IRD/Providence hosted a conversation with the Hanns Seidel Foundation on Cancel Culture featuring Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, Rebeccah Heinrichs of Hudson Institute and Johannes Wallacher of the Munich School of Philosophy. Christian Forstner of Hanns Seidel and Mark Tooley of IRD/Providence moderated.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy here in Washington, DC, with the pleasure of co-hosting this conversation with my friend Christian Forstner of the Hanns Seidel Foundation. Our topic of course is cancel culture, with three distinguished thinkers addressing that topic. So, Christian, a few words from you, and perhaps introductions from you as well.
Forstner: Thank you, Mark. I’m Christian Forstner with the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Washington. Good morning and good afternoon to everybody. It’s my pleasure and privilege to introduce the speakers. Mark, you mentioned the topic cancel culture, this goes far deeper than only prohibiting speakers. It relates, cancel culture, to national narratives and to identity politics, and certainly, it has an impact on our discourse here in the US and internationally. So, again, it’s quite great to have such distinguished speakers with us, who I’m going to introduce now. We’ll start with Rebeccah Heinrichs, who is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Rebeccah, we’re very pleased to have you with us, and you will come more from a security and national security perspective, and you will comment on your thoughts on cancel culture. Dr Joshua Mitchell is a teacher at Georgetown University, is a professor at Georgetown, and is a professor of political theory and the chairman of the Government Department, the Government Department at Georgetown University, and is an extensive writer and commentator on identity politics and cancel culture. We are pleased to have, from Munich, professor Johannes Wallacher, who is the president of the Institute of Philosophy in Munich. And Professor Wallacher has the Georgetown affiliation, as professor Wallacher was teaching here and lecturing here back in 2000. So, he’s very familiar with the US debate, so we are pleased to have you with us. And, of course, it is noteworthy that you are engaged and will be engaged with the Bavarian Elite Academy, the academic director of an elite institute and additional institute for education for specially gifted students in Bavaria. So, we’re pleased to have you all with us here. We’re looking forward to this insightful discussion, and Mark, it’s our privilege always here to partner with you and the Institute on Religion & Democracy. I’ll hand it over to you.
Tooley: Thank you, Christian. It’s always a pleasure to collaborate with you. Again, I’m Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, co-hosting this conversation with the Hanns Seidel Foundation’s Washington, DC office with three distinguished thinkers. And we’re going to start this conversation on cancel culture with Joshua Mitchell. Josh, if you would speak to us for perhaps five or six minutes with your overall thoughts?
Mitchell: My pleasure to meet everybody. Let me pick up with the thought that Christian gave us just a moment ago. Namely, that there’s something larger than cancel culture involved. It is identity politics, and if I can make a 40,000-foot observation first, this I think comes out of the post-modern movement. I don’t think it can be traced directly to Marxism. And there’s a big debate amongst some academics about whether because post-modernism comes out of Europe, what we have with identity politics is of European origin or American origin, just quickly my brief observation is that while categories of identity and difference do in fact emerge of the post-modern Europe that moves from Europe to America, in fact, I think the Americans have added something very specifically American to it. Namely, that in addition to the category of identity, Americans have added the category of purity and stain to identity. I think that’s what why Europeans I think are quite right in seeing that this thing called identity politics is peculiarly American, even though it might have post-modern origins. We can talk about that in due course. I’m nervous about simply talking about cancel culture in America today. The term that’s now being used because of some investigative journalism is critical race theory. My view is that all of these things are really part of a larger phenomenon, which is identity politics. And in my particular cut on this, is that we are using the term identity in very confused ways. On the one hand, identity does refer to kinds, and so, I’m an American, my identity is American. And twenty years ago, of course, we could say I’m an American, but now we say my identity is American. That is an add on that I’m not sure it gives us much more. But it’s a term now that’s being used colloquially. And that’s fine and I am not troubled by the use of the term identity as a descriptor of kind. But it seems to me that what we really have with identity politics and, by extension, cancel culture is something else. Identity politics in this deeper I think more pernicious sense pertains to a relationship, not simply a specification of time, but a relationship. And the relationship between two distinct kinds of persons, one who is an innocent victim and the other who is a transgressor. And so, what we have here superadded to the category of kind with the word identity is a moral valence and a moral relationship between what I call the prime transgressor and various innocent groups, who