05 December 2020


Theodore Dalrymple on a besetting vice of academia 

Cant is more destructive than hypocrisy because it is harder to expose and because a humbug deceives himself as well as others, while a mere hypocrite retains some awareness; he is a rogue rather than a villain. Cant is the vehement public expression of concern for others, or of anger at an opinion casting doubt on some moral orthodoxy that is not, and cannot be, genuinely felt, its vehemence being a shield for insincerity and lack of confidence in the orthodox opinion. Doctor Johnson defined cant as “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms.” Cant is contagious, and, when widespread, it creates an atmosphere in which people are afraid to call it by its name. Arguments then go by default; and if arguments go by default, ludicrous, bad, or even wicked policies result. 

I think that we live in an era of cant. I do not say that it is the only such age. But it has never been, at least in my lifetime, as important as it is now to hold the right opinions and to express none of the wrong ones, if one wants to avoid vilification and to remain socially frequentable. Worse still, and even more totalitarian, is the demand for public assent to patently false or exaggerated propositions; refusal to kowtow in such circumstances becomes almost as bad a sin as uttering a forbidden view. One must join in the universal cant — or else. 

Wherever people are punished, legally or socially, for expressing an opinion contrary to some recently adopted orthodoxy, or for failing to express the tenets of that orthodoxy, cant is bound to flourish; further, people who begin with an awareness that they are uttering cant come to believe that it is true because no one likes to think that he has spoken only from mere conformity or pusillanimity, or to avoid unpleasantness and the ruination of reputation. Hence, cant spreads rapidly once it takes hold in a society, and it becomes difficult to challenge, let alone eradicate. 

Cant also has a built-in tendency to inflation. When it becomes generalized, it’s necessary for anyone who desires to distinguish himself from the majority of people in some way to go even further in his own cant. It is like fundamentalism in Islam: you can always be outflanked by someone more orthodox than thou. Once a new canting doctrine becomes orthodox, it will, in turn, be outflanked. 

Leaders in cant are not inquirers after truth but seekers of power, if only the power to destroy, which is often a delight in itself. Cant is the weapon of the ambitious mediocrity, a class of person that has become much more numerous with the extension, but also dilution, of tertiary education. Such people believe that social prominence is their due.