Yes, Ross Douthat is a conservative columnist, but does that mean he can be totally ignored? I don’t think so, at least not this week, when he devotes his New York Times space to a discussion of “cancel culture” (CC), and provides as good a definition of the phenomenon as I’ve seen. He also admits, in his list of “ten theses” about CC, that the Right does it too, but also that “a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals.” I agree with most of what he says but strongly disagree with his thesis that the Right barely engages in creating CC at all.
Read it by clicking on the screenshot:
I’ve put Douthat’s “theses” in bold, and indented a few excerpts from his article. My own take on his points is flush left:
- 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.
Douthat’s definition of cancel culture, above is one of the best I’ve seen, distinguishing it from mere disapprobation and showing that, according to his take (and mine), CC really exists. He adds this:
“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.
Those who deny that CC exists are ostriches; every poll I’ve seen shows that, at least on campus, many students are afraid to speak their minds lest their reputations be sullied. Have a look, for instance, at this 2018 poll from Gallup (click on screenshot):
Two bits of data:
The perception of students is that conservatives are the least able to freely express their views:
Also see FIRE’s “disinvitation database,” since disinvitation, whether for a famous or less famous person, clearly constitutes “cancellation.” Both Left and Right participate in this heinous curbing of free speech, but mostly the Left.
- All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means.
I haven’t much to add here, but do have a bit of a beef with Douthat’s trying to get the Right off the hook:
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.
Well, he’s underestimating the power of Right-wing cancellation here, especially through Trump and the powerful and much-read right-wing media. These people aren’t just “disagreeing with cancellation-worthy sins,” but attempting to damage people’s reputations based on what they said or wrote.
- Cancellation isn’t exactly about free speech, but a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals.
Douthat is right here: it is conservativism that has often put the clamps on free speech, for free speech is a powerful medium for overthrowing the status quo:
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.
- The internet has changed the way we cancel, and extended cancellation’s reach.
No doubt about this; now everyone can have a say, and they don’t have to know you to try to damage you. In the old days, you could flee your bailiwick to escape local opprobrium, but no longer, as there’s no hiding from Twitter:
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.
- The internet has also made it harder to figure out whether speech is getting freer or less free.
This is obvious: more people have a platform to speak, but a lot of them try to erode the free speech of others. The solution is to work against the erosion, i.e., promote the First Amendment and its extension to colleges and universities, and call out CC, as the Harper’s letter did.
- Celebrities are the easiest people to target, but the hardest people to actually cancel.
Many of the beefs against the idea of CC are that the people who make the most public statements are famous people, people like J.K. Rowling and Dave Chapelle, both mentioned by Douthat. Those people can be attacked but aren’t really “cancelled.” But saying that celebrity statements don’t prove CC exists isn’t the point; see my take on #7 below.
- 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.
This was the point Steve Pinker made in this tweet. Even though Pinker is famous, he’s calling out those who chill the speech of the less famous.
"Nice career you got there," that is. (Sorry for the typo.) https://t.co/tj0BHMhtUc
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) July 8, 2020
Douthat’s response is good here, and gives two chilling examples:
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.
- The right and the left both cancel; it’s just that today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.
Here I disagree strongly. The Right is certainly engaged in attempts to cancel, most notably through Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the country. He uses his Twitter feed to constantly smear people and to damage their careers and reputations. He’s not trying to engage in constructive argument, of course. And there’s also the powerful right-wing media, like Fox News. Douthat is disingenuous when he says this:
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.
Look at Trump, Fox News, powerful Republican Senators, and so on, and you’ll see that they’re constantly engaged in cancellation in the Douthat-ian sense.
- 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.
Here Douthat notes that the existence of Twitter isn’t sufficient to explain cancel culture, a point I made last week. There are other factors involved, ones discussed in Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind and Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, both books I recommend. Here’s Douthat’s take:
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.
And here, as lagniappe, is Professor Ceiling Cat’s list of words that indicate you’re in Woke and Cancel Land:
“I feel unsafe”
“Speech is violence”
“I favor free speech, but . . . ”
“Person on culture X is being erased”
The use of the word “nuanced”.
- If you oppose left-wing cancel culture, appeals to liberalism and free speech aren’t enough.
I think Douthat is referring here to the Harper’s Letter, arguing that it isn’t enough to claim a “right” of free speech, though that’s not all the letter did (it limned some of the consequences of chilling speech). He says that one needs arguments for why free speech is good. But he’s preaching to the choir: we have such arguments starting with John Stuart Mill and extending through Christopher Hitchens in our day (see a list here). I won’t reprise the arguments for free speech here, but I’ll put Hitchens’s eloquent defense below on the off chance you haven’t seen it: