The Cancel Culture Debate

Expressing views out of step with the common sense of your era has always been risky. But now, as cultural power shifts and common sense changes, it’s harder to know what’s safe.

It has long been a staple of conservative thought that good people should have nothing to do with bad people. The very first verse in the Book of Psalms says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:14 the New Testament echoes: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

This conservative idealization of purity is currently playing out in the treatment of the Never-Trump Republicans, who are seen as heretics rather than wayward brethren. Justin Amash had to leave the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was dis-invited from CPAC. Even Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz is under fire for her occasional criticisms of the Great Leader.

But those incidents are dogs biting men. What really has drawn public attention is the man-bites-dog phenomenon of liberals casting people out. Liberals define themselves as open-minded and tolerant, and yet now they are often the ones who get people expelled from social media or dis-invited from speaking engagements or even fired from their jobs.

Such incidents have led to much bad-faith criticism from conservatives, and the popularization of the label “cancel culture”. But it has also resulted in introspection among liberals, most recently and publicly in “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by around 150 intellectual heavyweights and published in Harper’s.

The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

This intolerant-climate rhetoric has predictably played into the both-sides-do-it narrative that mainstream media uses to establish its objectivity. But what exactly is the “it” that both sides do? The Harper’s letter is vague and sloppy about this, and the coverage the letter generated has often talked about “free speech”, when that is not the issue at all.

So let’s start at the beginning and try to get this right: What exactly is “cancellation”, and why might people of good faith want to do it?

When cancellation is merited. Judy Mikovits has a theory: She thinks Covid-19 was created in the United States by public health officials led by Dr. Anthony Fauci. They shipped it to Wuhan where it was either released or escaped, starting the current pandemic. Mikovits also holds Fauci personally responsible for destroying her career in science; she says he distributed millions of dollars to cover up the conspiracy that persecuted her. She has also made several other bizarre claims about Covid-19 in the video Plandemic, which went viral in right-wing circles until it was removed from most social media platforms: Flu vaccines have distributed coronavirus, which is activated when you wear a mask. Bill Gates was part of the plan to spread Covid-19, so that he can profit off the eventual vaccine. And so on.

Actual evidence for these claims is virtually non-existent.

So what should happen to Mikovits and her theories? In my ideal world, not much. She would be free to run around making whatever claims she believes, but no one would take her seriously, either. Groups would not invite her to speak. People who stumbled across her video online would say “Really?” and do some checking before deciding not to pass it on to anyone else. If Facebook, Twitter, et al. discovered “Plandemic” gaining popularity on their platforms, they would remove it, exactly as they did in the real world, but maybe sooner. And of course, being a distributor of wild misinformation about science would make Mikovits unemployable by legitimate scientific institutions.

In short, I think Mikovits deserves to be canceled — not imprisoned, not fined, not punished in any discernible way, just removed from the national conversation — not by government edict, but by the shared standards and good judgment of society in general.

Instead, Sinclair Broadcasting, the Trumpist network of local TV stations, decided to give her a platform. [1] Eric Bolling (who you may remember from his time as a Fox News host, until he left under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations) has a TV show America This Week, which Sinclair distributes to its stations. This week’s episode includes interviews with Mikovits and with her lawyer Larry Klayman.

For balance, Bolling also interviewed a Fox News medical contributor who describes Mikovits’ claims about Covid and Fauci as “unlikely”. But for much of the episode, the chyron asks the question: “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?” Many of Bolling’s viewers — especially the ones who might be cooking dinner or paying bills and only looking up at the TV occasionally — will probably come away thinking that “yes” is a plausible opinion, one that reasonable people should consider.

Is Sinclair’s decision to air Mikovits’ views a defense of free speech? I don’t think so. I believe it’s irresponsible and does a disservice to viewers who trust their local news stations.

Legal vs. acceptable. I bring Mikovits up not because I want to spend significant time debunking her, but for the sake of her example: Widespread rhetoric about “cancel culture” professes to be about “free speech” or censorship, but it really isn’t. [2] We’re not discussing what speech should be legal. We’re discussing what speech should be acceptable in various forums. And the answer to that question should not be “whatever anyone wants to say”. Failing to cancel someone can be irresponsible management of an information forum. [3]

The acceptability question is not absolute; it is forum-dependent. Suppose I agree with Mikovits and say so. What should happen depends on where I say it or try to say it.

