Cancel culture: is it real and, if so, how can we tame it?

June 4, 2021 • 9:15 am

The latest news is about as scant as I’ve seen since the pandemic began, and maybe that’s a good thing. The bad part is that nothing meaty is happening in the world of culture, with the usual instances of demonization, pushback, abject apologies, and the relentless spread of wokeness, which I now consider unstoppable for the next five years or so. But what do I know?  Today I’ll point you to several articles that you can read, and I’ll give my own take on them.

Here’s an article from the Vancouver Sun sent in by reader Michael called to my attention; click on the screenshot.

While many on the Left deny that there is a “cancel culture”, arguing that it’s just a fancy, right-wing monicker for the usual give-and-take of political discussion, I don’t think that’s the case. There are two things that are new with real “cancel culture” that distinguish it from regular debate about ideas:

a. The creation of taboos: ideas that one is forbidden to discuss, many of them involving observed group differences. Even mentioning these ideas or the data behind them can ruin one’s reputation. John McWhorter specializes in discussing this taboos with respect to race in America.

b. Which brings us to the second point. Instead of being seen as political/intellectual/moral discourse, much “cancel culture” discussion involves labeling people as “bad” and attempting to ruin their reputations. In other words, people’s characters become a topic more important as their views.

Todd, whose Twitter bio says that he’s a “migration, diversity & spirituality writer at Vancouver Sun/Postmedia (incl. housing crisis)”, first adduces evidence for a cancel culture (his words are indented):

But cancel culture is spreading wider today. Social media has expanded the power of mass cancellation and de-platforming (stopping a person from contributing to a public forum). Polls suggest two of three North Americans believe social media is fostering more hatred and violence.

. . . But the disturbing problem with cancel culture is it is most often characterized by vigilantism and moral panic. It lacks due process; it has no checks and balances on the potential ruination of reputations.

I agree with the problem, but how does one enact “due process” for this “vigilantism and moral panic”? Todd has some solutions, but (see below), they seem seem lame.

More evidence (Todd adduces anecdotes like Rusdie’s fatwa and attacks on people like Bari Weiss and J. K. Rowling, but those folks are hardly “canceled”):

Eric Kaufmann is a political-science professor at University of London, Birkbeck, who was raised in Hong Kong and Vancouver. He recently led a groundbreaking study into scholars’ attitudes to free expression in Britain and North America. His poll findings reveal the air is definitely chilly.

“Less than 10 per cent of Canadian academics generally support campaigns to dismiss scholars who report controversial findings around race and gender,” Kaufmann found. “However, a large group, of around 30 per cent to 60 per cent, do not actively oppose cancellation. This mirrors American and British findings.”

Kaufmann, whose origins are Jewish, Hispanic and Chinese, also discovered that major academic departments are overwhelmingly made up of people who are left wing.

“Seventy-three per cent of Canadian social science and humanities academics sampled from the 40 top-ranked universities identify as left-wing, with just four per cent identifying as right-wing.” The few conservatives who remain report the climate is hostile, with many self-selecting away from academia.

Partly because of Kaufmann’s widely discussed report, the British government has brought in legislation to require universities to protect the free speech of staff, students and visiting speakers.

Well, these are polls of academic support and lack of support, and although the Left is more responsible than the Right for deplatformings and cancelations, the Right is by no means exculpated. But let’s assume, based on the long list of anecdotes, which are data in the plural, that there is a cancel culture. The list of firings and ostracism at the New York Times alone will tell you that something wonky is going on.

As for government mandates that universities must have free speech, we don’t need that in public schools or universities in the U.S., as it’s alreadythe law; but there’s no legal mandate that private schools allow free speech.  Such a mandate would violate the Constitution since such schools are not considered arms of the government and hence needn’t follow the First Amendment. But, as far as possible, I recommend that all universities follow the Chicago Principles, which, at our private university, uphold the precepts of the First Amendment. I see no reason why the adoption of these Principles can’t be nearly universal, though of course religious schools won’t cotton to them.

