An absorbing discussion of cancel culture

December 26, 2020 • 11:00 am

If all the articles that were given “Sidney Awards” by New York Times columnist David Brooks this week are as engaging at the one below, then you should read every one. Here we have author Jonathan Rauch, who wrote a prescient book about free speech in 1993, being interviewed by Nick Gillespie, editor at large of, where this piece appears. The interview’s about free speech and cancel culture, and is one of the best things I’ve seen written about that culture.

Rauch has been following suppression of speech since this book, which Rauch wrote after what he deemed the true beginning of cancel culture: the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses (click for the Amazon link; the book is not at all cheap but the reviews are excellent):

Two more points before we look at the piece. First, it’s not surprising that Brooks, swimming against the current of his own paper, would praise an article so vehemently hard-line about free speech and so opposed to cancel culture—a culture that of course is instantiated by the NYT in stuff like the firing of James Bennet and the rousting of Bari Weiss. Brooks went to the University of Chicago, and now serves on its powerful Board of Trustees, and of course we’re famous for freedom of expression. The University Chicago uses its famed free-expression principles, like the Kalven Report and the “Chicago principles” for free expression, to sell our school to undergraduates and their parents.

Second, we saw Gillespie just the other day, for he interviewed Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU, in a piece I highlighted.

Now lots of people reject the idea of “cancel culture” as a neologism that isn’t new. It is, they say, simply the same kind of criticism that people have always leveled at their political, moral, and ideological opponents. But they’re wrong, and Rauch tells us why. For cancel culture has little to do with criticism or constructive engagement: its signs, say Raugh—and he’s surely right—show that it’s a form of destructive disengagement.

Or, they say, “you can’t cancel somebody like Steve Pinker—he’s famous and well off from his books.” And it’s true: Pinker has too many admirers to ever be shoved into perdition. But that’s not the point: the point is that we now have a kind of culture that tries to dismiss him without engaging his ideas. Indeed—and this is a point Rauch makes in general—many of those who go after Pinker haven’t even read his books. (They’re too long for the Offended, anyway.)

But click on the screenshot below to read the whole interview, as I’ll quote only a small part of it (indented):

Rauch begins by drawing a crucial distinction between cancel culture and criticism:

Here’s what I think canceling is and why it’s different from criticism—because people always say, “Look, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. People are criticizing Jonathan Rauch. He doesn’t like it, so he calls it canceling.” Criticism is expressing an argument or opinion with the idea of rationally influencing public opinion through public persuasion, interpersonal persuasion.

Canceling comes from the universe of propaganda and not critical discourse. It’s about organizing or manipulating a social environment or a media environment with a goal or predictable effect of isolating, deplatforming, or intimidating an ideological opponent. It’s about shaping the battlefield. It’s about making an idea or a person socially radioactive. It is not about criticism. It is not about ideas.

The people who went after Rushdie had never read The Satanic Verses and were proud of it. In a typical cancel campaign today, you’ll hear the activists say, “I didn’t read the thing. I don’t need to read the thing to know that it’s colonialist or racist.” They’re not using physical murder now. They’re using a kind of social murder of making it very difficult for someone to have a job, for example—to lose their career, or to endanger all their friends. That, of course, is not physical violence, but if you’ve interviewed people who have been subject to it, and I have, you know that it is emotionally and professionally devastating.

And you can immediately think of people who have been “canceled” by those who haven’t either read them or haven’t engaged with their ideas. In just under two minutes I made a list of several examples; here are some. The common factor is that instead of discussing their contentions, the Offended call them names, dismissing them as “racists”, “transphobes”, “misogynists”, “Islamophobes”, and so on:

J. K. Rowling
James Damore
Heather Mac Donald
Charles Murray
Abigail Schrier
James Abbott
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Christina Hoff Sommers

Feel free to add your own list below. It runs on much longer.

And so on. It’s enlightening to look through the FIRE “disinvitation database” to see attempts to cancel speakers—mostly, but not always, with those cancellation attempts coming from the Left.

