Every era has its incoherencies. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens makes this point to his Victorian readers in the novel’s very first paragraph, conveying that in the 18th century, the century of the French Revolution, conditions were as complex as they seemed in 1859: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […] it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
These lines from Dickens still apply today: we are more informed than ever, and more uninformed than ever; more connected than ever, and more isolated than ever; oblivious to morality and, at the same time, stubbornly moralistic. The term “nagging left” has become popular (the Spanish writer Javier Cercas used the term just a few days ago) in reference to the supposedly puritanical attitudes of progressives and their apparent propensity to meddle in other people’s personal lives. Faced with this “nagging left,” the right, traditionally the political persuasion most associated with “moralism,” has taken a more libertarian position. Has the world turned upside down?
“It’s nothing new,” argues Argentine-Spanish journalist and essayist Lucía Lijtmaer, author of Ofendiditos (Anagrama, 2019), a book arguing that the backlash against “cancel culture” is just another way for the powerful to ignore injustice and criminalize protest. “We’ve already experienced similar situations during other eras of great change,” she says. “For example, in the 1970s, when feminism took on pornography, there were also accusations of moralism and a censorship.” Lijtmaer says that today’s political landscape is changing (the personal is now public) and that certain forms of speech have been deemed unacceptable. “Jokes making light of how my husband beats me, for example, aren’t funny anymore. Is this because we’ve become too puritanical? I don’t think so.”
Professor José Luis Villacañas, an expert on Kant and a renowned Spanish philosopher in his own right, says it makes sense that progressive discourse would make appeals to morality: “If the left hopes to overcome individualism and generate feelings of solidarity, it needs to appeal to moral arguments that favor compassion, sympathy and solidarity, and the universal right to have basic needs met and live a dignified life; hence the left’s inevitable morality.”
Public conversations about morality take on a special virulence when they involve questions of feminism. In Spain, the Secretary of State for Equality, Ángela Rodríguez, caused quite the uproar, for example, when she criticized the fact that young Spanish girls value sexual intercourse over masturbation. “That was a miscommunication, those are topics relevant to sex education programs,” says Lijtmaer, who says that, according to polls, macho and anti-feminist attitudes are on the rise among adolescent boys. As might be expected, online pornography has not proven to be very great as a tool for responsible sex education. The growing problem of gang rape, for example, is a relatively new phenomenon.
On the one hand, the need to put an end to certain attitudes and behaviors justifies a degree of moralistic furor. On the other hand, in the heat of debate, we often lose sight of the bigger picture. Like ironic comedy. Spanish journalist Juan Soto Ivars recently published a book title Nadie se va a reír (“No One’s Going to Laugh,” Debate, 2022), in which he recounts the misfortunes of Spanish artist-provocateur Anónimo García and his “ultrarationalist” art collective, Homo Velamine.
García’s group used parody to expose and condemn certain societal attitudes. It created, for example, a fake website in support of Esperanza Aguirre, a Spanish centrist politician and admirer of Margaret Thatcher, titled Feminists for Esperanza Aguirre (FEA, or “UGLY” in Spanish). After the case of La Manada, a gang rape in Pamplona that took place on July 7, 2016, García and his group created another fake website to criticize what they viewed as the media’s abusive sensationalism in covering the case, creating another fake website advertising “guided tourists excursions along the route of La Manada.” For his role in creating the site, García was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for moral damages inflicted on the victim. He was also fired from his job with the environmental organization Greenpeace.
Anónimo García, in other words, was “cancelled” for his ironic campaign denouncing the sensationalism of the media in covering a rape case. The legal and moral reprobation ruined his life.
But Lucía Lijtmaer argues that Anglo-Saxon “cancel culture” will not take hold in Spain. “It’s another thing,” she says, “for a company that wants to keep a clean image to decide not to continue working with someone who has done something questionable.” And she ask: “Have they cancelled [Spanish opera singer] Plácido Domingo? There are allegations against him for sexual abuse, but nothing happens.”
Journalist Juan Soto Ivars, author of several books on political correctness and censorship, recounts one brutal example of the moralism of progressive “cancel culture”: the case of Justine Sacco, a young employee at the company IAC, which owns dating apps like Tinder.
One day in 2013, Justine Sacco traveled to South Africa for work. Before boarding, she tweeted the following message to her 200 followers (people accustomed to her dark humor and provocative jokes): “I’m going to Africa. I hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!.” She turned off her cell phone and set off on the long journey. Little did she know that during those hours her message had been retweeted thousands of times, that tens of thousands of people had insulted her and denounced her a detestable racist, that her tweet was trending around the world, that an anonymous, morally outraged crowd had demanded that IAC fire her, and that IAC had immediately capitulated to “popular demand.”
When she landed, Justine Sacco no longer had a job and, judging by numbers of social media, was one of the most hated people on the planet. Her life was ruined. Why? For nothing. For a bad joke. Sacco was the victim of a collective urge: thousands of people needed to feel morally superior to her, and to put that feeling down in words and send it out to the world.
