With those children, he thought, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it. The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother — it was all a sort of glorious game to them. All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which “The Times” did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — “child hero” was the phrase generally used — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.
— 1984, by George Orwell
Seventy years on from the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, what strikes me most about it is the children who are valorized for denouncing their parents. This was not just a lurid invention of Orwell’s imagination. A child like this had a name, Pavlik Morozov. He may have been apocryphal, but his cult as the child martyr of the Soviet Union was real enough, and statues of him endured until at least 1991. Pavlik was said to be a peasant child who denounced his father for hiding grain from the NKVD. This at a time when the penalty for such an offense could be death by execution, or almost certain death in the gulag. Pavlik was killed by his grandfather. The cult around him was raised to destroy and weaken the bonds of family. Totalitarian regimes erode the bonds of family through the double infliction of misery and reward. The miserable existence of peasants and the endless power of the state sets the self-interest of members against their blood relations. A father’s attempt to hide an extra bit of grain may mean a few more bites of food, but denouncing him to the authorities once could lead to a full belly forever. Until you yourself are denounced.
The denunciation of parents is not always such an obvious or dangerous betrayal. In fact, something of a generational denunciation is always taking place. Humans being what they are, and human society being what it is — imperfect — gives a certain predictability to the turnover from womb to tomb. With every rising generation there is a rising complaint about the state of the inheritance. A good generation will try to improve on it for their own posterity, but humans being what they are, failure and complaint will come again.
But there is a residue of Pavlik’s cult alive in our present age of denunciation and “cancel culture.” The cult of the child who is innocent of adult compromises or history appears across social media, where parents report proudly of their prepubescent children uttering the gosh-darned wokest things. The effect people aim for in these stories is to show how profundities come “out of the mouth of babes.” What they really demonstrate is that our political orthodoxies are so simplistic that they are apprehensible to children at or below the age of reason.
And the cult is extended in a cutesy way during the holiday season, when authors at news sites instruct ungrateful adult children how to make family dinners more unpleasant by directly confronting their reactionary relations, rather than learning to deflect or excuse themselves from unwelcome conversation.
A larger culture of youthful denunciation exists at universities. There is no purer expression of thoughtcrime than the modern conflation of unwelcome speech or readings with physical assault. And there is nothing more deflating than watching someone who has put his foot wrong in this culture subject himself to performative self-criticism, abominating himself as a bearer of privilege. But progressives aren’t alone in this. Over the last two decades, conservative students have also been deployed as Thought Police, often taking things said by their professors out of the context of a class and subjecting them to outrage mobs.
An official censor’s guidelines create a kind of dissenter in silhouette. Therefore an official censor is usually rather easy to defeat. George Carlin’s “seven words” act made a funny sport of anti-vulgarity censorship. During World War I, the inventive Irish activist Arthur Griffith saw two of his newspapers suppressed by authorities. He created a third newspaper, Scissors and Paste, which reprinted the contents of censored newspapers but juxtaposed their contents in such a way as to reveal the contradictions and absurdities of the official line.
But the chilling effect of cancel culture is arguably worse than that of more official forms of censorship. Our cancel culture relies on the unpredictability and post hoc nature of the enforcement to instill a spirit of creative and preemptive conformity among those with something to lose. In cancel culture anyone can exist as “that wretched woman,” who may not quite apprehend what she can or cannot say, but knows enough to know she can’t say what she thinks without punishment, nor acknowledge even the nature of the vindictive power at work on her.