HuffPo, one of the biggest exponents of “cancel culture”, now has published one of its longest articles claiming that such a culture doesn’t exist. The piece is a long and unconvincing response to the letter published last week in Harper’s (and four other international venues). That letter was simply a call for open debate, and “cancel culture” (CC) was defined implicitly in the piece. I’ll reproduce just a small section of that letter, and I’ve put the characteristics of “cancel culture” in bold. Note that the letter calls out these characteristics on both the Right and on the Left, though the signers, mostly Leftists, concentrate on their own end of the political spectrum:
. . . .The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
In other words, the “cancel culture” represents the cumulative effect of bullying and intimidation that, in the end, makes people who oppose the reigning ideologies afraid to speak. The culture prizes intimidation above discussion, seeing everything, à la critical theory, in terms of power imbalances. The culture is enacted by threatening the reputations and livelihoods of those who say what you don’t like to hear.
The Harper‘s letter deliberately omitted specific examples of CC transgressions, but it’s not hard to think of some. Those opposed to this reasonable letter were peeved that no examples were given, but that would have derailed the discussion into the pros and cons of specific cases—indeed, that’s what HuffPo does in its piece—rather than decrying a climate of increasing censoriousness and, on the Left, the hardening of ideological positions into those for which no dissent is permitted. The punishing of those who dissent from “approved ideology” is what CC is all about. One instantiation, not mentioned in the letter, is the recent tendency to pull down statues, even those of the Founding Fathers, because those founders transgressed modern norms (e.g. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and even statues, like “Progress” at the Wisconsin state Capitol, that have no connection to ideology at all).
Read and sneer.
Here’s author Hobbes‘s thesis:
On Monday, 153 prominent writers, academics and public figures signed their names to a statement entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” According to the signatories, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
While the letter itself, published by the magazine Harper’s, doesn’t use the term, the statement represents a bleak apogee in the yearslong, increasingly contentious debate over “cancel culture.” The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.
This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.
Here are Hobbes’s beefs against the letter. I won’t quote him extensively as you can check my contentions yourself. Any quotes are indented, while my words are flush left.
1.) Cancel culture is a “reactionary backlash” by the “conservative elites” who try to magnify their grievances into a national crisis.
This is of course complete bunk. The signers of the letter were, by and large, on the Left, and decry actions by others on the Left. And, as the letter notes, the Right has long been guilty of restricting ideas itself, although the bulk of CC actions limned in the letter come from the Left. For an example, go through the last decade of college-speaker deplatformings at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. If there is ever such a thing as a “cancellation”—which HuffPo denies exists)—it is the silencing of speakers by deplatforming them. The majority of deplatformings in recent years have come from the Left, though around a third are from the Right.
2.) The examples of cancellation given in the Harper’s letter are bogus, representing something other than cancellation. First, that letter doesn’t even use the words “cancel culture.” More important, it gave no examples—deliberately. But that doesn’t stop HuffPost from guessing about what the writers were thinking of. One was James Bennet, the op-ed editor of the New York Times, given his walking papers after publishing an editorial (one that the paper initially defended) by Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton endorsed the use of the military to monitor demonstrations and quash violence—a stand that I opposed, but one worth debating. After enormous social-media pushback from readers, as well as a laughable claim by some NYT staffers that Cotton’s editorial made them feel “unsafe” (this is the trump card of the Perpetually Offended), the paper put in caveats and then fired Bennet.
HuffPo writer Hobbes says this isn’t “cancellation” because the paper admitted (after the pushback!) that it had erred, so Bennet’s firing represented not cancellation of his job, but due diligence by the paper. What a joke!
While the op-ed did inspire widespread criticism, Bennet’s resignation is not a case of social-media censorship. The Times’ itself admitted that the piece “fell short of our standards” and represented a “breakdown” in the paper’s editorial process. Bennet eventually admitted that he hadn’t even read it before publishing it.
Yes—after staffers beefed and the public kvetched. Absent that, Bennet would still have his job.
But it gets worse: Hobbes says that Bennet wasn’t canceled because, after all, he’d transgressed before by publishing ideologically unsavory views:
And beyond Bennet’s incompetence, there is the simple question of accountability. Even before the Cotton op-ed, Bennet hired climate change deniers, neglected fact-checking and printed “pro-mercenary” articles by private military contractors. Are the signatories to the Harper’s letter really saying that Times readers and employees should not have expressed their frustration with these obvious breaches of ethics?