I can’t say I agree with all or even most of what these people say, but I do maintain that they should at least be heard. People like Murray, for example, get deplatformed when scheduling talks that have absolutely nothing to do with The Bell Curve. 

Rauch also gives a list which is like the DSM of psychology: if you see two or three of these six symptoms, then someone’s getting canceled:

First: Is the intent of the campaign punitive? Are you trying to punish the person and take away their job, their livelihood, and their friends?

Second: Is the intent or predictable outcome of the campaign to deplatform someone and to get them out of the position that they hold where they can speak/be heard and out of any other such position?

Third: Is the tactic being used grandstanding? Is it not talking to the person about their point of view? Is it basically virtue signaling, posturing, denunciation, and sort of ritual in nature?

Fourth: Is it organized? Is it in fact a campaign? Is it a swarm? Do you have people out there saying, as is often the case, “We’ve got to get Nick Gillespie off the air” or “We’ve got to get this asshole fired”? If it’s organized, then it’s canceling. It’s not criticism.

Fifth: A certain sign of canceling is secondary boycotts. Is the campaign targeting not only the individual but anyone who has anything to do with the individual? Are they not only saying, “We think what Nick Cannon is saying on the air is inappropriate”; are they going after the company by saying to boycott it? Are they going after his friends and professional acquaintances? If there’s a secondary boycott to inspire fear so that no one wants to have anything to do with the guy for the fear that they’d be targeted, that’s canceling.

Sixth: Is it indifferent to truth? Well-meaning criticism is often wrong, but if it’s wrong, you’re supposed to say, “Oh, gee. I’m sorry that was wrong.” You’re supposed to pay attention to facts. Cancelers don’t. They’ll pick through someone’s record over a period of 20 years and find six items which they can use against them. This is what literally happened to [Harvard psychologist] Steve Pinker. [JAC: See my analysis of this “cancellation” attempt here.] Tear them out of context and distort them, and if they’re corrected on them, they’ll just find six other items. That’s not criticism. That’s canceling. These are weapons of propaganda.

Rauch correctly sees these items lying on a cancellation continuum, so it’s a matter of taste whether you decide that someone’s in the cancellation crosshairs. But you can see that most of these symptoms center around something relatively new in intellectual circles: not criticism, but demonization and, often, attempts to ruin someone’s career. For sometimes a cancellation mob can also contain a few people who actually engage with the target’s ideas, while most are just a bunch of hounds baying for the hunters. Is that “cancellation” or not. Who knows, and who cares?  But you can see that Rauch has thought a lot about these issues.

I’ll give just one more item: Rauch’s views on the “harm” argument—the claim that speech must be restricted because it causes emotional damage. That, argues Rauch (and I hadn’t thought of this) derives from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 1989/1990 definition of a “hostile workplace”, which is properly seen as illegal. But that has been taken up by college students, and now the greater public—including the New York Times‘s employees, who helped get rid of Bennet because the editorial he ran created an “unsafe environment” for some staffers—to weaponize any kind of offensive speech.


The emotional safety argument is at the core of what’s going on. In the book I’m writing, I give it no quarter at all. The emotional safety argument, I argue, is fundamentally illiberal, and there is really nothing about it that can be salvaged. It is just inconsistent with the open society. The reason for that is it says that the most sensitive pair of ears in the room gets to decide what everyone else gets to hear or what everyone else gets to say.

The notion here is that emotional injury is a kind of harm like physical injury, and because it’s a kind of harm it’s a rights violation. The problem is this is a completely subjective standard, and it makes any form of criticism potentially subject to censorship and cancellation and lumps science into a human rights violation.

. . .And colleges adopted it. We haven’t talked about universities. We probably should. That’s the other big arm of cancel culture. Colleges adopted it, and it took the form of, “Well, you’re creating a hostile environment for students if you say oppressive and discriminatory things.” That led to a series of things like formal speech codes. It also led to this notion of “a hostile environment is an unsafe environment.”

If you have to have a safe environment, then you have to proactively scrub the environment of microaggressions, offensive and bigoted statements, and anything else that might cause the environment to become unsafe. That’s a doctrine which has, even conceptually, no conceivable limits. That’s where we wound up.

