Cancel Culture Has a Lot to Answer For
MIT at night. Photo by Yuhan Du on Unsplash

Cancel Culture Has a Lot to Answer For

Peter H. Schuck
Peter H. Schuck

Sometimes our most precious cultural institutions fail to live up to their high educational and moral commitments and responsibilities. These failures especially damage the social fabric because they tend to harm many people who rely on them and tarnish the high ideals that the institutions claim to exemplify.

An incident in early October involving MIT, a jewel in world academia’s crown, presents an especially egregious instance of this institutional failing, aggravated by that university’s cowardice in the face of intimidation and threats by self-righteous students and their faculty allies. MIT had invited Dorian Abbot, a University of Chicago geophysicist, to deliver the prestigious John Carlson Lecture on climate and the potential of life on other planets—a topic on which Abbot is a recognized expert. Unfortunately for Abbot and his intended audience, however, he had recently committed the campus equivalent of hara-kiri by taking seriously the norms of academic freedom which MIT and other schools claim to cherish.

Abbot, in online discussions of the growing “diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)” movement on American campuses, had stressed “the importance of treating each person as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. In an academic context,” he continued, “that means giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity when they apply for a position as well as allowing them to express their opinions openly, even if you disagree with them.” And in a co-authored Newsweek op-ed in August, he had argued that DEI as currently practiced on campus “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.”

Abbot proposed instead an alternative framework that he called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone. His MFE norm rejected legacy and athletic admission advantages, “which significantly favor white applicants.” For these heretical views, he was pilloried by groups of students who demanded that MIT withdraw its lecture invitation. Ten days later, the chairman of the sponsoring MIT department did just that.

Here we have, quite literally, an instance of “cancellation culture”—one that seeks to impose a kind of annihilation or social death. Advocates for speech, actions, or positions that their critics deem unacceptable increasingly use the term to describe those critics’ efforts to suppress, marginalize, and otherwise punish their adversaries. In Abbot’s case, denying him a prominent platform for his views on DEI (and perhaps other issues) was a classic cancellation effort.

The Abbot incident also reveals cancellation’s potential expansiveness. After all, his lecture topic, while socially and scientifically important, had nothing whatsoever to do with the protesters’ demand for DEI. Even so, their cancellation scheme almost succeeded. In a lucky break for Abbot, he ended up delivering the canceled lecture—not at MIT but at Princeton. There, some faculty led by conservative political theorist Robbie George immediately stepped up and offered to sponsor it. Indeed, Abbot’s luck was even more dramatic: the New York Times and other leading media gave the incident some prominence, thousands of students signed up for Abbot’s Princeton lecture, and his cancellation by MIT earned him a distinction bestowed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which named him a Hero of Intellectual Freedom!

This remarkable turnabout—a kind of moral jiu-jitsu in which Abbot was able to convert his vulnerability to a mob’s demands into a larger forum for his message—should gladden the hearts and minds of the many people who deplore the forces of cancellation. All too commonly, such pressures for conformity are strictly reinforced by hierarchy, fear of social isolation and other informal sanctions, and the ubiquitous hostage-taking of reputation.

What is it about the DEI movement—its tenets, its action agenda, and its fierce, adamant champions—that has enabled it to gain such influence with students and some faculty on so many campuses? My close observation of the growing movement at Yale and elsewhere has convinced me of a number of related explanations. First, universities are massive entities whose leaders are obsessed by the need to raise ever larger endowments (Harvard’s increased by $11.3 billion, or 40 percent, last year; Washington University in St. Louis gained 65 percent!) to fund ever more expansion, construction, academic and non-academic programs, and salaries. As such, they resolutely strive to create an impression of order on campus. But cancellations cause spasms of disruption, violence, and negative publicity that can affect their exceedingly important public rankings. Dissident students know that university leaders at the most prestigious schools (with rare but notable exceptions like Robert Zimmer and Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago) are prepared to pay a dear price to secure campus peace. And since they and their faculty are overwhelmingly liberal politically—almost 90 percent identify with and often contribute to the Democratic Party—they tend to sympathize with the protesters’ agendas, even when more radical than their own.

This brings me to the second point about DEI. Its ideals are rhetorically appealing only so long as they remain undefined. Who, after all, can be against “diversity” and “inclusion,” at least in the abstract? The reality, however, is that as abstractions these concepts are merely aspirational and essentially empty. What they actually mean in practice—and what the cancellation cadres plainly mean by them—is strict regimes of affirmative action based on race, ethnicity, gender, and a few other attributes. These attributes, cancel culture insists, must be used in college admissions, job hiring, sports teams, instrumental ensembles, art projects, and all manner of groups regardless of the actual distribution of preferences, talents, interests, and availabilities among the supposed beneficiaries. In a striking example, the Art Institute of Chicago just announced that it was dismissing all of its docents and starting over because too many of them are white women.

Cancel culture prescribes affirmative action as the means to install diversity in all activities that it values. But affirmative action means very different things to different people. It ranges from greater outreach to unrepresented groups—which Americans largely favor—to numerical quotas for minority groups, which most, including most black Americans, largely oppose. The same distinction applies to inclusion and equity; many of us endorse them in the abstract but often disagree when faced with specific applications.

Cancel culture is different—and actually yields less genuine diversity. For example, its orthodoxies often contradict minority communities’ actual, intense desires for greater police presence and enforcement in their neighborhoods. These same orthodoxies also impede more effective discipline of unruly and violent students where such discipline might enable their children to learn and pursue pathways to a brighter future. Cancel culture’s zombie-like insistence that white racism today is still the main reason for continuing poverty, high violent crime rates, poor health conditions, domestic turmoil, and chronic family dissolution in troubled inner-city communities is a perverse distraction from, and even a denial of, the more important causes and possible remedies for these tragic, debilitating conditions.

The MIT fiasco should remind us how much cancel culture has to answer for. Although this culture’s activists are relatively few and its rhetoric is often risible in its hyperbole, its militants on college campuses sometimes have an outsize effect on others: cruelly blighted reputations, perverse policy agendas, stigmatization of moderate Democrats, and much more. But Princeton’s swift response to Abbot’s cancellation by providing an alternative, honored forum also suggests a hopeful, low-cost remedy, consistent with free speech and liberal academic values. MIT should be ashamed of its craven support for bullying—and perhaps other more principled institutions will heed this simple exemplary lesson.

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Peter H. Schuck

Peter H. Schuck is the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale Law School. He has published hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books.