It’s About Time: Conservatism and Cancel Culture

Modern thinking has been impregnated with so-called Hegelian Dialectics. In fact, most of us are conditioned to believe that history progresses through a system of opposition: an idea or (as later proposed by Marx) material structure is the thesis, which is opposed by an antithesis; the result of the ensuing conflict is the synthesis – itself a new, polished thesis to be further refined. Each stage is a more perfected version of the past. This is not a worldview exclusive to progressives – in fact, most conservatives tend to, consciously or not, be complacent with it. Just consider the usual saying that “conservatism is like progressivism but with a speed limit”, or even Francis Fukuyama’s famous remark that we had reached the “End of History”: the idea of inexorable progress runs deep in our society.

Yet, the conservative inclination – generally so fond of nostalgia and tradition – tends to be uncomfortable with this idea. All in all, conservatives are – and this is also a mea culpa – somewhat obsessed with salvaging the present; with stopping the passage of time. Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that – I could easily argue that being at odds with time is in fact an inherent aspect of the human experience itself. The mistake, if any, lies in doing so whilst adhering to a defeatist philosophy – a philosophy that glorifies this linear progression we are locked into. Nonetheless, while many thinkers have insistently proposed solutions relating to the “problem with time” within life as a whole, I feel we still have somewhat of a hard time in adapting them to politics.

I propose an experiment. Allow yourself to imagine history not as a ladder, but as a wheel. Look back to your history lessons and rejoice in remembering how success gave place to failure, and then to success one again; remember how Empires rose and then fell, how cultures spread and then collapsed, how Babylon was destroyed and then rebuilt. Imagine that Babylon will eventually be rebuilt once again – and once again destroyed. We cannot know if time is infinite or not – but if we can choose to believe in its linearity, nothing stops us from believing it is circular instead.

Well, if you are a bit more sceptical, then think of the infinite parallels you can draw between historical and modern figures; of similar wars and similar ideologies. Yes, you may argue, things were not the same then and now; but few things better define our humanness than our ability to draw upon such analogies. In fact, this is precisely what allows scientists to call Artificial Intelligences “intelligent”. It is a core of our thinking process as humans and there is no reason why we should not bring it to politics.

This leads me to two foremost conclusions: first, if history is in fact full of repetitions and iterations, it is naïve not to look beyond the infinitesimally small part of it that we happen to call present. In fact, as brilliantly put by Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “whoever says that he belongs to his time is only saying that he agrees with the largest number of fools at that moment”. Conservatives tend to be so focused on the “now” that they lack a project for the future. Nevertheless, a conservative future should not attempt to emulate the present – instead, it needs to be enlightened by the past.

In fact, it is through the past that I reach my second conjecture: progress and stability are not guaranteed. At times, entire cultures have been lost – ours is not exempt from that risk. In fact, if there is an ongoing struggle that repeats itself throughout history, it is the dispute between our inner forces of “Civilization” and “Barbarism”. As advocated by Brazilian philosopher Mario Ferreira dos Santos, Civilization is manners, institutions, art, poetry, rationality, maturity – the things that detach us from the rest of the animal world. Barbarism, on the other hand, is ruthlessness, instinct, violence and desire. This is not to say that one is superior to the other; in fact, societies that overemphasised the values of Civilization were often even more savage than their “barbarian” counterparts. However, a certain degree of civilizational values tends to be required for the living of a meaningful and purposeful life. Even more important, it is required for the flourishment of culture: as T.S. Elliot once put, a “Classic” is the product of maturity.

Now that I have established these terms, let us delve deeper in one remarkable example: Cancel Culture.

As is usual with modern expressions, Cancel Culture is quite hard to define. There are, however, two main aspects that are generally agreed to be behind it. One is the substitution of a whole personality for a fraction of it – usually some controversial view or action – which then becomes the symbol of the “cancelled” person. The other is the enforcement of conformity: people are ostracized because of this symbolical association. Writer J.K. Rowling, for instance, was labelled transphobic and became persona non grata on social media; likewise, Winston Churchill was called racist and had his statues vandalized. The process repeats, “cleansing” both the popular and the cultural canon.