specify themselves and their innocence status in virtue of their relationship to the prime transgressor. You can go on the web today and look up your intersectionality score and discover how innocent or how guilty you are. This I think is very, very troubling, and I think we have to recognize that there’s no possible way that we can build what I call a liberal politics of competence, which I think is what we should be aiming for, if the only thing that matters is our identity category. What I’ve done in the last few years, because I have a theology background, is I’ve come to see that identity politics and, by extension, cancel culture is really a deeply distorted theological movement. Within Christianity, there is the idea of one sufficient scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world. And that scapegoat is a transcendent scapegoat, his one sufficient sacrifice was enough to purge the sins of the world and to have a tomorrow, if you want to use that kind of language. The problem with identity politics is it does, like Christianity, look for a scapegoat, but it’s not a transcendent scapegoat, it’s an imminent scapegoat. And so, what it does is it must identify an imminent scapegoat who, if purged, can take away the sins of the world. And at the moment that imminent scapegoat is the white heterosexual male. Let me pause right here, I have no interest whatsoever in defending racial politics. None whatsoever. But what I’m saying here is that identity politics does identifying an imminent scapegoat, and once he is purged or silenced or humiliated, there will be a need for other scapegoats. And in much of my writing what I’ve tried to suggest is that once the white heterosexual male is purged, I think white women will probably the next one and then, interestingly enough, black heterosexual men. And this is actually happening as we move to our defenses of transgenderism and attacks on heteronormativity. The category of the innocent victim I think emergences one could argue after World War II with the Jews in the Holocaust, but in America, it most prominently emerges with the category of the black, who is the innocent victim at the hands of the whites. But as you push this category of innocence further and further along, first African Americans then women then gays then transgenders, you have this very perverse outcome. Namely, that the original innocent victims, the blacks, who know that they need to have the family and the Church in order to survive in the legacy of, or thrive, in the face of the legacy of slavery, it turns out then that as you move farther and farther left with this movement to identify innocent victims, you end up claiming that heteronormativity is a problem, that the Church and its conventional understanding is a problem. So, there’s a, for lack of a better word, a contradiction in the heart of this identity politics movement. The farther you go left, the more you end up having to cancel, and now we come to our theme, cancel groups who are impure. And that’s really what canceling is, it’s an attempt to purge and scapegoat a group such that by virtue of their ostracism the purity of the group can be retained or regained. In my view, and I’ll stop at this, is that in a liberal politics we have to understand that the world is never going to be pure, that we are all broken in one way or another and we do the best we can and we recognize our faults and we move forward. But we’re in this very, very dangerous phase of history where the only way we can move forward is by purging all the evidence of stain. In Europe, what that means is if there’s the stain of the nation, there’s no Christian answer to this. There’s no forgiveness, there’s no tomorrow. And the only way that you can move forward is by renouncing your nation, by renouncing conventional families, that’s the deal the left has made with Europe. Come on to me, I will take away your stain, but you must renounce your nations. And I think that’s a catastrophe. I’ll stop with that.
Tooley: Joshua Mitchell, thank you so much. Let me point out that we are recording and will transcribe this conversation for those of you who are listening and would like to share with friends or review later. That will be available on our website. Rebeccah Heinrichs, your response, please?
Heinrichs: Great. Well, thank you so much for the privilege to participate in this conversation and for the wonderful interest I see here. That was a great I think overview from Dr. Mitchell. I’m going to start with just explaining how I understand, because I think the term cancel culture is used and understood differently in the United States. The definition that I’m using or the explanation that I’m using is cancel culture refers to unjustly censoring, canceling, deplatforming, or otherwise discrediting individuals or companies because of their views, a statement, something they’ve said recently or something that they have said or written twenty years ago, it doesn’t matter how recent or how far away in the past it was, because that statement, that idea, expressed does not conform to the current views that are permitted, that are allowed, so these views to be canceled are heterodox. And Dr. Mitchell outlined what that dogma is, and that gets back to identity politics. So, cancel culture comes out of this identity politics paradigm or dynamic that we are currently entangled in. And it’s a highly effective political weapon, and so, those in power use it to silence their political foes, their political adversaries. Companies, you hear a lot about woke capital, companies use it