Douthat on Cancel Culture

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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”.

  1. 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:



48 thoughts on “Douthat on Cancel Culture

  1. The latest attempt of the right wing and Trump to cancel someone is Anthony Fauci. It isn’t working.

    1. Maybe not with the readers of this website but the various right-wing opinionators are busy trashing Fauci and I suspect those who listen to Fox News, etc. also buy into it, perhaps only out of allegiance but nevertheless.

  2. Avoid PZ Myers and Pharyngula, who has predictably gone on a big moan about Douthat’s piece.

    He ends it with “I wish “Cancel Culture” were a real thing, rather than reasonable complaints about the status quo and how it’s enforced by by far-right thugs, so I could cancel a few people myself.”

    This reveals how the Hard Left think – they’re authoritarians who want control of people and their speech. Imagine PZ having this sort of power, and then imagine a jackboot on your face. Forever.

      1. Indeed.

        I would love to know which ‘far-right thugs’ are policing cancel culture in colleges, academies, schools, big tech, etc.!

    1. Ophelia Benson has also cited Douthat’s article, although she has to clear her throat and state she rarely agrees with him.

      Ofie is concerned about cancel culture, which is a distinct about-turn from a few years ago when she was still at “FreeThoughtBlogs” and was caught up in the “freeze peach” cult.

      However, Ophelia’s concern is typically a selfish one – she is only bothered by the fact TERFs (her word) are being silenced and cancelled. Not Liberals per se. Because she was part of a cult that tried to cancel and harass Liberals, remember, and it would be awkward for her to admit that.

  3. After years of getting everything wrong, Douthat finally got something mostly correct. He must have actually thought about it before writing.

      1. I’ve almost always disagreed with Douthat, but a few years ago I had hopes for him as one of the so-called “Reformocons” who were seeking a return to a moderate, small “c” conservatism (and against whom one could, thus, agreeably remonstrate). Then he seemed to become increasingly religion-besotted, and his writing and analysis suffered for it.

        Perhaps this is a return to form, or so hope springs.

    1. I have disliked Douthat ever since reading his BS review of Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” but I have to admit that he has accurately anatomized cancel culture.

    1. “because so much cancelling occurs on college campuses…”
      And Silicon Valley, and established Media and schools etc, which means the perception is correct.

  4. One of the saddest types of cancellation is this:

    A working class person with no voice and nobody who will stand up for them losing his job, made even worse by the current economic conditions.

    Also, I crack my thumb and forefinger like that every day. Oh, and the idea that this is a “white power” sign? It’s actually a joke perpetrated by people on the reprehensible site 4chan. A couple of years ago, they decided to start posting on social media that this was a “white power” sign, using dummy accounts where they pretended to be social justice advocates. They thought they’d make the real social justice crowd look stupid by making them believe and perpetuate the idea, but instead that crowd perpetuated the idea and it became canon because much of the media follows the dictates of social justice twitter. I guess this is just like Titania’s satire from last year becoming reality this year.

    The cancel culture mob took joy in being able able to act like Trump and petulantly shout, “you’re fired” at this guy. The employer’s immediate acquiescence shows just how susceptible people are to this. From a corporation’s perspective, why risk a PR firestorm and possible complaints and suits for a “hostile workplace environment” when you can just fire the alleged offender and be done with it?

    1. That working class cracker clearly had white privilege, and needed taking down a peg.

      I’m being sarcastic of course. This whole cultural movement is just too depressing. I can’t see how it can be stopped. One of the problems is it isn’t just a PR firestorm companies are facing, but potential law suits (for anything but the strongest business a death sentence) brought under the full weight of civil rights law.

    2. It’s not a perfect solution, but in most continental European countries workers have protections against adverse employment actions fired for their political beliefs or associations, assuming they are not being brought to work (and no, merely “being a neo-Nazi” isn’t thought of as sufficient to affect the workplace, even in Germany). A pro-life employer can’t fire an employee for being pro-choice, and a corporation can’t fire a pro-life employee because a pro-choice Twitter trend is accusing the company of employing a misogynist. There are some exceptions, like political parties, most non-profits, and religious organizations.

