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How an 18th century conservative philosopher is warning us about cancel culture

Roar writer Alexei Kettell on how unhinged cancel culture may lead to a repeat of history’s darkest episodes

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”.

This quote is attributed to the 18th-century Irish statesman, Edmund Burke. He is often heralded as the founder of modern conservatism. His views, especially those in his famous treatise, Reflections on the Revolution in France, are very relevant today.

Burke remarkably predicted some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution, such as the Reign of Terror. Yet this book is not only beneficial to educate and instruct those interested in political theory or history, it is an instruction manual that must be consulted in order to maintain a stable society.

History as an academic subject is not only wonderful in its ability to illuminate our modern world by reflecting on its past, it has an uncanny ability to predict our future due to human’s tendency to repeat previous mistakes. I believe that the events that occurred during Burke’s lifetime are on the verge of repeating themselves, albeit in a different capacity.

It is unlikely that we will see aristocrats murdered in their hundreds or the state of an established European country dismantled and replaced by multiple constitutions or a pan-European war of previously unimaginable proportions. However, those events were the manifestation of the worst possible outcome of that specific epoch within history. In the future, we do not know what that it will be, yet it is clear we are heading in that direction.

In this article, I am going to be drawing a comparison between the “woke” cancel culture of today and the effects of the French Revolution. I will illustrate that society is steering towards the modern equivalent of the Reign of Terror. Throughout the article, I will use Burke as a point of reference to highlight that a “modern” French Revolution would be disastrous. One needs to heed his advice to prevent this bloody, self-destructive course of history from repeating itself.

The French Revolution was retrospectively and unequivocally a bad thing. By destroying the Ancien regime the Jacobins and the French peasantry had “no compass to govern it”, in Burke’s words. The revolution had disregarded the need for the “science of jurisprudence” which “is the collected reason of the ages”. In this sense, it sought the destruction of the most useful tool for governance: the history of the very subject. In simpler terms, by disregarding the past you cannot learn from its errors or successes.

Burke further expounds upon the disastrous effects of the elimination of a country’s past. He recalls a metaphor, “As soon as the ablest instructor had completed his laborious course of institution… he would find everything altered… ignorant of the true grounds of estimation.” This idea was particularly evident within the historical age of the French Revolution, as preceding customs and institutions were destroyed so was the validity of the education that was suited particularly to those tenets of society. The revolution had created a sense of disillusionment as it had nullified the benefits of education one gained from the Ancien regime. In doing so it created a self-destructive situation whereby the people that were to inherit the supposed gains of the revolution lacked the educational means to do so in an effective manner.

Thus, we see Burke identifying two critical portions of society that were indisputably thwarted and harmed within the framework of the revolution: the governing class and the future generations. Through this, he is highlighting that the revolution was both harmful in the present day and in terms of long-term governance. The benefits of the revolution would only be felt through experience and the establishment of a record of successes and failures of different policies or decisions; the very thing the revolution sought to destroy.

At this stage, you may ask, how does this relate to modern-day cancel culture? Let me explain.

Cancel culture, specifically, the aspect that pertains to the rejection and repudiation of human history that by modern standards is deemed racist or unacceptable is deeply connected to the assumptions that drove the French Revolution. For instance, in the modern day, the statues of individuals that were connected to slavery are destroyed on the basis that they were involved in the slave trade and should thus be implicated by modern ethical standards. Similarly, towns that bear the names of those that were deemed Islamophobic or anti-Semitic by modern standards are called to be renamed, the town of St Louis in Missouri, named after Louis IX, is a testament to this. The French Revolution sought to dismantle the Ancien regime, such as the clergy or the nobility on the basis that it was historically associated with the ills that plagued the country at the time.

There is a pattern emerging. In both cases, there was a call to dismantle historically significant institutions on the basis that they were rooted in oppression.  As a result, the French Revolution descended into anarchy, the same will occur to us; the difference being it will be much worse.

