I’ve already brought up on this blog the idea that “cancel culture” is simply this era’s approach to building a social values consensus. I’ve tied it into Strauss-Howe generational theory, which describes a social cycle spanning four generations. In that cycle there is an era called an “Awakening,” which is a period when values are challenged and the social mood encourages moral transgression. Those who violate social norms are celebrated as visionaries. The last time we had such an era was during the “Consciousness Revolution” that started in the 1960s.
But we’re now at the other end of the cycle, in the “Crisis” era. Values are not being challenged but rather implanted, to guide the establishment of a new order. Those who violate the new social norms are condemned for backward thinking. That is what is happening to the prominent people who find themselves getting “cancelled” when they express views or engage in behaviors which go against the grain of the new values consensus. They can complain about “political correctness” all that they want, they are nonetheless going to run into the simple fact that violating social norms, at least in this social era, means being shunned by society.
Which is exactly the point made in this excellent opinion piece by Dr. Lora Burnett. She starts with an example from a movie, and then connects the movie scene with how appointees of the recent administration were treated in public. She then segues into her argument, that “there is no such thing as ‘cancel culture’ — there is only culture.” Meaning that this phenomenon of “cancelling” is simply the enforcement of cultural norms.
I couldn’t agree with her more. And I think that the problem that those who decry cancel culture have is that they are not happy with the new cultural norms that are forming. Which is their right, and it’s understandable to be concerned that the enforcement of norms can go too far. Is there a danger of a new McCarthy Era arising, where all dissent is suppressed? I think so, and that would take us to a new social era.
Although, truly, most targets of cancel culture don’t have their lives ruined, assuming they haven’t committed any crime. They simply face the scrutiny of the public when in the public space, which is to be expected. The video below from the channel “The Take” goes into all the angles of the phenomenon.
This video brings up the “letter on open debate” which was published in Harper’s magazine and signed by numerous authors and opinion makers. In it, the authors condemn “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Again, it’s understandable that, as purveyors of ideas, this would concern them. But they’re missing the zeitgeist.
In the social cycle, we’re turning away from openness and debate and towards resolution and conformity. It’s needed to address the vast political and economic problems that our society has failed to address over the past several decades. Older generations find this disconcerting after a long, free-wheeling period of everyone thinking for themselves. But to get any traction on achieving real world change, we need agreement. So younger generations are likely to say, “get with the program or shut the hell up.”
Years back, I wrote a blog post about how Millennials use social media for consensus building. I was tying into predictions based on Strauss & Howe generational theory on how the Millennial generation would behave as young adults in this era, the Crisis Era. One prediction is that they will enforce a code of good conduct.
Fast forward to today, and cancel culture is fully in place. Well, what is “cancel culture” if not an effort to enforce a code of conduct by ostracizing those who violate the code?
It seems that complaints about cancel culture come mostly from the political right. But before you call it a phenomenon of the left, I challenge you to go to a right-leaning site like parler and express support for President Biden. I’ll bet you get “cancelled” pretty fast.
Could the right’s problem with cancel culture just come from the fact that the left has been more successful at it? Perhaps that is because the left’s code of conduct better reflect’s the majoritarian view. Perhaps that is because the left didn’t choose a champion who is a criminal mountebank.
Or maybe the left really is just better at the culture game. We all know from reddit that the /r/TheRightCantMeme. And look no further than reddit to find a Millennial who excels at enforcing good conduct with her brilliant wit.
I mean Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has her own subreddit, dedicated to reposting the stinging comebacks to red zoners that she makes on social media. It’s a happy little bubble for a blue zoner to go and assure themselves of the superiority of their partisan viewpoint. And as a partisan blue zoner myself, I’m happy to declare /r/murderedbyAOC the subrreddit of the week.
In Strauss & Howe generations theory, there is a concept that the social mood changes as distinct generations pass through the different stages of life. In each social era, there is a distinct generation type occupying each life stage, bringing its collective peer personality into that phase of life and interacting with the other generations to bring about the social mood. This set of generations occupying different life stages is called a “Generational Constellation.”
