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What Cancel Culture Is—and Isn’t

Don’t underestimate the chilling effect.
October 25, 2021
What Cancel Culture Is—and Isn’t
(Photos: Shutterstock)

Not a day goes by, it seems, without another “cancel culture” story: the backlash against Dave Chapelle’s new Netflix standup special from transgender activists; the witch-hunt against a distinguished University of Michigan professor of composition who showed his class the 1965 film Othello with Laurence Olivier in blackface; MIT’s cancellation of a scientific lecture by a geophysicist who had criticized race-based affirmative action. The “new puritanism” of the progressive left was recently the subject of a long essay by Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic, discussing numerous cases in which people found themselves not only unemployed but shunned after being accused of misconduct or simply running afoul of new and rapidly evolving social norms. Applebaum’s piece received a lot of attention but also, predictably, a fair amount of pushback from the left. Some have mocked it as yet another tired complaint about “cancel culture” based on one-sided and unverified reports; others, such as Adam Gurri in Liberal Currents and Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times, have acknowledged that Applebaum has valid concerns while contending that she vastly exaggerates the problem.

Further complicating things is the issue of “cancel culture on the right,” a label that left-wing commentators have applied to a wide range of behaviors—from attempts within the GOP to excommunicate Republicans disloyal to Donald Trump to school disinvitations of speakers who have drawn conservative ire to (such as 1619 Project lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones) to state laws targeting “critical race theory” in public schools.

So what’s the real story? Is “cancel culture,” as many progressives claim, a “moral panic” stoked by the right and credulously endorsed by the centrist media? Is it a distinct and troubling phenomenon on the left, a pattern on both sides of the culture wars, or just part of the ordinary workings of culture and critique? How novel is it—have things always been like this, or has it gotten particularly bad in recent years? And just what does it include?

There is, of course, nothing particularly new about people across the political spectrum using public pressure to “deplatform,” silence, or punish speech or expression they find distasteful, often while lamenting “censorship” by the other side. The title of the 1992 book by the great civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee, remains evergreen.

Back in 2013, some conservatives were indignant when Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty reality show on A&E, got taken off the air after making anti-gay remarks in a GQ interview; yet literally some of the same people (Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell III, for example) had championed the boycott of ABC’s Ellen after its star and lead character came out as gay in 1997. A few years later, gay rights activists used their own pressure tactics to help kill conservative pop psychologist Laura Schlessinger’s show on CBS. In the 2000s, in the aftermath of September 11, a very real “patriotic correctness” led to a cancellation campaign against the Dixie Chicks after they criticized President George W. Bush onstage in London; even sympathetic programmers were pressured into taking the Chicks’ songs off the air, and some DJs who defied the boycott lost their jobs. At the same time, left-wing “political correctness” continued to flourish on many college campuses. To pick just one of countless examples, at Oregon State University in 2004, a white male columnist for the student paper, the Daily Barometer, wrote a piece criticizing the black community for rallying around unsavory figures like O.J. Simpson and R. Kelly. Protests erupted; the paper issued a contrite statement calling the column’s publication an “inexcusable mistake” and dropped the columnist.

Critics of the idea of “cancel culture” have a point when they argue that pushback against speech and expression we find morally offensive is a vital part of free speech. While disinvitations should be avoided on principle, there is nothing wrong with forcefully arguing that a college campus should not extend a speaking invitation to a far-right hate peddler like Ann Coulter or a progressive white-guilt grifter like Robin DiAngelo. Likewise, while taking down published articles should be a no-no except in case of egregious factual errors, plagiarism, or other misconduct, it’s not illiberal to argue that respected media outlets should not platform certain odious views, whether they’re unabashedly racist anti-immigration tirades or arguments that sexual liberation should extend to pedophiles. But it also seems clear that in a liberal society, the range of truly “cancelable” viewpoints should remain as narrow as possible, and the lines should be very carefully drawn.

