Cultural Symmetry: How Cancel Culture Is a Repeat of Postwar America
American culture for the last thirty years has demanded more cultural and diverse sensitivity to other groups who are not traditionally part of the larger hierarchy. Stereotypically, this basically includes those who are White, male, upper middle-class, or part of the 1% that supposedly controls the largest portion of the nation’s wealth.
It has led to some sweeping and positive changes. The #Metoo movement has helped exposed sexual predation that has existed in Hollywood since as long as Hollywood has existed. Attention is being brought to issues that have skirted just under the radar of the zeitgeist awareness as well, like student debt, non-White actors getting more roles, more women politicians stepping up in American politics, and the exposure of the flaws and failings existing in many of our current authoritative structures.
What has also come along with it is a hypersensitivity to many of these issues that demands that its values and sensitivities be given higher priority in the realm of social behavior: AKA politically correctness. Anything that potentially endangers that is immediately attacked via social media or protests, to be removed and shut down.
This was unenthusiastically coined “cancel culture” or “outrage culture” by those not happy with having to play nice with political correctness. Many treat this as a new cultural phenomenon because it seems to be happening among the Millennials and Gen Z-ers, but I disagree with that position. In fact, I would say that it’s happened before.
Ideology of a Revolution
If I were to try to summarize the tenets of cancel culture, it would be the silencing and/or removal of social elements deemed a danger to current American citizens and social development, or that potentially inspires such actions indirectly. This definition casts a wide net, with some being ensnared—and rightfully so, like Donald Trump, for statements that he has made about other nations and his own past—to more recently, comedian Dave Chappelle for his show Sticks and Stones that targets everyone, including progressive groups.
Most of their outrage is vented through Twitter and Youtube, with the general idea being too shame the target into backing down, shrinking back into the shadows from whence it came. However, while this has been effective with companies, it has been having less of an effect more and more in other areas. Take, for example, older Hollywood studios, that despite the outcry for more diversity over the last thirty years has still focused on hiring A-list actors: most whom are White. Or the most dramatic example being Donald Trump being elected president in 2016 and that was despite the enormous outrage from half the nation’s populace.
These tactics and ideologies bare an ironic and eerie resemblance to American culture post-World War Two, in the late 1940s and up to the 1960s.
Success, Apple Pie, Change, and Paranoia
America during this time was on an all-time high that it hasn’t seen in decades—arguably ever! It came off the end of a second global war as the leader of half the world’s nations, replacing former placeholders Britain and France. It made a full recovery from the decade-long Great Depression that devastated its economy before WW2 even started. New businesses were literally appearing out of the woodwork as veterans started their own businesses and the population began spreading out into new suburbs: literally the American dream with two cars, the house, and the white picket fence. It was a Leave It to Beaver world.
The generation that went through this era, called the “Greatest Generation”, wanted to enjoy this stability that they felt that they had earned. Given the struggles and sacrifices over the previous twenty years, it would be hard to argue against that, even by today’s standards. However, these successes hid hard truths: some centuries old and others brand new and not seen before.
World War II Brought Inclusion
You see while the war was indeed won, it also opened a Pandora’s Box for America. Like ancient Rome before it, the number of men needed to fight on the front lines had forced its armed forces to bring in more minorities to fight for the cause, even though those groups legit had absolutely no reason to. Black people were still being oppressed and killed in the Deep South, citizens of Japanese descent were sent to their own internment camps that many later compared to Hitler’s concentration camps. Native-Americans were still living on reservations and often in poor conditions. Latinos and Chinese people were also being heavily discriminated against in the western and southwestern states of the country. I think it was a miracle in and of itself that they agreed to fight at all.
Women too were brought out of their non-traditional roles to work in factories and build the war machine, while also delivering them to the front lines. This included flying planes over to front line bases. This was in spite of the fight that they had undergone to just get the right to vote not a couple of decades before, while still dealing with unreported sexual abuse.
Post-War Civil Rights and Counterculture
Now that the war was over, many now hoped that things would go back to the way they were, but these groups were not having it and began to speak up and speak loudly about the glass ceilings they had been living in. This was most associated with the Black Civil Rights movement going on in the American south, and it only escalated as it grew more intense and violent. While the accusations were true, many Americans didn’t want to deal with it, hoping it would just dissipate over time. They either turned a blind eye, flat out ignored it, or rationalized it to such a degree that their own inaction was justified.
