What's Really Behind the Left's 'Cancel Culture'
After Bernie Sanders won the Nevada Democratic caucuses, liberal icon and MSNBC stalwart Chris Matthews compared Sanders's victory to Nazi Germany’s invasion of France. Immediately after his comments, the leftist mob came after him, demanding that he be fired. This wasn’t some neo-liberal Never-Trumpster who had been masquerading as a Republican for the last two decades. This wasn’t some celebrity air-head running his mouth in the throes of emotion. This wasn’t some lonely blogger writing uneducated opinions from his mom’s basement. This was Chris Matthews, who wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter, spent six years as Tip O’Neil’s chief of staff, was the DC bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote books about the Kennedys, had been the host of Hardball for over twenty years, and had the thrill of Obama’s presidency run down his leg.
But you make one clumsy historical analogy which implies America’s leading Socialist might be as bad for America as the Nazi army was for France and suddenly you’re out of favor with your own constituency and you’re required to grovel to keep your job.
The left has been demanding conservatives grovel and be fired at least since Richard Nixon dared to call Alger Hiss a communist. But that wasn’t merely a reaction, that was a strategy. The left wanted power and shutting up conservatives was their strategy for grabbing it. But why would leftists try to silence other leftists? Back in the day, if a leftist strayed off the reservation, his comrades would ignore the sin so the sinner could keep spewing his leftist nonsense the other 99% of the time. Those days seem to be gone.
I think we’re witnessing a faulty application of a faulty philosophical idea that has been worming its way into the American mind for longer than anyone reading this has been alive. Please indulge me while I explain.
For centuries, philosophers have argued that information we receive directly from the world is a better and more reliable source of knowledge than information we receive indirectly from the testimony of others. This reliable kind of direct knowledge is gathered from personal observations, personal experience, and our own reasoning. Direct knowledge isn’t infallible, of course. If I told you I saw Bigfoot on a moonless night running through a thick wood, you might question the accuracy of my observation. My personal experiences might be too narrow to support my general conclusions. My reasoning might be based on bad premises.
Despite the potential weaknesses of direct knowledge, the information we get from the testimony of others, known as indirect knowledge, is always worse. Assuming this testimony comes from someone with direct knowledge, that direct knowledge carries the same weaknesses that our own direct knowledge bears. Plus, as the testimony is passed from person to person, the information it conveys can be distorted by the process of transmission. On top of that, there’s always the chance the person sharing their “knowledge” is actually a liar and his testimony is intended to deceive.
Philosophers understood these weaknesses, so they built in systems and principles to measure the reliability of knowledge gained from observation, experience, and reasoning, which I won’t get into here. They also came up with a safeguard for knowledge based on testimony. This safeguard is known as reasonableness and requires the person receiving the testimony to evaluate the character of the person who’s testifying. The testimony from a person of good character with a track record for accuracy and reliability is a far safer source of indirect knowledge than an habitual liar who regularly gets his facts wrong.
These philosophical safeguards were hammered out at a time when philosophers expected most of the knowledge people relied on to be direct; they expected people to get their hands dirty in the real world where they could observe, experiment, and reason things out for themselves. It was also a time when philosophers expected indirect knowledge to come from people who were known, whose character could be observed, whose track record could be evaluated. These included family, friends, co-workers, teachers, pastors, reporters, and magistrates who lived together in the same local area. Indirect knowledge could be relied on because the people providing it could be trusted.
As centuries have passed, these expectations have crumbled. Our connection with the world is mediated more and more through various screens--TV’s, monitors, tablets, and phones--making the vast majority of our knowledge indirect. Meanwhile, we’ve never met our sources of indirect knowledge (authors, online teachers, TV reporters, bloggers, vloggers, and talk show hosts) and have no reliable way to evaluate their character. At the moment when it’s most important for us to evaluate the sources of our indirect knowledge, we have the least access to those sources. If we don’t have access to the source of the information, the best we can do is gauge the accuracy and reliability of their reports. The reporter might be a womanizing drunk, but when he sits down to write, he’s always careful with his sources and accurate with his facts.
We’re almost there; just two more pieces to snap into the puzzle. Somewhere along this winding road, Rationalism became the king of the philosophical hill. Instead of evaluating the reliability of knowledge by examining its source, Rationalism evaluated knowledge by examining its content. If I told a rationalist I had witnessed a miracle -- that I had seen a man walk on water or raise the dead -- he wouldn’t waste his time evaluating my honesty, accuracy, or even sanity. Rationalism tells him that there are no such things as miracles, so he can reject my testimony without giving it a second thought.
Last piece: Rationalism is hard. It has principles and rules and forces you to think carefully about things. Post-modern America has skillfully avoided this hard work by valuing feelings over ideas. Where rationalists rejected testimony because it violated certain principles of thought and knowledge, post-moderns reject testimony because it makes them feel bad.
Now we can lay out the philosophical foundations of the mob mentality we see today. First, they’re encouraged to accept or reject the testimony of others by evaluating the content of the report, never the character of the reporter (that’s the faulty philosophical idea). Second, they’re encouraged to accept content as true only when it conforms to their own personal preferences and feelings, not because it’s accurate or consistent with stated principles (that’s the faulty application).
Here’s an example showing how this works. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-La La Land) told the country for about two years that he had seen evidence that President Donald Trump had colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton. Then the Mueller Report came out and said there was no evidence of collusion. When Congressman Schiff later accused the president of withholding aid to Ukraine unless they helped him steal the 2020 election from Joe Biden, and did so by fictionalizing the transcript of the telephone call where this quid pro quo was floated, reasonableness would tell us not to believe a word he said. Sure, he could be telling the truth this time, but he had already forfeited his reliability, so his testimony should be rejected. Why, then, did so many people believe the Ukraine story? Because they agreed with the content of his accusations and those accusations made them feel good.
And that brings us back around to Chris Matthews. When he compared Bernie Sanders to a Nazi invasion, the people who reacted didn’t evaluate the content of Matthews’s commentary. If they had, they would’ve heard Matthews compare the inevitability of Sanders’s nomination after just three primaries to the inevitability of France’s downfall after just a couple of days of fighting. They also didn’t consider Matthews’s long and consistent support for leftism. If they had, they would have heard him say a lot of complimentary things about Sanders and they might have noticed he never said the word 'Nazi.' Instead, they evaluated how this commentary made them feel, realized they didn’t feel good about it, and called for Matthews to be fired.
The implications of this are serious. If you’re a liberal, you should live in constant fear because speaking one wrong (or even misunderstood) word will force you to grovel before the mob. You won’t be able to rest on your track record, either; you’ve made the people feel bad and that has consequences. If you’re a conservative, realize that you can’t reason with people anymore. You have to win their hearts without going through their minds. Understand you’re not just in a political battle, you’re in a spiritual battle and arm yourself accordingly.
Steve Matteucci has degrees in Economics, Law, Taxation, and Theology. His book, How to Be a Trustee: Practical Thinking on Settling a Living Trust, is available on Amazon.
Image credit: MSNBC via shareable YouTube screen shot