Yascha Mounk: Dorian Abbot’s cancellation is novel—and dangerous

October 11, 2021 • 10:00 am

I’ve written a few posts about my Chicago colleague Dorian Abbot, who got in trouble here on campus for making YouTube videos criticizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. College members demanded punishment, but that didn’t occur because the University of Chicago considers Abbot’s videos free speech, and we don’t punish that. Abbot continued his attacks on DEI; as I wrote before:

[Abbot] and Ivan Marinovic published an op-ed, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, in the August 12 issue of Newsweek. It was also an attack on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Unfortunately, the pair ended their piece with a comparison of these initiatives to conditions in Nazi Germany:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

Saying that was a mistake, of course, for playing the Hitler card when you’re discussing American DEI is unproductive and invidious. More important, the comparison was inapt, for the Nazis were trying to reduce diversity by getting rid of Jews, while in the U.S. we’re trying to increase diversity.

While I disagree with Abbot on the need to get rid of affirmative action (I favor some of it), I will strenuously defend his right to criticize DEI, which in principle should (but doesn’t) lead to productive discussion, and I oppose any punishment he gets for his views.

One such punishment was the cancellation of Abbot as the presenter of this year’s prestigious Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) at MIT, scheduled for October 21. The lecture, as Yascha Mounk’s new Atlantic article notes (click on screenshot below), is intended to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” And indeed, that’s what Abbot was going to do: his topic was going to be ““climate and the potential for life on other planets.”  But MIT canceled the lecture (by phone) after its students and staff protested Abbot’s views on DEI. Note that his lecture, as I pointed out earlier, had nothing to do with the reason for the social-media campaign.

The disconnect between why Abbot was demonized and the topic of his MIT talk is one reason why Mounk sees this cancellation as different from previous ones—and more dangerous. (He also reports that “in a belated attempt to save face, MIT invited him to give a scientific presentation to a much smaller audience of EAPS professors and graduate students”.) I’m not sure I agree with Mounk’s conclusion, which seems a bit hyperbolic, but I’ll give his reasons briefly below. 

Mounk first notes, perhaps by way of lightening some of the opprobrium leveled at Abbot, that most Americans agree with Abbot’s views on DEI:

. . . Abbot’s beliefs about affirmative action, right or wrong, are similar to those held by the majority of the American population. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 74 percent of Americans believe that, in making hiring decisions, companies and organizations should “only take qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity”; just 24 percent agreed that they should “also take race and ethnicity into account in order to increase diversity.” Similarly, in a 2020 referendum on affirmative action, 57 percent of voters in California—a very liberal state that also happens to be majority minority—voted to uphold a ban on the practice.

I’m not sure why this is relevant; as Mounk says, “right or wrong.” If you’re an ardent proponent of DEI, then they’re wrong, and what most of America thinks is also wrong. Remember, most Americans once thought segregated schools were okay, but they were wrong, too. Whether Abbot’s views on DEI comport with those of most Americans is interesting, but irrelevant to why he was canceled and why he should not have been canceled. Those who got him canceled are of course holders of minority views.

Mounk eventually gets to the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation was “different”. First, though, he also defends others who have been invited to speak on topics that are related to the lecture, and here I agree with the view that once you’ve been invited, and the inviters have an idea what the person will say, it’s wrong to disinvite them. (Not inviting them in the first place, however, is okay.)


Campaigns to cancel public appearances by controversial figures are in many cases motivated by the expectation that they will express some of their offending views at the event. When violent protests stopped far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley in 2017, for example, the organizers had every reason to believe that he would repeat his most inflammatory claims.

Even when protesters oppose appearances by controversial public figures who are set to speak on topics that are not in themselves controversial, they normally object to them because there is some connection between a speaker’s controversial views and their general area of professional expertise. Those who oppose talks by Charles Murray about topics that are unrelated to race, for example, argue that his writings on the supposed differences in average IQ between racial groups call his expertise as a social scientist into doubt.

Even though I strongly disagree with Murray’s views on race and find Yiannopoulos to be a trollish provocateur, I have also disagreed with attempts to stop either of them from going through with their talks. As the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis succinctly put it, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a college. But, once a person is invited, a college should never yield to demands to withdraw an invitation.”

Why is that? Largely because it gives the mob the right of censorship over the university folks who asked for the talk, and presumably asking for a good reason. This is an abrogation of free speech. Though the censors are not the government (the First Amendment stricture), they are disaffected people who want to silence a speaker—in this case for his “extracurricular” views. If you don’t want to hear someone who’s been invited to speak, you have better recourses than cancellation: don’t go to the talk, picket it peacefully outside, or organize counter-talks (that would have been hard given that Abbot was speaking on climate change!). Colleges, which should be bastions of free speech, should never suppress invited speech when the social-media mob comes to town.