On the other end of the spectrum, a new generation, the Boomers, was coming of age in an era of not only prosperity but also new social and technological innovations. Cars were more readily available to average people, which meant their kids had access to them as well. This then created a new and unexplored venue of meet and greets among kids, and dating was born. The new music of rock 'n' roll was taking hold too. While this was developed from Black culture and many of the early rock stars were Black, it was Elvis Presley who was used to bring it White, American youth that their parents would find more acceptable. Only it wasn’t.
Sexual innuendos and gyrating hips hit too close to the bone for many parents, whole felt that this was not the wholesome environment they were trying to bring their families up in. These changes were being more and more reflected in movies and dress. They were so drastic that it led to the creation of a new sub-group in American culture: teenagers.
But the biggest spirit released from Pandora’s Box was the rise of Communism.
The Red Scare
Fear of this political ideology, that opposed individualism and religion, had been around since the 1920’s during the rise of the Soviet Union. However, this went into overdrive when the only two nations to come out on top in the world stage were the United States and Soviet Union: the two most diametrically opposed powers in the world. This overt and external challenge was a direct threat not only to the world, but to what made America, America, according to the script. It was the era of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, where the government demanded proof of fealty from the populace and all of its institutions.
To be labeled a communist was worse than being called an atheist or murder. While the accusation didn’t normally put you in the firing line (unless you were a confirmed spy), it did kill any chance that person has of having a normal life and career. It was the invisible, scarlet letter or Jewish Star of David that pegged them as outsiders and enemies of the state in everything but action. America went to two wars trying to stop communism's spread worldwide, but it was the Cuban Missile Crisis that sent that fear into outright paranoia.
Cuba’s flip to communism had allowed the USSR to set up nuclear missile sites just ninety miles off the Florida coast. Even though this was a response to the Americans doing the same in Turkey, it brought out fears that this epic conflict between good and evil was going to come to a nuclear, apocalyptic end. Even after it was resolved peacefully, its effects did not go unnoticed by teenage America, whom many were now beginning to realize that perfect image of America they lived under was a lie. Many of them, therefore, began to question the very values which their parents fought and suffered for, later evolving into the “Counter Culture” movement of the 1960s.
All Along the Watch Tower
That so many adult Americans brought into the mirage that their society was Utopian, traditional, capitalist, and God-fearing nation had spurred many adults to actively fight against these clear and present dangers to their America. Parents groups were formed across the nation to go after radio stations that played rock music, which they saw as actively corrupting the minds of their children and making them more promiscuous. They protested talk shows censor controversial performances. Other groups were created for pressuring public properties. This included upholding of segregation, aggressively partitioning public places from mixing with other races, including pools, schools, and even at public amusement parks.
The Red Scare and Cuban Missile Crisis sparked a sharp increase in families building fallout shelters, while at the same time encouraging public support for foreign, military ventures. Americans genuinely believed that what a country half a world away, chose as its political affiliation would somehow directly affect them. Cuba more than anything locked in that fear. So there was social pressure to support the military on any military campaigns to stomp out the threat and to refuse or go AWOL was tantamount to being a traitor.
Distant Relatives: Counter-Culture and Cancel Culture
It’s a lot to take in and there are differences, but while the external circumstances are different, the spirit that drove it is the same. Both Postwar American culture and the current 21st century, Cancel Culture see their efforts as trying to preserve their American societies from a greater evil. Both actively seek to shut down these threats by any means necessary, short of direct violence: and even that might be escalating with the rise of rivals of extreme, Far-Right and AntiFa groups. Both eras see the culture through a black and white lens where everybody must declare a side, demanding absolute loyalty to all their ideals, whichever side you choose.
An irony of these parallels is in the generations that spearheaded these conflicts. While Postwar America reactionism was led by the adult generation of their time, cancel culture is being led by the youth of our time. Yet, perhaps the most ironic aspect is that the actions of both eras has produced a blowback from the very populace that they sought to save and protect. Even if the people in the middle, people who have no interest in dominating the social landscape, don’t draw the same parallels I mentioned here, their reactions to them are the same across time: that something feels extreme, tyrannical, and wrong in the movement’s nature and they are getting fed up with it.
The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” exists for a reason.
© 2019 Jamal Smith