How Tocqueville Predicted Cancel Culture and Political Correctness

Perhaps it is no surprise that the best characterization of American life comes to us via an outsider: the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835. Outsiders have a way of noticing unique and bizarre aspects of society that can seem “normal” to those who live there. We are all strange in our own way, but we cannot see our strangeness. As a man of the Enlightenment and self-described leftist, Tocqueville shared enough of a philosophical foundation with his American counterparts to understand where they were coming from, but with enough distance to see where their path had diverged from that of Europe. Like Solzhenitsyn in the 1970’s, Tocqueville had the perfect vantage point from which to undertake his sociological study.

What’s more surprising to me is just how well someone writing in the 1830’s could foresee the events of 2020, almost two hundred years before they occurred. This suggests that many of our present problems are not recent in their origin. Rather, they evince dangers that have always been present to some degree, perhaps inherent in our own brand of democracy. Only now they are reaching new levels of absurdity.

Both a critic and admirer of America, Tocqueville has remained eminently quotable. This, despite the fact that most people have not waded through Democracy in America in its entirety (I myself have not). Some popular ones: “America is great because she is good.” Here Tocqueville locates the source of America’s strength in the particular religiosity of its people. America was then experiencing the Second Great Awakening, as Europe continued its slow drift toward secularism. Tocqueville understood that: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

Tocqueville also said: “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” Yep.

And: “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

Stop it, Alexis. It hurts us.

But I would like to draw the reader’s attention to these two, longer passages, which are of particular interest considering recent debates over freedom of speech. Consider this first passage, in which Tocqueville describes what we today might call “cancel culture”:

Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.

We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. What strikes me today is how unforgiving people have become, especially on the internet. Most people have heard the story of Amy Cooper, the infamous “Central Park Karen.” A few months into the quarantine, she was walking her dog when Christian Cooper approached her and insisted she put her dog on a leash. When she refused, he threatened to “do something you’re not going to like,” and proceeded to start calling her dog over with treats. This is all based on a post he later made; see below:

Christian Cooper then began filming the encounter. In the tape, Amy Cooper asks him to stop filming her (he doesn’t). Then she threatens to call the police. His response: “Please do,” something he repeats several times. Again, I don’t know all the details, but he certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’s afraid of the cops. On the video, Amy Cooper proceeds to call the police, stating “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog.”

Now, I don’t know Amy Cooper. I don’t know Christian Cooper. Most of the thousands of people who have shared their opinion on the confrontation don’t know either of its participants. Amy Cooper has been accused of “weaponizing her whiteness,” as if by making that call to NYPD her intention was to initiate a scenario where Christian Cooper was killed by the police. A self-described progressive liberal, Amy Cooper quickly apologized profusely for her actions on social media. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough. She lost her job. She lost her dog. I can’t imagine she’ll ever work again. She just may be the most hated woman in America.

Now Amy Cooper has been charged with making a false report to police, a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to a year in jail. The twitter mob is gleeful at the thought of Amy Cooper being put behind bars. You get the impression that for some people, she could be burnt at the stake and it would not be enough to satisfy their bloodlust. But here’s the kicker… Christian Cooper, the man who posted the video, now says he does not want to see her in jail and will not cooperate with NYPD in their investigation!

A few years ago, this action would have earned almost universal praise. Christian Cooper would have been heralded as having taken the high road, and we would have all celebrated the power of forgiveness. Not today. The twitter mob literally turned on Christian Cooper, saying in so many words that the fate of Amy Cooper was no longer up to him, and that he was part of the problem for not seeking to punish Amy Cooper to the fullest extent of the law. For example:

Again, it is remarkable to me how uncharitable and unforgiving we have become, and this is just one example of many. See this recent article in the Atlantic about how ordinary folks have had their lives ruined.

People cancelling Amy Cooper make the point that there is an uneven power dynamic at play. For a white person, especially a white woman, to accuse a black man is to jeopardize his life. It conjures up memories of Emmett Till, the black teen who was lynched after supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 (it was later revealed that he did not), or Tom Robinson, protagonist of America’s favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

But today a different power dynamic is also at play, as this other viral video indicates. If Christian Cooper were a white man and Amy Cooper a black woman, we would not be talking about this incident. If anything, she would be seen as the victim. A single bad encounter between a white and a black person should not lead to the black person being killed OR the white person being cancelled, which – though less severe a fate – is still a kind of metaphorical death. (I think most people would rather be dead than be Amy Cooper right now.) We cannot live in peace and harmony with each other if we are always afraid of each other!

Tocqueville also tackles the issue of political correctness, explaining how it can benefit a tyrannical state by making it harder for the people to criticize the government. Too much regulation restrains action by compressing the range of acceptable thought, stupefying the masses into passivity:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Now, a few disclaimers. By criticizing cancel culture, I am not arguing that people should not be held accountable for their actions. They should and they must, especially people with actual political power. What we don’t need is the cancelling and public shaming of random civilians: filmed, doxxed, and reported by complete strangers. We should also extend an extra dose of charity to those under the age of eighteen, who (for their own good) should be kept as far away from social media as possible.

Likewise, by criticizing political correctness, I am not disputing the notion that we should adhere to certain norms of civility and sensitivity. There are some views that are unacceptable to express in polite society, such as support for the Nazis. But a difference of opinion should not be presented as a personal attack. We have to be free to at least question the prevailing view, and follow the evidence where it leads.

I recently had a phone conversation with an old friend, who is much further to the left than myself. I told her that while I am conservative in many ways, I also hold certain classically liberal beliefs. For example: the belief that people should not be judged on the basis of race or skin color, that we should tolerate those with different views, and that freedom of speech is of the utmost importance. I agreed with her that it was a good thing that so many white people were waking up to something Black Americans have been saying for so long: that racism does in fact still exist, and that they suffer as a result. However, I explained to her my concern that in the effort to do something truly noble – to eradicate the last vestiges of racism from our society – we risked losing an essential element of our identity, perhaps even our humanity.

We will not achieve racial equality by tearing down statues of the Founding Fathers. We will not achieve racial equality by imposing a totalitarian system wherein one is not allowed to question the methods of the radical Left. We will not achieve racial equality by employing prejudice and discrimination against white people, as some in the “anti-racist” movement have demanded. (See Robin DiAngelo’s claim that all whites are racist, or Ibram Kendi’s call to use discrimination to address discrimination.) While I completely support the goal of racial equality, I object to these proposals on the basis that they are illiberal (even, one might even say, racist). If implemented, they would lead to the end of America as we know it, and not in a good way.

Despite disagreeing about almost everything, my friend and I ended the conversation on a positive note. She remarked on how good it was to have her ideas challenged, whereas most of her other friends just agreed with her and said the exact same things.

And this is exactly why we need freedom of speech: to avoid the echo chamber that results when it is absent. No author or scientist has ever handed over a manuscript to an editor with the directive to “tell me how wonderful I am.” Only by challenging each other’s arguments and assumptions can we better approximate the Truth, which is such a formidable goal that no man can reach it unaided.

In the words of Tocqueville, “Men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends.”