As for Murray, well, he’s cancelled everywhere because of The Bell Curve, regardless of his topic.  I hadn’t heard of people object to him speaking because his views render him incompetent as a social scientist. What I heard is that he gets canceled (and roughed up at Middlebury College) because he has racist views which, say the protestors, are expressed in The Bell Curve.  Thus, when Mounk reveals the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation is different and more dangerous, I see a complete analogy to Charles Murray.

Mounk (bolding is mine, as it’s the main reason Mounk sees a difference in this cancellation):

But Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture. “Omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok?” read one tweet calling for the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture, referring to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “As an alum, I’m asking you to fix this—now. Totally unacceptable and sends a message to any student that isn’t a white man that they don’t matter and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards) DEI.”

MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot in the expectation that he would repeat his views about affirmative action. Rather, he was disinvited from one of the most important research universities in the world because it could not tolerate that a scientist be permitted to speak about his uncontroversial research after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.

As I said, I think that whether Abbot’s extracurricular views on DEI are held by most Americans is irrelevant. He should have been allowed to speak even if most people didn’t share those views. The only thing that’s relevant is that he was going to talk about what he was supposed to—climate change. It may be relevant that his extracurricular views are a matter of debate—after all, the man is not a Nazi—and that’s even less reason to cancel him. But the sole issue here is inviting someone to give a relevant talk, and then disinviting him as a way of suppressing views he wasn’t going to express in that talk.

Abbot’s cancellation seems to me of a piece with the kind of cancellations going on everywhere. If you’ve expressed unwoke views on anything, you’ll be widely demonized, even if you’re talking about something else, as Murray was going to do at Middlebury. When Steve Bannon was invited to the University of Chicago, people objected violently even though they had no idea what he was going to talk about. (Bannon was not disinvited, but never came to campus.) So I don’t think something new happened with Abbot; it’s a slight escalation of what’s happening everywhere. However, Mounck is absolutely right about the consequences if this kind of behavior continues:

. . . the principle that MIT has effectively established is deeply worrying. For it would, if other institutions should follow the university’s example, amount to a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to disagree with a specific set of beliefs about how to remedy injustice without raising the risk that they might no longer be able to carry on their work, even if it is completely unrelated to politics. In effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.

MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.


37 thoughts on “Yascha Mounk: Dorian Abbot’s cancellation is novel—and dangerous

  1. I question whether these folks are actually trying to increase diversity, as opposed to claiming that is what they want. It’s not clear that their diversity includes white men or Asians. And while Hitler purged Jews from academia, he also purged liberals. Insofar as both want a tame professoriate, I don’t find the comparison inapt. Certainly, a comparison with the Soviet model would be applicable.

  2. “As I said, I think that whether Abbot’s extracurricular views on DEI are held by most Americans is irrelevant.”

    I can see ways this is relevant. The Woke like to pretend that their opinion is accepted wisdom held by all good people. Mounck may have been trying to remind readers that affirmative action is still a controversial idea. While we free speech supporters don’t think the popularity of a topic matters much, this does show that the cancelers are disingenuous.

    1. I agree. If nothing else, it has rhetorical weight to add to his point, and underscores how much the outcries that lead to disinvitations are the work of noisy children throwing tantrums* to get their way, who arrogate to themselves the right to represent “the People” so to speak.

      *Should the plural of tantrum be tantra or tantrae?

      1. I believe this idea of being so sure one’s opinion is the right one to have is also a problem with elected progressives in the Democratic Party.

        I’d go with tantrums. I’m not a fan of these borrowed plural forms.

        1. I contemplate that “data” is probably with us to stay. I haven’t seen “datum” used except on NOAA/National Hydrographic Office maps/charts.

          I wonder if “Data” on Star Trek: The Next Generation was/is/were/are a “they.”

      2. According to wordhistories.net, the origin of ‘tantrum’ is disputed, Welsh, Latin and (rather tenuously, IMO) German being possibilities.

        Not being a fan of importing other languages’ grammatical forms and complex inflections into English – do we also want to import Latin’s full case system – I prefer the standard -s plural affix.

