Some Lessons about Cancel Culture from a Former Refusenik

February 12, 2021 | Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy
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Last week, a New York Times reporter resigned after it was found out that, in 2019, he employed a racial epithet not out of malice, but in the context of an abstract discussion of the term itself. His departure was accompanied by a public apology that put some in mind of the confessions elicited at Soviet show trials, and seemed to many the epitome of the censorious attitudes that have come to be known as “cancel culture.” The former refusenik and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, writing with the historian Gil Troy, reflects on his own experience with the USSR’s suppression of thought and speech, and notes the parallels to the present climate. Although today saying the wrong thing can’t get a person executed or sent to the gulag, Sharansky nevertheless believes that both situations require people to live in constant tension between the ideas they believe and those they express:

The term “politically correct,” which is popular today, emerged in the late 1920s, to describe the need to correct certain deviants’ thought to fit the Communist party line. . . . As the party line you follow publicly becomes increasingly disconnected from what you believe or see or experience privately, your cynicism grows along with your mental agility—your skill in living and writing in two contradictory scripts at once. That’s how you become a doublethinker.

I started my own life as a doublethinker at the age of five in 1953, when Josef Stalin died. The seventy-four-year-old despot was at the peak of his anti-Semitic campaign—and Jews were increasingly nervous. On that March day, out of any neighbor’s earshot, my father told my seven-year-old older brother and me, “Today is a great day that you should always remember. This is good news for us Jews. This man was very dangerous to us.” But,” he added, “don’t tell this to anybody. Do what everybody else does.” The next day, in kindergarten, as we sang songs honoring Stalin, “the hope of all the people,” and mourned his death, I had no idea how many children were crying sincerely, and how many were only following their father’s instructions.

Sharansky recounts that for some time he tried to hide in the more certain realities of chess and the hard sciences, which seemed impenetrable to party manipulation. Thanks to his fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov, he realized they were not, and began his journey to open rebellion in the form of applying for permission to travel to Israel:

With that request, I formally ended my life as a doublethinker, playing their game by their rules. As I committed suicide within the Soviet system, I ended my double life.

Once I had done it, once I was no longer afraid, I realized what it was to be free. . . . I could live with real people and enjoy real friendships, not the cautious, constricted conversations of winks and nods among fellow doublethinkers. Most important, I could live without that permanent self-censorship, that constant checking of what you are going to say to make sure it’s not what you want to say. Only then do you realize what a burden you’ve been carrying, how exhausting it is to say the right thing, do the right thing, while always fighting the fear of being outed for an errant thought, a wrong reaction, an idiosyncratic impulse.

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