I’ve been watching with strained interest the recent episode that is being referred to as the cancelling of JK Rowling, who is famous for writing the Harry Potter books, by gender theory and transgender advocates
As unpleasant as the whole thing is, I think it gives us a good indication of where society is, where it’s going, and what lessons all of us, including progressives could learn from this emerging cancel culture.
So, if you’re unfamiliar with the unfolding controversy it started when Ms. Rowling tweeted concern that progressive theories about gender and sex could erase the lived experience of women who have endured discrimination and oppression for their sex. She also wrote a blog post or two elaborating her thoughts in more detail.
And the swift response from the ambiguous corners of society where the morally superior few reside was to announce that she had incurred the penalty of being cancelled for stepping outside the boundaries of progressive orthodoxy.
Celebrities who were made famous for starring in the Harry Potter films were also quick to join in the denunciations and reaffirm their allegiance to the creed that Ms Rowling could not sign on to.
And if you aren’t familiar with this concept of cancelling, it’s what happens when you transgress the loosely defined and ever-changing doctrines that are promoted and promulgated from who knows where, maybe the media or academia. And once you do, you are expected to begin a public spectacle of repentance for your ignorance and then spending the rest of your life in obscurity and isolation as a penance for your indiscretions.
What is most ironic about the current controversy is that JK Rowling has, up until this point been an unfailing champion of progress. She’s even given considerable attention to trying to make her stories more inclusive and representative by announcing that certain characters were gay or of a certain ethnicity after the fact even though these traits don’t appear in the books in any explicit way.
There have, also, been times when Ms. Rowling has taken a similarly aggressive approach to controversial topics by denouncing those she disagrees with as bigots and comparing them to the most evil characters in her books.
But now she’s on the receiving end of that same kind of rabid denunciation and I think it can provide insight into the distinctions between a traditional approach to understanding truth and a progressive one and the latter’s compulsive tendency to cannibalize itself.
Because progress, as it’s understood within the framework of progressivism, is about relentlessly pursuing change. Change has become synonymous with progress, so if you aren’t ceaselessly changing, then you risk becoming outdated, left behind, or worst of all cancelled. You risk becoming traditional.
There was a line describing this phenomenon that I really liked, and I could have sworn it comes from philosopher Peter Kreeft but now I can’t find it, so I’ll just take credit for it myself. It was something like, anti establishment progressives always become establishment conservatives when they succeed.
This is the great dilemma for people who want to identify as progressives. To be a progressive is to embrace disorienting change indefinitely. But what happens if you actually believe one of the doctrines that you advocate for at a certain point?
Think of some of the things that a typical progressive might truly believe in right now. Maybe it’s saving the world from climate change, maybe it’s women’s reproductive rights, maybe it’s ending racism. Whatever it is, the question becomes, are you advocating for these things because they are true and immutable or are you only advocating for them to stay current within the narrow margins of progressive fashions?
I doubt many people would openly admit that it’s the latter. So if it’s the former, then you have to stand firm on those beliefs. You have to be a champion for them even if they are no longer popular. But the relentless march of progress will continue and evolve beyond those things and eventually turn on you if you don’t move with it.
When I was growing up, combating racism meant refusing to see skin color. This is the anti-racist doctrine I was educated in, formally in school, and informally through popular culture. It was indisputable and everyone subscribed to it. Today, to refuse to see color is an ignorant demonstration of your white privilege.
That’s just one example of how formerly progressive people, if they stood firm in their ideals, would end up on the receiving end of the same moral denunciation they once participated in.
If you consider yourself a progressive today. Think about the things you are fighting for and ask yourself how you will feel in 20 years when the ground your high horse is standing on shifts from under you and that all consuming appetite for denunciation turns on you if you try to hold on to the things you currently believe.
That’s what we see happening to JK Rowling today and it’s not unreasonable to expect that it will happen tomorrow to today’s generation of progressives. If you look at the things that politicians like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden were promoting 20 years ago, they’d make contemporary conservatives look like raging liberals.
So what’s the point. I think it’s a cautionary example for anyone who pushes for anything as if it was a universal truth. If you think that something is so right that everyone, not just you, should abide by it, then you must believe that it is an objective truth and not just a personal preference. If it was just a personal preference, then you’d have no right to impose it on anyone else.
But if you believe that everyone should observe it then you are admitting that some things are always true under all circumstances and this means that, in the name of justice, you ought to defend that truth no matter what, even if it becomes unfashionable to do so. But that means you have a lot in common with traditional people because all they’re doing is standing firm in a truth that is no longer popular.
So I hope you can appreciate that all this rhetoric used to denounce people who stand up for something as being bigoted, hateful, or old-fashioned has nothing to do with what they’re actually doing. They’re just standing, with integrity, behind some truth that, once they accepted for some reason, have refused to bend over because progress moved on without them.
And while you may be progressive today, if you actually believe any of these things and expect to hold on to them, it means you won’t be progressive tomorrow, so keep that in mind before you decide to feed that insatiable appetite to denounce and cancel people simply for having the courage to stand up for something against the currents of fashion.