Cancel Culture

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Conor Friedersdorf:

University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig

"The University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig tweeted that Black Lives Matter “torpedoed itself” by supporting calls to defund the police. “Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all,” he wrote. “We need more police, we need to pay them more, we need to train them better.” In response, other academics organized a campaign to remove him from the editorship of a scholarly journal; and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, a quasi-governmental institution, cut ties with him, asserting that his views are incompatible with its “commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.” Yet the beliefs that defunding the police is a bad idea, and that protesters who advocate for it will lose political support, are common. Many at the Fed surely hold them. All political litmus tests in public institutions are fraught. That litmus test is farcical.

UCLA, Gordon Klein

At UCLA, Gordon Klein, a lecturer who has taught at the institution since 1981, dismissively declined an emailed request to alter the requirements of his final exam for Black students during the George Floyd protests. “Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian?” he wrote. “What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half?” He concluded the email, “One last thing strikes me: Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the ‘color of their skin.’ Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition?”

Denying the student’s request was within his discretion, as UCLA’s Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom affirmed. Nevertheless, a petition calling for his dismissal accrued 21,000 signatures, and he was suspended pending an investigation. “This investigation is almost certainly based on the tone or viewpoint of his email, which was—however brusque—protected expression on a matter of profound public interest,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argued. “Klein must be immediately reinstated, and UCLA’s leaders must make clear that their commitment to academic freedom is stronger than an online mob.”

In Vermont, a public-school principal

In Vermont, a public-school principal posted her thoughts about Black Lives Matter on Facebook:

I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get to this point across... While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all?

Her school board quickly announced that despite the principal’s “meaningful and positive impact,” her “glaring miscomprehension” of Black Lives Matter would damage the school and its students if she remained in charge. They removed her for speech that is clearly protected by the First Amendment, engaging in viewpoint discrimination. That is an unlawful violation of her civil rights.

data scientist, David Shor

A respected data scientist, David Shor, tweeted a link to Princeton Professor Omar Wasow’s recently published academic paper concluding that violent protests diminish the electoral prospects of the Democratic coalition. As a result, he was banned from a listserv of left-of-center data analysts and appears to have been fired from his job at Civis Analytics. (Emerson Collective, the majority owner of The Atlantic, is a minority investor in Civis Analytics.) “For those of you who don’t realize what makes the tweet problematic,” one member of the listserv wrote, “try not to overanalyze the statistical validity of the research paper and think about the broader impact it will have if people perceive it to be true.” That standard demands that people self-censor the truth.

A group of policing-reform advocates

A group of policing-reform advocates identified eight use-of-force policies that are statistically associated with fewer police killings. Then they successfully lobbied dozens of cities to adopt their “8 Can’t Wait” measures, such as banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation, and requiring cops to intervene to stop excessive force. In a sign of the times, their website now leads with a mea culpa. “Even with the best of intentions, the #8CANTWAIT campaign unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible,” they wrote. “For this we apologize wholeheartedly, and without reservation.”

Because even insufficient radicalism from allies draws ire, many may feel tempted to keep quiet and observe. But “silence is violence,” some insist. That phrase is chanted on the streets, and its logic is being applied to individuals and institutions. In The New York Times, the author Chad Sanders urged shunning of the silent, advising his white friends to text their relatives and loved ones “telling them you will not be visiting them or answering phone calls until they take significant action in supporting black lives either through protest or financial contributions.” Those are cult tactics.

The theater producer Marie Crisco created and circulated a Google Doc titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” naming and shaming more than 400 performing-arts venues that “have not made a statement against injustices toward black people.” The Los Angeles Times reported that many theaters then posted messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Crisco told the newspaper that the words seemed to come from a place of shame and “felt slapped together and hollow.”

How could they not? Before this month, no one expected theaters to release statements on worldly injustices or for theater staffers to be skilled at drafting them with the right tone and substance. Yet many institutions are treated as if a failure to quickly publish something that conforms absolutely to highly contested interpretations of anti-racism renders them deserving of opprobrium.

Denver bookstore, The Tattered Cover

A Denver bookstore, The Tattered Cover, felt compelled earlier this month to explain why it had not released a statement on protests in its city. “We want to make a statement of support and take a moment to explain why we’ve been quiet,” the book store’s owners declared. “We agree with, embrace, and believe that black lives matter. We reject the statement ‘All Lives Matter’ as an either valid or helpful response ... We stand in solidarity with our black friends and neighbors, and grieve the senseless and brutal loss of life; not just of George Floyd and other recent victims, but of all lives lost from centuries of oppression and abuse. We believe there must be systemic change.”