What starts in colleges infects the wider culture, so it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening with undergraduates. This is one reason I spend so much time reading about college speech, and trying to prevent my own school—once the Gold Standard for free expression—from going down the drain along with Evergreen State, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Haverford, and just about every nonreligious liberal-arts school in America.

Rauch spends a lot of time worrying about how to respond to students who want to cancel others—those students who admonish him to “check his privilege.” In the end, like John McWhorter, he doesn’t see the sense in engaging these folks, but recommends appealing to those who still are persuadable. This resembles arguing with creationists, whose minds are almost never changed, but there’s still a subset of Americans capable of being persuaded by scientific evidence.

Rauch considers several alternative responses, and comes up with this:

The answer that I finally settled on. . . was: “It doesn’t matter all that much what you say to them, because they’re not listening. That’s what they’re telling you. They’re not listening. What matters is that you not shut up. They do not have the power to silence you if you do not allow yourself to be silenced. Insist on your right to continue the conversation to say what you want to say. Don’t slink away. You won’t necessarily persuade those people, but, as we found in the gay marriage debate, your real target is that third person on the periphery of the circle of the conversation who is seeing one person acting rationally and reasonably and other people acting irrationally and unreasonably. You’re probably winning the heart and mind of that third person, so don’t shut up.”

Yep, we shouldn’t shut up.

As we see above, Rauch is writing a new book, and there’s been so much water under the bridge since 1993 that it’ll be well worth reading.

18 thoughts on “An absorbing discussion of cancel culture

  1. The list of cancelled individuals could be made much, much longer. One case particularly relevant to the question of free speech versus demands for a perfectly cozy college environment is that of former professor Dave Porter. He describes his case as follows at: [I have added italics.]

    “In 2001, I retired from the Air Force and returned to Berea College as the Academic Vice President and Provost. Five years later, after a very successful accreditation visit and a 30% increase in the college’s graduation rate, I returned to the classroom as a tenured professor in the Psychology Department. My students achieved great success both at Berea and in a variety of professional and social science graduate programs afterwards. In 2018, I developed a survey of attitudes and opinions about academic freedom and hostile environments as part of a course I was teaching in industrial/organizational psychology. I was suspended, banished from campus, prohibited from communicating with students, and data from our survey was embargoed. Three months later, I was found to have violated my professional responsibility to maintain confidentiality, my tenure was ended and I was dismissed from the college. I now consider myself a professor in exile. I have filed suit against the college for discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, and numerous violations of administrative due process.”

  2. I enjoyed the interview. Rauch has a very clear way of putting things. A good example: “… the most sensitive pair of ears in the room gets to decide what everyone else gets to hear or what everyone else gets to say.”

    I do have a minor bone to pick. Rauch’s claim that the “harm” argument derives from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 1989/1990 definition of a “hostile workplace” seems spurious. I suspect that the harm argument comes more from the effort to eliminate verbal sexual abuse from the workplace. The EEOC was merely enshrining the idea into law, or what would eventually become law. I imagine Rauch would agree and his statement was just his way of observing that the EEOC report was an important landmark.

  3. Seventh: When cancelling someone who is entirely harmless in every sense (i.e, a columnist, or young adult fiction writer), make a broader defense of cancelling in general by bringing up the need to cancel actual Nazis or racists or privileged rapists. Push those false equivalencies.

  4. … a culture that of course is instantiated by the NYT in stuff like the firing of James Bennet …

    I thought Bennet should’ve been canned, too — though not for publishing Tom Cotton’s opinion piece, but for his weak-kneed response to the controversy, claiming that he “hadn’t read it first.”

    What he should’ve said is, “Hell, yes, I published Cotton’s piece, because I think NYT subscribers deserve to read it here first when a United States senator is proposing a fascism-lite response to civil unrest.”

  5. This story in the NYT today hits several of the marks:

    Punitive, deplatforming, grandstanding, organized. But no secondary boycott, and not indifferent to the truth (the woman who used the racial slur really did use it, and circulated it on social media).

