Cancel Culture Follies

January 16, 2021 Updated: January 19, 2021


Cancel culture is one of the most unlovely of the radical left’s contributions to our society. It’s currently rampant, and its reach is limitless; even the great philosopher David Hume’s name has been removed from a University of Edinburgh building because of alleged racism.

And we can be sure that many more giants of our culture will soon enough be canceled because the past offers any number of further victims—precisely because it’s the past.

Hume died in Edinburgh in 1776. It only takes a moment’s reflection on the conditions of life in those times to understand how foolish it is to ransack history looking for racists.

Throughout Hume’s life, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, and aviation were all in the distant future. Transport was at best by horse, but for most by foot. How much of the world and its cultures did most people see at that time? The great majority would rarely have ventured beyond a small area that included their own village and the few nearby towns that commerce would take them to. Most would rarely, if ever, meet people from another country, or of another race, so that other cultures were largely unknown to them. (Radio, films, and television were also still in the distant future.)

In a world with these limitations, tribal thinking was inevitably the norm: People identified with the only people they knew. They had at best only vague ideas about those they never saw and would naturally feel more apprehensive than sympathetic toward them. It would be silly to call men and women of these times racists when they knew so little of other peoples.

Because cultures were then for the most part isolated from each other, they could be at dramatically different stages of development, and that too reinforced tribal thinking. In our time, virtually all cultures have been strongly influenced by the most technologically advanced, so that all have access to the modern technology developed mostly by Europeans. But in Hume’s time, many cultures were still technologically primitive. Huge differences in development would inevitably spark disparaging judgments by the more advanced whenever contact was made. This was supposedly Hume’s sin, but it was one he shared with just about everyone else.

But what made matters much worse was that when cultures at starkly different stages of development did meet, the customs of one could be completely abhorrent to another. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and ritual torture were horrifying to most Europeans, and they often used words such as “uncivilized” and “savages” when reacting to them. Does that make them racists? Of course not, because most modern people would make the same judgments if confronted with the same behaviors.

Still another reason why people in earlier times were likely to be apprehensive about other tribes or cultures is that any sudden appearance of significant numbers of them was likely to mean trouble.

In Africa as in North America, tribes warred with each other constantly—and took slaves, too—and the rest of the world was no different. Asian cultures periodically swept into Europe from the east and caused panic and chaos. Viking raids terrorized the coasts of Europe for many centuries.

When the occasions on which you experienced other cultures were often highly unpleasant, tribal attitudes were perfectly understandable. Any country with a neighbor that was stronger lived in constant fear of invasion. The best way to prevent being overrun was to make your own country stronger by expanding it. That makes it hard to separate prudence and aggression in earlier times, but racism had little to do with it.

For all these reasons, a charge of “racist!” made in, say, the year 1750, would simply have puzzled everyone. It was a different world. How did that world change? It changed because as European countries became more literate and affluent, intellectual curiosity about the rest of the world began to moderate fears about other cultures. The European Enlightenment promoted the sense that we all share a common humanity, an idea that began to replace the previously ubiquitous tribalism. This, in turn, led to the successful movement to end slavery. As Enlightenment ideas spread throughout the world, slavery began to disappear.

Before we make moral judgments about tribal or “racist” thinking, then, we really need to know how far the transition from tribal attitudes to Enlightenment ones had gone at a particular time and in a particular place. There’s no point in criticizing somebody who lived in 1750 for attitudes that virtually everyone had at the time.

But the folly of present-day woke anti-racists goes even beyond that, for they are apt to single out for attack people who were ahead of their own time because they were behind ours. The irony in their picking on Hume is lost on them. For Edinburgh was preeminent in the development and spread of the Enlightenment, and Hume was its leading figure. And what else are woke values but a degraded parody of Enlightenment ideas?

The cancellation of Hume tells us just how widespread a shocking ignorance of human history has become. Even Edinburgh University now seems to share that ignorance—or was it simply intimidated by the woke mob?

John M. Ellis is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California–Santa Cruz, chair of the California Association of Scholars, and the author of several books, the last of which is “The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.