to compete with other companies that are unsufficiently woke. So, it is a political weapon, and it works in the United States right now because of the American people’s kind of along the political spectrum very good desire to not be thought of as insensitive, unfair, sexist, and the worst crime of all is racist, right. That’s the stain that you certainly don’t want to be accused of. Racism, the cardinal American sin. And so, it’s a very highly effective political weapon because so far it has worked. And to draw attention to anything that could be viewed as those particular sins, according to these new rules and definitions that have come out of identity politics, you can have the effect of helping yourself politically and power and harming your opponents. And I can give a couple of very I think examples of that that have had very serious practical impact, negative practical impact, that relate to security. But I just want to make a few more observations about why this is so bad kind of domestically for free societies. One, of course, which Dr. Mitchell explains this very, very well in his recent book on this subject is that it makes enemies out of out of citizens, out of one another. I mean, it pits everybody against one another. And you can’t get rid of it, you’re sort of naturally put into your own identity, your own camp, regardless of your own qualities or character. And you can’t get out of it. You’re born into it. And so, it eliminates the possibility of redemption, and I will regularly say that redemption is an American value. Well, it used to be. The ability to start over, the ability to be born into a family of particular economic status that does not doom you to that same economic status, for instance. That you have the ability to make what you can of yourself based on your own competency, based on your own merit, your work ethic, your character, and so, it has a very negative effect on that, and the ability to move on constructively. Building communities together regardless of race and socio-economic status you’re born into. That we have the ability based on these other characteristics of building a productive and functioning, flourishing free society. It’s damaging because it’s rooted in principles that actually fly in the face of natural and divine law. I mean, the very American system of government is rooted in principles that align with Christianity. That we are all equal before our creator and we’re not born greater or lesser than one another. And so, then you think of all of these other ideas that come out of the Christian tradition, the Christian understanding of the good. Josh mentioned the family, I mean, I think that this is a direct assault on the natural family, the rootedness that is necessary for nations to thrive. And so, it guises itself as it pretends to be very intellectual, but it’s in fact very antagonistic to sane reasoning and to the evidence we have before us and thousands of years of tradition. And evidence we have in biology even that we have before us. Also, I think my last point before we kind of move on to some discussion is identity politics and then cancel culture actually takes away one of the best things that free societies have that inoculates us against authoritarianism. So, to the extent that the United States and other free societies go along with this and are in fact muzzled by this and allow cancel culture to cancel them or to chill their speech, I mean, I can think of numerous ideas in my own field of national security that are so incredibly counterculture that to speak them, to write them, to tweet them could certainly risk professional negative consequences. Let me just think of just one particular subject of just women in the military, women in combat, what standards do we have. I mean, we’re all being asked to pretend that there’s no difference between men and women. And to say what is clearly before our eyes, what we know, would be to run afoul of the current dogma of identity politics to be accused of sexism. And so, you can see that it’s affecting and has real consequences on military readiness. But also, the country that I’m most concerned about right now is our number one geopolitical foe, and that’s China. And, of course, cancel culture works very, very, very well with the aims of the Chinese Communist Party to subvert Western societies. And I’d say they’re in the midst of a multibillion dollar ongoing industrial, academic, and political espionage and subversive effort in the West, and in particular the United States, and you can see members of Hollywood, media, they all are willing to bend the knee to what the Chinese Communist Party wants them to say or to not say. Of course, exposing their hypocrisy, you’ve got these woke capital, these corporations, that are happy to beat Americans over the head with their insufficient wokeness, while at the same time are willing to censor themselves by not talking about Xinjiang and the genocide going on in China. And they are happy to indulge themselves in the Chinese economy, essentially complicit in the genocide taking place there and the authoritarianism in the surveillance, while at the same time claiming some virtue to their domestic audience in the United States. And so, I see it as a real threat to the health of free societies, and then it also works to the advantage of authoritarian countries that would seek to gain greater influence and change the American way of life and the way of life of other Western societies. And I’ll just leave it there.
Tooley: Thank you, Rebeccah. Dr. Wallacher, your perspective from Munich?
