Published March 5, 2021
Canceling Dr. Seuss is what a moral panic looks like. Unlike the stereotypical moral panic, in which ill-educated yokels whip themselves up into a frenzy of denunciation, today those with power and influence — journalists, educators, and suchlike — lead the way.
At moral panics finding more and more evil to frantically purge, backwoods Baptists have nothing on The New York Times newsroom and students at elite universities. Canceling Harry Potter over witchcraft is out; canceling Harry Potter because the author believes men are not women is very in.
This is what happens when people who have abandoned the concept of sin try to deal with the reality of sin. The experience of something being very wrong with the world is still with us, but we no longer have a shared language to describe, explain, and ameliorate this reality.
Yet human nature abhors a moral vacuum. Thus, people still seek justice and absolution, but for understanding and addressing what is wrong with the world, it is amateur hour. Each man is left to do what is right in his own eyes.
This moral anarchy is socially unsustainable, so there are all sorts of ad hoc efforts to establish a shared framework for how to understand and respond to sin. The sudden prominence of ideological projects such as critical race theory and intersectional analysis is in large part due to them offering such a framework to a culture that has forgotten older ideas of sin. They provide explanations for what is wrong with the world and possible solutions.
As one would expect from a new moral code that is still establishing itself, this one is adolescent, even childish. Fanaticism tends to become a signifier of righteousness in a drive for moral purity. There is no sense of proportion in doling out punishments, and little forgiveness to be had. The problem is exacerbated by many of the new moral rules being made up and revised over the internet, often by those who have little life experience or knowledge of what came before them.
A recent confessional piece (ironically in The New York Times) by Liat Kaplan illustrates this. A few years ago Kaplan wrote a moderately popular blog devoted to “long lists of celebrities’ regrettable (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ethnophobic, ableist and so on) statements and actions.”
At the time, Kaplan was a teenager dealing with social angst and personal tragedy. Anonymous online endeavors in “vengeful public shaming masquerading as social criticism” seemed like a way to bring a little justice into the world. Looking back, Kaplan admits “my pettiness, my motivating rage, my hard-and-fast assumptions that people were either good or bad … the spotlight I put on other people’s mistakes as if one day I wouldn’t make plenty of my own.”
All, it turns out, have sinned, even the cancellers. Who, in this new moral framework, has the right and the ability to forgive? How is one to seek absolution, and who has the authority to grant it? No one, it seems, knows, but many will viciously turn it to their own ends.
There is also a lot of money to be made in selling social justice to those anxious about their moral status. Of course, much of this anxiety is about perception.
Moral sensitivity confers social standing, so there are incentives to display ever more acute sensitivity to sins against the new moral order. People and organizations are eager to be seen as good adherents of the ascending moral order, so we see Oreo tweeting support for LGBT causes and businesses lining up to have Robin DiAngelo tell their employees how racist they are.
As these examples illustrate, the new morality is most ascendant among those with power. In particular, white members of the professional-managerial classes have adopted it as a replacement for the older Christian moral framework.
Consequently, despite claims to speak for the oppressed, the new morality is often a tool of class distinctions and exclusion. Those with a well-to-do background and concomitant education have usually been initiated into the new moral framework, so they have an advantage over the poor and working class in navigating its intricate shibboleths and dictates.
But while some are privileged in their ability to adapt to the new morality, anyone can be caught on the wrong side of its rapidly shifting boundaries. The best way to stay safe is to reflexively support the latest development of its doctrines. This dynamics drives the sense of moral panic that can, for instance, quickly cancel even Dr. Seuss.
This social and spiritual problem is also political, particularly in a liberal regime. Liberalism seeks to establish a neutral political and cultural framework within which those with different beliefs may live together peacefully. But this arrangement breaks down when the populace is in the midst of a moral revolution or a moral panic (or both). Instead of a populace with a developed understanding of sin, and a prudent sense of what to punish and what to tolerate, there is personal and social moral instability.
This chaos precludes the tolerance necessary for a liberal regime, which requires a difficult balance of confidence and humility. For liberalism to function, people must be confident not only in their own beliefs but also in the stability of the liberal order — able to trust that they will still be allowed to live by and evangelize for their beliefs, even if they are a minority.
Without this trust, seizing power becomes essential, if only to protect against what the other side will do. But liberalism also requires humility, not just in the acknowledgment that one might be wrong, but also in the reluctance to use coercive power to settle arguments and compel beliefs. Liberalism requires a humble hesitance to impose dogma by force, and a recognition of human imperfectability.
Thus, a populace with an unstable moral framework is particularly ill-suited to liberal politics. People need a way to understand and resolve the problem of sin, personally and socially, even as they recognize it as a permanent problem of life.
This is why our nation’s founders thought religion and virtue essential to our republic. It is also why so many old-school liberals are helpless to resist the moral panics sweeping their institutions. Discourses on, say, due process will not persuade those who are in a frenzy brought on by a spiritual crisis.
The cancelation of Dr. Seuss is what happens when people try to deal with the sins of the world all by themselves. Having been raised amidst moral destitution, their haphazard, disproportionate, confused, and often panicked efforts are to be expected.
There is certainly malice in the cancel culture they promulgate, but there is also desperate spiritual poverty. This is why the old Christian response to sin goes beyond morality, declaring that we all don’t just need hearts three sizes larger, we need new ones.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.