What I do oppose are legislatures’ attempt to mandate what is or is not to be taught, like Critical Race Theory. While I object to much of CRT, it’s the bailiwick of school boards, not state legislatures, to determine what subjects should and shouldn’t be taught.

Given that cancel culture is real, what cures does Todd prescribe. He has three:

1.) “Administrations could start by protecting the weakening tenure system, which provides senior professors with job security, says Gandesha, who has tenure. He is worried many faculty, especially adjuncts, self-censor to the extreme knowing they can be destroyed by a vendetta over a wayward remark.” [Simon Gandesha is a professor at Simon Fraser who teaches a course on cancel culture.]

Yes, there is self-censorship everywhere, but much of that has nothing to do with tenure. For untenured faculty, it’s true that there’s a danger they can be fired for free speech, but the adoption of the Chicago Principles would prevent that. That adoption is in fact Coyne’s Solution to cancel culture, at least in universities (see below).

2.) “As for the chaotic, vicious world of social media, Gandesha joins those who believe it’s time to treat giant internet companies like utilities, organizations that provide the public with electricity, gas or water. That means bringing in complex regulations — so that decisions about what can be shared online aren’t left to the mania of the crowd.”

This is dangerous, as those “complex regulations” will inevitably be so slippery that much of them will amount to censorship of ideas that some people don’t like. Is the Will of Zuckerberg really superior to The Mania of the Crowd?


3.) “And how hard, Gandesha asks, would it be to respond to polarization by having more public debates between people on the left and right — like the way, in 1973, that revolutionary Black Panther Huey P. Newton appeared on the show Firing Line with conservative commentator William F. Buckley.

It’s not impossible to do so today, although it’s rare. To their credit, University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has been subjected to boycott campaigns on some campuses, and Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek were able to model how to dialogue when they took part in a debate in 2019.”

Is there anybody who thinks that more public debates between political or ideological opponents will even begin to ameliorate cancel culture? First, many such debates will be shut down. Second, we’ve been having debates between evolutionists and creationists for a hundred years, and they haven’t brought people to the truth (i.e., evolution) or quelled the controversy, in which Americans who accept some form of creationism outnumber those accepting scientific evolution by more than three to one. Debates are exercises in rhetoric and forms of entertainment, but I don’t think they’re particularly good at changing minds.

So what is my solution? It’s twofold.

First, as many schools as possible should adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which means adhering to America’s First Amendment.

Second, PUSH BACK on what you don’t like. If you’re in a position to speak up without getting fired or killed, by all means oppose the madness publicly. I think this is the best way to help reduce the prevalance of cancel culture. After all, it worked to reduce the prevalence of religiosity! The more people come out against the madness, the more the silent people will feel empowered to join the chorus.

h/t: Michael

35 thoughts on “Cancel culture: is it real and, if so, how can we tame it?

    1. Oh, man, I had to bite my Twitter tongue to keep from adding my voice to the replies, but most of them did at least deal with the “apology” well, I thought. “Tribalism” is a recognized and broadly used term, for crying out loud, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that any sensible person didn’t know what was meant by it. And the word “tribe” is from Latin “tribus” and so doesn’t inherently have anything to do with Native Americans or any similar groups. Oy.

  1. Yep, cancel culture is real, and in Scotland Marion Millar has just been charged with criminal offences for utterly innocuous tweets. It’s utterly insane. And yet few seem to care!!

    … there’s no legal mandate that private schools allow free speech. Such a mandate would violate the Constitution …

    I don’t see why. Individuals have free speech, but it’s less clear that institutions do. (Similarly, individuals have freedom of association, but businesses don’t, for example they are regulated under the Civil Rights Act.) Things like Title IX apply to any school that gets public money (doesn’t it?) so the same could apply to a free-speech mandate.

    Debates are exercises in rhetoric and forms of entertainment, but I don’t think they’re particularly good at changing minds.

    Even if they don’t change minds, such debates do uphold the principle that we should be able to debate these topics. Too often, even that is rejected by the Woke (see the charging of Marion Millar).

      1. We also have a national-team cricketer in trouble for tweets written 8 years ago when a teenager. None of the tweets are bad enough to merit more than a shrug.

