Tag Archives: cancel culture

Does America Need an Anti-Cancel-Culture University?


Will the University of Austin promote “the often uncomfortable search for truth”, or create a new safe space for traditional biases?

Last Monday, the former president of another educational institution announced that he and a collection of intellectuals who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in academia (as it is currently constituted) were forming a new University of Austin in Texas. “We can’t wait for universities to fix themselves,” wrote Pano Kanelos, the former head of St. John’s College in Annapolis, “so we’re starting a new one.”

His essay is dotted with high-minded phrases like “the fearless pursuit of truth”, “freedom of inquiry and civil discourse”, and “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It includes stirring rhetoric like: “We can no longer wait for the cavalry. And so we must be the cavalry.”

Many of his criticisms of existing universities are hard to argue with: “At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite.” Four in every ten students who enter a college or university leave without graduating. The soaring cost of higher education has left students with $1.7 trillion of debt — much of it owed by that 40% that didn’t even manage to buy a marketable credential. “[A]n increasing proportion of tuition dollars are spent on administration rather than instruction.” Those who do graduate learn “ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living”.

Kanelos’ conclusion that “something fundamental is broken” is not one I’m inclined to dispute. Too many college classes, particularly introductory ones, belong in a credential-producing factory, not a successor to Plato’s Academy. Like Kanelos, I feel the romance of a school “where there is no fundamental distinction between those who teach and those who learn, beyond the extent of their knowledge and wisdom”.

But beyond the educational theory and his nostalgia for Golden Age Greece, Kanelos’ truly motivating concern seems to be the “illiberalism” that “has become a pervasive feature of campus life”. One factor unites the truly impressive list of names Kanelos gives us: original co-founders Niall Ferguson, Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Joe Lonsdale, and Arthur Brooks, later joined by “university presidents: Robert Zimmer, Larry Summers, John Nunes, and Gordon Gee, and leading academics, such as Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, Leon Kass, Jonathan Haidt, Glenn Loury, Joshua Katz, Vickie Sullivan, Geoffrey Stone, Bill McClay, and Tyler Cowen” not to mention “journalists, artists, philanthropists, researchers, and public intellectuals, including Lex Fridman, Andrew Sullivan, Rob Henderson, Caitlin Flanagan, David Mamet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Ahmari, Stacy Hock, Jonathan Rauch, and Nadine Strossen.” They’ve almost all been critics or self-styled victims of “cancel culture”. [1]

That’s the context through which I read Kanelos stated goal: producing “a resilient (or ‘antifragile’) cohort with exceptional capacity to think fearlessly, nimbly, and inventively.” Today’s university students, with their trigger warnings and safe spaces and whatnot, Kanelos seems to imply, are snowflakes. Austin U won’t cater to such whimps, but will forge tough-minded students who can take the rough-and-tumble of real debate.

That vision is undercut, though, by one of the surveys Kanelos quotes to bolster his argument about the current campus illiberalism. He summarizes a survey by Heterodox Academy as saying that “62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe”. However, if you dig into that survey, you’ll find the main reason students give for suppressing their opinions is that “other students would criticize my views as offensive”. In other words, I keep quiet because other students might respond to my free expression with their own free expression. [2]

So who’s the snowflake?

Which makes me wonder: Will Austin U really have more “free inquiry and discourse”, or will it just be a safe space for those who like to say things that are racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise offensive to people who didn’t previously complain because they didn’t previously have a voice? Kanelos’ essay may criticize institutions that “prioritize emotional comfort over the often-uncomfortable pursuit of truth”, but looking at his list of participants, I have to ask if the University of Austin will just prioritize the emotional comfort of a different set of people. [3]

The more I think about “free inquiry” the more I’m reminded of “free markets”. We may imagine that such freedom occurs naturally whenever authority gets out of the way. But in reality, neither discussions nor markets can be “free” without a substantial structure of rules and values and habits and institutions. The “natural” freedom idealized by pre-revolutionary philosophers like Locke and Rousseau happens in the wilderness. Bringing freedom into society requires structure.

