Tag Archives: cancel culture

Is an Intelligent Cancel Culture Discussion Possible?

https://theweek.com/cartoons/970913/editorial-cartoon-kaepernick-dr-seuss-potato-head-gop-cancel-culture

Maybe. But we’ll have to cut through a lot of nonsense first.


In case you missed previous posts like “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric” and “Silly Season in the Culture Wars“, here’s what I’ve concluded: The rhetoric on “cancel culture” is wildly overblown, and articles denouncing it almost invariably

  • fail to define what they’re talking about, making me wonder if “cancel culture” is really a thing at all,
  • use a bunch of imaginary examples that fall apart as soon as you look at them, like the “cancellation” of Mr. Potato Head or Dr. Seuss. [1]

Mostly this is a debate between the Right and the Left, with conservatives prophesying the fall of civilization and liberals wondering what the problem is. But a segment of the mainstream commentariat has tried to stake out a middle position, recognizing that Green Eggs and Ham is in no danger and Pepe Le Pew should have disappeared a long time ago, but still repeating right-wing talking points about the Jacobin nature of the “woke mob”.

Bai and Hennessey. Case in point: Matt Bai, warning in Friday’s Washington Post about the dangers of the ongoing “cultural revolution” (and admitting that he’s invoking Mao intentionally). He brushes off the Fox News freakout about Mr. Potato Head, but then takes aim at people like me. [2]

the overwhelming leftist response to Republican hysteria has been to say that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” no actual threat to free expression. It’s all just a lot of Trumpian nonsense, propagated by racists and sexists.

This isn’t true, and it isn’t helpful.

You know what would be helpful? If folks like Bai would define their terms and offer actual examples that can be be analyzed and compared, so readers don’t just have to take his word for what is or isn’t true. But instead, he makes this sweeping but totally unsupported claim:

A culture of self-censorship pervades media and the arts — a fear that using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book can derail a career.

We are, in fact, witnessing the most direct assault on free expression in my lifetime, mainly because a loud segment of younger activists view free expression as a convenient excuse for perpetuating oppression.

Despite the once-in-a-lifetime gravity of this situation, Bai does not find it necessary to identify a single career that has actually been derailed for “using the wrong word or recommending the wrong book”.

So what exactly is he talking about? If I don’t already know, he’s not going to tell me.

Most sensible liberals I talk to — in politics, news, entertainment or academia — understand this. But there’s a palpable fear of getting on the wrong side of the woke mob, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Who is in this “woke mob”? He doesn’t say, beyond “younger activists” (which, sad to say, leaves me out as I research my Medicare options). But apparently my advanced age has not made me “sensible”, because I have no idea what he means.

Bai is not an isolated example. One of my unimpeachably liberal Facebook friends linked approvingly to this New York Post article by Matthew Hennessey, which tries to rally Gen-Xers against cancel culture’s “millennial Maoists”. (What is it about Mao?) Predictably, Hennessey also doesn’t define “cancel culture”, and (unlike Bai) recites the right-wing litany of imaginary examples. (The article’s illustrations include images from The Cat in the Hat and Gone With the Wind, both of which remain readily available.) And he perversely advocates fighting back against cancel culture by canceling anti-racists:

We will have to engage in a thousand tiny battles every day and it will be terribly uncomfortable. It’ll be hard standing up to school administrators pushing an ‘anti-racist’ curriculum on your kids.

Yeah, how dare the still-unidentified “woke mob” try to teach your children about slavery or structural racism? You absolutely need to protect freedom of speech by censoring that curriculum before the kids ever learn anything from it.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system now. Let’s see if it’s possible to find something here we can think about with some amount of rigor.

Outlines of a reasonable discussion. I suspect the term “cancel culture” is now poisoned beyond recovery. But let’s see if we can tease some kernel of legitimate concern out of the mass of nonsense. Let’s begin with some ground rules.

The phenomenon we end up discussing can’t have political bias built into it, as “cancel culture” currently does. I’m not willing to adopt a frame in which, by definition, only conservatives can have a grievance. If Gina Carano is a victim of whatever-it-is, then so are Colin Kaepernick and the Dixie Chicks.

Whatever-it-is has something to do with the proper limits of free speech. And that discussion needs to start by acknowledging that some limits, both legal and cultural, are necessary and proper. For example, there is room to argue about whether Trump’s January 6 speech should qualify as an illegal “incitement to riot”. But if he had openly said, “Now go to the Capitol and do whatever you need to do to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes”, he should go to jail. Freedom of speech can’t be absolute.

As for cultural limits, consider the example of an announcer’s I-didn’t-know-the-mic-was-live moment at a girls high-school basketball game in Oklahoma Thursday night. (When some of the student athletes knelt during the national anthem, he commented: “Fucking niggers.” [3]) I don’t think you have to be a Maoist to believe he should be fired for that. Not jailed, not lynched — but there should be consequences when somebody goes that far over the line.

And finally, there’s a difference between tolerating someone’s right to say something and providing them a platform so they can say it again. That’s another aspect of the basketball-announcer example. If a guy sitting in a bar makes the same comment to the TV screen, the people who hear it should give him strange looks, and that might well be the end of it. But should a network keep giving this guy a microphone?

To give another example, The Birth of a Nation is a racist movie from 1915, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube. I’m fine with that, and I’d also be fine with Google (which owns YouTube) deciding not to host it. I would oppose a law that made distributing or watching the movie illegal.