Wallacher: Yeah, thank you very much for inviting me to this very interesting debate. I myself am an economist and philosopher, and I’ll try to bring maybe some other aspects additionally to these very interesting perspectives we’ve already heard. I think the debate about cancel culture exposes a symptom and then national tribal of the increasing fragmentation and polarization of societies, especially in the West, but not exclusively in the West, which has been undermining social cohesion for some time. The topic was already discussed a few years ago and it was the time when I was in Georgetown in 2000, where I came into contact with a discussion of the concept of social capital and the loss of social capital. Remember the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam? I think that means the ability of a society to cooperate in social networks, and if you put the sentiment of cancel culture in this context, it is about the bridging dimension of social capital that is at risk. Bridging social capital is a type of social capital that describes connections that link people across the cleavages that typically divide society, such as race or class or religion, social status. And I think especially the spiritual dimension is highly eroding. I think we should understand cancel culture also as an expression of the social, cultural dimension of globalization which has been greatly neglected for a long time, contrary to the supposed homogenization of civilization model, especially with regards to common values, to common lifestyle, consumption. Progressive globalization has promoted the globalization of values and norms that no society can escape today. On the one hand, this offers the opportunity for mutual enrichment, but on the other hand, it also harbors considerable potential for conflict, especially when fears of losing one’s own cultural identity are combined with material fears or loss or disappointment. This, all in comparison to others, which are becoming now the enemies, you were mentioning. This entails the danger of identity politics that reduces the diversity of personal identities to certain single characteristics, race, religion, sexual orientation, in order to instrumentalize the single identity for completely different purposes. As you said, that’s a highly effective political weapon. And it was Amartya Sen who already demonstrated this sentiment in his Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, published in 2006, with reference to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. And I think there are several links to the debate on Huntington’s thesis to the cancel culture sentiment within societies now. I think in the meantime cancel culture has also arrived in Germany, and it’s also showing its divisive effect here. When members of different social groups, which frequently characterize the right and the left-wing extremes of the political spectrum, are no longer capable of dialogue, defame each other, and justify this by saying that they have to protect themselves, again, their respective victim perspectives. On the one side, the one side does not shy away from speech bans and reverse discrimination in the fight against discrimination, whereas the other side not infrequently styles itself as the supposed victim of political correctness and sees its freedom of expression restricted. That’s the loss of preaching social capital. And I think all this is extremely transparent and accelerated by social media. To add, cancel culture is not only an effective political weapon, it’s also effective with regard to social media communication. This communication does not forget the aspect of not forgiveness, not forgetting things in the collective thoughts of the wide world of social media. And the debate about cancel culture has although arrived at universities in Germany for some time, even if not yet with the same intensity as in the US. And maybe in the second round of discussion, it could be very helpful and interesting to talk about the relationship between academic freedom and the freedom of speech or expression at university. Maybe I could highlight two examples that have triggered the controversial debate in academia in Germany in the last year. The first example is that the founder of the right-wing populist party AfD was a professor of macroeconomics at the University of Hamburg before he started his political activities. He left the university, became a member of the European Parliament, and in 2015, as you might know, he resigned from the AfD after he lost influence and the party moved increasingly to the extreme right. When he wanted to resume teaching at the university after leaving the EU Parliament in October 2019, there were massive protests by many students, he had to leave the lecture hall and the university under police protection, and for three months police protection ensured that the courses were held by him. In the meantime, he teaches and conducts research at the University of Hamburg relatively undisturbed, and it was a clear opinion and a statement of the president of the University of Hamburg who rightly condemned the disturbances with reference to academic freedom, which in his opinion was violated, because the task of professors at the university is to convey justifiable knowledge and not personal political opinions. Even though we have known since Max Weber and others that objectivity is not the same as value neutrality, freedom of science protects scientists in pursuit of knowledge, as long as academic freedom does not violate the loyalty to the constitution, and that this would be the case if professors obviously do not seek knowledge but convey political propaganda that violate fundamental values of the constitution. That was not the case in this example, and that was the major argument of the president of the University of Hamburg, and I think he was very successful. We could touch to other examples where this distinction is not so clear, and my recommendation is we have to bring more depth in the discussion on cancel culture and what it means. These several relationships between academic freedom, freedom of speech, and expression to combat this phenomenon.
Tooley: Thank you, Dr. Wallacher. Josh Mitchell, perhaps a response from you and perhaps some comments from you on how American politics changed over the last decade thanks to cancel culture?
