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Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Cancel Culture

On July 7th, 153 mostly left-leaning intellectuals wrote a letter to Harper’s Magazine, expressing their opposition to “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate.” The Harper’s letter prompted a discussion about the scale, and indeed the existence, of what has become known as “cancel culture” (though the signatories did not explicitly use that term).

While almost everyone on the Right is concerned about cancel culture, many left-wing commentators took issue with the letter, despite the palpable efforts the signatories made to show that they are really, really not right-wing. For example, they were at pains to remind readers that Donald Trump “represents a real threat to Democracy,” and—as both Tyler Cowen and Douglas Murray pointed out—their number were apparently hand-picked to ensure sufficient demographic diversity without including anyone too ideologically unpalatable.

On July 10th, a counter-letter, signed by 164 journalists, writers, and academics, was published in The Objective. (Although it should be noted that 25 of the “signatories” did not actually disclose their names, apparently due to fear of professional retaliation.) According to the counter-petitioners, the Harper’s letter was deficient on a number of counts.

First, its central claim (that “censoriousness” is spreading “widely in our culture”) is undermined by the fact that it was published in a “prominent” magazine, and signed by many individuals who are “white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms.” Second, it neglected to mention that “marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.” Third, it posited the existence of a major social “trend,” but only cited isolated examples of censorship. And fourth, it conflated “intolerance” and “public shaming” with people being held “accountable” for their views.

Some of these criticisms were echoed in coverage the Harper’s letter received on social media. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or “AOC” as she is more affectionately known) exclaimed, “People who are actually ‘cancelled’ don’t get their thoughts published and amplified in major outlets.” She also stated, “Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.” Likewise, the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow delicately noted, “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CANCEL CULTURE,” adding “You can say and do as you pls, and others can choose never to deal this you, your company or your products EVER again.”

From my vantage point, however, these criticisms do not hit their target. Before dealing with each one of them in turn, let us take a moment to consider what is meant by “cancel culture.” The best definition I can come up with is “the practice of pressuring an institution into sanctioning someone because others perceived that they were psychologically or emotionally harmed by something the individual said, or something he did a long time ago in history.”

The key elements of cancel culture, therefore, are that: the individual or group calling for the cancellation puts pressure on some third party to impose sanctions on the putative transgressor; and that he or she does so because others perceived that they were psychologically or emotionally harmed by the transgressor’s speech (or historical actions). Examples of cancel culture include: protests to prevent a lecture from taking place; open letters to demand someone be removed from a list of fellows; and co-ordinated action on social media to get another user banned.

Regarding the first of the four criticisms above, the fact that some prominent figures with large platforms have opted to speak out against cancel culture, and have lived to tell the tale, is largely irrelevant. The Harper’s letter itself bent over backwards to mollify prospective critics, so it’s hardly surprising that the vast majority of signatories felt comfortable adding their names. What’s more, as others have pointed out, some prominent individuals who signed the letter may have done so precisely because they were invulnerable to being cancelled. After all, cancel culture is designed not merely to punish the target for his or her alleged transgressions, but also to “encourager les autres.” And many of those “autres” may not have the clout or the resources to risk speaking out.

On a related note, it is sometimes argued that cancel culture doesn’t exist, or is greatly exaggerated, because people who get cancelled can still express themselves afterward in interviews or on social media. “Oh, you lost your job and your livelihood. Then how come I can still read your tweets?” The fallacy here is to assume that an individual’s speech has only been infringed when there is literally someone holding a gun to their head telling them what they can and can’t say.

Regarding the second criticism, it is not exactly clear who the counter-petitioners had in mind when they stated that “marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.” If they were referring to the underrepresentation of individuals from certain groups in the relevant domains, then that is a separate issue from whether cancel culture exists. If they were referring to specific individuals from those groups who were subjected to cancellations of their own, then we can agree that such cases are highly regrettable. But the fact that individuals from certain groups may have been targeted in the past does not mean we shouldn’t be concerned about individuals from other groups being targeted in the present.

Regarding the third criticism, the authors of the Harper’s letter presumably chose to mention only a handful of cases because they were constrained by the need to reach consensus, and by the space available in the magazine’s Letter section. However, there are many more examples they could have mentioned. The number of speaker disinvitation attempts at US universities has been trending upwards since the late 1990s. Reddit recently banned around 2,000 “subs,” comprising both left- and right-wing content, following renewed protests against the site’s “lax policies.” And Toby Young, who set up the Free Speech Union earlier this year, stated in an article on July 4th, “At the FSU, we used to get half a dozen requests for help a week. Now we get half a dozen a day.”

Regarding the fourth criticism, it strikes one as slightly disingenuous to claim that cancel culture is just people being held “accountable” for their views. (Readers may recall a scene in Chernobyl where the deputy chairman of the KGB euphemistically describes his organisation as “a circle of accountability.”) To begin with, there have been some truly egregious instances of cancel culture, which puts the lie to the suggestion that everyone who gets cancelled needed to be held “accountable” for something. For example, Boeing’s communications chief recently resigned following a complaint about an article he wrote… 33 years ago.

Moreover, this understanding of “accountability” lacks any notion of proportionality, and views people with opposing views as enemies to be punished, rather than as fellow citizens to be persuaded (or, at worst, provocateurs to be ignored). As Steven Pinker has argued, “in terms of the psychology and social dynamics that arise from the psychology,” cancel culture has parallels with the Chinese cultural revolution and the European witch hunts.

To sum up, there is such a thing as cancel culture, and the arguments put forward by the anti-anti-cancel culture petitioners are not very convincing. In his famous essay On Liberty, the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill warned against “the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”. His words remain as true today as they were in 1859.

 

Noah Carl is an independent researcher based in the U.K. Follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90.

Comments

  1. The saddest thing about Harper’s Letter (which I referenced in my thread on a subject a week ago) is that most of it is Trump-bashing. This supposed admission of left-wing overreach - a purported olive branch to the canceled - still dripped with absurd propaganda. Homage had to be paid to the Left’s notions of Trump “starting it” (ridiculous; the entire Trump phenomenon has been a backlash against the Left) and of Trump’s camp being the intolerant and authoritarian side.

    It is too generous to contend that they felt such virtue signaling was needed to get through to their target audience. Too much integrity was forfeited. But then, the authors all believe what they wrote…

    Even with all of the absurdity, the letter wasn’t radical enough for much of the Left, which we are told is mostly moderate. We now have a new definition for the marginalized “center-left”: It’s Noam Chomsky.

    Let’s all join hands and count the days until Karl Marx isn’t Marxist enough!


    As to the ridiculous notion that Cancel Culture isn’t a problem, I am reminded of Jefferson (before he was canceled):

    Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

    The great mistake of the arch-libertarian (and especially the “left-libertarian”) is retaining the Left’s moral relativism and imagining that all things that are legal have equal merit. Thus is it suggested that the harm done by the Left’s great intolerance is nonexistent. We’re technically allowed to be jackasses, so there’s nothing wrong with being jackasses!

    But personal merit does matter. It always matters. Systems imposed by the state are only ever factors in society’s well-being; they are never the be-all and end-all.

    The downstream effects of Cancel Culture are far more serious than its proponents, who cancel a history they never learned, can fathom.

  2. I read it, and I’ll summarize it for you:

    1. Harpers didn’t cite many specific examples!
    2. The examples Harpers did cite were outliers, not a trend!
    3. Nonwhites get canceled a lot more (no evidence given)!
    4. Nonwhites are disadvantaged, so the balance shifting in their favor is good!
    5. You can’t prove that people were fired for the reasons you say!

    #5 is particularly galling. It’s like the Gestapo shooting someone and then claiming, to the witnesses’ faces, that he tripped and fell.

  3. Further as to the counter-letter at The Objective, there seems to be a good deal of racial and class resentment going on there, all within the leftie community.

    The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms …

    It’s ironic that the letter gives highly sought-out space to some of the most well-paid and visible people in media, academia, and publishing. These are the same people who possess the money and prestige to have their ideas shared in just about any elite publication, outlet, or journal.

    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.

    So who are these people who wrote the counter-letter?

    This letter was a group effort, started by journalists of color with contributions from the larger journalism, academic, and publishing community. While a few of us organized the writing process, our role was to facilitate the group’s voice, not set the content or direction.

    The “journalists of color” who started the counter-letter are not identified by name. They seem to be sheltering (hiding?) within the list of signatories.

    I would guess, however (and perhaps uncharitably), from the tone and content of the counter-letter, that these “journalists of color” have not had any of their work accepted at Harpers and they’re feeling a bit marginalized about it.

    And not every reader of The Objective seems to have been impressed by their counter-letter. A commenter named David had this to say on July 10:

    On balance, this is incoherent and unresponsive to the original letter. Also, forgive me, but is there something wrong with Chatterton Williams’s belief “that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended—especially at the interpersonal level"? This is written as though that is supposed to discredit him, but I’m at a loss for why this is at all problematic.