  • If I’m talking to my friends at a bar (assuming it’s ever safe to go back to bars), they should scoff at me, but the conversation should move on with no further consequence.
  • If I submit an article to a general-interest newspaper or magazine, they should reject it; but maybe I could get away with raising the question of whether the virus was created in a lab, and suggesting that maybe it was.
  • If I’m writing for Scientific American or some other popular magazine with scientific respectability, I should only be able to make claims that I can support with significant scientific evidence. The created-in-a-lab theory probably couldn’t pass muster.
  • A scientific journal like Nature should require not just evidence, but proof. Otherwise, my opinion should not be heard.

If I am employed by Scientific American or a scientific journal, and I develop a reputation as a promoter of the Fauci-created-Covid conspiracy theory, they should fire me, because my reputation would conflict with the reputation the magazine wants to maintain.

None of this would constitute a violation of my free speech. I can say whatever I want, but other people are also free to react to what I say. No one has to offer me a platform or lend me their respectability.

Zack Beauchamp makes this point in more detail.

Contrary to the original letter signers’ claims, what’s actually happening here is more subtle than a war between free speech’s defenders and its opponents. It is, as the University of Illinois’s Nicholas Grossman writes, an argument over “drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” That’s not a conflict over the principles of a free society but the rules that govern its operation in practice.

Before we called it “canceling”. If there ever was a moment in American history when all speech was acceptable and any idea could be advocated in any forum, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. I grew up during the Cold War, an era when it went without saying that no major newspaper or magazine would have an openly Communist columnist. [4] Slightly before my time, the Hollywood blacklist banned movie people suspected of Communist sympathies. One famous victim was the black singer/actor Paul Robeson, who you may have heard sing “Ol’ Man River“.

The range of opinions acceptable on major-network TV may have expanded somewhat in the 21st century, but is still quite narrow. Bill Maher ran into the limits shortly after 9-11. At the time, he hosted ABC’s Politically Incorrect, a comic-but-serious discussion of the news similar to his current Real Time show on HBO. But Maher made the mistake of responding to President Bush’s characterization of the 9-11 hijackers as cowards by saying something fairly obvious:

We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.

Soon, local ABC affiliates were refusing to air Maher’s show and sponsors were dropping it. It was not renewed for another season, after having been on ABC for five years.

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks (now just “The Chicks”) faced retribution after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that the band opposed the upcoming invasion of Iraq: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In response

The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations. On May 6, Colorado radio station KKCS suspended two DJs for playing their music.

So “cancel culture” may be a relatively recent term, but the phenomenon is not at all new.

Moving the boundaries. If cancel culture isn’t new, why is it suddenly getting so much attention? It’s hard to argue with the assertion that something feels different now. But what and why?

For one thing, more and more people are unsure about where the boundaries are, and so they withhold opinions they might previously have expressed. In a poll by Cato Institute — not an unbiased source, but faking a poll is not their style — 62% of Americans agree with the statement: “The political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive.” That’s up slightly from 58% in 2017.

The question is why. I think Beauchamp has this right: It’s not that the bounds of acceptable speech are getting narrower, it’s that the range is shifting. Activists on the left are succeeding in moving the range leftward, and some would like to shift it further.

That may sound partisan and even nefarious in the abstract, but there is justification for it: The range of acceptable speech has never been natural or God-given; it arises out of a society’s power dynamics. [5] We are emerging from a centuries-long era when power belonged exclusively to upper-class straight white Christian men. So the bounds we are used to — ones that seem “normal” to us — unfairly favor upper-class straight white Christian men.

Social justice advocates think the bands of acceptable opinion and arguments shouldn’t be narrowed, precisely, but rather pushed to the left — shifted to include formerly excluded voices from oppressed communities and to sideline voices that seek to continue their exclusion. Their critics think the traditional bands of debate are, broadly speaking, correct, and that we’d all be worse off if the social justice advocates succeed in moving speech norms in their direction.