So why had it kept quiet? The bookstore explained that it had maintained a “nearly 50-year policy of not engaging in public debate,” premised on a belief that even proclaiming “simple and unalterable truths” would be anathema to a mission it holds dear: “to provide a place where access to ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, can happen in an uninhibited way.” As they saw it, “If Tattered Cover puts its name and weight either behind, or in opposition to, one idea, members of our community will have an expectation that we must do the same for all ideas. Engaging in public debate is not, we believe, how Tattered Cover has been and can be of greatest value to our community.” The owners closed by pledging to feature more titles by Black authors, to schedule more events with Black authors, and to continue to hire and promote employees from diverse backgrounds.

Their statement of supposed neutrality affirmed everything most businesses say when supporting Black Lives Matter. But because it did not treat solidarity as preeminent, it was deemed too problematic to abide. “I’ve just told my publicist to cancel my 6/23 event in conjunction with Tattered Cover,” the author Carmen Maria Machado announced. “Unlike the owners, I know that choosing neutrality in matters of oppression only reinforces structural violence.”

Soon, the owners released a second statement apologizing for the first one. “We are horrified at having violated your trust. We deserve your outrage and disappointment,” it began. “Tattered Cover will no longer stand by while human rights are being violated. To be silent is to be complicit, to be neutral in the face of injustice is an act of injustice itself.” In fact, statements of solidarity and self-flagellating apologies for wrongthink don’t advance social or racial justice any more than displaying and exalting the American flag after 9/11 made the U.S. safer from al-Qaeda. For now, the bookstore has failed to release statements condemning America’s campaign of drone strikes, War on Terror detainees still held in indefinite detention, or the epidemic of rape and sexual abuse in juvenile-detention facilities. Is the bookstore complicit in all of those evils?" (

More incidents

Directory of incidents related to identity politics in general, not exclusively cancel culture events:


Ten Theses about cancel culture

By Ross Douthat:


Cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.

“Reputation” and “employment” are key terms here. You are not being canceled if you are merely being heckled or insulted — if somebody describes you as a moron or a fascist or some profane alternative to “Douthat” on the internet — no matter how vivid and threatening the heckling becomes. You are decidedly at risk of cancellation, however, if your critics are calling for you to be de-platformed or fired or put out of business, and especially if the call is coming from inside the house — from within your professional community, from co-workers or employees or potential customers or colleagues, on a professional message board or Slack or some interest-specific slice of social media.

2. All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means.

There is no human society where you can say or do anything you like and expect to keep your reputation and your job. Reputational cancellation hung over the heads of Edith Wharton’s heroines; professional cancellation shadowed 20th-century figures like Lenny Bruce. Today, almost all critics of cancel culture have some line they draw, some figure — usually a racist or anti-Semite — that they would cancel, too. And social conservatives who criticize cancel culture, especially, have to acknowledge that we’re partly just disagreeing with today’s list of cancellation-worthy sins.

3. Cancellation isn’t exactly about free speech, but a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals.

The canceled individual hasn’t lost any First Amendment rights, because there is no constitutional right to a particular job or reputation. At the same time, under its own self-understanding, liberalism is supposed to clear a wider space for debate than other political systems and allow a wider range of personal expression. So you would expect a liberal society to be slower to cancel, more inclined to separate the personal and the professional (or the ideological and the artistic), and quicker to offer opportunities to regain one’s reputation and start one’s professional life anew.

“It’s a free country,” runs the American boast, and even if it doesn’t violate the Constitution, cancellation cuts against that promise — which is one reason arguments about cancel culture so often become arguments about liberalism itself.

4. The internet has changed the way we cancel, and extended cancellation’s reach.

On the other hand, a skeptic might say that it wasn’t liberalism but space and distance that made America a free country — the fact that you could always escape the tyrannies of local conformism by “lighting out for the territory,” in the old Mark Twain phrase. But under the rule of the internet there’s no leaving the village: Everywhere is the same place, and so is every time. You can be canceled for something you said in a crowd of complete strangers, if one of them uploads the video, or for a joke that came out wrong if you happened to make it on social media, or for something you said or did a long time ago if the internet remembers. And you don’t have to be prominent or political to be publicly shamed and permanently marked: All you need to do is have a particularly bad day, and the consequences could endure as long as Google.

5. The internet has also made it harder to figure out whether speech is getting freer or less free.

When critics of cancel culture fret about a potential online-era chill on speech, one rejoinder is that you can find far more ideas — both radical and noxious — swirling on the internet than you could in a sampling of magazines and daily newspapers circa 1990. It’s easier to encounter ideological extremes on your smartphone than it was in the beforetime of print media, and easier to encounter hateful speech as well.

