The age of cant

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.

Britain has long been a world leader in cant. The historian Macaulay said that nothing was so ridiculous as the British in one of their fits of morality, by which he meant cant rather than obedience to the moral law or genuine reflection on the ethical basis of action. Dickens memorably portrayed characters whose main feature was cant: Pecksniff, Uriah Heep, Mrs. Jellyby, Mr. Podsnap. Clearly, cant is not a new invention. Often accused of caricature, Dickens replied (in his preface to Martin Chuzzlewit) that what seemed like caricature to some was to him the unvarnished reality. And I think it true that the habit of canting can reduce people to a single, or highly predominant, characteristic. It makes people’s opinions seem like a scratched record that causes the needle to jump and replay again and again the same snatch of song.

Cant takes over minds and reduces their ability to consider other points of view, take in contradictory evidence, or sympathize with anyone not in total and unconditional agreement. It is therefore, in its essence, intolerant. It promotes monotony and eradicates subtlety, nuance, and irony; it does not recognize a tragic dimension to life. It is inherently utopian because it assumes that perfection, especially moral perfection, can be reached. It is boring. It achieves its victories over others by use of what Napoleon called the only effective rhetorical technique—namely, repetition (though frightening vehemence also plays its part). It intimidates by gathering crowds, by anathema, and excommunication. It is devoid of humor, one of the saving graces of human existence; indeed, humor is its enemy, perhaps its greatest enemy. That is why jokes are the particular object of its obloquy.