Current “cancel culture” differs from the “normal” push-and-pull of speech-related pressures in several significant ways. First, the internet and the social media in particular have enabled much more public speech by people who aren’t journalists, politicians, activists, or other public figures—potentially exposing them to retaliation for speech that offends. Second, the internet and social media have become highly effective vehicles for collective retaliation for disapproved-of speech or conduct. (Gurri’s Liberal Currents article discusses these developments.) Third, a version of progressivism that stresses the “harm” done by very broadly defined racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted speech and expression—and even routinely labels such expression as “violence”—has moved from the margins of left-wing academia to the mainstream of universities, media, and other cultural institutions.

In such a framework, the suppression of speech becomes not just defensible but virtuous. Consider, for instance, this remarkable statement issued in 2018 by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who challenges feminist orthodoxy on such issues as “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon:

We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. . . . Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.

This isn’t just the silencing of dissent; it’s the silencing of dissent as a cornerstone ideological principle.

Or take Zack Beauchamp’s rebuttal last year of the Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” (which I co-signed along with about 150 writers, academics, and artists). While Beauchamp acknowledged that social justice advocates have sometimes “overreached” and tried to shut down “legitimate debate,” he asserted that their advocacy should generally be seen as pro-free speech, in the sense of “making historically marginalized voices feel comfortable enough in the public square to be their authentic selves . . . and speak their own truths.” But a close look at Beauchamp’s argument shows that, in his view, the “comfort” of these “marginalized voices” does require drastically curtailing the voices of presumed oppressors. According to Beauchamp, for instance, J.K. Rowling’s opinions on transgender rights are so demeaning that trans people cannot be expected to debate them or accept their presence in mainstream civil discourse. (Rowling has argued that transgender people should have full civil rights protections and live as they please, but that biological sex should not be denied and concerns about male-bodied individuals in single-sex female spaces or about the medical risks of gender transition for minors should not be dismissed as bigotry.) Thus, Beauchamp explicitly admits that the goal of social justice advocacy is not simply to criticize or challenge “offensive” speech, but to drive it out of the public square.

At least anecdotally—since relevant social science data is still thin on the ground—it seems that anti-free-speech illiberalism has increased dramatically over the last decade, on both the left and the right. The right has certainly engaged in its share of attacks on speech it considers distasteful—whether it’s the egregious harassment of anti-Trump conservatives like David French, the hounding of comedienne Kathy Griffin for the admittedly tacky stunt of posing with a fake severed, bloodied head of Trump (despite a prompt apology), or the firing of Associated Press cub reporter Emily Wilder after conservative activists and journalists targeted her over her (still quite recent) college involvement in Students for Justice for Palestine and her social media posts. There are also good reasons to be concerned about some of the recent laws seeking to curb “critical race theory” and other progressive ideas in schools, especially when those laws target higher education. We should absolutely be worried about right-wing authoritarianism.

But in some ways, progressive cancel culture has a much broader reach. It does not simply retaliate against speech by ideological opponents; it also quite often targets progressives or neutrals for sometimes accidental transgressions against the new norms of identity-based social justice. It does not simply punish opposition but demands allegiance, including repentance by transgressors. In that sense, the analogies to Stalinism and Maoism, much derided by the “anti-anti-cancel culture” crowd, have some validity. This is especially true since, in the last few years, social justice or “wokeism” really has become something of a party line not only in progressive activism and academia but in most of the established media, a wide range of cultural institutions, and large corporations: Witness, for instance, the rapid spread and embrace of the unpronounceable “Latinx,” which is used as a self-description by only 3 percent of Hispanics in the United States and seems like a blatant example of linguistic imperialism, but is considered woke because it signals not only gender neutrality but gender-inclusiveness beyond male and female. “Cancel culture” is, as Bari Weiss points out in Commentary, only the “justice system” of a larger revolution that seeks to overhaul personal attitudes and behavior through messages in the media, schools and universities, and corporate diversity programs.

