I don’t know how I’ve missed the writing of Cathy Young for so long, but now that I’m reading it I’m quite impressed. Although she shares my view about the problems of excessive wokeness, she also is tempered in her criticism and careful to call out miscreants on both Left and Right. In her article in The Bulwark published yesterday, she describes her view of “cancel culture” and rejects the arguments of those on the Left who say that the whole phenomenon is overblown: just a few overblown incidents that have been aimed mostly at famous people, like J. K. Rowling—people who can’t really be cancelled.
Click to read—it’s free:
We all know of wokies who say that there’s no such thing as cancel culture, or that the problem is exaggerated (see here and here, both responses to Anne Applebaum’s essay on cancel culture in The Atlantic. “The New Puritans“, which I also wrote about here).
Young notes that there are cancellations on both sides: on the Right, for instance, the move to cancel the Dixie Chicks—now just “The Chicks”—for criticizing G. W. Bush onstage, or the attempted boycott of the “Ellen” t.v. show after she declared she was gay. But after defining cancel culture, Young finds it more pervasive on the Left. You can see this by looking at FIRE’s “disinvitation database” in the last six or seven years to see which side most often deplatforms college speakers. (Earlier than that Right and Left were roughly equally culpable.) But Young sees cancel culture as going far beyond these disinvitation attempts. Further, disinvitation occurs only after a speaker is invited; sensibly, refusal to invite someone isn’t necessarily “cancel culture”—though it could be:
Critics of the idea of “cancel culture” have a point when they argue that pushback against speech and expression we find morally offensive is a vital part of free speech. While disinvitations should be avoided on principle, there is nothing wrong with forcefully arguing that a college campus should not extend a speaking invitation to a far-right hate peddler like Ann Coulter or a progressive white-guilt grifter like Robin DiAngelo. Likewise, while taking down published articles should be a no-no except in case of egregious factual errors, plagiarism, or other misconduct, it’s not illiberal to argue that respected media outlets should not platform certain odious views, whether they’re unabashedly racist anti-immigration tirades or arguments that sexual liberation should extend to pedophiles. But it also seems clear that in a liberal society, the range of truly “cancelable” viewpoints should remain as narrow as possible, and the lines should be very carefully drawn.
So on to Young’s definition of cancel culture, which is really a list of its three main characteristics:
Current “cancel culture” differs from the “normal” push-and-pull of speech-related pressures in several significant ways. First, the internet and the social media in particular have enabled much more public speech by people who aren’t journalists, politicians, activists, or other public figures—potentially exposing them to retaliation for speech that offends. Second, the internet and social media have become highly effective vehicles for collective retaliation for disapproved-of speech or conduct. (Gurri’s Liberal Currents article discusses these developments.) Third, a version of progressivism that stresses the “harm” done by very broadly defined racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted speech and expression—and even routinely labels such expression as “violence”—has moved from the margins of left-wing academia to the mainstream of universities, media, and other cultural institutions.
In such a framework, the suppression of speech becomes not just defensible but virtuous. Consider, for instance, this remarkable statement issued in 2018 by activists who tried to shut down an event with Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist who challenges feminist orthodoxy on such issues as “rape culture” and the wage gap, at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon:
We now understand how language works, and how it can be used to reproduce the systems of oppression we know we must resist at all costs. . . . Free speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals. There is no debate here.
It is this “there is no debate here” assertion that really characterizes Left-wing cancel culture: it’s the assertion that certain subjects are taboo to discuss, for there is only one correct opinion. An example, mentioned by Andrew Sullivan last week, was the flat assertion of trans activists that “Trans women are WOMEN in every way.” If you try to debate that, good luck to you.
Now are these characteristics more common on the Right or the Left? Counting up incidents isn’t a good way to asses that, says Young, because what really counts is how cancellation has affected the political climate on each side—to what extent have cancellations chilled speech? As I said, Young, like me, sees a more censorious climate on the Left (my emphasis below):
There are also good reasons to be concerned about some of the recent laws seeking to curb “critical race theory” and other progressive ideas in schools, especially when those laws target higher education. We should absolutely be worried about right-wing authoritarianism.
But in some ways, progressive cancel culture has a much broader reach. It does not simply retaliate against speech by ideological opponents; it also quite often targets progressives or neutrals for sometimes accidental transgressions against the new norms of identity-based social justice. It does not simply punish opposition but demands allegiance, including repentance by transgressors. In that sense, the analogies to Stalinism and Maoism, much derided by the “anti-anti-cancel culture” crowd, have some validity. This is especially true since, in the last few years, social justice or “wokeism” really has become something of a party line not only in progressive activism and academia but in most of the established media, a wide range of cultural institutions, and large corporations: Witness, for instance, the rapid spread and embrace of the unpronounceable “Latinx,” which is used as a self-description by only 3 percent of Hispanics in the United States and seems like a blatant example of linguistic imperialism, but is considered woke because it signals not only gender neutrality but gender-inclusiveness beyond male and female. “Cancel culture” is, as Bari Weiss points out in Commentary, only the “justice system” of a larger revolution that seeks to overhaul personal attitudes and behavior through messages in the media, schools and universities, and corporate diversity programs.
I will give only one more short quote in deference to “fair usage”.
. . . the databases may drastically undercount such incidents, since many ideologically motivated firings are never publicized. (It also should be noted that the “Canceled People” list is a grab-bag of very disparate cases, from different countries, that include Trump’s Twitter ban, Liz Cheney’s loss of her Republican leadership position for criticizing Trump, and firings of transgender people for coming out on the job.) Nonetheless, he concludes that even if the real number is far higher, it ultimately points to a small problem.
Yet this reasoning underestimates the chilling effect of “cancellations.” And it does not take into account low-level and unquantifiable intimidation in the form of reprimands, suspensions, and other penalties short of dismissal.
And then Young runs through a number of such incidents that have led to chilling. Cancellation of young adult fiction books, for instance, has had a chilling effect on the genre, with “sensitivity readers” now being mandatory in the industry. The well known journalist Jesse Singal, who has questioned the “trans women are women” trope, as well as the rush to give kids drugs and surgery who have gender identity issues, has, says Young, “been the target of a creepy smear campaign.” Though Singal has survived, even thrived, lesser known journalists would surely want to keep their mouths shut on these issues.
And I’ll add one bit of data here: a survey of college students by the Heterodox Academy showed that “In 2020, 62% of sampled college students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe, up from 55% in 2019.” You can read the whole report here, and see which topics are especially incendiary. Other surveys give similar results.
And that’s just for college students (it also applies to professors). What about journalists? If you work at the New York Times or the Washington Post, and have any controversial, non-woke opinions, the firings of staffers who have expressed them will prompt you to keep your gob shut. And so it goes for almost all white-collar institutions. Young concludes that “while some of the opposition to left-wing liberalism has regrettably gotten entangled with right-wing forces at least as illiberal, the liberal and centrist pushback against the ‘new puritans’ is not only healthy but essential.
Yes, essential. If we do nothing, in ten years we’ll have a country not worth living in—at least in my view. That is, unless the metastasizing insanity I describe every day somehow goes away.