The opposite of intolerance used to be tolerance. But as ideology has given way to identity, it has become intolerance of intolerance instead. On platforms like Twitter, a posturing left exists in unwitting symbiosis with the angry rightby Eliane Glaser / July 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
Nostalgia is underrated. I remember when political debates were, well, political: about socialism versus liberalism, the state versus the individual, aspiration versus holding on to what you’ve got.
Now, as debate has moved online, ideology has given way to identity. The battle of ideas has become a fight for recognition. Agonism has been replaced by antagonism. A hyper-sensitivity has taken hold that manifests as aggression. These fights are about who is allowed to exist—and who becomes what the Stalinists used to call an “unperson.” Despite cyber-utopian promises of openness and freedom, progressives find themselves whispering in corridors.
Minorities feel that their existence is threatened by prejudice, and the prejudiced themselves are deemed beyond the pale. First there was the “no platforming” of controversial speakers, with students’ unions banning those they disagree with. Now those who say the wrong thing are boycotted (or “blocked”) on Twitter. They are “cancelled.” The opposite of intolerance was once tolerance. Now it is intolerance of intolerance.
Both sides of the political divide play their part. In one corner we have rabble-rousers headed up by the Tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump. In the other, the determined takers of offence. Racist or sexist statements are seized on as a sign of moral sickness and the mob rushes in to condemn, without pausing to think that they only achieve their online prominence as epiphenomenal froth atop a digital advertising model—fuelled by indignant clicks.
The offence-givers and offence-takers imagine themselves as enemies, but in truth they live in symbiosis. The word “outrage” is an auto-antonym: it refers to both cause and response. “Cancel culture” on the left is the mirror image of right-wing populism.
Democracy entails grimy compromise, the accommodation of objectionable views. But populism posits a division between an authentic “us” and an illegitimate “them.” In Nigel Farage’s referendum victory speech, the 48 per cent who plumped for Remain were written out of the demos, distinguished from the triumphant “real people.” Meanwhile, just as populism undermines democracy, “cancel culture” undoes the tolerance that ensures we don’t end up in hell.
Cancellers trawl through ancient speeches and social media histories for damning titbits to attack, combining the fine-toothed comb with the sledgehammer. But offensive gaffes are often the result of clumsy attempts to be right…