Cancel culture and political correctness: the cabal of the new devotees

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1664: the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, spearhead of the devout party, tried to have Molière’s Tartuffe banned on the grounds that it would attack religion and be blasphemous. Some even called for the playwright to be burned. This episode, which has gone down in history as the « cabal of devotees », should be a warning to us. Today, through political correctness and  » cancel culture « , new forms of censorship and self-censorship are being put in place and are targeting culture and the arts in general. An overview of a society where the freedoms of creation and expression are once again under threat. 

Not long ago, on the set of a regional television station in Brussels, a well-intentioned Ecolo politician was lecturing about « ethical consumption of culture » and warning against works judged morally dubious. I don’t remember which sulphurous works she was referring to or what kind of morality she was referring to, but the expression used by this lady was striking and revealing of a certain climate: « ethical consumption of culture », as if moralization and commodification went hand in hand. Culture would therefore no longer be primarily a source of pleasure, of sharing, of reflection, of curiosity about others and about oneself, of doubt, of questioning the obvious or, why not, of indignation. No, it would be first of all an object of consumption, but attention, of moral consumption, well-meaning, avoiding any slippage, controlled or not. Analyzing the growing influence of political correctness in Western societies, Natacha Polony and Jean-Michel Quartrepoint note:  » It is no longer a question of deliberating, of arbitrating, by making the common good emerge through the participation of all citizens. It is a question of governing societies on the basis of moral principles based on the pre-eminence of the susceptibility of individuals and their capacity to impose this susceptibility on each other, by breaking down any majority rule. The fragmentation of the political community makes it much more porous to the logic of the market: there are only individuals and communities, jealous of their identity, and eager to display it through various signs of recognition. So consumers(1).  »

Fifteen or twenty years ago, the question of the relationship between culture, art and morality, at least in Europe, seemed obsolete, even incongruous. The fact that a given morality or ethic, however progressive it may appear, could impose its own logic and militant watchwords on any art form seemed dubious, if not downright suspicious. With the rapid spread of political correctness imported from across the Atlantic, the situation seems quite different today. Gone is the cultural exception, swept away the intangible autonomy of the artist, acquired with great struggle in a historical movement that timidly takes off in the Renaissance (at the end of the 16th century, the painter Volterra is still in charge of concealing the sexes of the characters painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) to progressively free itself from religious dogmas, moral prohibitions and political censures, and to know its first real victories at the time of the Enlightenment and of the encyclopedist movement. Today, the pendulum of history seems to have curiously stopped, only to start again with all the more vigor in the other direction. This movement has been analyzed by Carole Talon-Hugon, who gives many illustrations in her essay entitled Art under control :  » After the controversies caused by the Avignon Festival in 2005, the provocation is not really appropriate in its 2018 edition, largely focused on societal issues: that of gender, the LGBT cause, disability or migrants … The indifferent or provocative artist has largely given way to another figure: the serious, virtuous and committed artist. This moralizing turn consists not only in the development of new forms of artistic functionalism, but also in the rise of moral criticism and censorship(2).  »


Even if this way of seeing can appear somewhat cut and dry, the « committed » or « serious » artist is not necessarily less legitimate than the provocative or indifferent artist (one can be committed and provocative), the fact remains that the thurifers of the new The dominantdoxa and the politically correct « ready-to-think » do not hesitate to resort to various forms of intimidation against works, artists or intellectuals who do not meet their moral criteria or their political objectives. From various pressures often leading to self-censorship to exclusionary anathema, from outright condemnation to cancel culture that disinvites and deprograms the « undesirables », these  » new look  » censorships often take on the scent of reverse McCarthyism. A few recent examples illustrate this new « trend »: in October 2019, a conference by philosopher Sylviane Agacinski at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne was cancelled under pressure from LGBTQI+ rights associations for  » prevent the speaker from expressing her views against GPA and PMA for all women. « According to a press release from the associations in question(3). In the same year and still in an academic context, Alain Finkielkraut’s conference entitled « Modernity, Heritage and Progress » at Sciences Po Paris could not be held due to organized booing and invective. The collective behind this bashing justified its action by proclaiming that  » there can be no dialogue with such deeply reactionary individuals, who by their words and ideas put our lives in danger(4). « We are definitely far from Voltaire and his famous  » I don’t agree with what you say, but I will fight for you to have the right to say it « .

