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Looking Back on a Decade of Cancel Culture
Detroit, Michigan USA - Students at Wayne State University protest the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, 10 November 2016. Alamy

Looking Back on a Decade of Cancel Culture

A new book traces the rising threat to free speech on American campuses—and explains how students, teachers, administrators, and parents can become part of the solution.

· 10 min read

If the first great age of political correctness can be described as having played out between 1985 and 1995, its successor began around 2014, when a self-confident, pro-censorship ethos began emerging among college students. They banded together with professors and administrators in a free-speech-skeptical coalition—and the second great age of political correctness was born.

This second wave came with its own set of warnings from public intellectuals. But, unlike during the 1980s and 1990s, most of the whistleblowers this time around were political liberals.

In January 2015, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait called attention to the reemergence of political correctness and speech-policing in an article entitled “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say.” Shortly thereafter, British-American journalist Jon Ronson published his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, compiling stories of early internet cancellations.

In September 2015, Jonathan Haidt and one of us (Greg) co-authored an article for the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” arguing that the same habits of mind making campuses unfriendly to free speech were also making people depressed and anxious. Professors and public intellectuals, from essayist Meghan Daum to bioethicist Alice Dreger were ringing alarm bells.

Through ad hominem attacks, these predominantly left-leaning thinkers—which is to say, members of the liberal left who oppose the illiberal left—were roundly dismissed as “right-adjacent,” “soft right,” “conservative,” or even “far right,” regardless of their actual affiliations. Their critiques of campus culture were shrugged off. But they were onto something.

It’s impossible to do justice in one essay to just how much free speech on campus has eroded over the last decade. By way of example, here are three episodes from just one year—2020—that many readers may not even know about.

  • UCLA management professor Gordon Klein was suspended for an email he sent, indicating that he wouldn’t change how exams were graded for black students in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. A petition, signed by more than 21,000 people, demanded Klein’s termination on the basis of his “extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response to his students’ request for empathy and compassion during a time of civil unrest.” In a message to the UCLA community, the dean of the Anderson School of Management characterized Klein as having “a disregard for our core principles,” and called Klein’s email an “abuse of power.”
FIRE Letter to the University of California Los Angeles, June 10, 2020
  • University of Southern California business professor Greg Patton was pressured to step down from teaching a course after he explained to his students that people in China use the filler word nega much like English speakers use the exclamation um. Because the word sounds similar to a slur, students reported him to the administration, and the school launched an investigation.
  • Jon Zubieta, a veteran chemistry professor, was put on leave by Syracuse University for writing, “Wuhan Flu or Chinese Communist Party Virus” on a course syllabus—something he intended as a joke about political correctness.

In cases such as these, Greg’s organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), sends letters to universities in order to challenge threats to student and faculty rights. Back in 2015, FIRE reviewed 807 cases. In 2020, that number soared to 1,530, making it the organization’s biggest year yet. Despite this, many professors actively cheer on this degradation of free-speech norms on their campuses, even as their colleagues find themselves on the cancel-culture chopping block.

How do these professors reconcile their desire to protect their own academic freedom with a desire to deny free speech to their colleagues? One common method is to claim that freedom of speech and academic freedom are completely distinct concepts. Author and legal theorist Stanley Fish argued as much in his 2019 book, The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump, in which he wrote that “free speech is not an academic value,” and even argued that research and free speech are not “even distantly related.”

This argument became embedded in the title of professors Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s 2021 book, It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. The co-authors sneer at free speech and its defenders, while arguing for new and sweeping limitations on academic freedom—based on parameters set out by people such as themselves. Amazingly, Bérubé and Ruth are influential longtime members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)—a group that is supposed to be the nation’s premier defender of academic freedom.

Bérubé and Ruth declare themselves as “deeply skeptical of complaints about ‘cancel culture,’” which they call “right-wing moral panic.” They go on to argue that academic freedom shouldn’t protect “white supremacy,” and therefore must be considerably curtailed on account of America’s (supposed) “legion” of white supremacist professors. The implication here is that many of their fellow professors should not, in fact, benefit from academic freedom:

The time has passed for crossing our fingers and hoping that received wisdom such as ‘free speech helps marginalized groups more than dominant ones’ has withstood the last decades’ worth of pressures. New thinking is necessary that grounds academic freedom’s justification in its service to a democracy that works for all its citizens, not just a white, moneyed, cis-gendered [i.e., not transgender] subset of them.

Free-speech skepticism such as this abounds among faculty and administrators. To this day, they’re still wielding the administrative mechanisms that chilled speech during the first great age of political correctness.

For instance, although campus speech codes have been summarily defeated in court, by 2009, 74% of America’s top 346 colleges had extremely restrictive codes. Only eight of these colleges had none at all.

The Second Great Age of Political Correctness
The P.C. culture of the ’80s and ’90s didn’t decline and fall. It just went underground. Now it’s back.