There are questions a community can’t discuss without undermining the discussion itself. At German universities in the early 1930s, for example, Jewish students and professors (before they were banned completely) had to face discussions of “the Jewish question“, or even “the Jewish problem” — whether or not they should have a place in German society at all. How freely could they discuss that topic, or whatever topics might follow?

Or suppose I freely state my opinion, and the next person uses his freedom to suggest that people who think like me should be killed — and, by the way, here’s Doug’s home address for anybody whose plans might require that information. How long will that discussion stay free?

We need to understand that freedom inside society can never be pure or absolute. We can only be free in certain ways, and only because we accept limitations on certain other aspects of our freedom. My freedom to drive across the country depends on giving up my freedom to drive on the left side of the highway.

In particular, the kind of “free inquiry” Kanelos champions can only happen if all the participants retain their safety and dignity. This is easy to grasp when your own safety or dignity is threatened — as Austin U’s prospective faculty apparently believes theirs has been. But it is more difficult to appreciate how your own freedom may need to be reined in to accommodate others. Maybe an American university should discourage debate over the genetic inferiority of its Black students, or whether its gay and lesbian students are sick and need to be cured. Maybe women on campus can’t be kept safe from harassment and rape without men yielding some of the benefit-of-the-doubt they have historically been granted. Maybe respecting the dignity of trans students requires using their chosen pronouns, rather than insisting that you know more about their gender than they do.

And so on.

An age-old adage says that your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. Until recent decades, though, large classes of people understood that they just needed to keep their noses out of the way, because other people’s fists had to remain free.

That has changed — not everywhere and not completely, but moreso on college campuses than most places — and if you belong to one of the previously dominant classes you may feel disoriented. What a repressive world it suddenly seems to be, when you have to look all around before you start swinging your arms! How can you still be free, when the people you have been offending for years acquire their own freedom to respond?

There actually is intellectual work to be done here: I don’t think anyone perfectly understands yet exactly where the boundaries ought to be. Perfectly free discussion and inquiry is a myth; as long as we live in society, we will have to live within rules. But what rules, values, practices, and institutions do the best job of creating the environment we want for our universities, one where people of all descriptions can come closest to achieving the Socratic ideal?

That seems to me to be exactly the kind of question that universities ought to work on. And if they do that thinking well, they may become models for the rest of society.

So if the founders and supporters of the University of Austin truly have something positive to contribute to that discussion, I wish their experiment success. But if they just want to turn the clock back to a time when they felt more personally comfortable, I doubt they’ll do much good, even for themselves.

[1] I’d say “all” rather than “almost all”, but I’m not willing to do the research necessary to back that up. I recognize many of the names from various controversies and anti-cancel-culture manifestos.

MSNBC’s Katelyn Burns describes the U of A backers as “a group of self-described ‘heterodox’ academics and journalists (who all happen to have the same opinions on the the two topics they collectively discuss most often, trans rights and racism)”.

[2] A question worth asking: How many conservative students’ fears are justified, and how many have been manufactured by Fox News’ anti-cancel-culture propaganda?

[3] The Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones compares U of A to conservative Christian universities like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty U.

Falwell was no outlier. The right has long dreamed of alternatives to traditional higher education. The televangelist Pat Robertson founded Regent University for similar reasons. Michael Farris, the founder of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 to shelter homeschool graduates and funnel them into Republican politics. Hillsdale College has assumed a sharply right-wing political identity over time, and rejects federal funding “as a matter of principle.” (A Hillsdale professor sits on the University of Austin’s board of advisers.) These schools exist as laboratories for right-wing thought; they are committed not to free expression but to indoctrination. The University of Austin will be no different.

I will add that Fox News’ founding rhetoric sometimes sounded as idealistic as University of Austin’s: It would be the “fair and balanced” alternative to the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media.

Is an Intelligent Cancel Culture Discussion Possible?


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.