Consider, for example, the Me-Too movement. Abusive men like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby used to be confident that their female victims would not be listened to or taken seriously, but now at least some of those voices are being heard. And if uncertainty about the new boundaries prevents men “from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive”, that isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t doubt for a minute that Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida was saying what he believes when he called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes a “fucking bitch”. But if he restrains himself in the future (because he doesn’t want to be eviscerated again on the floor of the House), I don’t see the loss.

As a professional-class straight white brought-up-Christian man myself, I have often been corrected for running afoul of the new boundaries — by  commenters on this blog, for example. I have been called out for using the verb “bitch” for a certain style of complaining (done by men and women alike), or for referring to someone as “transgendered” (as if it were something that happened to them) rather than “transgender” (something they are). Occasionally someone observes that my attempts to write about privilege are themselves tainted by a privileged viewpoint. Of course it stings to be criticized for something I did without conscious malice, and that no one would have mentioned ten or twenty years ago. But I also recognize that a world where people like me get criticized for giving offense is better than one where the people we offend are not heard.

Who decides? A glance at the list of signers of the Harper’s letter reveals that they aren’t all upper-class straight white Christian men: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Michelle Goldberg, Khaled Khalifa, Dahlia Lithwick, John McWhorter, Gloria Steinem, Fahreed Zakaria, and many others. So why is this their issue?

For some, the motivation is obvious: Salman Rushdie had to spend years in hiding because his writings offended a powerful Muslim cleric. J. K. Rowling has faced a huge backlash to her opinion that transwomen are not “real” women. But not all the signers have some clear personal ax to grind. What’s up with them?

Let’s go back to Beauchamp:

What’s new in the modern era, according to [York University philosopher Regina] Rini, is that the mass public has gained an unprecedented ability to influence and reshape those rules [defining acceptable speech] — a process that used to be the province of the elite. … [Intellectual elites] believe that social media, and Twitter in particular, is starting to exercise a kind of veto over editorial judgment — running roughshod over editors and forcing journalists to be subject to the new activist rules of political discourse. The objection here is not just that activist speech norms are bad, but that those speech norms are being imposed on the intellectual elite by the loudest voices on social media — that a silent majority of conventionally liberal journalists are being silenced by radicals.

Here’s what the Harper’s letter says:

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.

A response letter from a collection of generally less famous intellectuals points out that the examples vaguely alluded to in the paragraph above are both less unjust and less representative than they appear.

The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. … Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.

For years, the people at the top of the intellectual pyramid have been insulated from the disapproval of the lower orders. [6] Now they are less insulated. Some problems may result from that trend, but it’s not obvious that the trend itself is a problem.

What is common sense? In David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, he defined the success of revolutions not by the the new governments they establish, but by “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. [7] We seem to be in such a revolutionary period now. Just a few months ago, for example, defunding or abolishing the police were ideas outside the bounds of acceptable discussion in most popular forums. Now the idea is openly discussed in The New York Times and other establishment forums. On the other side of the spectrum, the President is floating the possibility that he might refuse to accept an election that he loses.

No one can really say what “political common sense” means right now; it’s in flux. Similarly, “acceptable speech” is in flux. That is not the fault of anybody in particular. It’s just an uncomfortable feature of this historical moment.

In this situation, mistakes are going to be made. We’re all going to say things that we’ll regret after standards settle down. And some of our responses to other people’s transgressions will turn out to be inappropriate — sometimes too harsh, sometimes too lenient. It will be so obvious in hindsight.

What can we say? Recognizing that our current sight suffers fog-of-war-type limitations, how much can we say? Here are a few incomplete conclusions I’ve come to.

Disagreement is not censorship. Back on May 26, when Twitter attached a fact-check link to one of Trump’s lying tweets, the President tweeted back:

Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!

Trump was so stifled that a week or so later (June 5) he tweeted 200 times. But this complaint has a long pedigree in conservative circles. When she was John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Sarah Palin claimed that her rights had been violated by media accounts labeling her paling-round-with-terrorists rhetoric as “negative campaigning”.

