Opinion | Cancel Culture in 1832 Sounded Pretty Fierce

“I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America,” the French aristocrat, historian and social critic Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the first volume of “Democracy in America,” in 1835. In Europe, he argued, there is no country “so subject to one single power that he who wants to speak the truth does not find support capable of assuring him against the consequences of his independence.” But in the “heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single element of force and success, and nothing outside of it.”

Specifically, Tocqueville wrote, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought.” Within those limits “the writer is free,” but “unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them.” Here Tocqueville, who had done a yearlong tour of the United States from 1831 to 1832, expands on what happens to an American who runs afoul of majority opinion:

A political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any now that he has uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away. He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

He continues with an extended comparison of the difference between tyranny under a monarchy and tyranny in a democracy:

Under the absolute government of one alone, despotism struck the body crudely, so as to reach the soul; and the soul, escaping from those blows, rose gloriously above it; but in democratic republics, tyranny does not proceed in this way; it leaves the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says to it: You shall think as I do or you shall die; he says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your goods, everything remains to you; but from this day on, you are a stranger among us. You shall keep your privileges in the city, but they will become useless to you; for if you crave the vote of your fellow citizens, they will not grant it to you , and if you demand only their esteem, they will still pretend to refuse it to you. You shall remain among men, but you shall lose your rights of humanity. When you approach those like you, they shall flee you as being impure; and those who believe in your innocence, even they shall abandon you, for one would flee them in turn. Go in peace, I leave you your life, but I leave it to you worse than death.

Talk about cancel culture.

The key thing, for Tocqueville, is that this was inextricable from democratic life, the dark side of those institutions, habits and mores that made a democracy such as the United States so lively and dynamic. The same freedom of the press that makes democracy possible in the first place can incite the kinds of passions that threaten free expression and the rights of the minority. The astonishing equality of political life in a democracy — where, as Tocqueville put it, “the sovereign is approachable from all sides and where it is only a question of raising one’s voice to reach its ear” — can produce conformity as much as it can unleash individuality.

“I see very clearly two tendencies in equality: one brings the mind of each man toward new thoughts, and the other would willingly induce it to give up thinking,” Tocqueville wrote. “And I perceive how, under the empire of certain laws, democracy would extinguish the freedom that the democratic social state favors, so that the human spirit, having broken all the shackles that intellectual classes or men formerly imposed on it, would be tightly chained to the general will of the greatest number.”

If Tocqueville seemed deeply worried about the prospect of intellectual conformity in a democracy, it is because he was. But, as the political theorist Jennie Ikuta argues in “Contesting Conformity: Democracy and the Paradox of Political Belonging,” we should also “take seriously his declaration that democracy can lead to intellectual freedom” as well:

The nature of public opinion as an illusory unanimity isolates dissenters from the public and silent unbelievers from one another, undercutting social support for dissent as well as the freedom to dissent. But if the nature of public opinion in a democracy makes intellectual freedom difficult, it is not impossible. Through private and public forms of social support, democratic individuals and collectives can overcome the ostracism that tends to accompany dissent and thereby preserve intellectual freedom. Democracy does not doom individuals to intellectual servitude; rather, it makes intellectual freedom possible.

I think this is a good place for us to end. The things we associate with “cancel culture” or censoriousness are not unique to us. They aren’t unique to a particular faction or ideology either. They are inherent to democracy, an unavoidable part of free society that we can manage and mitigate but never fully eliminate. To see them in these terms is to remember, or to be reminded, that democracy is not benign. It is a powerful force and, at times, a frightening one too .

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