      Corporations in the US do have some First Amendment rights, like political donations, but the freedoms of speech and association generally do not apply to employment discrimination laws based on the classes protected by such laws (and some of these are ones that people choose, like creedal religions or serving in the military). This was settled more than 50 years ago in analyzing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As for concerns about hostile environment/workplace harassment law, I am unaware of an actual case where something an employee said outside of the workplace, and not directed at a fellow employee, was sufficient grounds for creation of a hostile environment; the Google guy’s NLRB complaint was iffy, but all of those events happened at work.

      Neither party will do something sensible like this anytime soon though, because neither party cares about average working people, whether white-collar or blue-collar, high-level service for an accounting firm or low-level service for a retail clothing store.

      1. Agreed on all points, especially your last paragraph. It makes me sick seeing all of these corporations touting BLM while using sweatshops in third-world countries and/or treating their workers terribly in their home countries. Meanwhile, the Democratic party has conveniently rallied around identity politics while completely ignoring economic class, and economic class is the number one predictor of things like whether you’ll have monetary success in the future, be incarcerated, have adverse interactions with police, etc.

        1. Isn’t it often the case that the low-paid jobs in other countries are still better than no jobs at all and going hungry? Obviously there are limits to what is reasonable but often the workers would rather have the jobs.

          “Meanwhile, the Democratic party has conveniently rallied around identity politics…”

          Surely that’s a bit strong. I think all the Dem candidates did a pretty good job not getting to hung up in identity politics. Some of their constituents are surely hung up in identity politics so they can hardly ignore them.

          1. “I think all the Dem candidates did a pretty good job not getting to hung up in identity politics”

            Like Elizabeth Warren?

  5. The Right does not like change. It prefers tradition and would choose ignorance and conspiracy theories over looking into truth. This alone makes them less susceptible to cancellation. They prefer a hermetic world where disagreements are minimized. A lot of the Right would view the cancellation efforts of the Left as a form of weakness and disunity.

    The Left is attracted to intellectual curiosity and this inevitably gets them into trouble. They want to get to the truth and the truth is hard and sometimes ugly to get to. The Left is more likely to uncover darkness that lives in us and our society and this makes many more people unhappy and uneasy.

    1. This was a test. I tried commenting on another post and it kept saying it was a duplicate, but it wasn’t. Worked on this post.

  6. The important question is whether we have a culture of free speech. Are people encouraged to speak up or are they encouraged to self censor?

    Clearly, the left has turned from encouraging thinking out loud to groupthink where there is the one true way of thinking.

    Talking about the right is a misdirection. It does not matter whether the right is better or worse, we need to make our side better. Or form our own side where we stand up for rational debate.

  7. A Facebook friend who is a university professor used a curse word in a post about Trump, and a faculty member from the nearby Christian college posted that he shouldn’t have done that, and he should set a good example because he doesn’t just represent himself but also his university, and then this doofus tagged his (few) friends, urging them to write to the department chair, dean, and provost to complain about this faculty member.

    Uhh…. he’s a department chair, and his dean is one of his Facebook friends. If this is a typical thing for conservatives, I can only imagine what the morning mail delivery /email inbox is like for provosts & deans across America.

    1. Hope your Facebook friend told the officious Christian college faculty member to stick his post where the sun don’t shine. 🙂

  8. I find it interesting that PCC cites “nuanced” as a calling card for woke speech. I find cancel culture, and specifically Twitter’s contribution to it (restrictive character limits) anything but nuanced. The Woke (more accurately the extreme of any ideology) traffic almost exclusively in complete moral certainty, and are the last ones to admit nuance into any conversation.

    In my experience, it is classic liberals like me who use “nuance” the most.

  9. The author of a recent book, Knowledge Resistance, was talking on BBC Radio 4 today. He argues that there is a worrying trend of people judging the reliability of the information they receive by whether they agree with the politics of person it comes from:

    Our host can certainly not be accused of falling into that trap: “Yes, Ross Douthat is a conservative columnist, but does that mean he can be totally ignored?”

  10. In Australia, conservatives have successfully “cancelled” people who said “beyond the pale”* comments around military or national holidays. The vitriol with which the right-wing mob attacks is one reason I am surprised that any on the left with to emulate it. But as Jonathan Haidt wrote: “morality binds and blinds”.

