Activism, BLM, Free Speech, Journalism, Media, Top Stories

Our Oppressive Moment

As one of the signatories to the much-discussed “Open Letter” in Harper’s magazine, I’ve been bemused by the objection that we are merely whiners—people with impregnable career success, flustered that social media is forcing us to experience unprecedented criticism, particularly in the wake of the Floyd protests. This represents a stark misunderstanding of why I and many others signed it. I am certainly not complaining about being criticized. As someone frequently described as “contrarian” on the fraught topic of race, I have been roasted for my views for over 20 years—it’s just that, when I started out, I received invective scrawled on paper folded into envelopes instead of typed into tweets. The sheer volume of criticism is greater, of course, but the last thing I would do is sign a letter protesting it. For writers of commentary on controversial subjects, the barrage keeps us on our toes. Haters can be ignored, but informed excoriation can help sharpen our arguments and ensure we remain acquainted with the views of the other side.

The Harper’s letter is a declaration intended to resist the poisonous atmosphere suffocating those who don’t enjoy our platforms and profiles. We are not taking issue with critique, but with the idea that those who express certain views must not simply be criticized but have their epaulets torn off—demoted, shunned, and personally vilified. Earlier this month, hundreds of members of the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) signed their own open letter calling for eminent psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker to have his career award as a Linguistics Society of America Fellow revoked. This was not mere criticism of views the signatories found objectionable. It was not even just criticism of Pinker for expressing them (although it was certainly that). It was a demand for punishment that would also serve as an instructive example to others.

Discussion of this issue has become mired in semantic quibbles over just what constitutes “cancellation”—the LSA letter signatories were at pains to stress they did not wish to “cancel” Pinker. But the demand that he be shamed and sanctioned sent an unmistakable message to other writers and scholars not protected by his success and reputation. Nor is this simply a debate about “free speech,” or about whether or not it is still permissible to argue the merits of slavery or women’s suffrage. The more pressing problem is that opinions which, until recently, were well within the Overton Window of acceptable discourse are being bracketed under the same umbrella as unambiguously outlandish and hateful opinions that really do now lie beyond the limits of civilized discussion. Today, views deemed insufficiently anti-racist (or also anti-misogynist) are increasingly described as thinly coded expressions of racism and misogyny that we are encouraged to treat as such.

A lot of smart, progressive people these days seem to think that this kind of public defrocking is appropriate, just, and even necessary. This general tendency veers too close to Salem and the Cultural Revolution for comfort, and its defenders should be aware that their position is a radical and eccentric one that will require a more rigorous defense than most of them have seen fit to produce. We are not tenured infants; we are alarmed at what is starting to pass for enlightenment in our society, and that this narrow, punitive form of moral judgment is acquiring such power. Supporters of these developments suppose that power is simply being taken from white heterosexual men and redistributed to the historically voiceless. Excesses have been very few, they contend, and highlighting them misses broader and more laudable developments.

Alas, social history is seldom that tidy. Consider the following three examples:

  • A New York Times food columnist was suspended for a passing criticism of half-Thai Chrissy Teigen and Japanese citizen Marie Kondo, both of whom she accused of selling out. Does this mean a white person can never criticize a woman of color or was there something about this particular criticism about representatives of these particular ethnicities that crossed a particular line? This was never made entirely clear and was probably never intended to be.
  • The president and the board chairman of the Poetry Foundation resigned after 1800 members signed a protest letter condemning them because the statement that they had released in support of Black Lives Matter was not long or substantial enough.
  • The president of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was forced to resign after a meeting during which the museum was criticized for being insufficiently committed to non-white artists. He concurred but added that the museum would not stop collecting white artists because this would constitute “reverse discrimination.” His use of that term cost him his job, because it implied that non-whites are capable of racism despite their lack of institutional power.

Are these three cases examples of comfortable whites receiving their proper comeuppance at the hands of those speaking truth to power, or are they symptomatic of broader ideological policing? That it is not only the powerful who find themselves in the sights of our current mania for persecution suggests the latter reading is closer to the mark.

  • A data analyst at a progressive consulting firm tweeted a link to a study by a black Ivy League political science professor, Omar Wasow, which found that violent black protests during the long hot summers of the late 1960s were more likely than nonviolent protests to make local voters vote Republican. Wasow’s findings had been reported by the Washington Post as far back as 2015 without incident, and the analyst’s intention was clearly progressive—he was not anti-protest, but wanted to draw attention to the fact that violence might harm Democrats’ electoral chances come November. But following the death of George Floyd, criticizing street violence suddenly became taboo in some progressive circles, and so the thread below the analyst’s tweet began to fill with caustic sanctimony. When a random Twitter user tagged his employer with the instruction “come get your boy,” the consulting firm shamefully expelled him.
  • Two years ago, a young white woman attended a costume party thrown by the Washington Post. She arrived dressed as Megyn Kelly in blackface, a reference to Kelly’s recent defense of the trope that had resulted in the news anchor’s abrupt exit from NBC. This was hardly a graceful decision regardless of intent, and a number of attendees (including the party’s co-host) made this clear to the guest. She left the party in tears and apologized to the host the next day. But in June of this year, a (white) management consultant and a (black) artist who had both confronted her at the party approached the Post with their story, which two of the paper’s writers somehow managed to work up into a 3,000-word feature. When she warned her employers that a story about her mortifying faux pas would be running in a national newspaper, she was fired.
  • A newly hired nursing dean was fired from her position for sending an email which included the newly taboo phrase “everyone’s life matters.” But in the context of her email the phrase could hardly have been more innocuous:

I am writing to express my concern and condemnation of the recent (and past) acts of violence against people of color. Recent events recall a tragic history of racism and bias that continue to thrive in this country. I despair for our future as a nation if we do not stand up against violence against anyone. BLACK LIVES MATTER, but also, EVERYONE’S LIFE MATTERS. No one should have to live in fear that they will be targeted for how they look or what they believe.

An obscure data analyst, a private citizen with no public profile, and the dean of a nursing school hardly have their hands on the levers of power, and yet people like these are as likely to be persecuted under the new mood as the heads of art museums and leading food columnists (if indeed people in public positions like those can reasonably be considered powerful). These are the new norms and the modus operandi that alarm those of us who signed the Harper’s letter, not any perceived threat to our own careers.

Those who embrace this oppressive new atmosphere will no doubt reject the six stories itemized above as mere “anecdata.” They should be wary of complacency about this problem and the danger it poses to their own livelihoods should they transgress rapidly evolving mores related to race and gender in some apparently trivial way. The capricious logic of our moment places everyone at risk. I am gathering reports from academics and writers nationwide cowering beneath it, and I have so far amassed 150 reports who have seen people land in trouble or who have landed in trouble themselves. This is likely just a fraction of the problem given how widespread preference falsification and self-censorship are in a climate as intellectually unhealthy as this one.

Some people appear to consider attempts to defrock “offensive” thinkers as a natural outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter protests, as if opposition to cancel culture constitutes opposition to any and all objections about police misconduct. This is painfully reductive. We wish to resist a dangerous outgrowth of a development that is, in itself, laudable. The citizens listed above were also the victims of injustices that merit attention and compassion, and any implication that it is tactless to say so while Black Lives Matter has the floor is, frankly, rather antihuman. Those who want to reform American policing and to defenestrate people for rhetorical torts and slip-ups as a part of that project should understand that history needs them for the former but will deride them for the latter. They would do better to focus their energies on matters of genuine societal urgency.


John McWhorter is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and teaches linguistics at Columbia University. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnHMcWhorter.


  1. It’s worse than that; much worse. They fail to comprehend that their tactics are destroying the society they wish to reform.


  2. It’s sad that people have become so weak-minded that they can’t even fathom thinking about anything else but their own agenda. I have a hard time imagining what kind of fragile and stressful existence that must be.

  3. I’m glad the author wrote the letter. And it was well written. However, he didn’t condemn the Woke / Cancel culture for their behavior! That’s absolutely atrocious and un-American behavior and the worst direct criticism he can manage is:

    “This general tendency veers too close to Salem and the Cultural Revolution for comfort, and its defenders should be aware that their position is a radical and eccentric one that will require a more rigorous defense than most of them have seen fit to produce.”

    So, his article boils down to: The Oppressors needs a more rigorous defense of their reasons for oppression.

  4. The Harper’s letter may as well have said:

    “Hi, we’re a bunch of big shots many of whom initially supported cancel culture, but we have belatedly discovered “principles” and decided to criticize it; especially now that it’s coming for us. But don’t worry lefties we want to make it perfectly clear that we really, most sincerely, hate Donald Trump.”

    The self-righteousness and virtue signalling of the letter divided people and opened the door for the virulent left to attack the signatories.

    To fight defenestration, which is an urgent problem for all of us, people both on the left and the right are going to have to come together and unequivocally denounce cancel culture. All of us together have to build an impenetrable wall against this kind of insidious behaviour. We are allies in this.

    Mr. McWhorter, I wish you would have written the letter it would have united us all. Why don’t you send this excellent article to the other signatories and let’s see how many of them would be willing to sign it.

  5. Once down the rabbit hole, left or right don’t much matter— it’s all darkness. We’ve entered Hegel’s night in which all cows are black.