Meanwhile, student orientations are infused with political programming, as one of us, Rikki, saw firsthand when starting at New York University (NYU) in 2018. In July of 2021, as a then-junior, she recounted the experience of being a new student in one of her first op-eds for the New York Post, titled “Freedom of Speech Is Endangered on College Campuses—and I’m Fighting Back”:

From the moment I stepped foot on campus at NYU three years ago, I’ve been taught there is right-think and wrong-think. Everywhere I look, professors, administrators and peers all fervently parrot the same beliefs. I have sat through orientation events that were highly politicized, assuming ‘community values’ of radical progressivism—values I don’t share. On the first day of the semester, a professor blatantly disparaged conservative politicians and their supporters as uneducated and ignorant. Even [New York City] Mayor de Blasio intervened in October of 2018 to prevent right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking to a class of about 25 freshmen about political correctness after the campus erupted in outrage and Antifa threatened to shut down the event.

While one might expect such experiences to have shocked a then-freshman Rikki, none did. She’d already spent four years on a boarding-school campus, which prepared her well for what was to come at NYU. Such schools tend to function as mini-colleges—and much of the illiberalism that goes on in academia has trickled down to them. 

Her first sense that something was off in elite educational circles came in her freshman year of high school. Though only fourteen years old and not yet political, she was shocked when her school required students to come in for a special “community” event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—at which they were separated by race into “affinity groups” in separate buildings to discuss their lived experiences.

Then came a series of breakout lectures. Some of the options she and other students could pick from included “Bruce Lee and Asian Masculinities,” “Everyday Sexism,” “The Image of the Big Black Male in American Society,” “Unpacking White Privilege,” “Inequality for All,” and “What Is the Role of Skin Color in Society?”

By the time she came to NYU, Rikki was more than ready for whatever the university would throw her way. She arrived primed for campus cancel culture—and, as embarrassed as she is to admit it now, she acted to protect herself. An avid reader, Rikki brought many books with her to her dorm room and placed them on her bookshelf. But she hid her copies of Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacies and Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, knowing that if the wrong person saw them her social life could be upended.

For the two years she was on campus before the pandemic broke out, Rikki felt ideologically alone. While politics were often the subject of conversation, she never got involved. Rikki figured she must be just about the only student in the entire school who was right of far-left. 

But as soon as she did start speaking out through her journalism, Rikki was shocked to see how many people came out of the woodwork to support her—professors, classmates, deans, even neighbors in her dorm. Had she not made this first move, she would never have known how many people around her shared her concern about the campus climate, even at a progressive institution such as NYU. Because they’d all been biting their own tongues for fear of being canceled, they never knew they weren’t alone.

Looking back, she wishes she’d opened up earlier. And she’s enormously grateful to her friends at NYU who, despite some serious political differences, continue to support her in her current endeavors.

One of the most chilling aspects of campus life at NYU was a vestige of the first great age of political correctness: the so-called bias-response team. It’s hard to imagine a better way to undermine trust than to introduce a program that makes even private conversations fair game for investigation and punishment. Rikki wrote about this for the Post:

On the back [of my school ID], I found a list of phone numbers: who to call if I was in danger, who to call if I was sick, and…a bias-response line? Not long after, I found posters with the same number on the back of bathroom stalls, urging students to call and report bias on campus. Discrimination and harassment are one thing, but I found myself wondering what exactly constituted ‘bias.’ Since I had watched students and professors canceled for all manner of perceived transgressions, it left me wondering what range of incidents could fall under this umbrella…We come to college to…answer the [great] questions of our time. Sometimes that means we might express something inartfully—or, yes, offensively. But discussion, debate, and resolution are the remedies to that tension. Not a hotline.

In 2017, FIRE found that 231 public and private universities around the country had instituted some form of a bias-response team, impacting 2.84-million students. Many such mechanisms allow students to anonymously report classmates and even professors—oftentimes for their clearly protected speech. 

“Bias response teams create—indeed, they are founded to create—a chilling effect on campus expression,” FIRE warned in its 2017 report. At the time, the organization projected that the number of bias-response teams would “grow rapidly,” and it sure did.

A 2022 analysis of 824 schools by Speech First, a group devoted to defending students’ First Amendment rights, found that the majority of schools had bias-reporting systems in place. Speech First identified twice as many such systems as FIRE had five years before.

Cancellations have exploded thanks to major structural changes that have crept into the higher education system in recent decades. College has become more expensive and bureaucratized, and viewpoints more homogenous.

Between 1994 and 2018, the inflation-adjusted tuition for a public college education nearly doubled. Meanwhile, the administrative class exploded. While there was only one administrator for every two full-time faculty members, on average, at non-research public institutions in 1990, the two figures reached parity by 2012. Yale University now has more employees than it does students. In fact, the school has 2.44 administrators for every faculty member, and one administrator for every four students. That’s the same ratio the government recommends for childcare of infants under twelve months.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, the ratio of self-identified liberal to conservative professors was three-to-one in 1995. By 2011, it was five-to-one. A 2018 analysis by Brooklyn College professor Mitchell Langbert found that within the social sciences and humanities, the Democrat-to-Republican voter registration ratio for faculty at 51 elite liberal arts colleges ranged from a low of six-to-one in economics to a high of, well, infinity. This is to say that he found zero registered Republicans in the surveyed anthropology and communications departments. That same year, researcher Samuel Abrams found comparable numbers among administrators.

According to recent numbers from the Higher Education Research Institute, just one in ten professors consider themselves conservative. Meanwhile, one in four identify as “socialist.” Given this left-wing supermajority, it’s little wonder that opinions on academic freedom have changed.

Adapted from The Canceling Of The American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution, by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott. Copyright © 2023 by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

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