  3. In this day and age every speaker invite committee should, as part of it’s invitation decision process, ask themselves “are we prepared for the inevitable internet calls for cancellation, and are we committed to weathering it when it occurs?” If the answer is “yes,” then be prepared to stick by your decision. If the answer is “no,” don’t extend the invite. But there’s no excuse any more, IMO, for a division or student group to be so surprised and unprepared by such blowback that they reconsider. It’s now as predictable a part of the speaker invite process as booking a room is. And analogously, IMO, disinviting someone because you weren’t prepared for the inevitable internet shatstorm is as rude and unprofessional as having your speaker show up and telling them you forgot to book the room.

    If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If you can’t stand the heat you’re going to get from inviting speakers, don’t be in the business of inviting speakers.

    1. And if the “protesters” are willing to stand up front and specifically explain their objection with more relevancy than “it makes me ..”
      Much of this reminds me of the situation in France with the beheaded teacher and the complainant not even his student! Fortunately, disinvites hasn’t gotten to that stage ..yet.

  4. I agree that the analogy with Murray’s case is valid, but still — there is a difference. The subject matter of Abbot expertise (and the topic of his talks) is so remote from the subject matter of his “offensive” speech, that it his cancellation truly stands out.

    1. Plus ça change:

      Ibsen wrote to his publisher: “I am still uncertain as to whether I should call [An Enemy of the People] a comedy or a straight drama. It may [have] many traits of comedy, but it also is based on a serious idea.”

      I still don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

  5. That majority public opinion opposes DEI-worship is relevant in this discussion for a simple reason. It shows that we are not dealing with a tyranny of the majority, but rather a tyranny imposed by a minority. This was precisely the case in the Soviet Union, where it is unlikely that a majority of the population hated Boris Pasternak, or believed that the noted botanist Nikolai Vavilov was a spy; it was probably also the case in Fascist Italy, where one doubts that a majority of the population was hot to invade Abyssinia. What is remarkable, and illustrated by the MIT case, is that a minority outlook has achieved power in the groves of academe which is approaching that of the ruling apparatus in Communist and Fascist police states.

    Of course, if wokeism is viewed as a religion, as John McWhorter contends, then everything falls into place. After the Holy Office condemned Galileo in 1633, no 17th century counterpart of MIT would have invited him to give a public lecture about his studies of the laws of motion. In fact, they could not have done so, for the Church put Galileo under house arrest. Acolytes of the holy trinity of D, E, and I want to put Dorian Abbot and all other heretics under the equivalent of house arrest.

  6. Agree with Jon Gallant that it is relevant that Abbot’s position on DEI is held by the majority of Americans, and I agree with Jerry that it’s not unusual at all that he was cancelled even though he was going to talk about something completely different. The latter happens all the time with speakers. But early on, the cancelled speakers tended to include people who were famously controversial, like Murray, and over-the-top extremists like Milo. Abbot is a respected scientist not controversial for anything but a video expressing opinions on DEI that are held by the majority of Americans. If someone with nothing else controversial can’t express a mainstream opinion without facing dire career consequences, that’s a dangerous escalation. Although you could argue even this escalation isn’t entirely new, since people like Paul Rossi fall under it too.

    1. But, the majority of American’s don’t vote, indeed cannot be bothered to. If they did then the problem might be moderated.

      1. Maybe the latest “sneaker drop” would persuade many if not most of them to vote. Yea, verily, they can be bothered to inconvenience themselves for the latest sneakers or smartphones or fashion or some such gewgaws as appear in the NY Times Thursday and Sunday “Styles” section.

  7. As I said, I think that whether Abbot’s extracurricular views on DEI are held by most Americans is irrelevant.

    If a political position is held by 26 percent of the population, and 74 percent oppose it, assuming you live in a democracy where the views and policies of the State reflect the will of the people, then you have an anti-democratic clique imposing an unpopular orthodoxy on the masses of people. All these institutions, private or public, depend on federal money and should minimally be upholding basic civil liberties like freedom of speech. They are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of race, they shouldn’t be able to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint either.

    1. Research demonstrates that policies in the US do not “follow the will of the people.” They seem to align most predictably with corporate business interests.

  8. I do think the comparison with universities in the early Nazi era has merit. The Nazis, too, placed racial identity and ideological conformity above academic excellence. They, too, pretended to speak for the underprivileged and underrepresented (those poor downtrodden non-Jewish workers). The overrepresentation of Jews in elite professions like medicine, commerce, journalism, music, social sciences, maths and physics was a major Nazi complaint. University administrators succumbed to the new ideology cravenly and zealously in 1933 and 1934, just like they do today.

    1. I agree but the problem with the Nazi comparison isn’t so much whether it is applicable but that it is distracting from the author’s point. After all, the Nazis aren’t primarily known for their bad administration of higher education. 😉

        1. Yes, and over time the White Dove becomes fatigued. (Or has the word “white” in that song become verboten?) I wonder if Dylan was referring to Noah releasing the white dove from the Ark.