  6. It occurs to me that DT engages in some of the same tactics. He tries to cancel his opponents by labeling them, name calling, repeatedly suggesting they are guilty of something totally off the wall. Primarying, etc. And most of his blather is aimed at getting his tribe excited about ignoring alternative ideas.

  7. At the risk of violating da roolz about comment frequency, I must mention some additional cancellation cases that have had little publicity (others probably know of still more such cases). I am personally
    acquainted with Jane Resh Thomas, a widely published author of books for young people, who used to
    teach in Hamline College’s writing program. She was drummed out of Hamline College on spurious
    charges of “microaggression”, that handy universal tool for dealing with “problematic” professors.

    A similar case is that of mathematician Nathaniel Hiers in North Texas. His story is as follows.

    “After earning his PhD in mathematics from Baylor University in spring 2019, Nathaniel Hiers found employment at UNT. He began teaching full-time as an adjunct faculty member in the fall semester—three sections of linear algebra and one of calculus. The mathematics department thought highly enough of Dr Hiers that, in November, it notified him that he was invited to renew his contract for the coming semester. Hiers promptly emailed back to say he’d accept the school’s offer.
    Trouble for Hiers began, however, on November 25. He was relaxing in the faculty lounge that afternoon, waiting for a colloquium to begin, and noticed a stack of fliers. They weren’t identified as a university document and had been left anonymously. The subject of the fliers was “microaggressions” and the argument they made was that such speech, although unintentional, is harmful to some individuals’ physical and psychological health. Therefore, faculty members were encouraged to avoid them.
    The flier gave a number of examples of microaggression such as saying, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and “America is a land of opportunity.” Those expressions, according to the flier, are harmful because they support “the myth of meritocracy” and promote “color blindness.” Another example of a microaggression listed was “being forced to choose Male or Female when completing basic forms.”
    …All that Hiers did after reading the flier was to write on the chalkboard, “Please don’t leave garbage lying around,” with an arrow pointing to the stack of them. He couldn’t imagine the trouble his jest would cause him.
    On the afternoon of November 26, mathematics department chairman Ralf Schmidt sent an email to the entire department with a picture of Hiers’ chalkboard note and the text, “Would the person who did this please stop being a coward and see me in the chair’s office immediately.” Hiers did go to Schmidt’s office, where Schmidt made it clear that he objected to Hiers’ mockery. He called his chalkboard message “stupid” and insisted that he apologize for having expressed his derogatory thoughts about microaggressions.
    When Hiers responded that he saw no reason to apologize, Schmidt asked if he’d be interested in further “diversity training” beyond that which UNT already requires for its faculty. Hiers replied that he was not interested since he was scheduled to take the mandatory “training” in a few days, which he did on December 1.
    … On December 2, Hiers came to campus to sign his contract for the coming semester. He was informed by William Cherry, the assistant departmental chairman, that the document was in professor Schmidt’s office but that he was not in at that time. Later in the day, however, Hiers received an email from Cherry. It said that the department had terminated his employment and that he would not be teaching in the spring semester.
    Hiers then emailed Schmidt to ask why he had been fired. Schmidt replied that his decision to terminate his employment “was based on your actions in the lounge on 11/26 and your subsequent response.” He went on to say that in his opinion, the statements in the microaggression flier “make very much sense,” that Hiers’ chalkboard message was “upsetting and can even be perceived as threatening,” and that writing anonymous messages was troubling.
    Finally, Schmidt said that he decided to fire Hiers because he refused to recant his opposition to the microaggression idea. He summed up by declaring to Hiers, “Your actions and response are not compatible with the values of this department.” ”

    The unifying principle behind these and similar cases is that charges of “microaggression”, “implicit bias”, and all similar thoughtcrimes are perfect vehicles for histrionic attention-grabbers, individuals engaged in personal feuds, and administrative petty dictators. It is an old, old story, familiar from the
    medieval Inquisition through the Salem witch trials to the USSR and its colonies, and now dressed up for contemporary use in a new, woke language.