  2. “PUSH BACK on what you don’t like. If you’re in a position to speak up without getting fired or killed, by all means oppose the madness publicly. ”

    Yes indeed – the problem, however, is the individual who wishes to speak up within that population is not just risking their own well being, but their entire family that depends on the school in question – including children the school is meant to serve. Alienation seems in the offing – or how about the school body revolting against their evil parents who make argument.

    If only it were like that Norman Rockwell painting – the ears. At best, one expects some sort of patronizing lip service as the woke religion barrels forth, indoctrinating children and feeding into the undermining of parental authority.

    “Debates are exercises in rhetoric and forms of entertainment, but I don’t think they’re particularly good at changing minds.”

    Exactly – I used see unlimited value in “debates” until I realized the absurdity of debating certain subjects on the premise that “some people think [differently]” about that subject. “Debates” have limits. And once enough debates have been held, and have been accessible to all, what the heck do we need more for? When the conclusion has been reached over and over again, as if the objective is to defeat Smaug through that one missing piece of armor?

    “The latest news is about as scant as I’ve seen since the pandemic began, and maybe that’s a good thing. ”

    To tie into the Cheese Shop sketch – that sketch was in the Salad Days episode. The Salad Days- also known as Cucumber Days? – are something like slow news days… I think.

    1. I apologize – the one time “edit” fails me :

      Salad Days is a Shakespearean expression :

      [begin excerpt ]
      “Salad days” is a Shakespearean idiomatic expression meaning a youthful time, accompanied by the inexperience, enthusiasm, idealism, innocence, or indiscretion that one associates with a young person. A more modern use, especially in the United States, refers to a heyday, a period when somebody was at the peak of their abilities—not necessarily in that person’s youth. The quote “salad days” is from the Shakespearean play Antony and Cleopatra and is spoken in Act 1, Scene 5, by Cleopatra.

      The phrase was coined in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1606.[1] In the speech at the end of Act One in which Cleopatra is regretting her youthful dalliances with Julius Caesar she says:[2]

      …My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood/To say as I said then!

      [ end excerpt]

      1. I apologize for veering through the topic guard rails but it was brutally humorous etc.! I don’t think anything was given reverence on that skit!

  3. Social media has expanded the power of mass cancellation and de-platforming

    The email-writing populace doesn’t get a vote on what FaceBook removes, and FaceBook doesn’t get a vote in who a University invites (or disinvites) as speaker, or who some publishing company publishes or doesn’t. So let’s be clear here: social media makes it easier for people to voice their opinion to public and private organizations, but those organizations make the choice on whether to give in or not. Universities can maintain their speaking offers in the face of student disapproval…if they choose. A publishing house can publish over the disapproval of influencers and even their own employees. And if FaceBook’s corporate masters follow the mob because they’re concerned about profit and market share more than free expression, it’s they who should be held responsible for that decision, not the mob.

    The problem here, IMO, isn’t too much expansion of the power to communicate over social media. That might increase the ‘madness of crowds’ effect a bit but in the grander scheme of things, the ability of humans to communicate easily via the internet is a good thing. The problem here is lack of courage on the part of corporate and academic leadership to stand up for principles they say they value…but which many times take a back seat to vague marketing perceptions of how an unpopular response might affect the money flow.

    1. I totally agree and have said this many times in comments on this web site. The problem isn’t social media itself but what people choose to say on social media. Cancel culture exists because people believe in its principles. That they choose to express those beliefs and act on them on social media is incidental. Social media does enable such behavior but isn’t responsible for it.

  4. We are back in the days of Social Fascism, when Stalin declared that anyone to his right was a fascist, including would be allies like the Social Democrats in Germany. It is not enough to say that others are mistaken; if they don’t agree they are Bad. Canceling is the old Communist tactic of completely smearing an enemy, now empowered by social media.The death of honest discourse is both the cause and the goal. Personally, I think the answer with regard to social media is treating them like utilities. It would not take complex regulations: Rule 1: social media is a platform, and may not remove, edit, editorialize or otherwise hide a post, or prevent users from sharing posts; Rule 2: The platform will not be held liable for anything users say or post (this is already a rule). If users post actually illegal content, such as child pornography, that’s for law enforcement to deal with.

