09 Jul 2020
Today’s “cancel culture” may seem to be on a misguided path. If even George Washington’s statues aren’t sacred, whose legacy will survive the test of time?
In a society that encourages making dents in universes, the thought of future generations nitpicking one’s character flaws is uncomfortable. But this concern about “historic” cancel culture1 – the future negation of one’s accomplishments – is unproductive.
Those who believe today’s culture is the romantic ideal and should never change are naïve. Those who don’t must come to terms that we’ll all be cancelled eventually.
The protagonists of today’s histories will be judged by tomorrow’s values, as has always been the case. Renaissance men disregarded centuries of phenomenological art and knowledge from the Middle Ages because it didn’t fit their ideals of rational thought. They took crop rotations for granted just as we take rationality for granted. Yet, as phenomenology slowly enters the cultural zeitgeist, we critique their disregard of it.
It’s easy to conflate these protagonists with ideas themselves, since we center stories around people. Without George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, we may not have seen the incredible growth of the Black Lives Matter in the past few weeks. Strategic personification can help build movements.
Yet eventually, the medium becomes the message. Despite his beliefs that “riots are the language of the unheard,” MLK quotes are often used to condemn Black Lives Matter protests. Personification becomes person fetishization.
Human beings are flawed. George Washington owned other humans. Treating him as a stand-in for “America” risks mistaking criticism of one for the other. Persistent veneration of Great Men over their ideas leads to (justified) critique of narratives. Complete separation of the two may no longer be possible. Cancellation is inevitable, albeit more emotionally charged.
What would MLK think of distant future generations cancelling him over eating red meat?2. Consider that in a future where MLK is considered greatly conservative and deserving of cancellation, the world is relatively utopian. Therefore, the tradeoff is that his statue is torn down over veganism but in return racial justice is fully realized.
One’s willingness to sacrifice their own acknowledgement is the ultimate test of their commitment to their ideals. Other’s struggling to reconcile their contradictory feelings towards one’s great ideas and flawed personalities is a testament to the power of those ideas.
Ultimately, insisting on creating another Great Man myth is a selfish endeavor. Trying to personify our great ideas into ourselves is a net negative – for the world and for the impact of our ideas. No human is timelessly perfect. We will all be cancelled. Tear down our statues!
Thanks to Sam Altman, Joshua Morton, Raksha Muthukumar, Angie Palm and Natalia Bilenko for thoughtful comments and discussion.