Anne Applebaum and other critics of cancel culture have been accused of inflating a handful of incidents, sometimes overhyped, into a society-wide scourge. Gurri writes, for example, that Applebaum’s Atlantic article has “21 references to cases that can be publicly confirmed” plus “19 references to unnamed individuals who spoke to Applebaum directly” but anonymously, and that some of the claims she reports—in both the anonymous and named categories—rest on speculation or unproven assertion. This is true, although the same is true of many claims of racism, sexism, transphobia, sexual harassment, and other abuses reported in the media.

Gurri also writes, correctly, that hard data are hard to come by:

FIRE, an organization I consider fairly credible in its consistency regardless of the partisan valence of particular incidents, has documented 426 “targeting incidents involving scholars at public and private American institutions of higher education,” and 477 “disinvitations” (Joe and Hunter Biden being the first and second most recent incidents at the time of this writing). Canceled People, an organization dedicated entirely to tracking cases of this kind, documents 217 cases of “cancellation.” The National Association of Scholars documents 185 cases of “cancellation” in academia. The first FIRE database goes back to 2015, the second goes back as far as 1998. The Canceled People list includes a case from 1991. The NAS list has a case from 1975, one from 1988, and one from 2004, growing considerably more recent after that.

Given that some of these cases are no doubt duplicated, writes Gurri, the problem is clearly very minor: “If any other problem in social life was occurring at this frequency and at this scale, we would consider it effectively solved.”

Gurri concedes that the databases may drastically undercount such incidents, since many ideologically motivated firings are never publicized. (It also should be noted that the “Canceled People” list is a grab-bag of very disparate cases, from different countries, that include Trump’s Twitter ban, Liz Cheney’s loss of her Republican leadership position for criticizing Trump, and firings of transgender people for coming out on the job.) Nonetheless, he concludes that even if the real number is far higher, it ultimately points to a small problem.

Yet this reasoning underestimates the chilling effect of “cancellations.” And it does not take into account low-level and unquantifiable intimidation in the form of reprimands, suspensions, and other penalties short of dismissal.

Substack bloggers Michael Hobbes and Jessica Valenti have also accused Applebaum of minimizing the wrongdoings of some of the people she portrays as victims, particularly former New York Review of Books editor-in-chief Ian Buruma. Buruma was pressured to resign from his post and blackballed by other publications after running a first-person essay by Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who had been accused of sexual assault by multiple women but ultimately acquitted; the critics say Buruma was punished not simply for heresy but for serious ethical lapses, since he allowed Ghomeshi to insist on his innocence without verifying the details of any of the allegations. (Naturally, the publication of equally unverified claims by accusers has not resulted in similar repercussions.)

Yet while one may quibble here and there, most of the publicly known cases listed by Applebaum are unquestionably disturbing—and they represent a tiny tip of the iceberg. If anything, Applebaum’s range is arguably too narrow. Her focus is primarily on cancellations in academia, the media and literary circles. But there are all sorts of other stories outside that world.

For example, in 2017, a burrito shop opened by two Portland women was forced to shut down shortly after its launch because its white owners’ account of collecting recipes on a vacation in Mexico prompted a frenzy of denunciations for “stealing” and “culinary white supremacy” in the local left-wing press and the progressive digital media (and a torrent of negative online reviews).

In June 2020, during civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, a Denver chain of yoga studios, Kindness Yoga, was driven out of business by a social media backlash that started with “callouts” from a few employees who felt that the company’s Instagram statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter was “too little, too late.” (There were other grievances: for instance, that the management consulted “certain diverse members of the staff” about issues of diversity and inclusion instead of hiring an outside “diversity expert.”)

In July 2020, the following month, Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, stepped down after staffers circulated a petition demanding his removal for “toxic white supremacist beliefs.” Garrels’s offense: He had concluded a presentation on diversifying the museum’s holdings by saying that white artists would still be collected and that a blanket rejection of their work would be “reverse discrimination.”

Or take people who have been mobbed in the social media over alleged racist incidents gone viral. In 2013, public relations rep Justine Sacco spent a year as a jobless pariah, living more or less in hiding, after being attacked online for a now-infamous joke tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco meant to mock clueless “white privilege”; instead, her joke was taken seriously, and she was trashed as a racist.