If (the media) convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

The same observation holds for liberals, moderates, or anybody else: If you say something and somebody disagrees with you, your rights have not been violated. If they label what you say as racist or sexist or some other ist-word, that’s their opinion and they have as much right to it as you have to your opinion.

Reserve your sympathy for people suffering real consequences. Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just “somebody called me a homophobe”. Hannah Giorgis made the point like this:

Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.

Michelle Goldberg objected:

This sentence brought me up short; one of these things is not like the others. Anyone venturing ideas in public should be prepared to endure negative reviews and pushback on social media. Internal workplace reviews are something else. If people fear for their livelihoods for relatively minor ideological transgressions, it may not violate the Constitution — the workplace is not the state — but it does create a climate of self-censorship and grudging conformity.

However, a review is not a firing. And that leads to the next point.

Responsibility belongs to the decision-makers. If you say something innocent that unfairly provokes (in the words of the Harper’s letter) “calls for swift and severe retribution” on Twitter, and then your boss fires you, the problem is with your boss, not with Twitter or the people who complained. Storms of public opinion are going to be a regular feature of public life, and institutions are going to have to learn how to weather them. People in positions of responsibility are going to need to have the courage of their convictions.

Universities are a good example: Students can ask for whatever they want; the university doesn’t have to give it to them. If some student group calls for the scalp of a professor who offended them by doing something that is well within the terms of ordinary academic freedom, and the university gives in, that’s on the university. Universities who make a habit of this kind of cowardice should be shunned by the kind of intellectuals they would otherwise try to recruit.

Saying anything substantive requires courage. This much has always and everywhere been true: It’s risky to express opinions that are out of step with the common sense of your time and place. [8] The problem now is that, since common sense itself is in flux, nobody can be sure what opinions are safe, or will continue to be safe when people a few years hence look back with new eyes.

This situation is regrettable. But at the same time, I have limited sympathy for intellectuals who are trying to be inoffensive and failing. The point of intellectual life should be to state your truth. If your truth turns out to be popular and make everybody happy, how fortunate for you. But nobody should go into intellectual life expecting that.

What goes around comes around. Everybody needs to remember that revolutions eat their young. Robespierre died on the same guillotine that he had sent many other people to. The more harsh judgment we build into the system, the more likely we are to be judged harshly when our time comes.

We need to always keep in mind the point of shifting the boundaries of acceptable thought: to bring in new voices, ones that the old distribution of power had shut out. Bringing in those new voices sometimes requires squelching old voices who are telling the new voices to shut up, or intimidating them out of speaking at all. Making new space on the platform may require asking some people to step aside. Creating a safe workplace or discussion space for a wider group of people may require that previously acceptable speech become unacceptable. [9]

But squelching old voices should never become an end in itself, even if they are obnoxious voices.


It would be nice to have a big finish for this post, but for all the reasons explained above, I don’t have one. As I said, someday (in hindsight) how we should have handled this will all be obvious. But right now, it isn’t.

[1] This description is based on the version of the episode that was posted online. After it caused an uproar, Sinclair decided to pull the episode back for re-editing to give it more “context. Presumably, however, its distribution to Sinclair’s stations has only been delayed.

[2] In the current news, I know of only one example of actual censorship: When Michael Cohen was furloughed from prison due to the risk of coronavirus, the Federal Bureau of Prisons conditioned the continuation of his furlough on an agreement not to write a book critical of President Trump. Cohen refused to sign and was sent back to prison, but was soon released by a federal judge. The judge said, “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this … unless there was a retaliatory purpose?”

Telling someone: “If you write a book you’ll go to jail” — that’s censorship.

[3] Another good example of a viewpoint deservedly canceled is Q-Anon.

[4] That’s still true today. For all the charges of “socialism” that get flung at pundits and politicians these days, when was the last time you heard somebody advocate public ownership of the means of production? That idea hasn’t gone away; you just don’t hear it.

[5] That’s the 21st-century version of Karl Marx’ dictum: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

[6] However, even world-famous philosophers have occasionally lost jobs because they were too liberal. In 1940, City College of New York tried to hire Bertrand Russell to teach classes on logic, mathematics, and the metaphysics of science — three areas in which he was among the world’s foremost authorities at the time. That appointment was challenged in court because of his criticism of religion and advocacy of unpopular sexual practices. (Wikipedia lists “sex before marriage, homosexuality, temporary marriages, and the privatization of marriage”.) Ultimately the New York Supreme Court ruled against his appointment, claiming that Russell was morally unfit to teach at CCNY.

