Rational thinking versus Mobocracy

Denis Venter writes on the cultural revolution sweeping the West, and how to respond to it

This article is created from three insightful sources. First, comments made by Prof Gad Saad, an evolutionary behavioural scientist at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, in an interview with Gareth Cliff on his TV programme, “So What Now”. Saad is the author of a new book, The Parasitic Mind – How Infectious Ideas are Killing Common Sense, to be published in October 2020. Second, Peter van Buren, a 24-year US State Department veteran, in a recent blog posted on the Internet, pointed to the frighteningly obvious links of what is currently happening in the United States – and one might add, elsewhere in the world -- to Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China during the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. This is interspersed by brief remarks from five other authors. And third, two short extracts from George Orwell’s 1984, written in the 1930s, a seminal futuristic look into what might happen in any regimented, authoritarian system.

The human brain, Saad says, is being parasitised by shoddy thinking, bad pathogens (ideas) that lead us down some flawed and damaging trajectories. This can be blamed mainly on post-modernism – the notion that there are no objective truths, that everything is constrained by subjective realities, ‘my truth matters more than your truth’. So, in a sense it is a nihilist framework, it is intellectual terrorism, because scientists wake up every day thinking that there is a truth to be discovered. Yet, post-modernism says no such thing can be true – so, one can imagine how such a framework can result in complete chaos.

In this period of the infectious Covid-19 pathogen, he says, people also have to be trained to practice good mental hygiene. Charles Darwin, some 150 years ago, developed his theory of natural selection by collecting data from many different disciplines over roughly two decades -- so that it became insurmountably true that his theory was vertical, was true. Rather than succumbing to emotional hysteria, people have ‘to put on their scientist hats’, so to speak, asking what data they need to convince others of their position, without hysteria, without screaming, without huffing and puffing, without cancelling and, hopefully, convince others of their position.

In the context of what has become known as ‘cancelling’, Saad says, you should add an 8th deadly sin to the existing 7 -- human cowardice. You should exercise your right to free speech. Unless the silent majority rises up, the battle of ideas is lost. However, most people cower in complete silence in a foetal position, because they are afraid they will be the next victim of the ‘Cancel Mob’. Intellectual progress feeds on challenging ideas, exploring new ideas. But there is a growing tendency of intolerance towards opinions that do not exactly figure into the cancel mob’s view of the world.

Like a child who has to be exposed to many allergens to build up immunity, so our brains as adults have to be exposed to a multiplicity of ideas so that we can develop our critical thinking ability, so that we do not develop ‘asthma of the brain’. If you create a sanitised environment where only ideas within your echo-chamber are allowed, you develop ‘asthma of the mind’, or ‘coronavirus of the mind’.

The problem is that many intellectuals are decoupled from the ill consequences of their idiotic ideas. In the humanities or social sciences, Saad says, academics have been given the leeway to expound complete gibberish, complete intellectual terrorism, unencumbered by the shackles of reality. But you always have to stay connected to reality; you cannot afford to live in a highfalutin or pretentious, make-belief ivory tower.

So, what can we do? We have to fight off these bad mental pathogens/ideas -- we have to fight against stupidity. And we cannot subcontract this battle of ideas to others. We have to develop the fortitude to speak out.

History, Van Buren says, is not there to make anyone feel safe or to justify current theories about “defunding” the police. History exists so we can learn from it; and for us to learn from it, we have to study it, to be offended and be uncomfortable with it, to be immersed in it, to challenge it, to taste its bitter and its sweet. Think of it as antibodies fighting a disease. What happens when a society forgets how to challenge a bad idea with an excellent one of much higher or superior quality?

One should be terrified of the thought processes behind the wanton destruction of property, the looting and arson, the toppling of statues now sweeping the United States and the Western world. Decisions should never be made by anarchist mobs, the struggle for control and power, waging war against anybody on the wrong side of what are promoted as ‘politically correct’ ideas.

Launching his Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao told his mobs that “revisionists [those not subscribing to the prevailing, ‘accepted’, doctrinaire ideology] should be removed through violent class struggle”. His mobs took the task to heart, destroying historical relics and cultural sites, statues and monuments, artifacts, libraries, and religious structures.

People were outed who did not think as they did – it was war on the way people thought. People were forced to confess to ‘crimes’ they did not commit, to self-criticise for espousing beliefs thought to be unacceptable, and to apologise and be held personally responsible for decades of “oppression of the masses”. This was a tragedy, an attempt to destroy culture on a level that would embarrass the Taliban, bombarding to smithereens the carved-out mountain statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, or ISIS, destroying the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, or al-Qaeda, ransacking the centuries-old library in Timbuktu, Mali.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution is a topic that should be widely taught in universities around the world because “history rhymes”. People are being outed for ‘improper speech’, teaching hurtful things from the past using the ‘wrong’ terminology, invariably labelled as “hate speech”. Intellectuals are harassed for holding outlier positions or lose their jobs for teaching material promoting ‘wrong values’.