But providing a public venue to screen the movie is a more complex discussion. If I were part of a university community — as either faculty or student — I’d be fine with an on-campus group showing it as part of a larger conversation about racism in film, one that allowed for discussion of the ways it misrepresents the Reconstruction Era. But I would protest if the movie were brought to campus without any context, in a hey-you-might-like-this way, or in any other way that used the university as a platform to promote the film’s racist point of view. [4]

So: It would be valuable for American culture to have a broad conversation about the proper limits of free speech and the proper ways of responding to offensive speech. A worthy goal would be to develop impartial standards that balance what I can do against what can be done to me, regardless of whether I am liberal or conservative.

Another valuable conversation would involve how we want to look at our history. How should we judge people who lived in other eras, when cultural values were different? What points of view have been systematically excluded from our history, and how does the story change when we let those points of view in?

I’ve heard a lot of people claim that eventually we’ll be renaming the Washington Monument, but I’ve never heard anybody seriously propose that. As in the previous discussion: What are the proper limits? Acknowledging someone’s historical significance is not the same as continuing to celebrate that person. We can leave people in the history books without naming schools after them.

Is anybody having that discussion? Maybe, a little. I’ll point you to a couple of worthwhile recent contributions.

First, Scott Illing’s interview with Jeffrey Sachs at Vox. Sachs has recently written an article at ARC on the bills state legislatures are considering (and even passing) that suppress critical race theory. In the interview, he contrasts the left-wing and right-wing threats to free expression.

I’m not comfortable either saying that one side is more dangerous than the other. What I will say is that the threats from the left tend to involve informal mechanisms of sanction, and they are no less censorious for that informality. They can do enormous damage, and it’s a significant problem that can be addressed if more college and university administrators grow a backbone and stand up to that kind of behavior.

Whereas the censorious instinct on the right is largely coming from off campus, and it involves much quieter tools that escape the notice of many commentators.

“Quieter” mainly because the national media doesn’t cover small-state legislatures like South Dakota, where a bill under consideration would

prohibit the use of any material designed to promote an ideological view of history, but simultaneously Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed or has requested $900,000 to overhaul the state’s history curriculum in order to promote the idea that “the United States of America is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

I hope Sachs eventually tells us specifically about the “enormous damage” to colleges and universities that he sees the Left doing. But the distinction — the Left operating mainly on campus and using social pressure, while the Right uses its political power in red-state legislatures — is useful.

Another worthwhile article is “Cancel Culture is Not a Movement” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New Yorker. Wallace-Wells looks at particular cases and questions whether the “woke mob” operates more as a fear-inducing mirage than as a political force.

To Dr. Seuss Enterprises, it might have seemed possible that a progressive mob was waiting, ready to turn on “McElligot’s Pool” and “Mulberry Street.” But it is also possible—to me, it seems likely—that there was no such consensus at all. …

The college president, the city-council subcommittee, the panel of experts: these figures are often described by their political opponents as if they were as coherent and determined as a closed fist—that there is something cohesive that could be called cancel culture. My own sense is that something close to the opposite is true. The claims of racial justice have upended liberal élites in interesting and profound ways, and left them deeply uncertain: about how much history should be revised, about what kinds of retributive steps should be taken, and, above all, about how many people, really, want radical change.

Just about everyone left of center recognizes that white supremacy persists and is unjust, but “white supremacy” isn’t just a law that can be repealed or a corporate policy the board can change at its next meeting. So the desire to be on the right side of history often runs up against practical uncertainties: What can someone in my position actually do? And how much political capital does the will to change actually have? Will the apparent support for organizational change evaporate if I ask people to commit serious resources or accept significant change in their own lives?

The result can be bold announcements that lack bold follow-through, like Minneapolis City Council members vowing to “end policing as we know it”, but not allowing a police-defunding proposal to go to the voters. Or symbolic actions of little real impact, like San Francisco renaming its schools, or Speaker Pelosi wearing a kente-cloth stole to a demonstration.

College administrators can fire the people at the center of incidents, and sometimes do so too quickly and without due process, because they feel a need to demonstrate that they take the incidents seriously. Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter can boot people off their platforms, but the algorithms that identify such people are often no better than the algorithms that show us so many off-base advertisements. Publishers can decide not to publish objectionable books, either before or after someone objects to them. Stores can pull products off their shelves. Individuals can carry signs at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Such actions display concern, but how well thought-out are they, and what next steps do they lead to?

The sum total of these actions can create the impression of a vast conspiracy reaching out to change every aspect of our lives, when the reality is quite different: A small group of activists has identified a problem that a much larger group of sympathizers recognizes as legitimate. But the larger group is fumbling to decide both what it can do about it, and how much it is willing to do.


[1] Jeff Tiedrich expressed this point with a little more vigor than I usually do.

[2] I would be amazed if Bai has ever heard of me or this blog, but he’s aiming directly at the arguments I’ve been making here. It’s hard not to take it personally.

[3] It’s always a question whether to quote exactly what someone said or alter it in some way, like “f**king ni**ers” or “effing N-words”, or to refer vaguely to “a racial slur”. When I’m tempted to do one of those things, I always ask myself, “Who would I be protecting?” In this case, I think I’d be protecting the announcer, by making his words sound less serious than they actually were, so I repeated the offending phrase as he said it.

This policy is open for discussion. The one caution I would give is: Don’t try to speak for other people. I want to know what offends you, not what you think would offend someone else.

[4] In giving these examples, I’m modeling the kind of conversation I’d like to see. In particular, they make the conversation real in a way that the Bai and Hennessey articles are unreal.