The Terror of Cancel Culture is the Heart of the Authoritarian Playbook
I’ve spent the last few years studying and working to counter authoritarianism in our democracies. There is clearly a playbook, a formula for how authoritarianism subverts democracy, and cancel culture is at the core of it.
At first, it seemed to me like ‘right wing’ authoritarianism in Russia or India were separate creatures from ‘left wing’ cancel culture in countries like the US. But as I heard stories, read analyses, and witnessed these monsters unfold, I saw the precise parallels in motives, methods and impact. In many senses, the political spectrum is less a spectrum than a circle, where there is significant overlap in political attitudes among the far left and far right. Authoritarianism is often one of those attitudes.
Democracy is about far more than elections. It’s about political pluralism, respect for diversity of ideas and perspectives, freedoms of association, information, speech and deliberation, media pluralism and independence. And a sustainable democracy I believe also requires a sense of something in common that is *worth* being in relationship with those who think differently - values and principles that matter beyond one’s ideology, faction or tribe. A ‘Res Publica’ as the Romans called it, or ‘common thing’ shared among citizens that is precious and worthy of protection, service, and if necessary, sacrifice.
These things comprise the culture of a democracy, and as a version of the old saying goes, culture eats structure for breakfast. I believe culture is the ultimate operating system for human beings, and that politics and institutions are all downstream of it.
That’s why authoritarians make it their priority, their first priority, to murder democratic culture. To turn the open give and take, endless constructive tensions, and ongoing conversation of democracy into a zero sum knife fight for ideological supremacy.
You can do this in the parliament, and in elections. They matter a lot. But perhaps even more important to the culture, are people’s communities, workplaces, social groups and social media feeds, schools and universities, and homes. Those are the places where you murder a democracy.
Fear is the murder weapon. If you can terrify enough people to stay silent, mouth support for the approved cause, or even pile in on punishing dissenters, then you’ve won. Your society is no longer about persuasion, and the best ideas, and the freedom to choose, it’s now all about power and intimidation.
Whether it’s a Russian theatre director who has their career stripped from them for “treasonous” refusal to support the troops in Ukraine, an Indian administrator who is fired and threatened with prosecution for “anti-national” activities after they criticized Hindu nationalism, or an American editor who is thrown out of their newsroom for being “racist” after they dared to question the identitarian far left, the logic of authoritarianism is the same: credibly threaten to ruin people’s reputations and livelihoods, and they will fall in line.
Behind that strategy is a finely honed tactical tool set that crops up again and again. And at the centre of that tool set is one central tactic - the smear.
The Art of the Smear
Especially in cases where authoritarians do not have the law or the majority of the population on their side, the smear campaign becomes the weapon of choice.
The model is simple - start with something that most people agree is reprehensible - like pedophilia, corruption, racism, fraud, physical and sexual assault, treason etc. Then accuse someone of it. Whether you’re on the right or the left, you root your accusation in the passionate defense of the innocent victims. Those people put in fear, harassed, threatened, assaulted or murdered by the evil other. Every authoritarian movement is rooted in a heartbreaking and outraging victim/villain story. “Safety and Security!!” is the righteous rallying cry of ALL authoritarians, whether it be for individuals or groups or the society and state as a whole. It’s astonishing to me how partisans think they’re the only champions of victims, because the only tearful stories they hear are from their own side. No one in the West, for example, seems to have heard any of the endless stream of tearful stories of civilian suffering in the Donbas that Russians have seen in the war that raged for 7 years before the 2022 invasion.
Part of the art of the smear is drawing off of something minor and dialling it up to 11, in a kind of ‘big lie’. An accidental brush of the shoulder becomes a “sexual assault”. Two small typos on an administrative form become “repeated fraud”. Opposition to a government policy becomes “concerted attempts to destabilize the government”. A principled opposition to a particular policy like "defund the police" becomes “racism and white supremacy”. In all cases, the fair and factual details won’t be provided so people can come up with their own evaluations, only the accusation/evaluation will be offered, with just enough cherry picked and carefully spun detail to appear to validate it. Much of what we call "propaganda" consists of providing a structure of quasi facts and spun narratives to support the delivery of smears.
Another part of the art of the smear involves pile-ons or fire-hosing. Whipping up a mob to bring multiple accusations that become impossible to investigate and understand fully. People are often willing accomplices in this process, for myriad reasons as "purge culture" or moral panic takes hold. Often it’s the true believers who burn to score a hit against the enemy. But it’s also common that someone is just trying to protect themselves from the mob (the best way is often to point the finger at someone else), sometimes it’s to achieve a certain gain (a colleague that wants the job of the target), sometimes to get revenge, sometimes just to get attention. There are a lot of (at least temporarily) messed up people out there - authoritarian cancel culture is a magnet for them.