Mitchell: Well, let me take up a couple of points. First of all, I would love to hear more from Rebeccah on the problem of military readiness. This is a frightening development, and I hope we have time to talk about that. But let me respond to one of the things that Professor Wallacher said, first on the matter of social capital. He mentioned Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but I would like to remind us all that in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote what I took to be the preamble to anything that Putnam wrote. He wrote Democracy in America in 1835, and he saw that the great problem was going to be growing delinkage, isolation, and loneliness, and depression, by the way. And so, he thought that we had to somehow remedy this, and so he says in Democracy in America, “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the mind expanded only by the reciprocal actions men have one upon another.” So, here’s the question that haunted Tocqueville, and that ought to haunt us in light of identity politics, who are we, and how do we discover who we are? Identity politics starts from the supposition that I know who I am, I have this identity, I have that identity. And it presumes that there’s no need to deal with other people, to work with other people in daily circumstances, because we’re self-satisfied and sufficient unto ourselves. The Tocquevillian position is you don’t know yet who you are, and we have a provisional understanding of who we are, but it’s only through building a world with others and these face-to-face relations that we can have a deeper understanding of who we are. Identity politics preempts that, and in the world of liberal politics, we would all recognize that we start from presuppositions about who we are and then we discover as we go. And then, with respect to the other, working with others, what we discover is that our understanding, and more precisely our imagination, of the others is exceeded, always exceeded, when we meet people in face-to-face relations. And so, one of the antidotes to identity politics must be the attempt to reinvigorate local association of life, the first point. Second, to the point on globalism, and I think that it’s a very important insight that globalism and identity politics are linked. You might remember the Treaty of Westphalia establishes state sovereignty in Europe. When you destroy state sovereignty, you move to globalism, that we do know. But what we do not also recognize is that sovereignty then becomes bifurcated. And so, what we’ve had since 1989, I’ve written about this extensively, is twin sovereignty, globalism and identity politics. So, the sovereign site is no longer the state, and therefore we are no longer citizens who have to work together. We have this vastly bifurcated sovereign system where we look up to the global level, to the global managers, to take care of everything for us. And then, on the other hand, we have our Facebook pages, and here we come to social media, where we are sovereign selves. Tocqueville wrote that in the future, democratic citizens would come to feel themselves greater than kings and less than men. Greater than kings in that they would have their sovereign selves and their social media page and they would cancel anyone else who does not challenge them, less than men in that we would no longer feel the tasks of living everyday life are ones that we can accomplish, and so we have to hand everything off to the global managers. So, we have a real crisis on our hands. Identity politics is in a way a predictable consequence, this movement to this sovereignty of the self is the predictable consequence really of the destruction of state sovereignty. Which is why I think we have to return to healthy versions of the nation. I have no interest in defending nationalism, but unless we return to some healthy understanding of the nation, which then puts sovereignty somewhere between identity politics and globalism, we’re going to have this bifurcated existence, which produce never-ending troubles.
Tooley: Rebeccah, your thoughts and perhaps some elaboration on cancel culture’s impact on national security policies?
Heinrichs: Sure, I’ll start with the readiness issue, which I just briefly touched upon. I can’t think of a worse institution to be infected with cancel culture and identity politics than the US military. It is an institution that is supposed to be built on these ideas, not just ideas, but in fact, you take a bunch of different individual people from different walks of life and you actually conform them. You try to make them a fighting force, and you make them the best fighting force that the US, the American people, can conform and can put together. And you need to have the best and the brightest, both in ideas and strategists and warfighting capability, and when you get tied up in this identity politics and cancel culture, you really turn this idea of one, conformity as an attribute, a good thing for a fighting force, but also, you take away the incentive to actually prioritize above all competency and ability. Its business is not equity among races and gender, in terms of looking at and coming up with these, the same kind of, you often hear \now senior military officers saying that the US military must reflect American society, the demographics of American society. Well, what does that mean? You can break down American society, if you’re going to go by identity, into all kinds of different groups. And then to have that reflected in the military just simply undermines US military to carry out its job. It’s especially pernicious, especially dangerous, at a time when the United States is not sitting at our apex of military power relative to other folks, as we were at the close of the Cold War. We are really trying to seriously now compete militarily and across the board with China, and so this could not come at a worse time. You see it especially, though, affecting our senior military officers. And again, the worst thing that they could be accused of, or not the worst thing, but one of the worst things, is of racism or sexism. And so, they’re kind of falling over themselves to prove that that’s not what they are. So, it can have a real negative effect on our ability, on our military’s ability, to be the fighting force that it needs to be to carry out its mission. The other thing that I would say to cancel culture and identity politics, I touched on it a little bit, it negatively impacts our ability to even think clearly about what the threats even are. So, as Christian Realists, moral realists, if you prefer, and we want to see things as they are, and what is possible, and we want to do good aligned with our own values in the world in terms of how we construct our defense and foreign policy, and when you eliminate from the possibility certain realities which I believe is at the beginning, take, for example, just to be clear, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton suggested that it was plausible that the leak of the coronavirus came from one of the two level four labs in Wuhan, China. They were immediately called racist, they were immediately deemed not credible, they were immediately deemed conspiracy theorists, told they were unserious, and anytime that I would try to entertain it, I had to be very careful about the way I would even construct my words and suggesting it had merit to it, lest I also be deemed not credible and not welcome to the discussion about China or pandemic responses. It was immediately stigmatized as racist and unserious and not credible. And now that the American election is behind us and now that the political risks of it actually being the fault of China or coming out of a lab are lower, people are becoming more comfortable saying perhaps we should go look at this and follow the evidence, rather than our own political preconceived notions of what happened. The Biden Administration even came out and canceled that investigation. I think that’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about here, and so, it can have real negative impacts on security issues that affect all of us. So, I’ll go ahead and leave it there, Mark, and let you kind of move along to the next question.