But at the same time the internet has hastened the consolidation of cultural institutions, so that the New York Times and the Ivy League and other behemoths loom larger than they did 30 years ago, and it’s arguably increased uniformity across cities and regions and industries in general. And the battle over norms for cancellation reflects both of these changes: For would-be cancelers, the chaos of the internet makes it seem that much more important to establish rigorous new norms, lest the online racists win … but for people under threat of cancellation, it feels like they’re at risk at being shut out of a journalistic or academic marketplace that’s ever more consolidated, or defying a consensus that’s embraced by every boardroom and HR department.

6. Celebrities are the easiest people to target, but the hardest people to actually cancel.

One of the ur-examples of cancel culture was activist Suey Park’s 2014 hashtag campaign to #cancelColbert over a satirical tweet from the Twitter account of “The Colbert Report.” Six years later, Stephen Colbert is very much uncanceled. So are Dave Chappelle, J.K. Rowling and a much longer list of prominent pop culture figures who have faced online mobs and lived to tell, sell and perform.

Their resilience explains why some people dismiss cancellation as just famous people whining about their critics. If someone has a big enough name or fan base, the bar for actual cancellation is quite high, and the celebrity might even have the opportunity — like a certain reality-television star on the campaign trail in 2016 — to use the hatred of the would-be cancelers to confirm a fandom or cement a following.

However, not everyone is a celebrity, and …

7. Cancel culture is most effective against people who are still rising in their fields, and it influences many people who don’t actually get canceled.

The point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority, not to bring the stars back down to earth. So a climate of cancellation can succeed in changing the way people talk and argue and behave even if it doesn’t succeed in destroying the careers of some of the famous people that it targets. You don’t need to cancel Rowling if you can cancel the lesser-known novelist who takes her side; you don’t have to take down the famous academics who signed last week’s Harper’s Magazine letter attacking cancel culture if you can discourage people half their age from saying what they think. The goal isn’t to punish everyone, or even very many someones; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.

8. The right and the left both cancel; it’s just that today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.

Is it cancel culture when conservatives try to get college professors disciplined for anti-Americanism, or critics of Israel de-platformed for anti-Semitism? Sure, in a sense. Was it cancel culture when the Dixie Chicks — sorry, the artists formerly known as the Dixie Chicks — were dropped by radio stations and tour venues, or when Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” was literally canceled, for falling afoul of patriotic correctness? Absolutely.

But as the latter examples suggest, the last peak of right-wing cultural power was the patriotically correct climate after Sept. 11, a cultural eon in the past. Today the people with the most to fear from a right-wing cancel culture usually work inside Trump-era professional conservatism. (And even for them there’s often a new life awaiting as a professional NeverTrumper.) Attempted cancellations on the right are mostly battles for control over diminishing terrain, with occasional forays against red-state academics and anti-Trump celebrities. Meanwhile, the left’s cancel warriors imagine themselves conquering the entire non-Fox News map.

9. The heat of the cancel-culture debate reflects the intersection of the internet as a medium for cancellation with the increasing power of left-wing moral norms as a justification for cancellation.

It’s not just technology or ideology, in other words, it’s both. The emergent, youthful left wants to take current taboos against racism and anti-Semitism and use them as a model for a wider range of limits — with more expansive definitions of what counts as racism and sexism and homophobia, a more sweeping theory of what sorts of speech and behavior threaten “harm” and a more precise linguistic etiquette for respectable professionals to follow. And the internet and social media, both outside institutions and within, are crucial mechanisms for this push.

It’s debatable whether these new left-wing norms would be illiberal or whether they would simply infuse liberalism with a new morality to replace the old Protestant consensus. It’s arguable whether they would expand the space for previously marginalized voices more than they would restrict once-mainstream, now “phobic” points of view. But there’s no question that people who fall afoul of the emergent norms are more exposed to cancellation than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago.

10. If you oppose left-wing cancel culture, appeals to liberalism and free speech aren’t enough.

I said earlier that debates about cancellations are also inevitably debates about liberalism and its limits. But to defend a liberal position in these arguments you need more than just a defense of free speech in the abstract; you need to defend free speech for the sake of some important, true idea. General principles are well and good, but if you can’t champion controversial ideas on their own merits, no merely procedural argument for granting them a platform will sustain itself against a passionate, morally confident attack.

So liberals or centrists who fear the left-wing zeal for cancellation need a counterargument that doesn’t rest on right-to-be-wrong principles alone. They need to identify the places where they think the new left-wing norms aren’t merely too censorious but simply wrong, and fight the battle there, on substance as well as liberal principle.

Otherwise their battle for free speech is only likely to win them the privilege of having their own ideas canceled last of all." (