[7] The French Revolution is a good example. The government it established was a disaster, but afterwards monarchy became hard to justify.

[8] Even if you were white, being an abolitionist in the Old South could get you horsewhipped.

[9] Sara Robinson pushed back against Cato’s implication that it was political bigotry to be skeptical of hiring Trump supporters.

As an employer, I have a legal obligation to provide my workers with a safe workplace where they can do their jobs free of harassment and bigotry. If I fail, I can be sued, so there’s serious liability attached here.

If I hire a Trump follower, that liability goes straight to 11. How can I convince my female employees that they’ll be safe if I hire someone who thinks it’s fine for a man to grab a woman by the pussy? How do I look my Iranian clients in the eye after I bring in an employee who approved of the Muslim ban? What can I say to reassure my Jewish staffers when I’ve put their futures in the hands of a supervisor who agrees that the Charlottesville mob included “some very fine people”? What do I tell our Mexican-American vendors when they have to deal with someone who’s cool with seizing their nieces and nephews and sticking them in baby cages? … You don’t need to be a bigot to steer clear of these people.

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  • nedhamson  On July 27, 2020 at 11:18 am

    I expect that if Twitter had been around in Plato’s time, we would find that PC and Culture Cancellation was quite common among the wannabees who hung out in the back corridors of the gymnasium. Grin. Twitter, Facebook and now, TicTok make it easy for far too many to always be 13 or 14 putting down their peers with hateful chirps.

  • JCK29  On July 27, 2020 at 11:43 am

    I would recommend using some word other than scalping . . . another example of shifting boundaries of what is acceptable.

    • The Serapion Brotherhood  On July 27, 2020 at 8:45 pm

      Or you just don’t knwo what scalping is. It was a practice of the British army. They paid native Americans as mercenaries by the piece, so much for each scalp they brought in. And this is hardly a new practice, In Nuristan in Afghanistan, one of the most culturally isolated and uncontaminated areas on earth (the basis for
      John Huston’s film The Man who would be King), young warriors had to collect the heads of enemies they killed to prove their worth to the village elders, a practice that goes back about 4000 years and continued at least until the 19th century (I have no idea if they still do it today).

      I call it Nuristan since I fear I might be canceled for calling it by its traditional name Kafiristan (Pagan-land, or should that be the K word?), although Nuristan (land of light) was the name given to it by the Afghan warlord the British paid to conquer it in the 1870s in the course of which he killed everyone he could lay his hands on who refused to convert to Islam (in that case the British didn’t ask for heads or scalps).

  • chris  On July 27, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    I think part of what makes this debate so often unproductive is that there’s such a wide variety of reactions that people have in mind when they talk about Cancel Culture. Everyone who points out that JK Rowling will be just fine with her billions of dollars, and that much of the pushback she’s gotten has actually been very mild, is correct. But she’s also receiving death threats, and that’s not ok no matter how rich she is or how awful her speech about trans women is. So when someone talks about her “cancellation”, are they thinking of the people who are pledging not to buy her books anymore? Or are they thinking of the death threats? It varies.

    • Geoff Arnold  On July 27, 2020 at 1:00 pm

      I don’t think that “cancel culture” is generally regarded as including the death threats and other (usually misogynistic) abuse. Think back to Gamergate. I’ve always seen “cancel” used in the sense of “platforming”, and the warped, entitled version of “free speech” which accompanies it.

      And as Doug points out, none of this is really new. As a student in the UK in 68-72 we were all about “de-platforming” speakers associated with the Vietnam war or nuclear weapons.

    • @authomony  On July 27, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Gotta agree with Geoff here, chris. No one is talking about death threats here.

      The signers of Harper’s letter want you think so-called cancel culture is apocalyptic but it’s not. The right to free speech is not the right to a soap box. The right to free speech is also not the right for violent language and death threats. Too many people think the 1st Amendment is a blank check. I think the Beauchamp Vox article does a good job of minimizing some of the sky-is-falling arguments that go around.