Though I've also been struck by the ordinary human dynamics of gossip and reputation. These have strong negativity biases to begin with - so if accusers are allowed/encouraged to run wild, and defenders silenced or facing potential social sanction, it's dead easy to paint anyone in the worst light. This is where I've seen authoritarian culture, irrespective of any sinister plots or designs, have its own momentum and inertia.
So another key stage in the smear campaign is the threatening and intimidation of those who might disrupt the narrative created. Those who might defend the target, exonerate them, are threatened with the same treatment. When cancel culture is strong, nearly all fall silent, and some, when pressed, choose to join the assault of the victim rather than risk becoming one. The stories I hear of this stage of the process are heartbreaking - the friends whom you counted upon, the people you risked much to stand by, the colleagues who loved and admired you, not one stands up when the mob comes for you.
Why? How could these people do this? Why is cancel culture so effective, EVEN when unpopular and not backed by the state?
The answer is fear. I don’t think enough is written about what all this FEELS like. The deep, gut wrenching fear a ‘nice’ person can have of being hated or thought to be, just maybe, something dark and disgusting, even by those closest to them. The fear of losing your livelihood, of all you’ve worked your entire life to build. The fear of being unable to support your family, to pay your mortgage. And the fear of prosecution, prison, a cold cell waiting at the end of a social hell. One lovely American man who had dedicated his life to social change described to me his fear in simple terms: “They don’t just disagree with you, they destroy you, ruin you completely.”
This fear is a game changer, a weapon of mass democratic destruction. It can work on almost everyone, including the most powerful citizens. Imagine for a moment being accused of rape or the sexual abuse of a child. Of having no way to prove your innocence, of everyone around you trying to find some way to distance themselves from you, including your employer or school or clients. Of the years you might spend in the legal system, draining all your savings. Of those whose attitude towards your case will be “I believe victims”, of even laws and processes built upon the presumption of your guilt. Of the journalists and activists and prosecutors who are also out for your blood, because that’s what they do.
You are literally just one unprincipled individual, one accuser away from this fate. And authoritarian movements are full of unprincipled individuals.
And they add to that nightmare scenario a righteous cause. You are not just a criminal, you are an embodiment of an evil agenda, a vast injustice. All the hatred in the society directed towards your ‘kind’ becomes directed towards you. You are a racist, an abuser, a traitor, a scumbag. In some ways authoritarian culture is indistinguishable, to those caught inside it, from a kind of revolutionary fervour. Authoritarians on the left and right all burn with their vision of a better society. Even those who see the excesses as contrary to their values often dismiss them as necessary consequences of breaking the old and ushering in the new. Only history judges the Robespierres and McCarthys of the world - they are products of their moment.
Our moral sense and the cultures and systems we create from it are like an immune system for our societies. In that sense, authoritarianism is like an auto-immune disorder.
But the thing I find perhaps most disgusting about authoritarian smear campaigns is how they put individuals through hell for doing the exact opposite of what they’re being smeared for. Passionate and patriotic democrats in India are smeared as “anti-National traitors” precisely because they stood up for their country’s constitution! Passionate anti-racists in the US are smeared and canceled as “racists”, precisely because they refused to conform to what NYT columnist and Columbia Professor John McWhorter calls “woke racism” or neo-racism.
And it’s not like the movies. The truth doesn’t come out in the end, the newspapers don’t exonerate the people whose characters they’ve assassinated. When’s the last time you saw a front page ‘exoneration’?
Authoritarian culture, when it's strong, compels literally everyone with fear. Court documents show that even Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful media baron in the world, feared what the Donald Trump mob would do to him if he reported the truth about US election fraud claims. I’ve witnessed some of the world’s most empowered citizens cower in fear at what a left wing authoritarian twitter mob might do to them. I talked to a leading anti-Trump dissenter in the US Republican Party, and she told me that everyone she talks to privately agrees with her, but they all say “I gotta eat/pay the bills” when she asks them to speak out publicly.