There are no statues to the Cultural Revolution in China – or now, in the Western world. Nobody builds monuments to chaos. In the US, and elsewhere, it was never really about the statues anyway. In America, what started off as legitimate and peaceful protest marches (complaining about discrimination against minorities and growing societal inequalities), quickly morphed into out-of-control, anarchist mob violence, the wanton destruction of property, looting and arson, and tearing-down the statues of confederate general Robert E. Lee and basically any Caucasian, including even demanding changing the skin colour of the ‘white’ Jesus.

Sweeping across the world, everywhere protest gatherings became what George Orwell referred to as a “heavy, murmurous sound, an almost sub-human chanting, somehow curiously savage … a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Still more, it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise, the sharing in a general delirium.” Tragically, Orwell continues, “some people swallow nonsense easily, with the stupidity of an animal: they swallow it fanatically, passionately, with the furious desire to track down, denounce, and ‘vaporise’ [cancel] anyone who should disagree”.

Of course, it was never going to stop with confederate generals, because it was not really about racism and racial discrimination against black Americans (the wrongful death of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hand of police brutality merely the trigger, the pretext) any more than the Cultural Revolution was really about “capitalism” or “corrupt Western values”.

This is about rewriting history for political ends, both short-term power grabs and longer-term societal changes that Wesley Yang calls a “successor ideology” – a melange of radicalism and anarchism now seeking hegemony throughout Western institutions, making the 19th century Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, blush from beyond his grave. Douglas Murray is quite succinct in suggesting that the purpose is “to embed a new metaphysics into our societies, a new religion”, a new ideology, the idea being that there can only be ‘one accepted way of thinking’, thus becoming a tool of control.

It remains to be seen where America and the Western world go next in their own nascent cultural revolutions. In these early stages, the victims are brands like Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, cancelled B-list celebrities, and public figures. The social justice warriors, says Kevin Williamson, see the “cancel culture as a game, the point of which is to impose … [unemployability] on people as a form of recreation”, as the anarchist mobs live out their mantra – “it’s fun to destroy” not only decades-long careers of people, but also centuries-old relics, monuments and property, relishing their ability to “break things”.

Witness, the vandalising of the statues of Totius (a legendary Afrikaans theologian and poet) at South Africa’s North-West University (NWU) some time ago, and the more recent defacing, even decapitation, in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, of Cecil John Rhodes’s busts in and around Cape Town and at Oxford University in the UK. Will all the beneficiaries of Rhodes scholarships to Oxford University, those who so opportunistically joined the cancel mobs, “pay back the money” -- to echo another recent, in-vogue refrain.  

Simultaneously, Kyle Smith says, the cancel campaign was amplified by “the transmutation of white guilt into a cult”, becoming a whole new category of outing on ShowMax and other agenda-ised media outlets, as well as in the business and banking communities. This new ideology, says Ben Shapiro, is designed to make whites “writhe in a kind of ecstatic anguish”, forced into the performance of “mass displays of penitential self-abasement”.

The ‘intellectual’ roots of the US/Western revolution and that of Mao’s China are the same; the hate for the old (the traditional), the need for ‘unacceptable ideas’ to be cancelled in the name of social progress, the fanatical intolerance towards dissent, and the violence to enforce conformity. These are spreading outwards from universities and other societal institutions, so that everywhere today (film studios and publishing houses, TV news channels, advertising agencies, sports clubs) have become hotbeds of anarchy: where in the name of free speech, any criticism (invariably labelled as “hate speech”) is banned, and in the name of safety, “dangerous ideas” and the people who hold them are not only rejected but cancelled, drowned out by the heckler’s commotion, unfriended, demonised, deleted, de-platformed, demeaned, demonetised (having endorsements cancelled) and chased after by mobs both real and online in a horrible blend of self-righteousness and cyber-bullying. The anarchists do not believe in a marketplace of ideas. Ideas to the cancel mobs are either right or wrong, and the ‘wrong’ ones must be banished.

The philosophical spadework for a US/Western cultural revolution is done. Switch the terms ‘capitalism and ‘revisionism’ with ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ in some of Mao’s speeches and you have a decent speech draft for what masquerades as a Black Lives Matter rally (in fact, All Living Things Matter). So, the choices to survive these mobs are conformity or silence – and silence is not an option, because it would be complicity in, genuflecting to, what is undermining, white-anting (forgive the pun!), destroying rational thinking.

You and I, we all, have to have the fortitude, to cite Gad Saad one again, to stand for what we believe in, despite the consequences or reprisals that might come our way. To paraphrase Lord Patton, an alumnus of Oriel College, Oxford -- the push-back, the fight-back must begin!

* The author holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of South Africa (Unisa) in Pretoria. He is a former Executive Director of the Africa Institute of South Africa, and Nelson Mandela Chair Professor in the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India. He is retired and lives in Pretoria but is still academically active.