  6. I’ve been bemused by the objection that we are merely whiners—people with impregnable career success, flustered that social media is forcing us to experience unprecedented criticism

    Yes, the best complaint that they could come up with is that the letter was written by privileged people selfishly trying to protect their positions, as stated for example by Jeff Yang at CNN:

    they also all have access to enormous public platforms and an outsized ability to project their personal opinions to the world. As a result, it’s hard not to see the letter as merely an elegantly written affirmation of elitism and privilege.

    Of course, the powerful, when they DON’T speak out, are accused of silence, tacitly aiding the white supremacist patriarchy while they bask in the ill-gotten fruits of their privilege.

    Speech is violence. Silence is violence. The only acceptable behavior is an immediate, loud, and lengthy (as the president of the Poetry Foundation discovered) statement of total support for whatever position is being advocated. Race, gender, class, social status - nothing matters except submission to the movement, no matter how obviously ridiculous some of its positions may be.

    I can’t think of a set of behaviors that would do more to help Trump get re-elected.

  7. It all actually began in 2008 when anyone who voiced opposition to a policy decision or action by President Obama was loudly proclaimed as racist, as if the only reason one might disagree was CLEARLY because of his pigmentation. That’s how the polls were so wrong in 2016. The Marxists on the Left, cancel culture, and the “come get your boy” crowd cheering when they’re current lynch mob victim is tarred and feathered have resulted in a culture where people just won’t say what is on their mind. Comedians are starting to point this out as well (the irony).

    I see two things happening: #1, all polling is out the door. Since polling is the go-to method for determining the course of policy, this is very dangerous but perhaps the Marxist choice. If there is no poll showing the counter position having weight then clearly the politicians will follow the dictated path.
    #2, there is substantial danger to violent outbursts and mental issues. Psychologists have endlessly pointed out that in order to mentally heal it is important for people to speak and express. Take grief as an example. The new environment is one where only a very small segment are allowed this opportunity. Following the understood progression the end result is very damaging and may result in more and more violent outburst/revolt. Again, this may be what the Marxists desire; however, this view suffers from temporal myopia since they don’t consider the revolt for when they are in power (potentially 2021 if Biden wins, particularly if he is then removed via the 25th or steps down for his presumed radical VP pick).

    Now, the Anarchists driving the riots may not care – that’s anarchy, but for the “defund the police” crowd who are stressing sociolgist intervention and psychologist intervention versus LEO – they should be worried, but do they even recognize what is coming?

  8. He’s a contrarian black man at Columbia and in NYC. I’d be careful too.

  9. The good professor is entirely too charitable here.

    I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of those criticizing the signatories are not laboring under any sort of “misunderstanding”.

  10. The Harper’s letter was roundly condemned by both the left and the right. If a half-page letter can set off that much opposition from both sides, it must be making an important point.

  11. I am convinced, more than ever, that the solution to this cancel culture/oppression is the proverbial fire with fire maxim. It would be easy to build a list of all people who have made requests of companies or institutions to remove, suspend, fire people for non violent counter arguments or questions. Post the list for the world to see and send the same myriad number of requests to their employees for the same treatment.

    If your first thought is two wrongs don’t make a right, I agree. However, in this instance it forces employers and institutions to explain the disparate treatment. If Bob is fired for simply stating he wants ‘All Lives to Matter’ , but Jane who says BLM is fine. They have to explain it or end up in court.

    My logic: forcing these institutions to own their hypocrisy is what will reduce this issue. In court, at least most Western world judicial systems, they will find explaining the difference in any meaningful way very difficult. They will no longer want the risk nor will they want the potential payouts to follow.

  12. The ultimate villain in cancel culture is weak-kneed institutions and businesses that give into the opinions of Twitter mobs in making employee decisions. All it would take is for the Supreme Court to make firing an employee in response to online bullying a ground for wrongful termination, just like discrimination by race. A few big-money legal judgements against such employers, and the party will be over.

  13. Well you know what? They’ve done this in Baltimore already. In a round about way. The police just went to work in more friendly counties after Freddy Gray riots.
    Feral children and gangsters will kill about 350 people this year. Same as the last few years.

    Not enough cops.

    Let these places defund their police. The cops can get a jobs anywhere.

    Let everybody see what the promised utopia really looks like.

    I am done trying to protect people from themselves. Let it fly. Let it crash.

  14. The problem in your logic is that no one asks what the people who actually live in those neighborhoods want. According to Vox Yes Vox!!! approximately two-thirds of African Americans have a favorable view of police. 60% favor hiring more police. Only 18% are opposed to this. The people in woke city governments who are making decisions about cutting back on law enforcement are not the people who have to live with the consequences. They live in outlying suburbs with plenty of police protection or private security.Their homes and businesses will never be destroyed by the mob. Government should serve the people, not government officials

    Take a close look at the rioters in Portland. They are not African American in large part. They are bored white kids from the burbs, yelling racist at African American officers. This has not been about George Floyd for a long time. It is about power

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