In the specific cultural field, examples abound: in 2018, the show Kanata by Quebec director Robert Lepage, dealing with the theme of the Canadian Indians, has been the subject of boycott attempts on the grounds of « cultural appropriation »: the fact of depicting, in a novel, a play, a dance performance or any other artistic form, a situation of racism, discrimination, domination or harassment without having been a victim of it oneself or, at least, without the performers and/or the author themselves belonging to the victim group. In this case, Lepage, who had committed himself to using actors from Ariane Mnouchkine’s multicultural troupe, did not call upon Indian actors, which he was reproached for. In the visual arts, associations have demanded that a painting by Dana Schutz entitled Open Casket, inspired by the swollen face of a black teenager who was lynched in the 1950s, be removed from the walls of the Whitney Museum in New York. Not getting satisfaction, activists intervened to prevent the painting from being seen. The reason? The painter, as a white woman, was not legitimate to represent the sufferings of a young black man. In a similar vein, directors Sofia Coppola and Katryn Bigelow were also targets of virulent attacks, the former for not giving enough space to black characters in her film Prey (2017)(5) and the second, for evoking in her film Detroit (2017) the race riots of 1967 without being black herself. 

This accusation of cultural appropriation, often made by various pressure groups, is interesting in itself because it does not simply make a moral judgment on an artistic work, which is after all legitimate even if one places oneself in a perspective of cultural autonomy. This goes much further, not only because such moral or ethical criticism is usually accompanied by attempts, often successful, to boycott or censor the works in question. But also because what is really targeted, beyond the work, is the very person of the author, to whom is somehow denied the right to empathy, the right to put oneself in the shoes of the other beyond any identity assignment, be it of an « ethnic », sexual or communitarian nature. In this logic, as Monique Canto-Sperber indicates,  » the interest one feels for a minority culture is suspected of wanting to transform the oppression of which this culture was victim into an opportunity to enjoy a cheap experience of otherness without undergoing any of the suffering that goes with it… This is just a sign of the fact that we simply do not understand what it is all about when the only legitimate attitude should be to acknowledge the debt and ask for forgiveness(6).  »

The field par excellence of the circulation of ideas and the opening towards an imaginary without borders, communitarian or other, literature has also become the target of sometimes insidious forms of political correctness. In a text entitled  » Breviary of Literary Incorrectness « , the writer Frédéric Beigbeder lists a few recent cases that are symptomatic of a poisonous climate: in the Netherlands, under pressure from social networks, the translator Marieke Lucas Rijneveld had to give up translating the young American poet Amanda Gorman. As we have seen, a white woman cannot translate a black woman without being guilty of cultural appropriation. Radical feminist groups have pointed the finger at Sleeping Beauty as a disguised rape apology. In the United States, literature students demanded that Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby the Magnificent be accompanied by a trigger warning to point out the scenes of Daisy’s harassment by her husband Tom Buchanan, which could shock sensitive readers. Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians is now only available in bookstores or on Amazon under its new catch-all title of They Were Ten.

This growing influence of political correctness and cancel culture on the cultural domain denotes two characteristics that strangely echo the management of the health crisis: infantilisation and hypersensitivity. As if we, as citizens, were incapable, by ourselves, of making individual choices: whether or not to be vaccinated, to accept and understand that a novel or a play written in a given historical context may not meet all the criteria considered essential today. The moral hygienism advocated by hypersensitive groups and the sanitary correctness meet somewhere in this crazy will to impose to all a society supposedly at zero risk, sanitized, morally and physically freeze-dried. 