The difference between what occurred under the French Revolution and now is simply the cause of events. The French Revolution was sparked by society blaming the country’s financial degradation on the Ancien regime. While today’s cancel culture in the historical realm closely reflects debates about racism in our contemporary age, with an inexhaustible search for racist institutions in every possible direction. Nevertheless, regardless of the difference in the cause, both movements believe that the destruction of history would remedy their ills.

However, you may ask, how can the cancel culture of today produce a scenario relatable to the French revolution of the 18th century? I believe that it will on the basis that most of what we know as human history can be considered as “bad”, by modern standards and should thus be subject to being cancelled. Hence, in theory, a multitude of institutions are vulnerable to “woke” critique and could potentially face the same outcome as the one in the French Revolution: destruction.

I will take the history of the modern-day parliamentary system as an example. Walter Bagehot reminds us in his final chapter of, “The English Constitution”, that the system of democracy that exists in England is the product of the course of history; the slow rise of the power of the nobility at the expense of the power of the king ushered in what we now call the House of Commons, a democratically-elected body. Yet this history was fraught with countless legislation passed facilitating slavery or the approval of colonial adventures.

All of these acts of Parliament went through an extensive historical process to bring us to where we are today. However, if we take the idea of cancel culture to the extreme, then we conclude that governance in the UK was historically founded upon repression and should thus be cancelled. Although this speculative yet potentially realistic process would be founded upon different ideas than the revolution in France, the ethos and results remain the same. In both cases, historical institutions are the victims of a political belief that associates them with primary ills plaguing society. In both cases, there is a guarantee of complete degradation.

The reader may highlight that cancel culture simply remains within the minds of certain people and as of today remains within the theoretical sphere; it has not yet become the norm. However, the ideas that underpinned the French Revolution also began in the theoretical sphere, with the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Voltaire, and it took many years for it to materialise into the physical realm. We have just begun the age of a new enlightenment that will bring about another Revolution. Once the rejection of history that is slowly occurring now manifests itself onto an institutionalised level, history will repeat itself.

The same effects Burke described will occur and affect the same groups of society. New governments will have “no compass” to govern them and younger generations will be taught and educated in the framework of “older” society which would have no place in the new world. The difference between the French revolution of the 18th century is that the process would not be limited to one country, it would be worldwide. We would see a moral and intellectual decay that will culminate in anarchy.

However, Burke, in all his wisdom, has provided us with a very effective defence of institutions that we must learn from to prevent a disastrous repeat of history. He highlights that history consists of miseries, which can be related to the shadow of slavery and colonialism in the eyes of today’s society. Yet he reminds us that those “miseries” are directly caused by vices such as ungoverned zeal or hypocrisy and the institutions that facilitate them are merely the “pretexts”. However, these “pretexts” such as laws or morals are not inherently bad and are simply directed and mobilised to be so.

Thus, through their removal, which is becoming popularised under the ever-expanding umbrella of cancel culture, the root cause of “misery” is not extinguished. Instead, Burke wisely asserts that “the spirit transmigrates [and] is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigour of a juvenile activity”. The implications of his thought on the French Revolution are clear. The destruction of the old institutions may have eliminated the pretext for which evil could manifest itself, yet it did not challenge evil at its most primary level. Instead, we saw vices appear in newfound ways, as their spirit “transmigrated”, such as in the dictatorial Parisian Committee for Public Health.

In the modern-day, a similar situation applies. The destruction of establishments that were used as a pretext for facilitating slavery or advancing notions of colonialism does not strike at the root of the evil that is associated with them, which is racism and the oppression of minorities. Those institutions were geared for racist purposes by those that expressed that sentiment, they were moulded by their incumbents. It is that racist sentiment that is the root cause of evil in our modern society and should be subsequently be targeted. As Burke states, “wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names: to the cause of evil which are permanent, not occasional organs by which they act”. The institutions that herald so much historic richness should not become the victims of misplaced resentment.

To return to the quote at the beginning of this article, we need to, as good men, combine and concentrate to prevent evil in the form of cancel culture from flourishing. Understanding its faults and the potential evil they may cause is simply the first step in the journey.

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