No, the signatories aren’t saying at all that people shouldn’t be able to speak up against what they dislike. Remember, the Harper’s letter says this: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” Is that not clear enough, Mr. Hobbes? The signatories are saying that people’s jobs and reputations shouldn’t be on the line for bringing up issues that are worthy (to some) of debate.
Hobbes cites other examples, only to knock them down, but his view that this is just robust debate is not supported. Debating someone like Cotton is not the same as firing the person who publishes his words.
3.) Rich people or public figures aren’t subject to cancelation anyway because they get their views expressed. Hobbes:
Consider the following two examples of “cancel culture” run amok:
While they may look similar on the surface, these cases in fact have little in common.
First, the person being “canceled.” It makes no sense to apply the same standard to public figures and random citizens alike. Philip, unlike Shor, is a public figure. She is a bestselling author and is surely aware that her political statements will affect her standing among her target audience and her publisher. Let’s not be coy about this: Declaring support for J.K. Rowling in July of 2020 is a de facto statement that you agree with her controversial, unpopular views on transgender people.
Public figures certainly have a right to express their controversial views. Readers have the right to react accordingly, and publishers have the right to take these views into account when deciding which books to publish. That’s why it’s called, as “cancel culture” critics love to point out, the “marketplace of ideas.”
So far, there is no indication that private citizens are being held to the same standard as bestselling authors.
Of course they are! Do I need to name James Damore, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Peter Tatchell, and many others to show how private citizens are treated when they transgress? Many of the damned expressed views with which I disagree, but firing or demonizing them is not the way debate is supposed to happen. Further, the attacks on both public figures and private ones, with the public figures still remaining rich (e.g., J. K. Rowling), all help create that climate of intimidation so pervasive in the U.S. (especially on campuses) and the U.K. Campus surveys repeatedly show that conservative students are afraid to speak their minds (see here, for instance). Why, if not for cancel culture?
4.) The actions that constitute cancel culture are limited to the Left. Hobbes is lying here, as a simple reading of the letter shows.
5.) The authors of the Harper’s letter propose no solutions to ending cancel culture. I would have thought that the solutions were clear: stop bullying people on social media or firing people, or, like Vox writer Emily VanEerWerff, trying to resolve disputes by getting your opponent—a colleague in her case—demonized and fired.
In the end, Hobbes admits that he has a chip on his shoulder, for his own attempts to promulgate the “truth” were ignored by the “gatekeepers of the elite media”—a group he characterizes as “overwhelmingly white, male, straight, and cis.” What happened is when the “Ebonics” kerfuffle happened some years ago (“Ebonics” is the name for African-American English, which some schools proposed to teach), Hobbes tried to show that the controversy was overblown. The elite media ignored him, and that left him with a bad taste about a group of editors who confected, says Hobbes, a “moral panic.”
So he’s got a beef. But what that has to do with the signers of the Harper’s letter, who are not editors of elite media, but public figures, eludes me.
Hobbes ends with this rant:
“Cancel culture” is nothing more than the latest repackaging of the argument that the true threat to liberalism resides not in lawmakers or large corporations but in overly sensitive college students and random social media users. It is no more sophisticated than the “war on Christmas” and has the same goal: to imply that those pushing back against injustice are equivalent to the injustice itself.
Some of the signatories of the Harper’s letter know this and some of them don’t. All of them should have known better.
My response is to quote Andrew Sullivan: “We are all on campus now.”
For another far-Left attack on the Harper’s letter, see this piece in In These Times. A quote from author Hamilton Nolan, who shows that he has no understanding of what the letter was trying to say.
I say this, of course, in the context of today’s letter, published in Harper’s and signed by more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter is certainly not about any reasonable definition of “Justice,” and is about Open Debate only to the extent that people who make very healthy salaries arguing in public for a living seem to have a bizarre aversion to being argued against. This aversion, I’m afraid, now borders on the pathological. We have entered a brave new world in which those waving the banner of “Free Speech” accuse their opponents of being unable to take criticism while waging a histrionic campaign against anyone who dares to criticize them. Accusing your opponents of doing exactly what you are yourself guilty of is a classic propaganda technique. It works well, unfortunately.