Is “Cancel Culture” Butchering the Centre?

Is “Cancel Culture” Butchering the Centre? July 15, 2020

Cancel culture is the talk of the town. What is it, for those uninitiated?

The act of canceling, also referred to as cancel culture (a variant on the term “callout culture“), describes a form of boycott in which an individual (usually a celebrity) who has acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner is boycotted. [source]

This might take shape in boycotting a brand or, more likely to upset the right, de-platforming people: cancelling talks that usually right-wingers are due to give at, say, universities. It involves supposed “silencing” of voices who aren’t “politically correct” enough, like JK Rowling on her views about trans people.

One of the latest stimuli for inspection came in the form of an open letter to Harper’s from an eclectic set of signatories, some of whom have previously advocated truncating speech (on the right) and others who have been victim, such as Noam Chomsky. Some have argued the irony of people on the right demanding their safe spaces.

There are all sorts of articles thrown around at the moment, some claiming it is plaguing modern society, and others saying it is overblown or even non-existent. I have selected a number of different articles to get your teeth into should you so desire. Happy reading.

Michael Hobbes at HuffPo starts us off:

“Anecdotes are not data, free speech is not under attack — and elite journalists should find something else to write about.”

The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.

This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.

The panic over “cancel culture” is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis. The Harper’s statement, like nearly everything else written on this subject, could have been more efficiently summarized in four words: “Get Off My Lawn.”…

The first question to ask when determining whether you’re falling for a moral panic is whether it’s really a Thing. Societal freakouts over razor blades in Halloween candy, strangers in vans kidnapping kids, and teenagers hosting “rainbow parties” turned out, in hindsight, to be based on tiny numbers of confirmed cases — or none at all.

“Cancel culture” has the same characteristics as previous episodes of pearl-clutchery. Nearly every example cited by the Harper’s letter turns out, upon scrutiny, to be something else entirely.

Take the letter’s ominous warning that “editors are fired for running controversial pieces.” This is almost certainly a reference to James Bennet, the opinion editor of The New York Times who resigned last month after printing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) calling for the military suppression of Black Lives Matter protests.

While the op-ed did inspire widespread criticism, Bennet’s resignation is not a case of social-media censorship. The Times’ itself admitted that the piece “fell short of our standards” and represented a “breakdown” in the paper’s editorial process. Bennet eventually admitted that he hadn’t even read it before publishing it.

And beyond Bennet’s incompetence, there is the simple question of accountability. Even before the Cotton op-ed, Bennet hired climate change deniersneglected fact-checking and printed “pro-mercenary” articles by private military contractors. Are the signatories to the Harper’s letter really saying that Times readers and employees should not have expressed their frustration with these obvious breaches of ethics?

Dozens of journalists, including several at the Times and HuffPost, made this point in a Friday response to the Harper’s letter spearheaded by journalists of color and co-signed by members of the academic and publishing communities.

The Harper’s letter also says, in its oblique way, that in today’s America, “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.” This is, in a purely literal sense, true: Last month, a professor named W. Ajax Peris was investigated by UCLA for reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” aloud in class.

That’s not why Peris was investigated, though. He was investigated because he read excerpts of the letter containing the N-word without warning his students first. He also showed graphic footage of lynchings in his class without content warnings. When students complained, he insisted that he should be allowed to use the slur.

Even if you think the complaint against Peris was overly sensitive, he was not “canceled” in any meaningful sense. The UCLA investigation was resolved with a critical letter from his department head. He was not subject to widespread calls for termination and will be teaching classes in the fall.

In other words, Peris’ case was utterly routine. Students complain about their teachers for justifiable reasons and silly ones thousands of times per week in America. These complaints don’t just come from left-wing students: After the 2016 election, a professor at the College of Charleston was targeted by conservatives for dedicating a class to discussing Donald Trump’s victory. The far-right advocacy group Turning Point USA has a Professor Watchlist where Republican pupils can report professors who advance “leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

America is a big country. Sometimes employees disagree with the decisions of their bosses and sometimes 19-year-olds do things that adults disagree with. Simply because these cases happened does not mean that they are new or important.

The comeback being a data analysis by the Heterodox Academy (a group of professors, administrators and grad students of Heterodox Academy promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement):

“The Skeptics Are Wrong Part 2: Speech Culture on Campus is Changing”

Six essays in March asserted that “there is no campus free speech crisis,” as Acadia U. political scientist Jeffrey Sachs put it in the Twitter thread that launched the wave of skepticism. In our first post responding to the skeptics, we argued that they went wrong by basing their case primarily on GSS data about the Millennial generation. We explained why the debate hinges not on Millennials but on the generation after them—iGen, or Gen Z—who began replacing Millennials in college in 2013. In this post we draw on five other datasets to show that there are reasons for concern about the speech climate on campus, and there are reasons to think that it is changing since 2015. We address three questions: 1) Is the speech climate (i.e., willingness to speak up) worsening on college campuses, overall, in recent years? We show that it is. 2) Is there a “politically correct” range of viewpoints on campus? We show that there is. 3) Which side of the spectrum is the bigger threat to free speech on campus? We show that students on the left and right used to be similar in their desire to “disinvite” speakers or shout them down, but since 2013 the right has used those tactics much less often while the left has used them much more often. In conclusion, the skeptics are right to demand evidence for claims about change, but wrong to say that there is no such evidence.

Check it out for some data, though most of it is poor data (notably, just not enough of it!). Indeed, a balanced critique of this piece and the data was done a couple of years ago on the podcast Two Psychologists Four Beers, which I think is well worth a listen to. Whilst the data, for the most part, is not good enough to properly defend the claims of those criticising cancel culture, it concludes that there does seem to be something in it.

Janice Turner, in The Times (paywall), just wrote a piece attacking the “woke” left:

“The woke left is the new Ministry of Truth”

Yet their safety is the very reason that bestsellers like Malcolm Gladwell and Margaret Atwood can speak out. The secure can best protect those in peril: the untenured academics or mid-list writers or even the teacher at your child’s school.

The worst of cancel culture is not a high-profile career assassination but what follows. Silence: the deadening effect upon institutions or individuals scared into self-censorship in case they too face an angry throng. The Orwell Foundation tells me that when I was shortlisted in 2018, because my submitted articles included an investigation into the global spike in teenage girls identifying as trans, it was warned of trouble, feared a picket and considered hiring private security to protect staff. So this year it had to formulate a plan in case of fallout because I had won.

With Nick Cohen at the Guardian also seeing this as an issue for the left:

“The spectre of censorship and intolerance stalks today’s left”

According to the supposedly tough-minded view, signing a letter to Harper’s protesting at the stifling of debate can only weaken “our side”. A defence of the signatories should begin by noting that they were telling the truth when they complained that “writers, artists, and journalists … fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement”. Note the precision. The signatories were not saying it is wrong for people to lay into others: freedom of speech is the freedom to criticise or it is nothing. Their point was that many live in fear of campaigns to destroy them if they don’t mouth the right opinions.

I’m surprised such a statement of the obvious could be controversial. No honest observer can deny that the dominant factions in the modern progressive movement reject freedom of speech. They punish opinions they disagree with when they have power; and the more power they have, the more they will punish. You may think the censorship justified, but to deny its existence is absurd. Tellingly, few bother to deny it now. Occasionally, you can see them raise the exhausted excuse from the grave that only the state can censor. On this reading, Islamists killing cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or CEOs firing whistleblowers, are not censoring because they are not civil servants. More popular in the past week has been the claim that writers with the reach of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie cannot take a moral stand because no one can suppress their thought – even though their critics give every impression of wanting to do just that.

Legendary British protest musician Billy Bragg countered with:

“‘Cancel culture’ doesn’t stifle debate, but it does challenge the old order”

Over the past decade, the right to make inflammatory statements has become a hot button issue for the reactionary right, who have constructed tropes such as political correctness and virtue signalling to enable them to police the limits of social change while portraying themselves as victims of an organised assault on liberty itself.

The latest creation in their war against accountability is “cancel culture”, an ill-defined notion that takes in corporate moves to recognise structural racism, the toppling of statues, social media bullying, public shaming and other diverse attempts to challenge the status quo….

Although free speech remains the fundamental bedrock of a free society, for everyone to enjoy the benefits of freedom, liberty needs to be tempered by two further dimensions: equality and accountability. Without equality, those in power will use their freedom of expression to abuse and marginalise others. Without accountability, liberty can mutate into the most dangerous of all freedoms – impunity.

We look down on authoritarian societies because their leaders act without restraint, yet in Trump, we see a president who has never been held to account in his personal life or professional career, and his voters love him for it. Boris Johnson’s supporters, when faced with examples of his lack of responsibility, shrug and say it’s just “Boris being Boris”. Impunity has become a sign of strength. You could see it in the face of the former police officer Derek Chauvin as he kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

In response to this trend, a new generation has risen that prioritises accountability over free speech. To those whose liberal ideals are proving no defence against the rising tide of duplicitous authoritarianism, this has come as a shock. But when reason, respect and responsibility are all under threat, accountability offers us a better foundation on which to build a cohesive society, one where everyone feels that their voice is heard.

And Ricky Gervais has got his tuppence worth in saying the Office couldn’t be created now, given cancel culture’s prevalence:

“Ricky Gervais Says ‘The Office’ Couldn’t Air Now Because of Cancel Culture”

“I think now it would suffer because people take things literally,” he said of the mockumentary sitcom. “There’s these outrage mobs who take things out of context. This was a show about everything. It was about difference, it was about sex, race, all the things that people fear to even be discussed or talked about now in case they say the wrong thing and they’re ‘canceled,’” Gervais said.

He added, “And the BBC have gotten more and more careful and people just want to keep their jobs. So people would worry about some of the subjects and some of the jokes, even though they were clearly ironic and we were laughing at this buffoon being uncomfortable around difference.”

Four writers then responded in The Guardian:

“Is free speech under threat from ‘cancel culture’? Four writers respond”

Nesrine Malik: Don’t confuse being told you’re wrong with the baying of a mob

The idea of “cancel culture”, the obvious, albeit unnamed, target of this letter, collapses several different phenomena under one pejorative label. It’s puzzling to me that a statement signed by a group of writers, thinkers and journalists, most whom have Ivy League or other prestigious credentials, would fail to at least establish a coherent definition of what it believes cancel culture is before seeming to condemn it….

To those unaccustomed to being questioned, this all feels personal. They have confused a lack of reverence from people who are able to air their views for the very first time with an attack on their right to free speech. They have mistaken the new ways they can be told they are wrong or irrelevant as the baying of a mob, rather than exposure to an audience that has only recently found its voice. The world is changing. It’s not “cancel culture” to point out that, in many respects, it’s not changing quickly enough.

Jonathan Freedland: The reaction to the letter has shown the need for it

Any letter that carries the signatures of both the former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum – the man who coined the phrase “axis of evil” – and Noam Chomsky is bound to get attention. It takes some doing to get, say, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and Bernie Sanders advocate Zephyr Teachout to join forces, and there are dozens of similarly unlikely ideological match-ups to be found among those who signed the letter published by Harper’s Magazine….

Instead, as one signatory, Anne Applebaum, conceded on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, it consists of a series of statements that are, in themselves, quite “anodyne”. It’s not disparaging to say that the document, like many open letters, represents a lowest common denominator, a bare minimum that would be acceptable – indeed, obvious – to the likes of both Frum and Chomsky. The letter declares, for example, that: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Are there many who would disagree with those words, who would want to make out loud the case for wishing away what they don’t like?

And yet the statement has not been received as a boilerplate recitation of the case for free expression, but has become controversial. That’s partly because of the text itself – which some have read as brimming with thin-skinned privilege, seeing it as a coded attack on marginalised minorities for having the gall to criticise people with power and platforms – but also, as happens often with open letters, because of the names at the bottom. One name in particular has provoked fury: that of JK Rowling, because of her writings on trans rights and gender. At least two signatories have distanced themselves from the letter since its publication.

It’s clear that a number of people believe Rowling should not be included in such statements, that her views have placed her outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. As it happens, the letter speaks of this phenomenon when it describes “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” It seems the Harper’s letter might be a rare example of the reaction to a text making the text’s case rather better than the text itself.

Zoe Williams: There is no such thing as pure freedom of expression

What we do know is that there is no such thing as total tolerance: it cannot logically tolerate intolerance. And there is no such things as pure freedom of expression either: the expression of some views necessarily encroaches on the dignity and freedom of others. This is partly a failure of speech itself, which has the facility to raise impossible propositions – Eagleton’s unstoppable force meeting an immovable object – but not to resolve them. Mainly it’s a failure of humans. We should think carefully before lining up behind an abstract, on either side – absolutes have a tendency to dissolve on contact with reality. And it’s in reality, of course, with its compromises and discomforts and competing demands, that we actually live.

Samuel Moyn: Abuse of the power to cancel is why I signed the letter

Recent events have, in my opinion, proved that a successful movement – one with which I sympathise – can err and undermine its further inroads into opinion. Mill was wrong about a lot. But he was right that “the wellbeing of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested”. Recent abuse and overuse of our power to ban and cancel, put simply, have sometimes hurt the continuing normalisation of truths we care about.

