What Martin Heidegger can teach us about cancel culture

The notoriously difficult philosopher was a vociferous enemy of groupthink.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Free Speech Politics

In recent years, our culture has become more conformist, cancelling and self-censoring.

This development began in the middle of the last decade, when the puritanical woke revolution took hold in earnest. Universities began deplatforming or banning guest speakers they deemed undesirable or offensive. Publishers started to do likewise with authors. They also slapped ‘trigger warnings’ on controversial books.

A collective herd mentality made itself obvious. With the abetment of social media, people began to coalesce in echo chambers, uttering only opinions they knew would win them approval. This, in turn, spawned a mood of self-censorship. People now feel reluctant or terrified to voice dissenting, unfashionable or taboo views, for fear of disapproval, demonisation, abuse or losing their livelihoods. Fear and conformity now govern much discourse today.

This new age of totalitarianism-from-below is a response to a new age of certitudes. Gone are the days where people felt content to live with a classical-liberal tolerance of the Other. We’ve seen instead the rise of absolutism, fanaticism and self-righteousness. All this is notionally underpinned by the doctrine of individual subjectivity and ‘lived experience’. Yet paradoxically, the new woke mind virus encourages groupthink around issues such as race, gender, power and victimhood.

Again, this has partly been facilitated by social media. Such groupthink is also inherent in today’s post-liberal ideology, which perceives opponents not as factually wrong but as morally abhorrent. This is ironic for an ideology that has its roots in relativism. But most intolerant ideologies are initiated by those who portray themselves as oppressed. There’s no more self-righteous and furious a bigot than a self-styled victim.

The results of this new revolution can be seen in Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Just Stop Oil, the tearing down of statues and, as we’ve seen again this week, a belligerent and deranged obsession with preferred pronouns. This is the age of cerebral mob rule, which tolerates no dissent.

But what to do?

Ever since I started to read him a couple of years ago, it has increasingly struck me that the best antidote to today’s woes are the thoughts of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He could even be seen as a counterbalance to Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who inspired much woke thinking.

Utilising Heidegger would be no mean feat. His magnum opus, Being and Time (1927), is notoriously difficult to read in translation. Worse still, he was a member of the Nazi Party from May 1933 until the end of the war, and his posthumously published ‘black notebooks’ have exposed his deep-seated anti-Semitism. He was a ‘small man’ as the critic George Steiner once put it. But he was also a great thinker. And ironically, despite what we now know about the rise of the Nazis, Heidegger was actually very sound on the pernicious power of the crowd.

Intrinsic to Heidegger’s philosophy was a belief in authenticity, which, in his own idiosyncratic German, he called Eigentlichkeit. We are ‘thrown’ into the world at a time not of our choosing and our time here is finite. This is the primary source of our angst, says Heideigger. In this finite life, we are necessarily faced with having to make individual choices, which, by implication, are moral choices. It is a terrible but inevitable predicament to be authentic, to be oneself, to decide one’s destiny.

For Heidegger, the opposite of Eigentlichkeit is being beholden to das Man. In English this is translated variously as ‘They’, ‘People’ or ‘The Public’. This is the tempting, easy, inauthentic option. To conform to what ‘They’ expect means not having to make up your own mind or take responsibility for your actions. It means you are not oneself but part of the ‘they-self’.

Heidegger said that it is life’s arduous challenge to be, or regain, our authenticity and autonomy. Once that state is attained, our lives can be joyous and liberated, not burdened with the imperative of having to conform or bury oneself in a passive public persona.

This is the task that faces us today: to struggle to be oneself. To not be ‘They’.

What it means to be a biker

One of the chief appeals of the Hairy Bikers was that they shattered common stereotypes. TV chef Dave Myers, who died last week aged 66, and co-host Si King were not what you would expect from a pair of self-proclaimed ‘bikers’. Ever since this subculture emerged in the postwar period – formed by stray, lost and angry American veterans – bikers garnered an unwholesome reputation. The mere mention of ‘Hells Angels’ conjured up images of wild, demonic warriors. Films like The Wild One (1953) and Easy Rider (1969) cemented a mental association between bikers and lawlessness. News reports in the 1980s and 1990s about the internecine activities of Scandinavian biker gangs entrenched this perception.

But Dave Myers and Si King – still looking the very essence of bikerdom with their muscular vehicles, long hair and leathers – overturned this cliché with their cheeky, cheery and even homely cookery shows. For the British public, to be a biker is now all about comradeship, freedom and friendship. RIP Dave Myers.

Satire has lost its bite

As Philip Patrick wrote on spiked in 2022, the once-glorious comic magazine, Viz, has lost its edge. It committed the cardinal sin for any satirical production: it became politically partisan. It now solely takes pot-shots at Tories or right-wing figures. It even earnestly joined in the NHS worship-fest during the Covid era.

Things haven’t improved much since. Viz’s ‘The Male Online’ strip – a take on your supposedly frothing, stupid Daily Mail reader – seems to have become firmly entrenched as a regular feature. This is far from edgy or original. Even television and radio comics have ceased making jokes about ‘headlines in the Daily Mail’ by now as it is such a trite and well-worn cliché.

But what really struck home from the latest March issue was one reader’s letter:

‘Ever since the series was cancelled, I’ve really missed the great improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where guests were given a random topic to talk about and ramble on about it, often going off at a tangent and confusing themselves, usually resulting in them talking absolute nonsense before the whole section descended into chaos. I’m happy to say though, that I’ve recently discovered GB News, so I’m as happy as a pig in shit.’

This is not the GB News I recognise. It certainly bears no resemblance to, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s show, which is peppered with vignettes on Catholic rites and culture, or Andrew Doyle’s cerebral Sunday show, Free Speech Nation.

I used to doubt that people who made Daily Mail jokes ever read the paper, just as I doubt those who make jokes about Wetherspoons have ever visited one. Now I wonder whether people who make jokes about GB News have ever watched it, either.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

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Topics Free Speech Politics


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