  8. As always in dealing with public controversies, we must keep in mind than most of them are hardly new. Such is the case with cancel culture. In his superb work, “Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States.” University of Georgia Press (2015) historian Patrick Rael notes regarding abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison:

    “In October 1835, a Boston mob prevented Garrison from addressing a meeting of the Female Anti-Slavery Society. According to a contemporary account, Garrison was ‘seized and dragged through the streets with a rope around his body’ and ‘threatened with tar and feathers.’ Only the intervention of the mayor, who placed Garrison in jail, saved the abolitionist from further harm.” (p. 169)

    Freedom of speech is always under attack. This will never go away. Vigilance must be eternal and if it ebbs, freedom of speech is likely to go away

  9. Last week, “Father Ted” creator, women’s rights champion, and presumed “transphobe” Graham Linehan was apparently dis-invited from appearing on a panel at Oxford University.

    The panel was supposed to include opposing views debating on the topic of “Cancel Culture.”

  10. So fortunately or unfortunately, our rights to free speech does not necessarily mean implied rights to protection for people who are upset at our ideas. BUT, that being said, I’m disturbed about the trend in colleges which is aimed to curtail speech that any particular group finds offensive. Colleges and universities are supposed to be places that encourage thinking out of the box. They have changed from places of learning into businesses which are catering to their consumers (students.) Good documentary here RE: college campus harassment/censorship

  11. derives from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 1989/1990 definition of a “hostile workplace”, which is properly seen as illegal. But that has been taken up by college students, and now the greater public

    The notion here is that emotional injury is a kind of harm like physical injury, and because it’s a kind of harm it’s a rights violation. The problem is this is a completely subjective standard, and it makes any form of criticism potentially subject to censorship and cancellation and lumps science into a human rights violation.

    That’s what I have been saying, it has a basis in jurisdiction. Now, it is unclear to me if Rauch talks about jurisdictional use, public misuse – it *is* a jurisdictionally regulated area – or both.

    But to walk it through again, heeding the dictum of “not shut up”, the global basis for jurisdictional use is UDHR so is based on a balance of rights such as freedom or expression, religious freedom and, yes, safety. And as much as jurisdiction is seen to work and adjudicate lawfully, it is implemented objectively.

    There are areas of tension (and mistakes) when the workplace of media and universities implements it and guard it against public misuse. But that may be limited: an analysis of 20 year of praxis saw 15ish verbal freedom of expression cases out of 130 – the dominant part where symbol use [ , ]. The workplace directed laws and regulations against discrimination is a larger complex, and there is where we would find most cases that relies on jurisdictional praxis [ ].

    Maybe it is a case of how well regulated these things are!?

    FWIW, in the context last year’s analysis of our hate speech laws concludes:

    In order for any change to be made in the current legislation, there should be a clear need. Such a change must be compatible with the protection of fundamental freedoms and rights which contained in our constitutions and the European Convention on Protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

    Based on our review of practice, it is our assessment that the current criminal law regulation in matters of racist and similar symbols are appropriately designed. This means that we believe that the provisions on incitement against ethnic groups should not be changed and that it should not introduce a special ban the use of certain symbols.

    The provisions on incitement against ethnic groups are already extensive
    scope and it is clear that symbols can be covered by the provisions. With the exception of pure evidentiary issues, e.g. about if defendants spread a certain symbol, the vast majority of prosecutions for spreading of racist and similar symbols led to convictions. The existing criminal area may be considered sufficient and we therefore have has not submitted a draft constitution.

  12. This isn’t only happening in higher education–it’s all over the place in K12. Those teachers do not have the same respect or ability to speak out as college profs do. in 2016 my husband’s Special Education teaching career was ruined because he was attacked by Black Lives Matter, St. Paul, and they then followed him around the state, as he tried to revive it. He is a good and caring person and during a Facebook conversation posted a couple of angry posts at people who didn’t understand how bad some student behaviors were in his district in St. Paul. Not racist at all, but no matter. He is now out of teaching completely, although they desperately need Special Education teachers all over the state, and he was a good one. Because of what happened to him, we reached out to Jane Resh Thomas, who turned out to be a wonderful person and a great writer. Misery loves company and we offer each other much solace.

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