Tooley: Dr. Wallacher, to what extent is cancel culture different in magnitude in Europe compared to the US, or is it?
Wallacher: I think from my opinion the thing is that we have different consequences. As I see it, one of the main aspects is the debate on racism in the US. We have it also in Germany, but it’s not the main focus. We have other main focuses, antisemitism is a topic which is rising. I think one main thing in Germany is the aspect of social securities. I would say that that could be one aspect as a kind of a stabilizing these aspects of those who are not the winners of globalization. I think they have a broader aspect on these issues, and maybe that’s helpful in some things. The third aspect is maybe a higher diversity within political direction in Germany, although within the left-wing side, we have a very dispersed debate in the Social Democrat Party or the left-wing party on identity politics. I’m not clear whether that’s the same in the US, as someone who is a spectator from the outside, I would say it’s more clear between the two clear spectrums on the sides of the extreme. In Germany we have it also on the left and in the right that we have really higher diversity. And may I come back to one thing Dr. Mitchell was saying, I think that’s very clear, and I would agree to this. The thing of globalism and the healthy definition of what we call home. That’s the term the right-wing party is occupying, the home. I think one thing we need to do to bring a positive notion of home that is not distinguished or separated from the global or universal aspect, that belongs together. And especially from a tradition Catholic socail teaching, the principle of subsidiarity could help us to bridge these things together. And I think it was a very valuable contribution from Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Fratelli tutti on paternity and universal social friendship to bring these things together. That the home and the belonging to community is not against, but has to be complementary, to a universal thinking. And maybe the concept of common good, which is in these several subsidiary elements. We need to have a common good at the local, at the national level, but also on the global level. That could be helpful to preach the very superficial notion of home, which is occupied by the right-wing party, at least in Germany.
Mitchell: On these two points, so here’s the question, I’ll come to my observations about home in one minute, but here’s my question. First, about cancel culture. How do we have a tomorrow? This is the question. Now as Christians we understood because we’re broken, we’re going to do all sorts of terrible things, and so, in order to have a tomorrow there has to be forgiveness, atonement, and repentance. Because we live in a broken world. And each day without those things, we cannot have a tomorrow if we’re able to somehow not lift the weight of guilt from our shoulders. Now, what has happened in the West is we have still the categories of guilt, we have the experience of guilt, but we have largely as a society as well renounced the mechanisms, the Christian mechanisms, for dealing with guilt. Nietzsche had predicted exactly this in The Genealogy of Morals in the 1880s. We should go look at the first essay, first two essays. He understood exactly this is going to be the crisis of the West coming up. So, if we don’t have repentance and atonement as a way of purging the impurities from our system, we get what identity politics does, which is to cancel. Okay. Because one way or another, the weight of guilt has to be lifted, and so, the post-Christian, but still Christian because it’s relying on guilt, phenomenon that we have now is identity politics and cancellation. But it’s still operating within the framework of guilt. The true frightening alternative is the one that Nietzsche had posed in the second essay of Genealogy. He asked the question, “How can we have a tomorrow?” And he says those silly Christians believe that you have a tomorrow through repentance, atonement, forgiveness, etc. His proposal, and here we come to the far-right, his proposal was that we simply forget. So, racism and slavery, forget it, we don’t care. Colonialism, two World Wars, we don’t care. Condemning people of imputing dark-skinned people in the past, we don’t care, we’re superior to you. This is the real threat of the future, and this is what identity politics people don’t understand. You can’t both hang on to guilt and give people no way to absolve themselves of it, because then you invite the far, the alt right, and that’s the biggest threat we have today. Identity politics people have no idea what they’re playing with here. And so, my answer to this is the only way back is through a return to a Christian understanding that we have a tomorrow through repentance and atonement. If we don’t do that, we’re going to go to the alt right. Those are the only possible choices here. And I will say at least identity politics has made this clear. Second., indeed, I think Professor Wallacher is absolutely right. We have to start talking about home, because if the left, which one could argue begins with the French Revolution, this was Tocqueville’s argument, the disembodied soul who has no home, the soul that longs for universal human rights. If the left has no way to talk about home, then the right will talk about home. And the way it’s now talking about it is in terms of blood and soil nationalism. Well, we have tried that before, and we really don’t want to do this. And so, we have to come to a proper relationship between state and this this higher-level thing that we all know we’re called to as well. And the language I use is the language of supplements and substitutes. We have to live in embodied communities, but the global level is a supplement, and an important and necessary supplement, so we can have transnational alliances. Even a modest EU project, as long as it’s as a supplement to the nation as opposed to a substitute for the nation. And the post-1989 experiment has been not that we build these transnational organizations as supplements to nations, but as substitutes for them. And that’s why we’ve gotten in such trouble, and unless we’re able to come back to a healthy understanding of home, the right will take the high ground and the people in the middle will get lost. And we have to find a mid-level position which defends the home without falling into nationalsm.
