Opinion

Standing Up to Cancel Culture

Left- and right-wing thinkers agree cancel culture is getting out of hand.

Empire State Building New York
The Empire State Building in Manhattan, New York (Unsplash/Gaurav Pikale)

You wait for three years for the center-left and center-right to make common cause against the extremists on either side and in the course of a week it all happens at once:

  • Yascha Mounk has created a community and newsletter in defense of liberal democracy called Persuasion, which includes left-wing thinkers, such as Sheri Berman and Thomas Chatterton Williams, as well as Never-Trump conservatives Jonathan Haidt, David French and David Frum.
  • Seventeen academics have started the blog Radical Classical Liberals.
  • The Neoliberal Project has launched the Center for New Liberalism, a center-left think tank and pressure group.
  • The conservative Lincoln Project is putting out the most effective ads against Donald Trump.
  • 153 intellectuals of the left and right, including Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Ian Buruma, Noam Chomsky, Richard T. Ford, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Yascha Mounk, Jonathan Rauch, J.K. Rowling, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Gloria Steinem, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Matthew Yglesias and Fareed Zakaria, have signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” warning that cancel culture is getting out of hand and stifling free debate.

“Stifling atmosphere”

The letter has attracted both the most praise and the most scorn. It’s worth quoting at length:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.

Criticism

If you like to think of yourself as liberal and open-minded, like me, you probably won’t disagree.

If you doubted cancel culture was as pernicious as its critics claim, the fact that everyone from Chomsky, the world’s most famous anticapitalist, to Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, agrees it is should give you pause.

There are myriad examples. Some seem fair. Shane Gillis was fired from Saturday Night Live for homophobic and racist remarks he made a year before. Comedian Kevin Hart withdrew from nominating the 2019 Oscars over homophobic comments. Matt Lauer was fired from The Today Show and actor Kevin Spacey was edited out of a movie after both men were accused by multiple people of sexual misconduct.

Others seem excessive.

  • James Bennet and Ian Buruma were fired from The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review, respectively, for publishing controversial opinions.
  • Stan Wischnowski resigned as editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer after he was criticized for running a story with the headline “Buildings Matter Too”.
  • Kevin D. Williamson was fired by The Atlantic, only weeks after being hired, over a four year-old sarcastic tweet.
  • The Des Moines Register published two racist tweets a local security guard had posted when he was 16, initially defended its decision, then fired the reporter, but not the editor, of the story when public opinion turned against it.
  • Kyle Kashuv, the survivor of a school shooting and a conservative teen activist, was barred from Harvard University for racist comments he made as a 16 year-old.
  • A spokesman resigned from Boeing over a 33 year-old article in which he argued against women serving in combat.
  • A Washington DC woman lost her job as a government contractor when The Washington Post revealed she had worn blackface at a 2018 Halloween party in a misguided attempt at satire.
  • A Mexican American man was fired by San Diego Gas and Electric after a picture was posted online in which he made a hand gesture that the photographer mistook for a white power symbol.
  • University of California, Los Angeles professor Gordon Klein was put on leave after more than 20,000 people signed a petition to get him fired for refusing to give black students time off after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
  • The same university is investigating a teacher who read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” out loud, including the word “nigger”, which made some students feel “unsafe”.
  • Harald Uhlig was removed as editor of the Journal of Political Economy by the University of Chicago after tweeting criticism of calls to “defund the police”.
  • A librarian at Doane University, Nebraska was put on leave after two 1926 photos of students in blackface were included in an exhibit of historical student scrap- and yearbooks.
  • Jill Snyder canceled an art exhibit of historical police brutality against men of color at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland when it was called too “traumatizing”. The cancelation drew its own criticism from artists who blamed it on “institutional white fragility”. Snyder resigned as director.
  • Henry Bienen was forced out as president of Chicago’s Poetry Foundation after the organization put out a statement in solidarity with the black community, and condemning systemic racism, that was criticized for being too weak.
  • Jeanine Cummins, a white author, was criticized for writing about a Mexican woman in her book American Dirt.
  • Alexandra Duncan, also white, withdrew her book, Ember Days, from publication after she was criticized of writing about the experience of African Americans.
  • Amélie Wen Zhao postponed publication of her book, Blood Heir, when it was accused of trivializing black slavery by depicting non-racial slavery in a fantasy setting.
  • A burrito shop in Portland, Oregon closed after its white owners had been accused of “culinary white supremacy” in the local press.
  • A British woman was fired from the Center for Global Development for arguing one can’t change sex.
  • Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was called transphobic when she criticized the firing and questioned the latest woke orthodoxy that biological sex is a social construct.
  • Gillian Philip was fired by her publisher when she spoke out in Rowling’s defense.

Fredrik deBoer points out that none of these examples (you can find more here) are mentioned in the letter. In fact, not a single real-world incident is mentioned about which there might be specific and tangible controversy.

So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves?

You can’t, argues deBoer:

And people are objecting to it because social-justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech.

I’ve seen four types of criticism:

  1. Some of the writers of the letter hold the wrong opinion on X, therefore the whole letter, and everybody who signed it, must be wrong. Emily VanDerWerff wrote to her employer, Vox, to complain about her colleague Yglesias’ support for the letter when, according to VanDerWerff, some of the other signatories are transphobic. Not Yglesias, but apparently he is guilty by association. Another person who signed the letter, Jennifer Finney Boylan, even retracted her support when she found out conservatives had signed it too.
  2. One of the signatories of the letter once did the thing she now argues against.
  3. The authors didn’t speak out against X, so they have no credibility to speak out against cancel culture.
  4. There are bigger problems in the world. There is a pandemic. People are losing their jobs for lesser reasons. Donald Trump is president. The police are out of control.

Some of these are familiar to me, because I’ve experienced them myself.

  • When I was 22, I expressed the wrong opinion on neo-Orientalist fiction at one of my other websites. Some critics calmly pointed out my mistake. Others called me a racist on Twitter and organized a boycott. That didn’t change my mind; it only caused me to hunker down. It wasn’t until some years later that I recognized my mistake and publicly recanted my position. No matter. Ten years later, I was still called a racist.
  • In 2018, I got published in Quillette. The story argued against radicalization and polarization. No matter. Quillette is seen as far-right by journalist on the left. I haven’t been able to get anything published in a left-leaning outlet since.

Fallacies

The criticisms are fallacies.

  1. You don’t need to agree with someone on everything in order to agree with them on anything. This is the very mentality the letter cautions against. As Pamela Paresky puts it:

    Someone signed a letter that advocated for allowing people to disagree without retribution. She [Boylan] is being attacked for it, and now apologizes for signing the letter because people she disagrees with signed it too. It’s beyond parody.

  2. People change their minds. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s growth.
  3. You don’t have to speak out against every injustice in the world in order to speak out against one injustice.
  4. You don’t need to try to solve every problem in order to try to solve one problem.

And it’s so unhelpful.

  • Hunting for heretics is more likely to alienate those who don’t have a strong opinion about your cause than create converts.
  • Berate people when they come around to your point-of-view and they will be less likely to.
  • Similarly, shame people when they’re trying to do good and they will be less likely to.

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