourse, The New York Times recently penned an editorial lamenting both the progressive and conservative assaults on free expression — assaults that have had tangible and real-world implications. 

Just this month, for example, a Federalist Society event at Yale Law School found itself the target of such an assault. Dozens of students disrupted the event and heckled the participants to the point where panelists were escorted out of the building under police protection. To say nothing of the cultural implications, the idea that a law school’s student population might be so intolerant of opposing views is certainly a worrisome trend for the legal protections of speech rights moving forward. 

Predictably, the Gray Lady’s screed against cancel culture was greeted on Twitter with an endless stream of criticism — much of it from progressives. Ironically, however, some of the anger directed toward the paper highlighted one of the main problems with “cancel culture” itself: Those who engage in it often seem incapable of distinguishing between defending the right to say something and endorsing the something that is being said. 

The ACLU, for example, once defended a bunch of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois — not because the grotesque and racist Nazi rhetoric was worth hearing, but because the right that protects such vile rhetoric also protects the kind of speech actually worth promoting. In recent years however, even the ACLU has started to internally debate whether ideological concerns should take precedence over the once revered principle of defending any, and all, forms of peaceful speech. 

Evidently, protecting the right of speech merely for its own sake is a controversial issue even within institutions traditionally seen as protectors of such freedoms — such as universities and civil rights organizations. 

To be sure, there is a contingent of the progressive movement that seems to believe anyone who challenges their ideological orthodoxy must be a fascist looking to revive the Third Reich, and should therefore be summarily deplatformed, shouted down or run out of the public square. However, such disdain for political opponents is not unique to the American Left. The political right has embarked on their own crusade against those who are outside their ideological tribe — and their intolerance for dissent has become just as profound in consequential ways.   

Recently, for example, the governor and first lady of Nevada were verbally accosted in a shocking display of unhinged political hatred, as a man filmed himself berating the governor as a “tyrant.” To be certain, there are reasons to believe Gov. Sisolak’s ongoing “emergency powers” are a blatant violation of our state’s democratic principles of self-government — however, any authoritarianism in this regard is a world away from being on par with the tyranny that resulted in the decimation of Poland’s Jewish population, or the systematic “elimination” of Russia’s intellectual class during Stalin’s Great Purge. 

As such, the man who angrily harassed the governor wasn’t courageously impeding the advance of a column of tanks in the middle of Tiananmen Square with his outburst — he was cowardly impeding the dining experience of someone with whom he disagrees on policy. And yet, due to the absurd intolerance and hyperbole that marks our modern politics, he undoubtedly believed he was doing something more akin to the former. After all, in our modern political era, partisans have managed to elevate our disagreements to a level that leaves many activists feeling justified in their unbridled hatred for the “other side.” 

Such unhinged abhorrence for political “others” is precisely the brand of contempt that fuels not only the kind of unacceptable political disdain recently leveled at Gov. Sisolak, but also those law student’s desire to censor, silence and “cancel” those with whom one might disagree. 

It is, effectively, the fuel that powers “cancel culture” and illiberal intolerance in all its forms.  

Worse, however, is that such hatred exists because there’s a robust market for it. We voters, consumers and activists, seem to demand it from those in power by rewarding the pundits and politicians who peddle it. As members of self-righteous political tribes, we seemingly love labeling “others” as pariahs and demonstrating our virtue through collectively expressed disdain. 

And that’s what makes the cancel culture — on both the left and right — so dangerous: It indulges the worst of our tribalist impulses. 

Over the course of the upcoming election season, we’ll be bombarded with messages that directly and indirectly feed such intolerance — telling us that evil members of the “other team” are authoritarians and fascists undermining our freedoms. Ironically, however, the mere fact that such absurdity is so publicly peddled by virtually everyone in politics should serve as a reminder that we still enjoy a great deal of freedom when it comes to our political speech — attempts to stifle it notwithstanding. After all, truly authoritarian regimes don’t tolerate even mild criticisms, let alone the kind of hyperbole we see in run-of-the-mill American campaign ads. 

And so, as the partisan tribalism grinds away at our sanity in coming months, take it as evidence that the real authoritarians aren’t yet in charge. Many of them are merely attending law school.

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding consultant based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He is the former communications director for Nevada Policy Research Institute and has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary as a columnist, political humorist, and radio talk show host. Follow him at SchausCreative.com or on Twitter at @schausmichael.

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