          1. Let’s not think about the symbolism of the raven that Noah released first… Unless maybe g*d is a racist after all (he does seem pretty pro-Semitic – is that even a word?) in the “Old Testament/Tanakh”. Though it’s probably hard (impossible?) to think of a people that didn’t think of themselves as divinely “special” historically, of course.

    2. You can draw parallels between Nazism and anything at all if you try hard enough. Witness the Discovery Institute and their parallels between Nazism and “Darwinism”. Or those people who like to draw parallels between the Government of Israel and Nazi Germany. Personally I think the comparisons between the Israel Government and Nazism aren’t just “distracting”, they are a deliberate strategy to stir up hate.

      It is absolutely absurd to suppose that those advocating for policies of are even remotely comparable to the Nazis or that the results from it would be the same.

  9. The EAPS department at MIT claimed to be fearful because Professor Abbot is “controversial”—in short, it submitted in advance to the heckler’s veto. It is worth asking just how widespread submission to the heckler’s veto is already. Speakers representing the government of Israel have often been
    subjected to heckling, disruption, and attempted cancellation at universities. I wonder whether as a result there has been any tendency of academic departments to avoid inviting Israeli speakers on subjects outside politics, including technical subjects (such as desert agriculture, hydraulic engineering, biomedical engineering, biotechnology, computer science, etc. ) in which Israel is particularly advanced. I don’t know any examples of such avoidance, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it occurs.

  10. Again, having problems working up sympathy here.

    The man dumps a dimwitted and nasty smear on people who advocate for positive discrimination and a university declines to bestow a major honour on him. “Major honour” are Abbot’s own words about the offer).

    The fact that he sees nothing whatsoever in the article that might be objected to and in fact regards his article as “the writing of a man who takes his moral duty seriously and is trying to express his concerns strongly, but respectfully”. The fact that he doesn’t ever allude to the Nazi comparison is telling.

    He could at least apologise for that comparison, but instead he has, effecitly, doubled down on it.

    In any case, if free speech is the problem then he should relax. He not only has the same free speech as the rest of it, he has an embarrassment of platforms on which to use it, much more than most of us could ever dream of having.

  11. Over the weekend I sent this email to the office of the President of MIT and to their ‘Giving” department:

    I never expected to write this email.

    I graduated from MIT in 1974 and have long been a small but consistent supporter. Indeed, MIT is the only one of the universities I attended that I support and I did so because of its excellence.

    That excellence is now in serious question after the school cancelled a talk by a scholar because of opinions he holds in areas unrelated to his expertise or to his talk. If MIT now chooses to enforce an orthodoxy on matters where people of good will might disagree then it is not an excellent institution.

    I know that my small contribution is not material to MIT, nor is it material to me. But I cannot change what MIT has done, all I can do is withdraw my support in protest.

    I will not be contributing further to MIT.

    It will hurt to end this history of contributing to an excellent university, but I have a way to eliminate that hurt. Dorian Abbot is a professor at the University of Chicago. I have never attended there (though I was admitted in 1969) but since they support Prof. Abbot’s academic freedom and MIT does not, I will redirect future contributions to the University of Chicago.

    With regret,

    Michael Barton

  12. I am sorry, but declining to invite a White Supremacist whose views will alienate a substantial part of the audience is not punishment. Dr. Abbott has decreased his value as a speaker, as nobody will actually listen to him anymore on his actual topic. Probably many would not even attend. Speech may be free (from government censor), but that does not mean it is free of consequence.

    And for those saying that I say this because I am a liberal, I will admit to being a liberal, but not to hypocrisy. Schools have a right to choose their speakers, for the benefit of their audience, and I have said the same about schools that have shied away from leftist speakers at times. Maybe he should be invited to a debate on diversity (after he learns more).

    Finally, as a Jew (secular) I am deeply offended by the reference to Nazis on multiple grounds. That itself would be enough to dissuade me not to attend his lecture.

    There is a big difference between firing or disciplining a teacher for his or her views and declining to honor him or her by an invitation to another university.

    Eric Jeffrey

    1. I’m sorry but Dorian Abbot is not a white supremacist. Further, they didn’t decline to invite him, they invited him and rescinded the invitation. That’s not right. The school did choose Abbot as a speaker, already knowing what his views on DEI are. I object to his reference to Nazis, too.

      You don’t seem to realize that he WAS invited, and then rescinded the invitation.

      I suggest you read the posts here before commenting on them.

Leave a Reply