Denouncement Culture

“We’ve come to a pass in this country,” says a character in Paul Levitt’s new novel, The Denouncer, “where a man – or a woman – will denounce another for making eye contact.” He is speaking of 1930s Russia, but it could almost be us with our extraordinary eagerness to denounce perceived offenses, our postmodern capacity to be offended for others who are not themselves offended, and our tendency to keep our own communications in narrowly accepted channels for fear that we ourselves may be denounced at any moment for some real or artificial offense.

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15 thoughts on “Denouncement Culture

  1. Spot on! This is a very interesting phenomenon. Usually it takes coercive governments with armies and secret police to control what people think and say. What is it about the modern world that is causing this to happen?

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    • Steve, you’re onto one of Michel Foucault’s big themes – how strategies of coercion gradually give way to strategies of consent, starting around the 18th century. I was thinking more narrowly of the political correctness movement, in which liberals shifted emphasis from breaking limits on what to say and think (1960s and 70s) to policing new limits set up by themselves circa 1980s. I am a liberal myself, but not comfortable with the new “policing” liberals. And back to Foucault, yes, peer pressure can be more effective than external coercion because peer pressure internalizes the rules.

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  2. This is so true – and it reinforces the “us and them” culture if we are all so paralysed with fear about offending when we really don’t mean to. It keeps us in the “narrowly accepted channels” you refer to.

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  3. Jeez, one small critique of political correctness and y’all are ready to start chopping off heads. “Fuck the liberals, materialists, etc.,” is just another variation of political correctness (another form of enforcement). Better if we get all those people in one place, make a big pot of sangria, and have a good-natured debate. So I’m back with Fan of Dickens on this one – let’s eschew ALL the “us and them” dichotomies. (OK, Steve and Manja, I know y’all were just playing but I still had to say my follow-up piece.)

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    • This is a gnarly conundrum, Gary. For the denouncement culture avoids good-natured debate like the plague; it seems a culture of power alone for its own sake. But I’ll gladly sit down to debate with a willing soul in order to hold up an example to others. Besides, I’ve heard your sangria has legendary effects.

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      • Hi Chris. This has come up in my discussions with Steve Morris. When our liberal brothers and sisters were underdogs (1960s), they were all about breaking the Establishment chains on how to think, speak, etc. When they became the empowered group (e.g., in 1980s academia), they (or a subset thereof) were quick to enforce their own norms about how to think, speak, etc. So this attitude about power may not be “liberal” or “conservative,” but simply the expression of a basic law that says empowered groups want to lock in prevailing norms and the underdog groups favor freedom to break prevailing norms.

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