    Good man. I think David would feel at home here at Quillette.

  4. There is a good column by David Cole on this: https://www.takimag.com/article/our-de-facto-antiwhite-apartheid/
    You can say the Left isn’t fighting fair, and that is entirely true, but it’s missing the point. The goal of the Left is not justice, but to win. All of the compromises by the Right (“we hate Trump too” “We respect Twitter’s corporate right to solely target conservatives.”) are a losing strategy.

  5. Systemic racism, which is propagated magically in the ether, is taken as gospel yet the existence of cancel culture, which we witness daily, is denied.

    Isn’t it interesting that the left, which wields cancel culture like a sword, will attack you for merely pointing out its existence.

  6. I expect the usual insults too. And as usual, you have provided them.

    Your pejorative language aside, yes, we do believe in freedom. We do not believe that a state, which is inevitably comprised of more corrupt people than any other entity in society, can “save” us from bad people. Rather, we understand that no system can make society prosper despite being full of nastiness. We prefer the system that optimizes regardless of how good or bad the people are (and America’s general prosperity proves us right), but your kind’s evil cannot be squashed without stooping to your level, or worse.

    Of course, some have resorted to fighting fire with fire. We call them the alt-Right, and boy do you hate them! Naturally, as soon as they emerged, your kind declared that everyone who disagreed with you was alt-Right.

    But by and large, you are nasty people who have taken advantage of our decency, and here you are to brag about it. If you continue, you will destroy everything. Do you feel good about yourself?

  7. You write like a Nazi arguing that if Jews didn’t deserve to die, then the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened.

    It is extremely inappropriate for you to try to spin your camp’s evil as a failing of my camp.

    And we do have a way forward. We are still alive, and as Thomas Sowell said, “There is no such thing as a lost cause, because there is no such thing as a won cause.”

  8. I agree the woke are winning. I have in the past posted ways to counter. But, before you brag about victory, I should point while there is a good chance Biden will be guided to power, and that he, senile as he is, will be easily manipulated into carrying out the woke agenda, a woke government can’t really last. It will appoint people on the basis of their ideology rather than their skill. Electricity, sanitation, health care, all these things will become compromised. The economy will decline at a huge rate. They will quickly be voted out. And if they rig or renounce elections, there will be pushback. What will a woke government do with the defence force? Compromising it will increase China’s shadow. A woke government might be able to push its citizens around (for a while), but it can’t push other countries around.
    I agree the woke are winning, but the victory won’t be long-term.

  9. @ LonelyProfessor

    I agree also that the woke are winning, and your question is a good one.

    Before suggesting some practical solutions, I’d like to make the observation that the situation is not as partisan as those on either side of the debate would suggest. I think many of the signatories to the Harper letter are genuinely centre-left progressives and anti-Trump. That they are considered illiberal by a large number of counter-signatories is itself informative of how unreasonable the Cancellers have become.

    Some practical solutions to overcome Cancel Culture:

    1. The first is not to fall into the trap of bipartisan politics. I disagree with a previous commentator that, as a counter-measure, the Right has (to paraphrase) “unleashed the alt-right” to the left’s chagrin. I know many Harper signatories disagree vehemently with the alt-right, as well as Trump. Any “us vs. them” mentality will exacerbate the tribal divisions of identity politics. Instead, we must focus on what unites us as peoples: moderation, nuance, tolerance (especially of beliefs), free and open discourse. This will fail to convince any dyed-in-the-wool idealogue, but those who are less politically vocal (but do vote) see through recurrent tantrums of the Cancellers.

    2. Promote rational dialogue. Quillette is doing a fine job of this. There is quite extensive documentation how social media, particularly platforms that promote short-form commentary and algorithmic feedback loops, is not only not conducive to nuance, but may even promote the worst of our tribalistic tendencies. Long-form interviews (such as those conducted by Dave Rubin, Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Joe Rogan, John Anderson) where conversation is conducted in good faith (no “gotcha” journalism, no prejudicial edits) have been remedial.

    3. Reclaim intellectual and educational institutions. In Australia (as recently published in Quillette) we have recently seen the Humanities financially penalized, with some speculating this may be a Governmental move against the universities peddling their post-modern propaganda. Primary and secondary schooling may require supplementation from external sources such as the Khan Aacademy and Susan Bauer’s Well-Trained Mind. News and media sources growing in partiality are being increasingly abandoned in favour of more impartial alternatives on YouTube (the dangers of social media withstanding).