Before going on — what exactly is “moralism”? The philosopher and linguist Tzvetan Todorov formulated a definition in 1999: “It is when a moral lesson is dictated to others and the one who dictates the lesson feels a sense of pride. To be a moralist is not all the same thing as to be moral [...] The moral individual submits his own life to criteria of good and evil, which go beyond his own satisfactions or pleasures. The moral individual submits the lives of those around him to the same criteria; he draws his virtue solely from the denunciation of his own vices.” Which is to say, the moralist is one who gloats over the alleged vices, or moral defects, of others.
Perhaps this is just a natural human instinct. In his book On the Citizen, published in Latin in 1642, Thomas Hobbes, the father of modern philosophy, writes: “Since all the heart’s joy and pleasure lies in being able to compare oneself favorably with others and form a high opinion of oneself, men cannot avoid sometimes showing hatred and contempt for each other.”
The internet and social media are an important factor in understanding the phenomenon. Spanish psychologist and writer Edu Galán compares the development of the internet to the invention of the printing press, and concludes that both technological advances had similar disruptive effects. “With social media, people are trying to attract attention,” he says, “and there’s no better way to do this than to practice individualistic exhibitionism and to morally criticize others.”
There is little doubt that the effect of the internet on the proliferation of neo-inquisitorial attitudes has been significant. A study by New York University analyzing more than half a million Twitter messages shows that statements with emotional or moral content tend to spread faster than other kinds of posts. Messages that inspire favorable responses within one’s social or ideological group and rejection on the part of other groups, are the kinds of posts that tend to go viral. And of course, the algorithms that govern Twitter and other platforms promote the visibility of these kinds of messages: anger is the basis of the business.
Germán Cano, professor of Philosophy and an expert on Friedrich Nietzsche, agrees that the phenomenon of “moral hypertrophy” is closely linked to social media, especially Twitter. But he distinguishes between morality as a reflection of accepted, normative values and “punitive moralism,” which is used to discredit an adversary. “Excessive moralism,” he says, “is closely linked to an overemphasis on the individual and the subjective.”
Cano relates this phenomenon to the transformation of mass society: “In the 20th century, the masses united physically to demonstrate their strength; today, the masses have become individualized and are not perceived as powerful in the public space, but rather in the private space.”
According to Cano, an additional factor hinders our understanding: the lack of context, of mediation and, above all, of time. The exchange of ideas (or moral criticisms) is reduced to a few lines that the reader consumes quickly and interprets literally. This is why irony — the rhetorical device consisting of saying the opposite of what one wants to express, indicating the contradiction with some word or gesture — has declined in public discourse.
The Spanish philosopher José Villacañas draws some distinctions about what is happening on the social media. “Someone who uses their real name on the internet will not want to appear insensitive in moral arguments,” he says. “But the same is not necessarily the case for people with anonymous accounts, where criteria for alignment seem more linked to ideological attitudes of confrontation, and where specifically moral assessments are looked down on as being naive, unrealistic, and ignorant of the human condition.” Villacañas adds that, once this distinction is drawn, “everyone wants to associate their name with whatever moral attitude facilitates recognition by their group.”
Another esteemed Kantian, Professor Juan Arana, agrees, going even further: “I would say that we are returning to tribalism. Since no one knows or cares to actually determine what is good and what is bad, the world around us is divided into good and bad groups: everyone tries to identify with the best and obviously needs easy recipes to distinguish the like-minded from the strangers, so that they can fraternize with some and demonize the others.”
But the online crossfire of applause and moral accusations does not typically adhere to philosophical reasoning and sober factual arguments. This is the age of emotions and feelings. “When you start to use reason, it’s not so easy to stop: one argument leads to another, you can find someone who reasons better and to whom you have no choice but to bow down, Arana says. “On the other hand, in emotional life, each individual is the supreme and unimpeachable judge: no one can question my feelings and, if someone rejects or dislikes what I feel, I can make him victim of my emotional revenge.”
There is something systemic about virtual lynching (which are not only virtual, since they have real-life consequences, as the case of Justine Sacco demonstrates). “In the public space of modern democracy,” writes French philosopher and political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff, “the social death sentence is achieved through the maximum diffusion of the indictment.” This is true for social media as well as traditional media, which are themselves increasingly permeated by the exigencies of the internet.”
In his book La máscara moral (Debate, 2022), Edu Galán highlights something that has been made clear “in multiple social experiments: one person tends to punish another more if there are other people watching.” And today, we are all watching.
José Luis Villacañas claims that there is no inquisitorial spirit inherent to social media, and that what we call “lynchings” would better be described as collateral damage: “I see the desire to confirm one’s own positions, prejudices, evaluations or beliefs, and to use all the weapons at one’s disposal to harm one’s adversary. I don’t see social media as having anything to do with truth. I think social media is a mirror reflecting back our true selves, and that the fact of preferring anonymity to one’s own name is one of those mirrors. It implies the abandonment of responsibility, which is the wager of immorality. Through this concealment, one authorizes the drive to disinhibition in oneself. The result is an asymmetry that can produce a lot of suffering. Social media should simply ban anonymous accounts.”
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