    *Beyond the pale being that they pointed out that Australia’s treatment of refugees and the indigenous population isn’t perfect.

  11. “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.”

    I must disagree, for the simple reason that while Trump might “attempt” to cancel (your word), his attempts are rarely as effective as those coming from the Left. One could list a hundred people who’ve lost their jobs in the last year because a left-wing Twitter mob has put them in their sights. The number of people who have similarly been actually impacted by a right-wing mob is vanishingly small.

    1. You can’t be serious. Everyone Trump dislikes gets vilified by the 40% of the country who support him after he insults them on Twitter, with Fauci being an obvious current example. Furthermore, if he has the power to destroy their careers, he makes use of it- like Vindman or SDNY attorney Berman using two obvious recent examples. You don’t need a mob if you’re president, especially with corrupt people under you. Anyone on the Left would be jealous of the number of career politicians and civil servants that Trump has managed to purge from their life’s work.

      1. Or ask soon-to-be-reluctantly-retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (or his innocent twin brother), the patriotic, Purple-Heart-earning Ukrainian-American former White House aid persecuted for giving truthful testimony before a congressional committee.

  12. “The perception of students is that conservatives are the least able to freely express their views”

    That’s a misleading conclusion, since seven of the nine other groups in the graph are merely kinds of humans whose identity (sex, ethnicity, place of birth, sexuality, gender identity) doesn’t equate to any view. The only exceptions are Muslims, who rate second to last, and liberals.

    So assuming we’re not postmodernists and can agree certain political and religious views are more correct than others, the graph is exactly what I’d expect and desire from a place of education with a mostly liberal population. The type of person arguing doesn’t matter, but their views do. Add ‘birther’, ‘Christian’, ‘neo-nazi’, ‘trickle-down economist’, ‘creationist’, ‘sexist’, ‘ancient alien advocate’, ‘climate change denialist’, etc. etc. to that graph and I’d hope they all get low ratings too.

    1. To paraphrase what Richard Dawkins told the intelligent design crowd, if you can’t see the difference, maybe you need to look a little harder.

      For starters, lemme know when “cancel culture” gets subpoena authority or the power to imprison people for contempt.

  13. The problem with cancel culture isn’t just about free speech and access to platforms. It is also with the tendency to assume the worst about the person arguing for a thesis, attributing to that person hidden malice and hatred based on how the thesis sounds to the cancellers, shutting down debate that can be had on the thesis itself. The cancellers would see the thesis as a dog whistle for expression of malice. The cancellers then group that person within a category of highly deplorables (to most people in a society) such as racists, transphobes, Islamophobes, etc., even when that person strongly denies being part of it. Grouping someone like this is part of the justification for deplatforming (such as disrupting their career) them in the first place. This is especially impactful to academics who aren’t celebrities.

    In other words: poisoning the well, assuming bad faith (instead of good faith), appeal to motive, ad hominem

    1. I believe many of the “cancellers” actually exhibits personality disorders like “borderline” and enjoy the witch hunting.

      That is perhaps why there are so many women involved.

      1. I think Cancel Culture is pretty easy to understand in terms of human behavior:

        1. Racism is considered by many to be a great evil (it is) and want to be on the right side of such an important moral issue. Because they also share a tribal instinct as humans, they know they probably have a trace of racism and live in great fear of being labeled a racist.

        2. The Woke know this fear and have weaponized it to gain power. By claiming to see racism everywhere (it’s embedded in our society’s very structure and if you are white, you’re racist), they enhance the fear of being labeled a racist.

        3. Group think explains all the rest. They can maintain the illusion of having the highest moral ground because of #1. Anyone who might be thinking that it is wrong to grab so much power, can be pushed back in line because the end (anti-racism) justifies the means (gaining and exercising their power). Similarly for challenges to #2.

        Logic has never trumped emotion and it probably won’t here. Our only chance is to focus on Cancel Culture’s victims and hope that the outrage over their poor treatment eventually generates a high level of disgust and CC is overthrown. The other possibility is that we’ll cure racism but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that happening any time soon. We’re going to be fighting Cancel Culture for a long time.

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