In another such drama, from last month, a woman named Emma Sarley lost her job less than 24 hours after the posting of a half-minute-long clip that showed her in a dispute with bestselling author Frederick Joseph, who is black, in a Brooklyn, New York dog park. Sarley apparently told Joseph to “stay in your hood”; she later said that the remark was not racial and that she was simply telling him to take his dog, which was behaving aggressively, to another park. She also denied Joseph’s allegation that she threatened to call the police on him. Joseph, who marshaled his massive Twitter following to target Sarley, turned to have a history of questionable and attention-seeking claims of being wronged. On that occasion, even as zealous an anti-racism advocate as 1619 Project lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones commented that this did not “seem like an ethical use of one’s platform.”

Or take the bizarre pillorying, earlier this year, of Bachelor contestant Rachael Kirkconnell. During a season featuring the show’s first black bachelor, Kirkconnell was accused of hypocrisy by some women on the TikTok platform who claimed she had bullied them in high school for having black boyfriends. While no evidence was ever brought forward to support these accusations, a photo did turn up showing Kirkconnell at a supposedly “plantation-themed” college party in 2018—the “plantation theme” being Southern antebellum-style ball gowns. (In 2019, National Public Radio ran a story about such traditions being reinvented with a multiracial face that includes young black women.) Other charges against Kirkconnell included wearing a Native American Halloween costume and “brownfishing,” i.e. looking overly tan in social media photos. In the end, Kirkconnell posted a groveling apology filled with robotic social-justice-speak:

At one point, I didn’t recognize how offensive and racist my actions were. . . . My age or when it happened does not excuse anything. . . . I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist. . . . I am ashamed about my lack of education, but it’s no one’s responsibility to educate me. I am learning and will continue to learn how to be antiracist.

Amid the outcry, longtime Bachelor host Chris Harrison was forced out for suggesting Kirkconnell deserved some “grace” for her youthful errors.

Add to this the vicious campaigns against mass-market books (and their authors), almost invariably with progressive politics, accused of such sins as “cultural appropriation,” “white saviorism,” or having a character voice or even think racist thoughts. Last year, Jeanine Cummins, whose novel American Dirt was intended to dramatize the plight of migrants, was trashed for linguistic and cultural gaffes, for “cribbing” from Latino writers whose work she openly acknowledged, for writing “trauma porn” and for minimizing migrants’ experiences of violence, and for various other offenses—many of which, as journalist Jesse Singal documented, were simply made up. Cummins’s novel, an Oprah Book Club selection, still became a bestseller, so one could argue that she cried all the way to the bank; but her book tour was canceled under the onslaught of outrage and threats of violence, and Cummins disappeared from public view.

Add to this, too, Singal’s own experience of attempted “cancellation.” A respected science journalist with progressive politics, the former New York magazine writer has been the target of a creepy smear campaign ever since he angered transgender rights activists by questioning the movement’s orthodoxy on trans kids. (Singal has argued that teens who question their gender are often wrongly pushed into transitioning, that their struggles often stem from psychological issues other than true gender dysphoria, and that most eventually settle into a gender identity consistent with their biological sex.) Along with charges of transphobia, Singal has had to parry evidence-free but persistent accusations of being sexually obsessed with transgender women and harassing them in private online conversations. As a highly successful podcaster and Substack author, despite attempts to boot him from the platform, he may seem (like Cummins) a poor poster child for victimization. Yet, as he has noted, the smears are likely to affect his ability to publish in the mainstream press or get book contracts with respected publishers.

One could go on and on and on. Overall, the total number of “cancellations” may be, as Gurri asserts, small—certainly in proportion to the population. But they add up to a social climate of intimidation, particularly when most mainstream media coverage takes the side of the bullies. (When Sacco received some sympathetic coverage from journalist Jon Ronson more than a year after her mobbing, one progressive commentator chided Ronson in the Washington Post for not focusing on worthier victims, such as feminists who get harassed online, and downplayed Sacco’s ordeal by pointing out that she was employed again.)

