From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to McCarthyism, humans have a long history of public shaming

Cancel culture

From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to McCarthyism, humans have a long history of public shaming

Some people see alarming parallels between today’s cancel culture and the Cultural Revolution in China, McCarthyism in America and other witch-hunts of the past.

Thankfully, these are only parallels.

During Chairman Mao’s programme of ideological purification in the 1960s and 1970s, those representing or holding ‘politically incorrect’ – i.e. anti-revolutionary – views and behaviours were publicly shamed, punished, even tortured.

One of the most dreadful things about it was that it was initially carried out by young people, including secondary-school children and students.

These teenage revolutionaries, called the Red Guards, subjected their victims to public ‘self-criticism’ sessions. Teachers, landlords, monks and nuns, managers, intellectuals, doctors and Communist Party leaders were made to suffer verbal lashings and forms of extreme humiliation. They were forced to confess to non-existent crimes.

The Red Guards placed their own teachers on stools in the middle of a room, then bound and beat them. They shaved their heads in front of onlookers who were encouraged to taunt them. They put paper ‘dunce’ caps on their heads and placards around their necks. Next, they pulled their victims through the streets. People beat gongs and drums as they passed.

For self-preservation and virtue signalling, neighbours, friends, families and co-workers pre-emptively denounced one another; children rushed to denounce their parents, students denounced their teachers, employees denounced their employers…

It is thought millions were killed during this 10-year purge.

The Cultural Revolution destroyed the old social hierarchy and turned the pyramid upside down. The working class – previously perceived as powerless, voiceless and vulnerable to exploitation by those in power – were empowered and entitled to forcefully impose their newly endorsed political beliefs on others.

The bullied became the bullies.

The power of social media

One of the many positive aspects of today’s social media is that it’s a democratic platform on which to share opinions and information to promote healthy dialogue and debate. It has also become a powerful tool for victims of social injustices to raise awareness and create positive social change.

However, we have all witnessed the drawbacks of social media, such as cyber bullying. In the name of freedom of speech, many people use social media to spread hatred, settle personal scores, drown out others’ voices or self-righteously promote sentiments that are not in alignment with politically correct views.

One person calls out another for disagreeing with them. Others follow until a mob forms. Their anger leads to threats and intimidation and silences the accused, often leaving them cowering or even fearful for their own safety.

Many people are reluctant to defend someone else on social media, lest the mob turns on them and they, too, could suffer the same fate. The consequences can be so far-reaching and life-altering that employers or associates are forced to terminate employment contracts and relationships to protect themselves and their businesses.

The only way to appease cyber mobs seems to be to offer a public confession or apology. The accusers, meanwhile, hide behind the safety of virtual walls.

What’s disturbing is the arbitrary nature of cancel culture. An innocent comment or justified personal opinion could be taken out of context or amplified to have unexpected, disastrous consequences. The fear of judgement and punishment leads to hypocrisy and self-censorship.

The spectre of the Chinese Cultural Revolution hovers over us because it silenced anyone suspected of holding alternative views to those of the regime. Cultural revolution led to chaos and violence and set the country back for decades.

“Lest we forget” is a phrase used to bring to mind those who’ve died in war. It also reminds us of the cruelties of which our fellow humans are capable, especially when they are armed with self-righteousness and puritanical ideologies. Both are deadly weapons.

Helping anger fall away

Being mindful of our intentions, words and actions is a key element of personal practice in Buddhism and all religions. It requires the discipline of self-awareness and personal introspection. It’s a goal to aspire to on a never-ending, ever-evolving spiritual journey.

Words can heal. Words can harm. Words can connect people but also create barriers. Buddhism advocates the practice of compassionate listening as a means of breaking down such barriers.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who died in January 2022, gave many talks about the practice of deep listening as a means of opening our heart to another, no matter what they say. He taught that to listen with compassion is part of a journey that allows us to change our perception not only of others, but of ourselves.

With compassion, we can listen with more openness and less judgement. With mindfulness, we can listen with more neutrality and less projection. It creates a safer space to share our joys and fears, rather than turn them against one another. We could join hands, instead of pointing fingers. Let’s hope cancel culture ‘cancels’ out hatred and negativity, not our humanity.

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