I don’t have the standing to talk down to or tutor those angry about the letter. But it is also correct that some of the chief victims of excessive policing of speech in history have been those with progressive politics like mine. I didn’t know who else would sign it when I did, but I reserve the right to criticise many of them, not just for their own hypocritical patrolling of speech in the past but also for their regularly disastrous ideas. Supporting economic and geopolitical catastrophe is far worse than participating in evanescent Twitter mobs or even more harmful censorship. And we will have missed an opportunity provided by those now honourably calling for free speech if we do not continue to indict the world their speech has made.

Finally, UnHerd’s article by Giles Fraser (“The historical amnesia of culture warriors”) points out the chronocentrism of the whole debacle, and our ability to forget that this is nothing new at all:

The phrase “cancel culture” might have been coined by the Devil to ensure maximum rancour and confusion. It is currently both ubiquitous and uselessly vague. The offences under its rickety umbrella range from an unguarded line in an interview to serial sexual assault; the punishments stretch from a rough week on Twitter to career annihilation; the prosecutors might be a powerful institution or a few powerless tweeters.

As if that weren’t muddled enough, the current debate is largely taking place in a state of historical amnesia, as if the issues were as novel as the terminology. The sociologist Jib Fowles called this fallacy chronocentrism“the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that other periods pale in comparison”. The author and academic Philip Seargeant suggests “the narcissism of the present”.

And this video does a pretty good job of describing the moral panic from the left (the part about Louis CK is absolutely spot-on):

Conclusion

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is this:

Attacking the cancel culture woke left is a moral panic largely instigated by the right in a fight for the centre. In these sorts of fights, the hard-right are unaffected and continue doing what they do, the hard-left are the ones supposedly getting all hot under the collar, all the while the centre is being jostled this way and that in being asked to side with one or the other. My view is that the right is much more conspiratorial in working together (see how Ben Shapiro has been operating) to deliver a highly dubious narrative. The left is a herd of cats with little interest in a concerted effort to deliver an organised project. The right, with its huge funding, is a different kettle of fish.

As ever, my opinion is that there is/should be a line but that no one will agree on it. This makes matters very difficult. Freedom of speech is a notoriously difficult quagmire. As ever, who arbitrates it? Especially when talking about things like inviting someone to speak at a public space. I think someone like Charles Murray should probably be invited to speak at places and then challenged really robustly on everything they say. It depends on how well things are managed. It’s interesting with people like Milo Yiannopolous because his fame depended on people cancelling him. He is an actual troll in every aspect of his existence and, when he gets cancelled, that is exactly what he wants because, as he has admitted openly that it’s how he makes his money. There is really no scenario where he should be invited anywhere, in my opinion. But someone more academic should be invited but should also be allowed to be openly challenged as robustly as possible.

And so I see the whole thing as misplaced worry. I think it is overestimated exactly how many places in the world are even susceptible to such left-wing academia, and how often this really is happening on our campuses and elsewhere.

The world has swung hugely to the right. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t a trend towards this cancel culture in some way. Universities are overwhelmingly liberal and conservatism will be a minority viewpoint on some of these campuses, and that provides a challenge for someone from within that group.

This is shouting about a minor issue and making it sound way worse than it is and either explicitly ignoring or allowing ignoring of the far worse threats from the right. What is worse, having a woke culture, or society run by bigots like Ben Shapiro and, well, Trump? This is shouting about often minor issues (as in, not as commonplace or pervasive as they are claimed to be) and making it sound way worse than it is and either explicitly ignoring or allowing ignoring of the far worse threats from the right.

There will always be bumps on the road on the journey to progress. There may be mistakes. But beware the people who shout about those mistakes so loudly and claim (by hasty generalisation) that they are representative of a decay in (liberty) liberal society. They are usually not the (liberty) liberals you think they are. Most people shouting about freedom of speech will somewhere along the line want to take your bodily autonomy away, or dictate who you sleep with, or disbar you on account of the colour of your skin.

Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Don’t let these smoke and mirrors scare you off from the project to make this world a better and more equitable place for all, or provide an illusion for society so we fall down the hidden trap door into a dark cellar of intolerance that might take years to reason and vote our way out of.

When the mouthpieces of the right gain so much traction by blowing this stuff up to curry favour with the centre (and this really works), I worry. I do submit that the cancel culture battle doesn’t affect the far-left or far-right but butchers the centre. And I’m fairly sure that, when the dust settles, it will most certainly have favoured the right, this being the intention of their more cunning cabal members.


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