Cancel Culture Intensifies

It may be too strong to say that a specter of uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions is haunting the Western democracies, but two interrelated issues are cause for concern. One is the apprehension that the West is erasing too readily historical landmarks or individuals that are regarded as inimical to certain modern sensibilities or is downplaying past achievements while other factors are considered more important. The second is the emergence of a "counterculture" — not simply the lack of commitment to a common culture, but a modern form of ostracism removing or downgrading people, expressions, and ideas deemed offensive or problematic or not politically correct to particular groups or to social or professional circles.

Changes in culture in the U.S. may be illuminated or inferred from two recent events. One is the dilemma of the football team, the Washington Redskins, once the Boston Braves, presently known as the Washington Football Team until an inoffensive name is found. The other pertains to the symbolism of Winston Churchill. In 2001, the bust of Churchill was loaned by Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush, who put it in the Oval Office. The bust was removed by President Obama in 2009 and was reinstated by President Trump in 2017. On his first day in office, President Biden removed the bust from the Oval Office and replaced it with images of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks; Robert Kennedy; and Cesar Chávez. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not alone in seeing this new removal as a "snub to Britain."

A new development in Britain raises the issue of intellectual cultural amnesia or a lack of commitment to a historic culture. It stems from the decision of the University of Leicester, which issued an extraordinary statement denying that it was dropping Geoffrey Chaucer from its English courses because Chaucer was "too white." University plans had been revealed that he was being replaced by teaching modules on race, ethnicity, diversity, and sexuality. Such courses, a decolonized curriculum, according to university officials, would match students' own interests and enthusiasms. This means that programs will be offered in English literature from "Shakespeare to Bernadine Evaristo," the author who in 2019 is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, the leading literary award in the English-speaking world. However, cuts in the programs will be made affecting John Milton's Paradise Lost, poems of John Donne, and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.

It may be admitted that readers of Chaucer are a minority cult, and that few are engaged in seeking adventure or glory in noble deeds as are the knights of Malory, but Chaucer is generally considered the father of English literature with his immortal work The Canterbury Tales. He was the first person to be buried in Westminster Abbey in the area known as Poet's Corner. The decision of Leicester University is not simply another example of "cancel culture," but also disregarding valuable information of early British history.