It is true that “cancel culture” does not rely on government coercion, and in that sense comparisons to the Soviet purges or China’s Cultural Revolution are certainly over the top. But the fact that its victims issue apologies and even express gratitude to their tormentors in a tone that can sound uncannily similar to both is still true and still creepy.

Consider, for instance, another incident from the summer of 2020. On June 24, young adult fiction writer Alexandra Duncan announced the withdrawal of her novel Ember Days, scheduled for publication next year, days after the cover was unveiled. The cancellation was prompted by criticism from fellow young adult fantasy author Bethany Morrow and others upset by chapters written from the point of view of a woman with Gullah Geechee heritage (black Americans from the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, North Carolina and Florida). Duncan issued a typically abject apology, explaining that she had realized her book was “harmful” and was pulling it to “mitigate that harm”:

The Gullah Geechee culture has been systematically repressed and erased, and in my misguided attempt to write a book that was inclusive of the cultures of Charleston and the Lowcountry, where the book is set, I participated in this ongoing erasure. My own limited worldview as a white person led me to think I could responsibly depict a character from this culture. . . . I am deeply ashamed to have made a mistake of this magnitude.

In a particularly Kafkaesque twist, Duncan not only thanked her bullies but “wholeheartedly apologized” to them “for having to spend their time and energy speaking to me about this issue.” In an even more surreal twist, Publishers Weekly removed its story about the book’s cancellation after complaints that it had led to “abuse” toward Morrow and replaced it with another apology. (There’s a reason people keep comparing these dramas to Soviet show trials, Maoist struggle sessions, and re-education camps.)

In his post about cancel culture last week, Michael Hobbes ridicules the parallels to book-banning: It’s just “authors being roasted on social media,” no big deal. Yet he breezes past the fact that these days, social media can make or break a book—especially when publishers and traditional media march in lockstep with Twitter and Goodreads bullies. In 2018, social media vitriol forced (or “persuaded,” if you want it to sound more voluntary) Publishers Weekly to have its review of the young adult novel American Heart rewritten in a more critical mode and to strip the book of its “starred” status. In any case, if a social media roasting can make an author pull an about-to-be-published book based on the preposterous notion that writing about a non-white culture while white contributes to its “erasure”—and if this is not a onetime oddity but part of the climate in a large segment of American culture—then we have a problem.

Non-governmental coercion can still be plenty coercive, particularly when pressure from public opinion—in this case, social media and many professional media outlets—is combined with pressure from employers. It’s all very well to point out, as Hobbes does, that Applebaum’s “tale of Daniel Elder, a composer whose music was pulled from performances because he criticized Black Lives Matter protesters” doesn’t compare to barbaric murders during the Cultural Revolution. Of course it doesn’t. But when Hobbes goes on to blithely dismiss the former as “routine professional consequences for … publicly stated views,” this should set off alarm bells. Does Hobbes believe that such “professional consequences” should be accepted as normal?

In addition to human casualties, the damage is also to our cultural and political discourse on a wide range of identity-related issues. Hobbes, who thinks that the notion “sex is a biological reality” is bigot-speak for “trans people don’t exist,” may genuinely believe that the purging of such ideas is no loss to either intellectual freedom or intellectual exchange. Many of us beg to differ.

Of course “cancel culture” can be invoked in bad faith. During the second Trump impeachment proceedings, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asserted from the floor of the House of Representatives that the effort to impeach Trump for siccing a violent mob on the U.S. Congress to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory was “cancel culture” in action. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) cried cancel culture when Simon & Schuster canceled his book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, after he led the effort to challenge the vote certification in the House and was photographed cheering on the pro-Trump protesters with a raised fist shortly before the protests turned violent.

But every argument and every cause can be weaponized for bad purposes; that does not discredit the cause itself. While some of the opposition to left-wing illiberalism has regrettably gotten entangled with right-wing forces at least as illiberal, the liberal and centrist pushback against the “new puritans” is not only healthy but essential.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.