Cancel culture is creating a Soviet-style society of liars

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The public-policy scholar Joseph Overton stated that an idea must fall within a certain range of acceptability to be politically viable. The Overton Window, as this concept has come to be known, describes the range of publicly palatable ideas at a given time, and it applies not only to politicians, but to the general public as well.

Recently, however, the rules have changed. Imagine that you’re throwing darts at a dartboard. You intend to hit certain sections and avoid others. You throw a bunch of darts and manage to hit your targets.

Now, suppose that some other people come along and shift the rules of the game, changing which sections earn and lose points. In fact, they specifically make sure that your score has changed, so that you lose points. Turns out that, under the new rules, you’re a bad dart player.

The Overton Window has become the Overton dartboard. Every day, people throw darts at a board — each tweet, post and public statement is aimed at hitting a mark. And each new moral fashion offers the opportunity to change their scores.

In addition to considering whether what we say now might violate current fashion, we must anticipate whether the rules of the game will change again soon, and that what we say today might get used against us later. Further, we must consider whether what we said in the past might be used against us now.

Arthur Koestler described how such purity tests worked during his days as a Communist. “We groped painfully in our minds,” the author of “Darkness at Noon” wrote, “not only to find justifications for the line laid down, but also to find traces of former thoughts which would prove to ourselves that we had always held the required opinion.”

It’s no longer enough to be ideologically pure by current standards. One must always have held the proper beliefs. Of course, such tortuous moral standards can only lead to lying. In a recent paper titled “Keeping Your Mouth Shut: Spiraling Self-Censorship in the United States,” political scientists James L. Gibson and Joseph L. Sutherland reveal that self-censorship among Americans has soared.

In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, 13.4 percent of Americans reported that they “felt less free to speak their mind than they used to.” In 1987, the figure reached 20 percent. By 2019, 40 percent of Americans reported that they didn’t feel free to speak their minds.

This isn’t a partisan issue. “The percentage of Democrats who are worried about speaking their mind is just about identical to the percentage of Republicans who self-censor: 39 percent and 40 percent, respectively,” Gibson and Sutherland report.

What are the consequences of this continuous self-censorship? In his book “The Great Terror,” the British historian Robert Conquest suggested one possible answer. In a passage about Soviet show trials, Conquest was troubled by something: Why did innocent people falsely confess to appalling crimes, even when most Soviet citizens themselves didn’t believe these people when they confessed?

Conquest’s chilling answer: Soviet citizens grew so used to lying that expressing one more falsehood was no big deal. People grew conditioned to accept the ever-changing standards and even to affirm support for them.

The Overton dartboard has another aspect. Suppose you and I publicly support a policy that we privately despise. If neither of us publicly dissents, we’ll make the policy more acceptable than it actually is — even as neither of us benefits from it. Yet sometimes, people will attempt to hit a target under the mistaken belief that they will win points for it.

Management expert Jerry B. Harvey calls this the “Abilene paradox.” It describes situations in which individuals disagree with an idea but acquiesce out of a perception that others agree with it. If honesty becomes unfashionable, we operate under the assumption that others hold certain opinions, which, in fact, they don’t.

As the rules of the game keep shifting, and individuals lose jobs or prominence because of things that they have said in the past, we will all become more adept at expressing falsehoods. It is likely that such a system will select for individuals predisposed to being comfortable with deception. Over time, only liars will speak openly.

Robert Henderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. Adapted from City Journal.

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