There was a time, not very long ago now (years, not decades) when a politician running for office had to work very hard to erase any past transgressions that might become public knowledge. We may laugh about it now, but it was a really big deal when Bill Clinton admitted on national tv that he had once tried to smoke a joint but didn’t inhale. We know now that was silliness. Of course he inhaled, but just the admission that he’d even touched marijuana was scandalous at the time. It was a huge risk he took but it paid off. Then came Obama, who laid out all his “scandal” on the table right from the start. Sure he smoked, he did drugs, he did a lot of things that young college kids trying to find themselves do. It didn’t hurt his campaign as much because he came from a generation in which all that experimentation had been normalized. The standards of political perfection were changing.
Indeed, with the sudden onset of social media all of our standards began to change. I can recall writing a piece once about the hope I had that this new age of social media would lead to a better and more relatable political class. After all, soon there would be no one left without a recorded “past.” By the time the millennial generation grew into the professional realm, we’d all be numb to shame, we’d all be more amenable to understanding. I thought it a strange concept, but I was hopeful that it would breed better politicians who didn’t have to focus so much on perfection and could just deal with the issues at hand.
So how utterly bizarre it is that we now find ourselves in a new age of puritanism. Social media – it turns out – has not been the freeing entity we once thought it would be. Instead it has turned into a vicious, scolding, vindictive schoolmarm. She even has a name…Karen.
Our current Summer of Discontent has been borne out of frustrations both old (racial tension) and new (COVID lockdowns) but the reaction from larger society has been stunningly strict. In an effort to calm racial grievances and in some cases simply just save a job or product, corporations and individuals have been frantically scrubbing their social media of anything that might be deemed offensive. Celebrities are publicly apologizing for work they did twenty years ago, in a time when most of the people complaining about it now weren’t even alive. Some channels have been culling their casts, cutting any white person who may have said anything mean or disrespectful or downright racist to a minority. Hollywood studios have hired private investigators to comb through the social media of new, up and coming stars in order to avoid any embarrassing revelations moving forward.
The sense of panic is palpable. What once promised to be a new era of acceptance has reverted to the era of perfection Baby Boomers railed against. Only this one seems scarier because no one quite knows the rules and it wouldn’t matter if anyone did because the rules are changing every day. We are not obsessed with perfection of action but rather perfection of thought.
I’m looking around at the destruction that has been left in the wake of our Summer of Discontent (which has, astonishingly only just begun) and I’m filled with dread at the utopian standard social media – once such a promising outlet for personal truth- has suddenly erected.
Where once people talked about the anxiety caused by sexual repression because of adherence to a religious faith, we are now looking at another type of oppression spurred on by a new type of religion and it has spawned a generation of anxiety-ridden youth who may now never have the privilege of making mistakes and being corrected.
Because that is what we are doing to ourselves right now. We are creating a new impossible perfection that may very well be significantly worse than the old one. The old version at least had some redeeming notions – family structure, decorum and manners. The new version comes only with derisiveness and malice.
If we raise a generation devoid of the ability to openly make mistakes and then learn from them, we will raise a generation devoid of humility. A generation devoid of humility is a generation devoid of compassion.
In our quest to find the ultimate tolerance, we have ultimately become crushingly intolerant. When we cannot tolerate even the whisper of a poor thought or an offensive idea what we are really saying is that we cannot tolerate thinking, and thinking is what separates us from the animal kingdom. We are making animals of ourselves instead of evolving.
Proverbs 15:10 tells us, “He who hates correction will die.” We are asking ourselves to erase all of our mistakes so we can live without correction. That is a death sentence and it isn’t hard to see the results all around us – the death of wisdom, the death of common sense, the death of fortitude.
How will my children be able to thrive in such a world?
How will this effect politics from now on? Donald Trump may very well be the last of the “imperfects” and soon we will return to the version of the politician we all say we hate – the man or woman who is secretive, talks out of both sides of their mouth and who says what people want to hear with little regard for what they need to hear. Is that what we want to go back to?
This is what our current cancel culture is bringing us – the scariest kind of puritanism, the kind that blots out growth, correction and personality and replaces it with a fake, sanitized front that may well end up being the death of reason and artistry once and for all.
And it will be our children who pay the heaviest price.