    4. Try to understand the Cancellers in good faith. Multiple brilliant minds have done extensive work in this area, giving accounts from the philosophical (eg. Stephen Hicks) to the psychological (Jonathon Haidt). Watch any debate between such purveyors of reason and their Canceller opponents – it is is no match, and the audience knows it. There is a reason Cancellers are fearful of open dialogue and debate. We must be sure to give their ideas air to breathe, even give them oxygen, so as to demonstrate how weak they really are.

    5. Hold Cancellers to task when they cross the line into moral ineptitude. The clearest example is the tendency of Cancellers to be unwilling to condemn violence. Specifically, the violence from those protesting the presence certain College Campus speakers. The likes of Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff-Summers, Brett Weinstein, and Douglas Murray are exemplars.

    6. Let the Cancellers hang themselves by their own rope (metaphorically, of course). Look how quickly the mob mentality becomes a self-consuming phenomenon: In a matter of months, JK Rowling has been transformed (in their eyes) from shining bastion to despised pariah. By continuing to uphold the values of truth, reason, free speech, rule of law, and condemn violence, we make space for the bad actors to tie themselves up in contradiction, to eat their own.

    7. Humour is a catalyst, and it speaks to truth. The character of Tatiana McGrath has been widely popular. The All Things Comedy YouTube channel continues to mock the insensibility of Cancellers and their ilk.

    Let us remind ourselves, above all, that we must win with words. Without words, there is only violence.

  10. Not quite true. Actions speak louder than words, and actions are not automatically violent. Some actions:1.boycott woke companies 2. befriend the cops at your local police station (I.e. do stuff for them to make them feel appreciated) 3. study your employment contract from back to front, as well as company policy, and labor law (don’t make it easy for them to fire you or a colleague) 4. don’t send your kids to woke schools, colleges or universities 5. have friends (i.e. church groups, clubs etc) who support your views and will support you if you are in trouble 6. vote in everything 7. protest if a conservative candidate caves into woke agendas, make it known you won’t vote for wimps. 8. send emails texts etc to editors who make cowardly decisions, let them know they are cowards. 9. understand that while it would be nice to be nice, the Left uses hate action to fight “hate” speech (it causes material harm, people get doxxed and fired, they get beaten up, they get pushed to suicide), at a certain point, what I’ve described may fall woefully short of what is needed in future. To be plain, I don’t like violence, violence is a lot more traumatic than I think most people realize, but Mussolini wasn’t stopped by a stinging opinion piece. Words only get you so far.

  11. I think you should pay particular attention to @Kapeth’s response, because he is essentially correct. The Leftist doctrine has been tried dozens of times since the earlier part of the twentieth century and every time is has failed miserably. In France, Britain or Germany at least their strong democracies were able to remove it at the ballot box, despite the considerable economic harm it did to ordinary people. In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, they realised that it was leading to economic stagnation and reformed their systems to free market economies, which were in many ways more economically liberal and free market than the rest of the world, in order to preserve their larger social safety nets at the expense of higher taxes for the middle classes and the poor (through VAT taxes).

    But everywhere else it was an unqualified disaster, leading to over a 100 million deaths in the twentieth century. China is an oddity, Deng Xiaoping reintroduced capitalism with the phrase ‘it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’- but it’s a funny sort of system where individual liberty exists not at all…

    So, thankfully however successful the Left may be in the short term and whatever disaster may befall the savings and equity of ordinary middle class folks, at least we can console ourselves with the knowledge that strong democracies always eject the poison before it is too late. Plus, despite the fact that radical Leftist’s have seized cultural power, only 8% of the population is receptive to their radical creed- with the next generation the zoomers wholeheartedly rejecting the state-run indoctrination of their teachers.

  12. You want proof? Look no further than @barberp425, who declared himself in favor of “cancelling” on QC recently:

    See. This is why we “cancel” you… If persuasion isn’t possible because of bad faith there is left only force.

    He’s got a point. I, too, only use force to shut up my wife after it becomes clear she just won’t listen.

  13. What amused me in the aftermath of the letter is how several signatories revoked their approval because they dislike others who signed. Jennifer Finney Boylan is one who couldn’t stand seeing her name along with J. K. Rowling. Some intellectual.

  14. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or “AOC” as she is more affectionately known) exclaimed, “People who are actually ‘cancelled’ don’t get their thoughts published and amplified in major outlets.”

    So if one complains about being canceled and his voice is heard, he is not canceled. However if his voice is never heard then he is canceled, only no one knows. Same logic as if the woman drowns in the lake she is not guilty of being a witch.

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