Another effect of political correctness applied to culture at large is the progressive narrowing of the sphere of debate and the lesser tolerance for opinions that deviate from a certain doxa. The Covid crisis, too, provided a striking illustration. But even before this, the general tendency was to stiffen more or less. In the cultural field, the suppression of the French program « Ce soir (ou jamais!) » by Frédéric Taddéi is an illustration. Bringing together personalities from the cultural, intellectual or academic world with opinions as diverse and sometimes downright antagonistic, such as Jean-François Kahn, Alain Badiou, André Bercoff, Tariq Ramadan, Natacha Polony, Edwy Plenel, or Emmanuel Todd, Taddéi’s program was qualified by Régis Debray as an honor for French public television. Yet, in May 2016, it was abruptly discontinued, officially due to insufficient ratings. Invited in September 2018 on France-Inter, Taddéi said there, « There is no longer any real debate on French television and it doesn’t seem to bother any journalist. Since then, he has been hosting  » Interdit d’interdire », a debate program on… RT France, the French-speaking branch of the Russian news channel RT (Russia Today). It is perhaps not uninteresting to note that, at about the same time, this channel was refused accreditation by the Élysée Palace, a situation denounced by the main French journalists’ union, which sees in it a « whiff of state censorship. 

In Belgium, a country that is perhaps more pragmatic and less sensitive to the debate of ideas (although) than our neighbor, there are no programs comparable to Droit de réponse by the late Michel Polac or Ce soir (ou jamais!). Moreover, on the French side at least, the famous media cordon sanitaire obviously makes a confrontation between, for example, a representative of the PTB and the equivalent of an Eric Zemmour or an Élisabeth Lévy unimaginable. One might wonder whether this « official » cordon, which mainly affects the extreme right, is not increasingly being joined by an invisible and unofficial cordon affecting those who hold heterodox positions on this or that subject (health crisis or other). In any case, in the cultural field, it is not only the absence of debate that is to be regretted in Belgium, but rather the treatment of culture as such. We saw what happened during the Covid crisis. While, for lack of anything else, people were piling into trains and subways, Quentin Dujardin’s concert gathering fifteen people spread out at a respectful distance in a church was interrupted by the police. Culture? Essential, we tell you. 

So, after the Covid which has already seriously damaged it, will culture be finished off by political correctness? It may not be too late to say stop to the new devotees who dream of cutting it down and conforming it to their Manichean and simplistic views. In his novel I Married a Communist, the American writer Philip Roth has one of his characters say:  » How can one be an artist and renounce nuance? How can one be a politician and admit to nuance? Even when one chooses to write with maximum simplicity, a la Hemingway, the task remains to convey nuance, elucidate complication, and imply contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, to deny it, but to see where, within these terms, the tormented human being is located. « Can we dream of a better antidote to this curious poison which, wanting to purify everything, actually leads to the destruction of the social body? 

Alain Gailliard

Notes et références
  1. Natacha Polony et Jean-Michel Quatrepoint, Délivrez-nous du bien !, L’Observatoire, 2018.
  2. Claire Talon-Hugon, L’art sous contrôle, PUF, 2019, p.8.
  3. Voir Monique Canto-Sperber, Sauver la liberté d’expression, Albin Michel, 2021, p.31.
  4. Idem, p. 27.
  5. Ce film, remake de celui de Don Siegel avec Clint Eastwood (1971), raconte l’histoire d’un soldat nordiste blessé et recueilli dans un pensionnat de jeunes filles sudistes. Bien que situés à la fin de la guerre de sécession, ni ces films ni d’ailleurs l’histoire originale tirée du roman de Thomas Cullinan n’ont pour thème principal l’esclavage ou la situation des Noirs durant cette période, même si la thématique est évoquée de façon sous-jacente. Il s’agit plutôt d’un huis clos psychologique où se tissent des relations hommes-femmes très ambivalentes dans un contexte de guerre.
  6. Monique Canto-Sperber, op. cit., p. 240.
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