For example, in a Crisis Era like the one we are in today, the constellation consists of visionary elder Prophets, pragmatic mid-life Nomads, heroic young adult Heroes and suffocated child Artists. I’m using the archetype names here; note how each generational archetype occupies a different life stage: elderhood, mid-life, young adulthood, &c. In our time the archetypes Prophet, Nomad, and Hero would correspond to the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, occupying elderhood (60+), mid-life (40s and 50s) and young adulthood (20s and 30s) respectively.
Presumably, in the Crisis Era, the vision provided by the elder Prophets guides the younger generations in overcoming the challenges facing society. The Heroes provide the youthful energy and the Nomads the savvy leadership. Together the generations repair the damage from the preceding decades of civic neglect to bring about a new civic order in accordance with the Prophet vision.
But what if there are two competing visions within the society? That is exactly our situation in the United States, with the partisan divide between the Republican “red zone” and the Democratic “blue zone.” It’s come up on this blog before and in earlier writings of mine – going back twenty years. It’s a deep rift, and so seemingly irreconcilable that there is talk of the country being in a sort of civil war.
It might therefore make sense to speak of two different generational constellations – one red, and the other blue – coexisting and in conflict within society. Each has its own vision of what our values should be, each has its leaders and its followers. Each generation, like the country as a whole, is split between the red zone and the blue zone. So let’s take a look at the two constellations that result.
On the red side, the Chief Prophet is clearly the current President. Behind him, other red zone Prophets include the fundamentalist Christian leaders who have accepted the President as the “imperfect vessel” of their agenda, as well as whatever GOP officials remain loyal to him. Their values vision is very similar to that which I listed on the Red Zone vs. Blue Zone chart so long ago – conservative, traditionalist, Christian, capitalist, nationalistic.
Supporting these red zone Idealists is an army of hard boiled Pragmatist Republican office holders. It doesn’t get remarked on much, but Gen Xers in politics lean to the right; it’s like all the blue zone Gen Xers went into other careers (I presume tech and entertainment). These red zone Xers are the disciples of the Reagan Revolution, and are hard core free market capitalists, though less culturally conservative than the red zone Boomers.
The red zone Millennials, whom I will call “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” after the famous play, include all the groups of young people going out onto the streets to represent red zone values. Among them are the Charlottesville marchers, the pandemic-protesting militias and the Proud Boys coming out to battle antifa. Online, they are the denizens of 4chan and r/the_donald, busily trolling the libs.
Who are these red zone Heroes fighting against? That’s pretty obvious – their blue zone counterparts are the BLM protestors and antifa activists on the streets, and the wokesters driving hasthtag movements and cancel culture online. These Millennials also deserve to be called “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” It’s like we have two sets of Heroes, that sometimes come out en masse, goaded by their respective media machines, and on rare occasion, even die for their cause.
The blue zone Nomads include a legion of recently politically energized Gen Xers, decrying the current state of affairs on social media and drumming up support for the Democratic Presidential candidate. You probably know some of them; you may even be one of them, like me. Professionally, blue zone Gen Xers are the media personalities parodying the current administration, or, in the more serious formats, deconstructing its failures.
Blue zone Prophets are also major figures in the mainstream media; they’re the ones being insulted and vilified by the current President. The antagonistic nature of the current media environment, with its personal attacks and cries of “fake news,” can be attributed to the combative peer personality of the Boomer generation. It’s such a contrast to the gravitas of the old television medium, when it was run by the GI (Greatest) Generation.
In politics, blue zone Prophets are out of power, many even out of office. From the sidelines, they promulgate a values vision that is progressive, diverse, multicultural, social justice-oriented, and social Democratic. A common theme of their message is how unfairly the economy is structured in the United States, in contrast to how it works in other Western countries. Some kind of structural reform is needed, which will take us in a new direction from the one we’ve been on since the Reagan Revolution.
Examining the chart of the red zone vs. the blue zone, which I made almost twenty years ago, and then thinking about the partisan political split today, really underscores how we are at the culmination of the Culture Wars of the last social era. Which side will have its vision prevail in the new order of the ages?
