Is cancel culture real?

April 20, 2022 • 11:45 am

Whether you think “Cancel Culture” is real depends, of course, on your definition of the term. In this article from The Nation, writer and critic Katha Pollitt, a Leftist and also a distinguished poet, defines “cancel culture” this way:

Cancel culture—which I’m loosely defining here as a climate that encourages disproportionate social and/or work-related punishment for speech. . . .

I think this is pretty accurate: it’s an attempt to smear people’s reputations disproportionately or to cause them to lose their jobs for things that they say.  Of course what’s “disproportional” is subjective, but surely trying to get someone fired falls into that class, as does calling them names like “racist” or “transphobe” in an attempt to ruin their credibility instead of using counterspeech. To me, deplatforming someone, trying to get their scheduled speeches shut down, or shouting them down (see FIRE’s “disinvitation database”) are actions also falling into the “cancel culture” class, and this class is growing (follow the number of deplatformings over the years).

As you probably know, there’s a lot of denial that such a culture exists—in spite of the manifest evidence for it. When the Harper’s Letter came out criticizing cancel culture (see my posts here),  it was widely criticized by those on the Left for many reasons, and those are the same reasons used to deny Cancel Culture. The denialists are mostly from the Left as well.

Pollitt summarizes the arguments against Cancel Culture:

Well, OK, it exists on the right: Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks and Colin Kaepernick and that assistant principal in Mississippi who read the picture book I Need a New Butt to his students. Conservatives are always canceling people. But on the left? That’s just people holding you accountable for some awful thing you said. What could be wrong with that? Besides, no one is seriously, irreparably hurt. Look at J.K. Rowling: Despite the best efforts of Twitter, she’s still a billionaire and one of the most popular writers ever.

Those who argue that cancel culture is a myth claim that no one has really been injured by it. A few people might lose their jobs, but they get new ones. Bari Weiss claimed she was bullied out of The New York Times, and now she’s the Queen of Substack. The columnist Suzanne Moore, who left The Guardian after 338 of her colleagues signed a letter clearly aimed at her, accusing the paper of producing “transphobic content,” soon surfaced at The Telegraph. Yes, someone might lose a prize or an opportunity to give a talk or be on a panel, but no one has a right to those things. After the lesbian memoirist Lauren Hough praised her friend’s forthcoming novel, which some tweeters accused of transphobia, and then got into an expletive-filled Twitter fight about it, she was either not nominated or de-nominated for a Lambda Award. But hey, she can always write another book.

The journalist Adam Davidson responded to a rather woolly New York Times editorial decrying cancel culture: “Can one of you believers in cancel culture just write one piece that gives evidence and doesn’t just speak to a feeling you have? Maybe some data that helps your readers know the size and scale of this problem? Also, some examples of people actually fired?”

Here’s Davidson’s tweet:

And so Pollitt describes six examples of real people (not millionaires) being canceled for what they said, a in these cases the people were either fired or cast into limbo. I’ll just list the people and reprise in my words why they were canceled. (Quotes from Pollitt are indented.

a.) Don McNeil, former science writer for the NYT. McNeil used the “n-word” didactically in a discussion with students on an overseas educational trip. He simply asked if that was the word that was used by someone else. For this he was hounded and ultimately fired by the FORMER NYT editor, Dean Baquet. The NYT editorialized that “intent doesn’t matter”: that if someone is offended by even a didactic usage, the user has to go. McNeil no longer has a regular job.

b.) Gilliam Philip, children’s book writer. Her sin was to put #Istandwithjkrowling on her Twitter biography. That was all it took for the social-media tsunami to drown her: she was fired by her publisher.

c.) Don Share

Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, made its prestigious pages more inclusive and diverse. But that didn’t help in 2020, when he was attacked for publishing a long poem by Matthew Dickman that included a racial slur uttered by the poet’s demented grandmother. (That pesky use/mention distinction again!) Share issued a self-abasing apology and left. I’ve been unable to find out what he’s doing now.

d.) Gary Garrels, formerly top curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  When he sold a Rothko to finance the acquisition of art by women and minorities, he also said these fatal words: “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists”, adding that to not collect work by white men would be “reverse discrimination.”  Garrels was fired and is now working as an independent curator.

e.) David Edelstein, a film critic with NPR’s Fresh Air. Pollitt says this:

[He] was fired from his longtime job with NPR’s Fresh Air after he made a tasteless joke on his Facebook page referring to the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris. Furloughed by New York magazine at the start of the pandemic, he is now a freelancer.

You can see the joke at the link, and it is tasteless if you know about the history of that scene. However, Edelstein apologized, not knowing Maria Schneider’s subsequent statements about the scene.

This is the only case which could possibly justify firing, but if the person apologizes, I think the bar for firing them should be pretty high. It’s up to you whether you think Edelstein went too far to stay in his job. Remember, social-media was relentless in going after him, but should NPR always truckle to social media? Let us know what you think.

f.) April Powers, a management specialist. This is the case I find the most odious because she didn’t offend anyone directly, and her “sin” was one of omission.  Powers was the director of equity and inclusion at the Society for Children’s Book Writers, and issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism. She resigned after being “furiously attacked” because she didn’t condemn Islamophobia as well. Can you imagine? Would she have gotten attacked if she had condemned Islamophobia but not anti-Semitism? Give me a break. A few Jews might have groused, but there would have been no social-media attack, and you know why.

The attacks on these people came from the Left–my side–and a side that’s supposed to meet speech with counter-speech. You can even call people idiots (I prefer “misguided”), but these social-media mobs went further.  They want to damage someone, not argue with him. And, as I wrote the other day, it is the most extreme people on both Left and Right that are also the most vocal. Of these six, only Edelstein comes even close to deserving the opprobrium he got.