      To be sure, JK Rowling is going to be fine.

      • chris  On July 27, 2020 at 5:54 pm

        >No one is talking about death threats here.

        This is exactly the thing I’m talking about, though. JKR certainly *is* talking about death threats. (For the record, I believe her that she is receiving them, even as I denounce her anti-trans rhetoric and think she deserves lots of other, non-death-threat, consequences.) Salman Rushdie is probably thinking about death threats, too.

        People are using the words “cancel culture” to talk about a number of very different things.

      • @authomony  On July 28, 2020 at 10:25 am

        No, Chris, YOU’RE using cancel culture to talk about different things. No one is asking for JK Rowling’s opinion at this point. I’m going to quote Doug directly:

        “ Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just “somebody called me a homophobe Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just ‘somebody called me a homophobe’. ”

      • chris  On July 28, 2020 at 4:21 pm

        > Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just “somebody called me a homophobe.”

        What about when both things are happening to the same person?

        I’m hearing you say that none of the people complaining about “cancel culture” are receiving death threats or other real harm. Or even if they are, we don’t have to acknowledge it or talk about it. But often, they are. They’re receiving valid criticism *and* real harm. And I’m saying that the conversation about cancel culture needs to recognize that for it to go anywhere useful.

      • weeklysift  On August 1, 2020 at 6:40 am

        I was the one who brought up death threats, and I think they should be roundly denounced, whoever the victim is.

        If people don’t want to buy Rowling’s books or see her movies, that’s up to them. (I try to keep the work separate from the author, but sometimes I just can’t. For example, a lot of Woody Allen scenes I used to laugh at seem creepy to me now.) If they want to argue with her views and even say she’s a bad person, that’s freedom of speech. But she shouldn’t have to live in fear.

  • brainwane  On July 27, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks for a thoughtful-as-always piece, Doug. In particular I appreciate your insight that “No one can really say what ‘political common sense’ means right now” and that a lot is in flux.

    You may be interested in a roundup I did in 2017 of some activist thoughts on the difference between accountability and character assassination.

    Also: as I understand it, “transgender women” should be shortened to “trans women” (with a space), since “trans” is an adjective.

  • Linda Buechting  On July 27, 2020 at 7:49 pm

    The limit to free speech that we all grew up with was the dictum that you can’t cry, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It seems there are many fire cries on social media these days, most in the form of pseudo scientific articles on how wearing a face mask will not only not halt spread of the virus but will kill the wearer with carbon dioxide or the very Covid germs they are harboring. If these cause some individuals to not wear masks, then it has some of the same effect as getting people trampled in a mad rush to a theater exit.

    • weeklysift  On August 1, 2020 at 6:21 am

      I know nothing about the case other than the link you just gave me. Legally — and I’m even less qualified to comment on British law than on American law — it falls into that grey area between a person’s right to keep their job and an employer’s right to decide who they employ.

      Morally, i.e., imagining myself as the employer, I would be looking for a can’t-we-all-get-along solution. Does Forstater’s view of gender affect her job performance in some way? When she is on the job, does she treat everyone with appropriate respect? Do her opinions reflect on the organization in some way that will damage our ability to fulfill our mission?

      If the answers to all those questions are “No”, my inclination would be to treat her tweets as part of her private life and take no action against her. But if one of them is “Yes”, then there’s a workplace problem that needs to be resolved in some way. If Forstater is intransigent enough, I could imagine firing her being the only way to resolve it.

  • frankackerman0617  On July 31, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    As usual, Doug, nice piece. Thank you. I suppose that with the President’s comments on “cancel culture” it was necessary. But really? When did “freedom of speech” encompass a right to speak on any platform? Or immunity from opposing views?

    All the points you make in your first three pages just illustrate ways in which speech needs to be handled in any society, even those with “freedom of speech” values. You address the really interesting questions in “Moving the boundaries”. Clearly the boundaries of acceptable speech have shifted, and this naturally disturbs those invested in the status quo.