    1. Does your final sentence mean that you favor requiring social media to post illegal content — including kiddie porn and fraudulent advertising (such as, say, solicitations for the “Nigerian Prince” scam) — and leaving it up to law enforcement to prosecute the miscreants doing the posting after the material has been posted?

  5. First of all it is likely that the skew in the differences of political opinion in academia is biological in origin.
    People who work in academic fields are there because they like knowledge and like acquiring knowledge. This is a characteristic of people who score highly for the personality dimension in psychology called “Openness to Experience” or Openness for short. They like new things and new ideas. It is innate in them so they aren’t conservative at all.

    This political dimension of the personality dimension is well-known.

    The other factor, which will offend some people, is that Openness is positively correlated with intelligence. It might well be that youngsters who are more open become more intelligent because of their need for new ideas leads them to greater cognitive ability or it may be different but the effect is there.

    I may be biased because I score highly for this dimension.

    If you go to the home of a person high in openness you will see a lot of books. I am working from home and taking a break from something technical and scientific to post this and the room has bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling.

    There was an interesting political example a few years ago here in the UK. The BBC broadcasts a weekly political debate program called Question TIme, It was announced that they were going to have Nick Griffin the leader of the British National Party on. For National read Nazi! There was a big fuss and a lot of protests about this.

    They had a good range of knowledgeable political people on and he GOT CRUCIFIED. It was , for example, announced to the nation that there is a video of Griffin on Youtube where he tells the Klu Klux Klan, “Adolf went a bit too far.”

    This is the proper way to deal with people like that. Make people really see what they are.

  6. Every bit of the CRT and the rise of cancel culture is at the feet of social media. Without social media these things do not exist. If they do, please give examples of how it worked prior to social media. It did not happen. So, that should tell us that regulation of social media is the only likely way to change any of this. Holding meetings and discussion will solve nothing. The power is all in Facebook, Twitter and the others in the wild west of the internet. One of the richest guys in the world who owns Facebook, is afraid to make the call so he hired a panel to make the call for him. If this does not say regulate I don’t know what does. Another example I will provide is the biggest of all — Trump. Having been removed from the platforms his ability to spread his lies has gone down a great deal. His so called blog was a failure and has been taken down. The great propaganda King is dead or nearly so.

    1. Even as a believer in free speech I have to agree with you. Instead of what used to be the case and there being someone who at least should have had an education writing the news. It is now being written by any old ignoramus. The trump thing is a big issue and can be dealt with but what about all the little anti science things that circulate. There was a recent documentary of anti vaxxers on TV here in the UK and how the disgraced ex-doctor behind it all is now making millions out of it and is shacked up in southern Florida with model Elle Mcpherson!

      The Brexit vote here was swung by Facebook lies. Google Carol Cadwallader Ted Talk for a short explanation and there are a myriad other myths and falsehoods being spread with no proper evidence . ALL of these add up in time to a world of poor knowledge and thinking.

    2. It’s not social media’s fault but it enables the easy distribution of misinformation. Trump continues to tell the same lies even though he’s not on social media. He has many minions ready to spread those same lies. Even though we have mostly gotten rid of Trump, the GOP has learned his methods and has continued his process. In other words, getting rid of Trump from office and social media is a good move but hasn’t at all solved the real problem.

      It used to be that the best way to fight lying speech was to counter it with truth speech. That no longer works. Technology, social media included, has enabled this situation but is not itself at fault. If people can spread bad ideas by megaphone, our answer isn’t to ban megaphones. Social media is too much a good thing to hobble it because it enables people to tell lies more efficiently. The only solution is to increase the cost of telling lies.