Now we all know of other cases like these; I write about them all the time. These are just some obvious examples, and show that yes, Virginia, there is a Cancel Culture. Pollitt ends her piece like this:

You can say these people—and there are many more like them—got what was coming to them. You can say, and many do, that a cancellation was a convenient opportunity to get rid of a problematic boss or colleague. You can say it was a proxy for other problems in the institution: underpaid young staffers, overprivileged higher-ups, hidebound ideas and practices, racism. You can say these incidents are part of a general social transformation that will leave us better off in the long run, and that might even be true.

That “general social transformation”, I think, will leave us worse off in the long run, but it creates an authoritarian atmosphere in which dissent is squelched out of fear, thus stifling free speech.  And this transformation, as John Haidt wrote in the Atlantic, is picking up speed. “Cancel Culture” is an attempt to shut up those who disagree with you not by arguing with them, but trying to take them out of action by hurting them professionally or getting them fired.

h/t: Greg

22 thoughts on “Is cancel culture real?

  1. The flip side of “that was extremely, extremely offensive” is “those who are offended are extremely, extremely sensitive.” They cannot be expected to distinguish between use & mention. They cannot be asked to accept that there’s controversy on what they’re sure about. That’s for the privileged.

    Instead, they are, yes, Little People, and not just simple and needy, but traumatized, and with the diminished responsibility that comes with that. The “lasting, measurable damage” here is being inflicted even by micro aggressions.

    Especially by micro aggressions.

  2. Cancel culture on the right and left is certainly real. But often ignored in these discussions are the less obvious forms of it, where the pressure doesn’t even need to be explicitly applied. Like how small business owners in certain parts of the world (e.g., rural USA) can never afford to be openly atheist. (It used to be that way for openly gay, but that seems to be improving ever so slowly).

  3. I don’t have a definitive list of Cancel Culture victims but just the ones I’ve heard about in the last decade is significant. I also believe that the ones I hear about are merely the tip of a very large iceberg. Plus, someone doesn’t have to actually lose their job in order to be a victim. Just an overwhelming avalanche of hate on social media for something that isn’t even wrong is enough to show the cancel attitude.

    I totally agree with Pollitt’s broad definition. It’s the disproportionate reaction coupled with the preference of cancellation over dialog that I object to. They don’t get out of it by simply claiming that not that many lost their jobs and, even if they did, they deserved it.

  4. The point of cancel culture mobbing isn’t just punishment of the offender, it’s also intimidation of those who might agree, into staying silent. So what may be ineffective in hurting someone as powerful as JK Rowling, may in fact be quite effective in the controlling the cultural conversation, precisely because Rowling has so many followers (along with being able to deny cancel culture because, you know, “she is too rich and famous to be cancelled…”)

  5. Cancel culture is real – and natural (not that ‘natural’ equates to ‘good’); humans have been shunning for all of recorded history. I think there should be more of an open discussion of what forms of cancel culture are bad, and what is not. There are so many facets to the question that we should acknowledge that it exists, and look at the various shades of gray. Russian athletes being banned from competitions is a form of cancellation. So, which forms of cancel culture should be cancelled, and which should not?

    I don’t see a good, clear answer. I’d like a consistent policy, but I don’t think it’s feasible that we will develop one.

    1. Yes. And it gets mentioned from time to time about how the phenomenon on social media seems to trigger the same outlet of reactions that people used to receive while being pilloried in a public square.

  6. What gets m’goat especially is how academics can be blind to the existence of cancel culture, or that it is ever applied unjustly. They of all should be ready to apply the scientific habit of self-correction when they see someone is accused wrongly or punished in extreme disproportion.

  7. I’m particularly struck by the reasoning that the “intent doesn’t matter,” only the perceptions of the supposedly “injured” who were caused “harm” by almost anything they want to claim was harmful. Makes it pretty easy to attack anyone for anything.
    No wonder the Right uses the term “snowflake.”

  8. Although anyone can become a victim of cancel culture, I think the “It does not exist” arguments are made for a specific audience. Those would be the people who tend to support the far left, but who still hold onto basic principals of fairness and objectivity, at least in theory. They do not want to be part of a mob with torches and pitchforks, so they read an article that states that there is no such mob, which confirms what they already want to believe.
    It seems like the people who write such articles are more of the group that always just denies anything that might put their politics or actions in a bad light. I find such arguments particularly maddening, because often they are obviously misrepresenting the facts. We both know you are lying, but still you lie.
    I suppose it is better to believe that they are deliberately lying than to conclude that they actually believe their arguments. There are many reasons why someone might lie. Perhaps they are not great reasons, but a rational person can at least understand their motives. Understanding someone’s motivations is at least some sort of common ground, even if you strongly disagree with them.

    1. >Understanding someone’s motivations [to lie] is at least some sort of common ground, even if you strongly disagree with them.

      Well put. Where would diplomacy be without such a profound truth?

  9. Isn’t the left denying that cancel culture exists exactly the same, and for the same reason, as the right denying that voter suppression exists?

  10. There are so many examples of cancel culture: Ayaan Hirsi Ali being disinvited because of her views on Islam, Richard Dawkins losing his Humanist of the Year award because of comments he made about trans people, and the list goes on. The FIRE website and the Heterodox Academy keep records of this stuff.

  11. Edelstein didn’t deserve firing off he sincerely apologized. It’s not one strike and you’re out is it? Flawed human beings can make mistake but not with the cancel crowd.

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