Conservatives are justifiably scared when faced with this scenario. However, their arguments against it are usually counterproductive. The one I have seen the most when it comes to tearing down statues goes something like that: “we should consider actions in their historical context”. Well, indeed we should. Yet, reasserting that totally misses the point of Cancel Culture. Should we, after all, protect Stalinist statues in Ukraine because of their “historical context”? Appealing to that – instead of defending the timelessness of moral virtue – means losing ground. The past is not there simply to be remembered as a relic, but to be cherished as part of our future. Likewise, statues of Cecil Rhodes or Emperor Constantine should not be kept as mere artefacts, but as homages to men who, even if they had their vices, helped make the world a better place in their times and maybe also in those still to come.

How, then, should we react to Cancel Culture? I propose we split it twofold. The first part – the “labelling” – is an intrinsically barbaric behaviour. I remember my first literature class when I learned that the Homeric epics were so much ahead of their time precisely because they presented complex and multifaceted characters. Reducing people to symbols is, almost by definition, a regression to a lesser understanding of human nature – one that should not, of course, be condoned. The second aspect, though – let us call it “ostracizing” – may be worth more consideration.

I used to be an ardent defendant of free speech, expressed in Brazil through a common popular saying: “do you want to defeat an idiot? Let him speak”. Well… we let so many idiots speak that one of them became president. Dealing in absolutes is, as it turns out, a receipt for failure. That does not mean, of course, that we should institute government censorship of any sort. Instead, I propose once again that we look further in the past for inspiration. The word “ostracizing” itself, after all, comes from the Greek “ὀστρακισμός”, the process through which every year the plurality of Athenians could vote to expel someone from the Polis for a ten-year period. There was no legal procedure or even a formal right to be heard – just like in modern Cancel Culture. Well, if Pericles made use of it, why shouldn’t we?

I propose we appropriate the ostracizing aspect of Cancel Culture – that we leverage our means to marginalize the discourse against Civilization, in the same manner that our enemies are attempting to marginalize Civilization itself.

Ultimately, who are these enemies? Last winter I was travelling with some friends and we bought the New Yorker Magazine to read on the train. It was late in the night and I was almost falling asleep when my friend, who was sitting right behind, poked me. He wanted to show me an excerpt of an interview with former Gossip Girl star Pen Bagdley, where he discussed his role in a new Netflix show: a bookseller who is obsessed with Russian Literature. When asked whether he had read Dostoyevsky, Bagdley (who hadn’t) answered, and I quote:

“The idea that philosophers in the past have actually figured anything out when we’ve ended up where we’ve ended up… you’re kind of, like, ‘I dunno. I’m not sure, old white guy! I’m not sure I’m interested in what you have to say!’”

This single quote kept me awake through the journey, as I ranted compulsively over it. I still cannot stand the fact that this kind of thinking is even borderline acceptable in our society. Shakespeare, Plato, Augustine and Dante, after all, are just “old white guys”, aren’t they? If someone can conceivably cancel Dostoyevsky, how far are we from finally discarding the entire Western Canon? How can someone actively argue that there is no value in reading such authors while they haven’t even read them to begin with. That interview convinced me there is indeed a “Cultural War” to be fought: it is a war against laziness, against prejudice, against ignorance – against the worst traits of Barbarism.

This is an enemy that, naturally, transcends left and right. As it happens, I could write an entire article listing the many ways Brazil’s right-wing populist government has been promoting barbarism, from the academia to social media. And I am sure it takes no more than ten minutes scrolling on a Twitter feed to find someone on the left doing the same. My point is that this should not be a political divide – but a civilizational one. The people who should be cancelled are not left-wing endorsers of the infamous Harper Letter, nor right-wing historians and University professors. Yet, while many of them are suffering the effects of societal ostracism, Pen Bagdley gets away with dismissing Dostoyevsky. His is the sort of discourse that we should aim to “cancel”: one based on virtue-signalling, presumptuousness and boastful negligence of the worst kind.

Cancel Culture, as of now, has been a powerful tool in enforcing a linear and progressive view of time. Moreover, the attempts to stop it have so far only resulted in more cancelling. Instead, we defenders of Civilization should claim it for our own goals. Our values have been under attack for too long, yet we still have not learned how to properly fight back. Perhaps, to be frank, we never will. Perhaps, the Civilization of Homer and Plato will suffer the same fate as those of Dido and of Gilgamesh, bound to become archaeological curiosities in the minds of common people. Well, be it circular or not, we cannot know the forthcomings of time. Still, we can learn some timeless things from it: Civilization is always worth fighting for – and there can be no restraints when fighting the good fight

The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.

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