I’d say the red zone has the advantage of a more gelled together constellation, as evidenced by the energy of their rallies. They also are more amenable to authoritarianism, and willing to follow their Dear Leader come hell or high water. But they are in the minority. The blue zone has the majority, but can they leverage that given the unbalanced electoral process? These next few months are crucial for the resolution.
I honestly think that most of the Culture Wars differences are settled, and a lot of the political conflict feels like overblown theater. There is much at stake in the struggle for power, so the leaders keep pushing on the same buttons in their efforts to control the people. But consider the possibility that the true majority is neither red nor blue – after all, more people in 2016 didn’t vote than voted for either Presidential candidate.
It might make sense to speak of a grey zone of neutral non-partisans. What is the grey zone constellation? Washed out Prophets fading away after a lifetime of indulgence, indifferent Nomads hiding from the pandemic, and confused Heroes unsatisfied with either the red or blue visions, waiting for better leadership? If someone could speak to this hidden majority, they might be able to build a new consensus and harness the potential of the Crisis Era generational constellation.
Until then, we’ll continue to frame our political discourse along the tired old lines of the red vs. blue Culture Wars. We’ll do this even as the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic overtake us. If political leaders continue to insist on doubling down on the rhetoric and pressing on the same issues time and again, they will only encourage more and more extreme behavior. Only when the fires of rage have burned themselves out will a new order be able to emerge from the ashes.
I recently posted a list of patterns to look for among the living generations in the current social era, based on Strauss & Howe generational theory. I wanted to take a closer look at some of the items on that list in a series of posts, and I’ll start with one under that most talked about of generations – the Millennials.
The item in particular is the second one in the Crisis era box – “look for the Millennial generation to enforce, among peers, a code of good conduct.” You can see this happening in that ubiquitous phenomenon that is defining the times – social media.
The rise of social media is part of the story of the maturation of the Internet, which first came into the public eye at a time when computer networks were the province of a small minority of socially outcast nerds. As adoption grew through the “you’ve got mail” era and into the dawn of today’s tech giants like Amazon and Google, going online became more and more mainstream.
Then, just around the start of the Crisis in 2008, came a new kind of computer that made being online essentially effortless – the smartphone. With it came an explosion of participation on Internet sites designed to promote social networking and interaction. Now, ten years later, what we call social media platforms dominate as a source of information and news.
The term “media” refers to an era’s primary means of mass communication. Adding the qualifier “social” suggests that a socializing role has been added to that of communicating, and perhaps that control of mass communication has been transferred from media elites (who are now mistrusted) to society at large.
The socializing role is evident in the familiar features of promoting posts (“liking” and “sharing”). Popular opinions rise to the top of feeds and are seen by the most viewers. Unpopular opinions are quashed. The consensus is reinforced through the use of signal-boosting hashtags like #metoo.
Another form of enforcement involves calling out bad behavior. A post demonstrates a transgression of social mores, which may, unfortunately for the transgressor, be taken out of context. Then a blast of comments shames the person. In extreme cases, the person may be identified in real life – called “doxxing” – which can be ruinous.
Perhaps the exemplary case in point is the store owner who posts an anti-gay sign, and then finds his or her business boycotted after a picture of the sign goes viral on social media. But how far might the phenomenon go? Blogger John Robb speculates about “weaponized social networks” and imagines their full potenital.
As for the people being in charge of mass communication now, the “democratization of the media” if you will – that has proven fraught with challenges. Social networks are vulnerable to infiltration, and social engineering has swayed elections. Social media sharing makes the dissemination of false information much too easy, and so the term “fake news” has come into the zeitgeist.
There is also the question of whose consensus is being enforced, as there are competing “red-state” and “blue-state” networks, each attempting to persuade us with their values-promoting memes. What values prevail will be evident in time. And though all of the living generations are participating in this social evolution, ultimately it will be the rising Millennial generation that defines what conduct is considered correct.