A “new Puritanism” is sweeping the West, says Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic. In America it’s possible to meet people who have lost everything – jobs, money, friends, colleagues – “after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules”. Instead they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes on race, sex, personal behaviour, even acceptable humour. “The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic.” Some say it’s not serious, but isolation, public shaming and loss of income are severe sanctions for adults, with long-term personal and psychological repercussions. One “difficult” academic I interviewed contemplated suicide.
Just as “odd old women” were once accused of witchcraft, certain types of people are now likely “to fall victim to modern mob justice”. They are, or were, professors who liked to chat or drink with their students, bosses who went out to lunch with their staff, people who blurred the lines between social life and institutional life. More often than not apologies are parsed, examined for “sincerity” – and rejected. “The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualised apologies, the public sacrifices – these are typical behaviours in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes.” On examination, the accusers are people who disliked their target, or held some kind of personal or professional grudge. If we drive away the difficult people, we will become a flatter, duller, less interesting society. And history, in the end, will expose us.