Heinrichs: Just to illustrate this point, I wanted to circle back to this because I didn’t want to bring it up without actually having the exact Congressman, I didn’t want to accuse the wrong Congressman of this, so I wanted to pull it up here first. But this I think illustrates Joshua’s point that he just made so beautifully, and maybe it was the most important point we’ve heard so far. It’s this poking this alt-right, essentially by closing all of the doors for redemption and reconciliation, you have a reaction, which is horrible, which is that you’re creating racists who are not otherwise there. And so, I just wanted to bring up this one point. Right after the terrible riots that led to the breaking into the US Capitol on January 6, the reaction was so, even the people I agreed with, I agreed with them that it was terrible, but the reaction was I think so horrible on this point to making things worse. Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen on CNN threw out the idea that these National Guardsmen that were going to be deployed to protect President-elect Biden and his administration threw out the idea that perhaps they might attack him because they were mostly white males. Simply by being white and male, and therefore white male in the military, almost certainly voted for Donald Trump, and therefore by default are racist fascists, irredeemably so. And just not how maligning the character of these of these men, but now infecting this idea in the larger body politic that our volunteer force, our military, would be these villains, these racist villains, simply by being fair skinned. That was just so terrible, but then we should not be surprised when the backlash is a bunch of young men who are sick and tired of being called racist irredeemably so. So, I just wanted to leave that point there as an illustration of just how pernicious, terrible, ugly, and destructive using identity politics is in mainstream political life.
Tooley: Thanks, Rebeccah. Josh, let me ask you, and the others, as we near the completion of this conversation, you speak of the importance of religion in society in terms of providing a path for redemption and hope for the future. Both you and Dr. Wallacher work for Jesuit institutions. How is religious expression in public life directly threatened by cancel culture?
Mitchell: Well, I think the place where this initially showed up was in the gay marriage debates, but I think the transgender debates are the ones where it’s really going to show up. Because my view is that we live, we ought to live, in a plural society, and what that means is there’s the rule and then there’s the exception to the rule. And I am fully prepared, and here’s where I differ with many of my conservative friends, I am fully prepared to say that there are exceptions to the rule that don’t really fit and might even be difficult to justify on moral grounds. But we live in a political community, and so we have to make community compromises. So, I’m a liberal who believes that there are exceptions to the rule, and, in fact, a healthy society has exceptions to the rule. The problem with identity politics is rather than making exceptions to the rule, it says the exception is the rule. So, if you are transgender, then now that is the new rule. That is to say, if you believe that a man is a man and a woman is a woman, you are now guilty of a thought crime. So, that’s why, as you push farther left into transgenderism, people who simply want to be left alone, who believe, as so many of us do, that there’s a natural distinction between men and women, that we’re not guilty of a thought crime if we adhere to what’s called heteronormativity, this becomes very, very explosive. And so, what we’re faced with as we move to a defensive transgenderism as being the exception that proves the rule, or the exception that is the rule, then what happens is a whole host, most human beings on the planet who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, believe that the church is the church and that’s okay and it’s not simply a homophobic institution, this is what we’re faced with right now. So, I think Christians, as we move farther and farther into identity politics, Christians are going to be tested. Are they going to give up a great deal and declare, “No, I’m sorry, you can make your claims about who you are, but I do believe a man is a man and woman is a woman.”? This is the threat here, we’re losing the liberal middle ground, which says, we can have pluralism, but the exceptions cannot be the rule and Christianity is going to be under attack it already is, but it will be even more so now.
Tooley: Dr. Wallacher, your comments?
Wallacher: Yeah, I think I would totally agree. Maybe two things I want to add, the first is the role of religion, and especially the Catholic Church, but even also in Germany, the Protestant Church, is the main issue of credibility at the moment. I think that one of the main things is the Church should honestly admit to themselves that for a long time it was difficult for Christianity, for the Church, to make like human rights their own, and not infrequently they still violate these idols today, mostly in contradiction to their own teaching and their own moral standards. That’s one of the issues in getting a more and more secular society, which is a real topic. And the other thing is even if you come from a position like what the difference between a marriage between men and women and homosexual marriage is, the problem is to absolutize individual positions and define monopolistic claims instead of seeing themselves as a movement of search and solidarity, a learning community in this direction. We have to be aware of new scientific insights. Religion can never be divided from a cultural setting it is embedded in, and I think these things are very important. If we could or should have the aspects and the Christian values of the congregation, redemption. I totally agree with Dr. Mitchell’s point of view of this. But I see the major point, and maybe that’s the difference between Germany and the US at the moment, but that’s the main issue is the issue of credibility. Especially after the scandal of misuse within the church, and religions are in a very defensive position at the moment. We have to be clear on that, and we have to work hard on getting back this credibility to be honest on our own values within the society.
