Why Cancel Culture Was Never About Social Justice
And why the real roots of cancel culture could be in neo-Freudian utopianism
Today, I want to continue my discussion on Herbert Marcuse’s essay Repressive Tolerance, and his general utopian worldview defined around ending the Freudian concept of ‘repression’. Last time, we examined how Marcuse’s work inspired the post-1960s Theory Left to conflate liberation from Freudian repression with liberation from oppression, and hence ultimately confuse all forms of emotional restraint for social injustice. This has had various harmful effects, including an erosion of the social fabric, as well as creating resistance to much needed social reforms. This time, I am going to examine the association between Marcuse’s worldview and the practice of cancel culture today, and why those in favor of cancelling people in the name of social justice are ultimately confused about what they are actually doing.
While Repressive Tolerance was written in 1965, and many of today’s pro-cancellation activists might not even have read it, it remains a historical fact that Marcuse was the most important thinker in the 1960s-70s student movements, and the spirit of his work has been carried on in various forms by this generation. Hence, a college student today could be influenced by the Marcusean worldview through various means, even if they had never read the original source of the ideas. This is why many people have pointed to Repressive Tolerance as the ultimate source of the ideas behind cancel culture. More broadly speaking, it is clear that Marcusean ideas continue to strongly influence the worldview of the Theory Left today.
Why It’s ‘Repressive Tolerance’, not ‘Oppressive Tolerance’
Let’s first return to my point that the essay is titled ‘repressive tolerance’, rather than ‘oppressive tolerance’, which reflected Marcuse’s primary aim being liberation from Freudian repression, rather than social oppression. In other words, Marcuse was skeptical about the free market of ideas, not just because oppressive ideas could win support, but more importantly, ‘repressive’ ideas could win support. It is clear that, for Marcuse, even if oppressive ideas are guaranteed to lose in the free market of ideas, if ‘repressive’ ideas could still win sometimes, he still wouldn’t be happy about it. Hence, his primary motivation was one of preventing the popularization of ‘repressive’ ideas, rather than just oppressive ideas, through free speech and free debate.
If we look at things from this angle, the justification behind Repressive Tolerance suddenly begins to make sense. Oppressive ideas have generally not done well in the free market of ideas. Even if they temporarily gain an audience, in the longer run, oppressive and unjust ideas have always been defeated, in the free market of ideas. Rational debate has always favored the side of justice in the end, as most recently seen in the gay marriage debate, where support grew from less than 20% to more than 60% in less than a generation. The success of gay marriage follows on from the success of civil rights, the idea of racial equality, the idea of gender equality, and so on. The free market of ideas has delivered in spades for social justice, and there is no reason why this winning streak wouldn’t continue.
However, the story is different when it comes to so-called ‘repressive’ ideas. For example, gay marriage can actually be argued to be a ‘repressive’ idea, even though it is in line with social justice. What makes marriage equality a ‘social justice’ cause is that it provides a fair deal to both gay and straight people alike. However, the deal, the marriage contract, is one that inherently involves a lot of restraint, as discussed in the previous episode. Hence, from a Marcusean viewpoint, the victory of marriage equality, over more radical ideas like the complete abolition of marriage, actually justified the skepticism towards free speech in Repressive Tolerance. As you can see, while the logic in Repressive Tolerance doesn’t make sense if you are coming from a purely social justice angle, it does make sense when your primary aim is to abolish Freudian repression, which was where Marcuse was actually coming from.
The Reason Why ‘Liberation from Repression’ is Justifiably Unpopular
The reason why so-called ‘repressive’ ideas may win in the free market of ideas is because they have inherent value. Indeed, the example of marriage shows us that restraint of our primal instincts comes with its rewards. Restraint can make us happy, secure and fulfilled. Just as importantly, restraint is the foundation of many pillars of the social fabric. A politics built around liberation from nearly all restraint would mean the decimation of the social fabric, and is something that is going to be logically rejected by the majority of people. Hence, the fact that ideas Marcuse considered ‘repressive’ often win in the free market of ideas is not a sign that free speech and democracy aren’t working. Rather, it’s a sign that they are!
Furthermore, as I argued in the last episode, a robust social contract is required for a healthy liberal democracy, and this can only happen with a good dose of emotional restraint from all citizens. Moreover, the process of debate, and indeed the process of democracy itself, is often about negotiating adjustments to the social contract. The level of restraint required in different areas of life is an important part of this. A politics built around a general rejection of restraint would thus refuse to recognize the validity of many important aspects of a healthy politics.
As a Moral Libertarian, my ideal for society is for everyone to be equally able to live by their moral values, and demonstrate by example the validity of the model of morality they live by. Again, morality is inherently about restraint, and any model of politics that rests on morality would also be deemed invalid by a politics built around refusal to recognize the necessity of restraint.
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By extension, since a politics devoid of restraint is morally empty, there is also no possibility of real social justice of any kind. The overall conclusion from all this is, the Marcusean ideal of liberation from Freudian ‘repression’ is necessarily incompatible with a healthy and morally driven politics.
In conclusion, there really is no reason to practice cancel culture, the set of practices informed by the logic of Repressive Tolerance, for social justice reasons. Free speech and rational debate has a strong track record in delivering victories for social justice.
Rather, the Theory Left has been under the influence of the Marcusean conflation of Freudian repression with social oppression for so long that they are basically unconsciously serving a completely different goal, that is, the abolishment of the civilized restraint of our primal instincts. Such a goal can only be achieved by abolishing free speech, because most rational people wouldn’t support it. It is also a goal not worthy of supporting, or even serious consideration, because it will basically destroy civilization as we know it.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.