      1. I had to click maybe three times to leave a reply…hope it works. What is the famous saying – a lie travels around the world in one day or less while the truth is not even out of bed. Everything that has been covered on this site concerning de-platforming, cancel culture and so on is right from the tube. Three or four billion people use Facebook alone. Twitter is almost as big. They are not yet regulated in the least. The cost of telling lies as you mention yourself can only be controlled by controlling the internet. Getting Trump removed from the platforms is only a tiny thing compared to full and fair regulation. And not only is good regulation the answer to all of this, they need more regulation of other communications such at the television. Fox has been getting away with murder and should be stopped. They had become nothing more than an extension of Trump and the republican cult and look what it lead too. Insurrection

        1. “The cost of telling lies as you mention yourself can only be controlled by controlling the internet.”

          It depends on what you mean by “controlling the internet”. What I object to is blaming social media companies, asking “Why don’t you stop this?” Zuckerberg doesn’t want to be the one deciding what should be allowed and what shouldn’t. (BTW, I am not saying that social media companies do no wrong. Some of their algorithms may well be a problem.) Making each company responsible for deciding what content should be allowed would be like raising corporate taxes by asking each company individually to give more. Instead, we need to decide this as a culture and implement it via our government. Social media, and the internet generally, will undoubtedly have a role to play but it needs to be driven from the top.

          As has been pointed out by many here, the internet started with the idea that it would police itself because every participant would do the right thing. That was always ridiculous but it took some time before everyone realized how ridiculous it was. However, our society hasn’t yet taken the reins. It needs to happen soon because the ability of everyone to communicate lies and hate freely with everyone else cheaply is going to destroy us. There are just too many people who will take advantage of it to their own nefarious benefit.

          1. The clickbait economy algorithms are a huge problem. They amplify extremes and highly emotionally charged, instant-processing outrage and position-taking producing trivia. We are falling prey to this too. We keep clicking on “culture wars” stuff.

      2. “It used to be that the best way to fight lying speech was to counter it with truth speech. That no longer works. “

        I don’t think our current era is any different than any other in our past. All through recorded history there have been examples of power-seekers using Big Lie tactics to manipulate the masses to their benefit, whether seeking political power, wealth or both.

        “The best way to fight lying speech is to counter it with truthful speech” has never been true in the sense that telling the truth is more successful at convincing people, or winning hearts and minds, than telling lies. It isn’t. The majority of people will choose to believe a lie that fits their ideological beliefs, or simply because it comes from their own tribe, rather than believe a truth that is less comfortable, or simply because it comes from an outsider. We say it’s the best way because we think being truthful is better ethically than telling lies, because that’s the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of world we are striving for.

        All merely in my opinion of course.

        1. Fair points but one of the big differences now is that listeners often can’t tell who’s speaking. This undermines trust. Of course, when Trump and his minions repeat the Big Lie, we certainly know who’s speaking. But this is after trust has been undermined for decades and produced today’s huge political polarization.

          It has often been pointed out that, ignoring purely political opinions, most Americans actually believe many of the same things. It’s the undermining of trust that has produced the division. The only way to get things back together is with the truth. We have to rebuild trusted sources by making lying more expensive.

          1. I agree. I was just opining that, much like your point that the internet hasn’t added anything new but simply magnifies things that already existed, none of these problems are new.

            Of course changes in magnitude can cause significant issues, especially big changes. The internet is a huge change in magnitude of communications, like a volume knob turned up to 11. Or maybe 111. It has empowered all the things that humans do with each other, the good and the bad. We will probably survive this break-in period, but you never know.

    3. please give examples of how it worked prior to social media

      The U.C. Berkeley 1st Amendment/Free Speech Society invited a holocaust denier to come speak back in the early ’90s. Protesting students physically blocked him from getting in the building, the event had to be cancelled. All without social media; the internet existed but they basically used paper fliers and word of mouth to gather the people they needed.

      And before you pooh-pooh ‘just one case,’ I’m just one guy, and a pretty politically uninterested guy at that. The amount of times similar things happened at other times and places, I simply wouldn’t know about.

      Social media certainly makes organizing meet-up groups easier – for fun, for protest, for whatever – but these things certainly did happen before it existed.

  7. “As for government mandates that universities must have free speech, we don’t need that in public schools or universities in the U.S., as it’s already the law; but there’s no legal mandate that private schools allow free speech. Such a mandate would violate the Constitution since such schools are not considered arms of the government and hence needn’t follow the First Amendment.”