Mitchell: Here I will defend the left for one minute. What people who believe in identity politics are longing for is a way to understand purity, stain, transgression, and they’re longing for that. And I think identity politics is a deeply deformed attempt to do so. It’s a deeply deformed Christian attempt to do so. And I think the only way the churches are able to pull people back in is to show that in fact the language of purity, stain, redemption, innocence is far more profound within the churches than in the confines of identity politics. And that is the mission of the churches if they want to save the world from identity politics.
Tooley: Thank you, Josh. Rebeccah, some final thoughts from you?
Heinrichs: If I could just say, I mean, that’s really what Providence is trying to do is trying to push in and lean in and have a say and have influence in shaping some of these policies. And I think one of the worst things that churches can do at this point is to pull out and disengage and hope that the court system will protect them from what is coming, because it will not. I mean, one of the things that I will continuously hear from well-meaning lawyers and libertarian types who believe that religious conscience protections, first amendment protections, are going to protect orthodox Christians who have an understanding of reality and the ecclesiology of their church based on scripture and a couple thousand years of Christian tradition, that these protections will win the day. In fact, they will not. Those who have adopted identity politics and cancel culture full well understand that those religious conscience objections are the very thing that is keeping them from carrying out their agenda sufficiently. One little illustration to show that, when media broke out that at the time Second Lady Karen Pence was teaching at a Christian school, she was an art teacher at a Christian school, and the media learned that this Christian school had required those who taught there to uphold the Christian understanding of marriage between men and women. And she was immediately maligned, not just in far-left outlets. I’m talking about pervasively across media, that there was surprise, in fact, that this school was allowed to exist at the time in the United States of America. And I repeatedly saw this characterization that these religious exemptions cannot be permitted to protect racists and those who uphold the patriarchy. And so, it is coming for Christians. This agenda, this very merciless agenda, is certainly coming for Christians and for their understanding of the order of things. I thought when I was reading reporters I knew tweeting their disgust and being so appalled at this school existing, and I thought, do they have any idea what other things Christianity teaches? I mean, they were appalled by this one thing. So much of it is anathema to the current cultural trend about kind of detaching ourselves from any kind of natural immutable constraints that we simply have by being creative beings. And so, I think it’s a very, very serious problem, and Christians would just be really foolish to think that we’re going to be protected and it’s not going to come for us simply because it hasn’t thus far. And in many cases it has, but I’m saying worse than it already is.
Tooley: Rebeccah Heinrichs, Joshua Mitchell, Johannes Wallacher, thank you very much for an insightful conversation. This video and a transcript hopefully by tomorrow afternoon will be posted at our Providence magazine website, so look for that. And Christian Forstner, thank you for envisioning this conversation, and perhaps some final words from you?
Forstner: Thank you so much, Mark. I would like to hand it over for some final words here to my Munich-based colleague Thomas. Would you like to say some concluding words, Thomas, as you have been an active part in setting this conversation up?
Klotz: Yes, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for attending our event. Our experts have looked at the topic of cancel culture from different angles. Now it is up to us to think about how this all will affect society. Many thanks on behalf of the Hanns Seidel foundation to Professor Joshua Mitchell, professor Johannes Wallacher, and Rebecca Heinrichs for the illuminating contributions and their willingness to take part in this discussion. I also want to thank Mark Tooley for the wonderful moderation, and I would like to close today’s event with a quote from the French writer Caroline Fourest. The feminist, who also worked for Charlie Hebdo, criticizes in her book The Offended Generation the growing influence of left identities on society. She writes, “I dream of a campus that becomes a safe space for intellectual debates and where a community culture can flourish. I dream of retreats in which controversial and considerate debates can take place, what has become impossible on the internet a long time ago. The inquisitors of the thought police have been appearing for a number of years now, and their censorship has gone far beyond the questions of identity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have open discussions. In respect of this, we can only hope and retransform universities into such safe spaces, in responsibility to the humanistic ideal of education and knowledge.” Thank you all, take care, and all the best from Munich.
Tooley: Thank you.