On July 7th, 2020 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.
This morning, we published a response to the Harper’s Letter signed by more than 160 journalists, academics, and writers. https://t.co/XEbC2q4Rnb
— The Objective (@ObjectiveJrn) July 10, 2020
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.”
Once more: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CANCEL CULTURE. There is free speech. You can say and do as you pls, and others can choose never to deal this you, your company or your products EVER again. The rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organize their dissent.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) July 11, 2020
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.