You cannot calculate the impact of this kind of intimidation on people. It can break a person, but maybe not quite in the way you might expect. Jung Chang’s biography of Mao Tse Tung describes the tactic of control he perfected, from his inner circle to China as a whole. He would announce that 10% of a given group/community were traitors or counter-revolutionaries and needed to be brutally punished. If you denied that, you were one of them. If you defended someone’s innocence, you were one of them. If you refused to participate in punishing the ‘guilty’, you were one of them. Mao discovered that a person loses inner strength and the will to resist when forced to do things against their conscience. Scaring them can work, but terrifying them enough to attack and humiliate and even torture someone they know inside themselves is innocent, breaks a person. They lose their self respect, and their shame becomes your power over them. I saw the same thing in Afghanistan in how US interrogators broke Taliban detainees. Trauma and persecution can make a person stronger. But doing something cowardly and wrong to someone else - that only weakens a person.
Polls show that the public is all too aware of the rise of authoritarian culture and its threat to them. One Harvard University poll showed that in 2021, 88% of Americans saw cancel culture as a serious problem and 64% saw it as a threat to their freedom. This is not an elite issue, this is a kitchen table, bread and butter political issue. It’s a culture war, but it’s not between left and right, it’s between democrats and authoritarians on both sides of the spectrum.
Yet for all this awareness, most insidiously, I don’t think the public yet truly understands the depth and breadth of these dynamics and how captured by them many of their powerful institutions are, because all the institutions that could tell them about it are among the first targets of the authoritarians. US left-leaning newsrooms were among the first targets of the authoritarian left, who quickly claimed some high profile scalps to chill any further dissent. In India, Hindu nationalists keep a strict control over the large media publishers, with tools like cancelling ad expenditures, legal harassment with income tax investigations, and threats and intimidation from trolls on social media.
Authoritarians are characteristically cunning, spiking in psychological traits like Machiavellianism. A typical example might be when Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg during the First World War. He was delivered by the Germans to undermine the Russian war effort, though he had little following and faced enemies all around. He instructed his associates to take control of the train station and the post office. From these places they controlled the city’s contact with the rest of the country, and he ruthlessly exploited that control to both control the city and the perceptions of the outside world. You can also see this kind of cunning in how authoritarians leverage "useful idiots". A typical play in a smear campaign is described by Trump advusor Steve Bannon in his term "anchor left". When the far right wants to smear someone on the far left, they "anchor" the smear in a lefty source, knowing that the culture will gleefully amplify the accusation and demonization. I've been targeted by a few of these plays over the years, where passionate lefty environmentalists launch smears concocted by firms working for the Syrian government, for example.
In general I find authoritarians to be just more viciously ruthless than democrats, because they lack the same ethics and boundaries. And that just makes it doubly important that we maintain awareness and act quickly when authoritarianism threatens our culture and institutions.
That’s part of why I’m writing this - I really think we need to talk about all this more. The ‘woke terror’ moral panic of 2020, that hijacked what could have been a far more positive and sustainable reckoning with race, may be declining now in the US, but right wing authoritarianism is still growing in many circles, and all the ingredients are there for left wing authoritarianism to return in the same or new guise. Authoritarianism is just arriving in some other countries, and cancel culture is going strong in countries where authoritarians have prevailed, like India. The main justification that the BJP cite in India for their behaviour is that the left of centre Congress Party did the same things to them when they were in power, and there’s some truth in that claim, though the BJP has greatly dialled it up. Left and right wing authoritarians ping off each other, providing each other with the justification to take the society deeper into the repressive spiral.
So I think we also need to move to solutions, and quickly. And there IS hope. The thing about authoritarianism is that fear is an unsustainable ruler. It breeds resentment, and a yearning for freedom. And, crucially, it doesn’t work on everyone. Some people choose to be brave. They refuse to bow to intimidation and threats, to give in to fear, to sacrifice their conscience and authenticity. These people are everywhere - in every walk of life. Ultimately it’s those people who dare to stand up, and speak out, who constantly save us from our authoritarian darker side. And we all have a choice, at every moment, to be one of those people.
Here are 6 ideas for ways forward, for those who choose to stand against fear:
Name cancel culture when we see it, and name it as authoritarian and on both sides of the political spectrum. This kind of context shift really matters for specific situations, gives people a way to understand what is happening to them and gain support from those not directly in the line of threat. By spreading the writings and vision and analyses of those who describe cancel culture, we empower people to act. Authoritarianism moves FAST, we can’t afford to be caught wide eyed in the face of it, and we need understanding to counter it effectively.