    This is not the case in California, where the Leonard Law does mandate free speech in private schools. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

    “The Leonard Law is a California law passed in 1992 and amended in 2006 that applies the First Amendment of the United States Constitution to private and public colleges, high schools, and universities. The law also applies Article I, Section 2 of the California Constitution to colleges and universities. California is the only state to grant First Amendment protections to students at private post-secondary institutions. Attempts at a federal Leonard Law and for Leonard Laws in other states have not succeeded.”

  8. Agree, speak up! Even if that’s a comment on a NYT or WAPO article.

    I am not so down on the debate format, though. There has to be some contact point between disagreeing parties, and occasionally the debates are enlightening. Agreed though that podcast-format debates likely reach very few people.

  9. As for the charge that academia is overwhelmingly left-ward, that is not surprising. Just as it would not be surprising that there are concentrations of right-ward folks in business.

    I suggest a good way to blunt CC is to make fun of it on mainstream comedy outlets. Now CC is not exactly funny, but one can have a great time making parodies of it any way, since it is often so ridiculous, and this could be effective since CC gets oxygen from being taken seriously.
    Unfortunately, there seems little interest in taking this on, although I do maintain that CC is comedy gold.

  10. … Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek …

    It’s a Slovenian thing, man; you folks wouldn’t get it.

    We will brook no cultural appropriation on this. 🙂

    1. I hate to pick a nit (OK, I don’t really hate it) but I have a hard time classifying Zizek as a Marxist. He himself classifies himself as an Hegelian and a lot of his writing is overtly idealist. Don’t misunderstand me-I enjoy reading and listening to Zizek, even if I’m not particularly fond of his brand of speculative metaphysics. Even in his debate with Peterson there was nothing really Marxist in his response to Peterson, who incidentally, demonstrated that he had not the foggiest clue about any issue whatsoever having to do with any kind of social theory anywhere.

  11. Long before social media, student activists in the UK tried to prevent Patrick Harrington from attending the then Polytechnic of North London because of his far-right political views.

    In 1984, Patrick Harrington, a prominent member of the National Front and deputy editor of NF News, was the subject of protests by fellow students who picketed and boycotted his lectures, arguing that his presence made life intolerable for ethnic minority students. Disputing this, Harrington obtained an injunction which the protesters, backed by the students’ union, ignored. At one stage the President of the National Union of Students, Phil Woolas, reported that the Polytechnic was “simply not functioning any more,” with lecturers defying the courts by refusing to give names of students on demonstrations. Two student leaders were sent to prison for 16 days for contempt of the court order preventing them from barring Harrington and the Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph, threatened to close the Polytechnic down.

    In the end, Harrington was taught in isolation in a separate building and eventually graduated, obtaining a degree in Philosophy.

  12. By the inevitable strange coincidence(!) I came across Solzhenitsyn’s short essay ‘Live not by lies’ today. You can read it here:

    Now while it addressed different ideological concerns and times I have to wonder if some of the actions that people *could* take might not be appropriate in pushing back the Woke tide.

    So… a person who has decided not to quietly allow lies to be promoted:

    * Will not be impelled to a meeting where a forced and distorted discussion is expected to take place;
    * Will at once walk out from a session, meeting, lecture, play, or film as soon as he hears the speaker utter a lie, ideological drivel, or shameless propaganda;
    * Will not subscribe to, nor buy in retail, a newspaper or journal that distorts or hides the underlying facts.

  13. I just got Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay – y’all gotta read it – magnificent piece, IMO.

  14. Adopting the Chicago Principles is definitely a good idea, but I don’t think it really addresses the problem. Nearly every University, public or private, has incorporated some version of the AAUP Statement on academic freedom into their policies or collective bargaining agreements. And yet whether or not the First Amendment applies at all in the college classroom is still a matter of unsettled law, let alone whether or not it applies in Committee meetings and the Faculty Senate. A national law which settled this would IMO be a good thing, provided of course that the law is worded well and the Department of Education gets specific guidance to uphold it. Perhaps it should be incorporated into the Higher Education Reauthorization Act.

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