    There’s another point I think is worth mentioning. In a democratic society all speech that attempts to dispassionately elucidate reality using verifiable facts needs to be heard, for in the end a society will prosper or decline only to the extent that its actions are compatible with reality.

    • weeklysift  On August 1, 2020 at 6:31 am

      I agree with you on the value of “speech that attempts to dispassionately elucidate reality using verifiable facts”. But there are two places where this gets tricky: (1) when someone with every good intention has been taken in by some piece of dangerous disinformation and is helping propagate it, and (2) when someone is obeying the rules of dispassionate fact-based discourse, but doing so in bad faith.

      The first doesn’t really need an example, but for the second, I’d suggest someone who proposes to research the possibility of a genetic intelligence gap between the races. That kind of research has a long history of abuse, and legions of people waiting to abuse it again. The proposed study may follow every rule of good science, but I would still have to ask why the researcher wants to do it.

  • Neal S  On August 1, 2020 at 12:32 pm

    This article by Thomas Frank focuses one what I think is the real issue with “cancel culture”: it’s fundamentally an attack on populism.

    • weeklysift  On August 3, 2020 at 6:21 am

      Cancel culture looks tangential in this interview, at least to me. Frank mentions it once, in the negative: The elites who wrecked the economy didn’t get cancelled.

      I mean, all those elite intellectuals in Harper’s didn’t get together to defend populism.

      Or do you mean it the other way around, that the cancellers are populists and the anti-cancel-culture rhetoric is an attack on them?

      • Neal S  On August 3, 2020 at 11:02 am

        > Cancel culture looks tangential in this interview, at least to me. Frank mentions it once, in the negative: The elites who wrecked the economy didn’t get cancelled.

        When I started reading Frank, I expected cancel culture to come up. Yes, he only actually used “cancel” once. But I still think cancel culture is of a piece with populism, which typically rears up on its hind legs in response to the status quo not being good enough anymore.

        These conservative/elite forces always have been in conflict with populism: status-quo vs change. And I think these same forces are responsible for today’s whole mess of cancel-culture confusion.

        > Or do you mean it the other way around, that the cancellers are populists and the anti-cancel-culture rhetoric is an attack on them?

        RWNJs first whined about “freedom of speech” (reason impinging on their wacko claptrap). I think they started the whole “cancel culture” thing as yet one more item on their ever-growing conspiracy list. They were populists complaining that they weren’t being heard — never mind that they were shouting like a rampaging toddler.

        I think these RWNJs are mere tools of conservative, status-quo puppet-masters. That’s how disinformation works.

        But I think some on the Left took these “cancel” gripes to heart. Maybe some feel similarly victimized. Maybe some realized that all this tribal posturing isn’t taking us anywhere, and we should chill with even engaging the BS.

        I also feel dizzy: another head-spinning flip where conservative BS suddenly becomes populist wisdom against anti-conservative … conservatives?

        (Reminds me of a pickup truck I had. The frame was so bent that sometimes I had to look in the mirror to see if I was going to where I thought I was coming from.)

        So yes, I think it’s the other way around, and the other way around from that. In these days of disinformation and blaming your opponents for exactly what you just started doing, I think someone is feeling very satisfied by making this so confusing. The RWNJs get to be victims yet again.

        But I’m just trying to draw attention to some privileged folks who can use all of this to interrupt any threat to their status quo. In more sane times, these are the ones most threatened by populism — even if lately they have co-opted so-called Patriots and whatever. (I’m talking about how Trump has been convincing right-wing populists to vote against their best interests.)

        Thank you for trying to start over from the beginning. From a fresh perspective, jettisoning all this baggage (which I chalk up to disinformation), “cancel culture” seems over-blown. It’s the lame-stream media, you know 😉

  • Olef G.  On August 4, 2020 at 2:00 am

    I’m hardly impressed by this assertion from the response letter the author seems to prefer: “Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.”

    “People like them”? Would that be single mothers living on welfare (Rowling)? Or Syrian playwrights whose works have been banned in their home countries (Khalifa)? Or maybe bi-racial immigrants like Malcom Gladwell?

    Or does “people like them” refer to the most nefarious group of them all in the eyes of the intersectionalist: smart people who think for themselves and know how to write?


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