Emphasize the liberal democratic principle of innocent until proven guilty. No-one should be punished for a crime, by their employer or anyone else, until they’ve been found guilty in a court of law. This needs to become a mainstay of liberal democratic society. There are no democratic rights, if you can lose your livelihood just for exercising yours.
Hold authoritarians accountable. It is already against the law to spread lies to ruin someone’s reputation and livelihood. Defamation cases against authoritarians are becoming more common, and we need more investment in and support for them. But we also need new tools (in companies, communities and the law) for deterring the smear artists - ones that don’t counterproductively undermine freedom of speech. Scholars of authoritarianism counsel that the only way cycles and cultures of cruelty and abuse end is with accountability. That also has a ‘reverse chilling’ effect on all those silenced by the initial attacks.
Hold the ‘cancelcutioners’ accountable. It’s not ok (and in some jurisdictions like my province of Canada, it’s illegal) to fire someone for their sincerely held beliefs. The cancelled should be reinstated, those who cancelled them should acknowledge their mistakes and in some cases face consequences for them - not in some counter purge way but in a 'truth and reconciliation' way that can help restore their sense of integrity. We can’t let these people’s shame drive them to become apologists or allies for authoritarianism.
Free our institutions. A change in the prevailing winds can have massive impact, but ultimately the damage done can only be reversed one newsroom and workplace and community at a time. All that’s needed is for the majority to refuse to be cowed, step forward, call a smear a smear, and make it safe to have open and honest discussion again. I think there’s a beautiful renaissance of democracy awaiting us here, which leads to my last point…
Build a new, positive movement for democracy - one that inspires a new generation to the wisdom and beauty and delights of perspectival diversity, of civility and humility, of healthy doubt and skepticism of arsonist radicals, of a passion for truth and fairness and community and the ‘Res Publica’ that knits us together.
There’s a crucial difference here between when the authoritarianism is backed by the government, and even worse by the judiciary. Those factors make authoritarian culture much harder to challenge. So for those countries who haven’t yet descended that far, it’s crucial to retake our culture and institutions from authoritarians before they leverage them to take political power, from which they then typically assault the judiciary. But if it has gone that far, there are legions of examples of countries that transitioned to democracy from authoritarianism. No country started out democratic. So there’s always hope!
And the real hope is that any given authoritarian faction is almost always a small minority. They prevail by cloaking themselves in the language of justice and righteousness, using our common morality to seduce others into joining them. But if and when the rest of us find our perspective and the courage to call bullshit, and stand up for freedom, tolerance, humanity and diversity of ideas, the fear and repression can collapse in an instant.
Authoritarians are not evil people. They’re often quite decent people who want justice and clean government and a society with good values, they just don’t respect alternatives to their particular vision, lack faith and trust in their fellow citizens or institutions, and are therefore comfortable with destructive and coercive and deceptive ways to achieve their vision.
More subtly, some authoritarians are just so passionate and convicted about their cause that they are prone to bias and delusion and likely to reject any criticism of their 'side', de facto allowing that side to commit any manner of crimes. In this way, the "activist" class has a natural tendency towards authoritarianism, and the history of the wax and wane of authoritarianism can be traced to the degree that activism was culturally treated as mainstream popular or more marginal. When I was growing up the world was still stinging from the cruel absurdities and bloodlusts of communism and fascism, and passionate radical activists were treated with skepticism and suspicion by most people. But as society forgets what happens when the 'righteous mind' of activists takes over, the wariness diminishes.
It's also true that we all support coercion to some degree - in the sense that we support certain boundaries and legal limits on human behaviour. Authoritarian culture (or similarly, totalitarianism) is demarcated by degree - it’s far less permissive of diverse perspectives and behaviour than democrats, far more intervening in what democrats consider the private sphere of life, and far less concerned about coercing a large section of the population to obey their morality despite sincere and principled objections.
In a way, a true democracy is an extremely ‘civilized’ or highly developed idea. And it’s easy to lose faith in it, especially when it has failed on many metrics, and when sophisticated propaganda exaggerates those failures to a level that is delegitimizing.
I think authoritarian/totalitarian perspectives and inclinations will always be with us. They belong in our democratic conversation, and sometimes they offer value. To the degree that an authoritarian mindset is sometimes a natural consequence of a righteous, convicted, and determined mind, it's grounded in essential aspects of what it means to be human. What breeds the monster is when we let authoritarianism silence or intimidate the rest of us. When its thread in our fabric becomes the whole fabric. And that happens it comes to control either our culture or our vital institutions or both. That’s what we must fight against like the lives of our democracies depend on it, because they do.