Was there ever a time when honest disagreement over contentious issues was deemed permissible? Were we ever truly free to say what we believed, without fear that the Thought Police would come calling?
Was it always the case that a rigid conformity of opinion held sway on certain questions, with all dissent destined to be met by a wild hysteria and demands for swift recantation?
It is easy, when surveying the public square today, characterised as it is by such deep-rooted uniformity and a climate in which any sort of resistance constitutes a revolutionary act, to conclude that things must have been this way for all time. That the uncompromising group-think that pervades so much of our discourse has always existed. That freedom of expression and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ are obscure concepts peddled only by heretics and those with a kamikaze disregard for their own reputations or careers.
Like a prisoner who, as his sentence grinds on, finds it increasingly difficult to recall a time when he enjoyed liberty, our society risks falling into the trap of believing that the ever-tightening constraints placed upon our freedoms have always bound us.
It is not so, of course. In fact, we don’t have to travel too far back to identify a time when our culture was quite different. If someone said or did something crass or thoughtless – even if the act was committed in the full glare of publicity — society would generally react by curling its lip or tutting or dismissing the culprit for an idiot. And then the world would move on. Nobody had been injured, nobody died, and one person might have been left feeling a bit embarrassed or sheepish. Real opprobrium was reserved for those who truly deserved it.
How the world has changed. It seems unimaginable today that someone — particularly anyone with a public profile — could depart from the orthodoxy on any subject of delicacy or contention, especially one of cultural sensitivity, without inviting the now-customary storms of outrage. These usually begin with a rabid kind of finger-pointing, invariably conducted through social media, and very quickly progress to demands for an apology, appeals to the transgressor’s employer that he be fired from his job and, where the individual enjoys any sense of prominence, an insistence that he be banished from public life for good. The actual merits of the person’s words or actions are irrelevant. All that was necessary for the pitchfork-wielders to do their worst was that ‘offence’ had been caused. When the storm eventually passes, the person is likely to find himself excommunicated from polite society.
The disturbing thing is that this ‘cancel culture’ has taken hold not because it can claim support among the mass of the population, but because a minority of intolerant fanatics has somehow managed to cow everyone else into submission. They have effectively been allowed to set the boundaries of acceptable debate on certain topics, to decide on behalf of us all what constitutes a legitimate opinion, and to determine the sanction to be imposed upon anyone who refuses to comply.