It's real and on the rise, on the left and the right
We are living in censorious times. A tidal wave of Anti-CRT laws that restrict “the freedom to read, learn and teach.” Book bans galore, from Maus and The Bluest Eye to Gender Queer and the 1619 Project. On college campuses: trigger warnings, speech codes, Bias Response Teams and speaker disinvitations.
Everything we just mentioned, in our view, is cancel culture.
The crux of cancel culture is the attempt to censor what we dislike—whether that’s ideas, books, works of art, political positions or people.
Cancel culture is an intensified, sped-up version of a hard-wired censorship impulse. “Human beings,” free speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff explains, “are natural born censors with a strong drive toward community conformity.” Throughout recorded history, across the globe, controversial ideas have been rejected, silenced or outlawed much more frequently than they have been tolerated. Offend the Church, the Mullahs or other religious authorities—that’s blasphemy. Offend the King or the state—that’s sedition.
As Jacob Mchangama put it in his recent book on the history of free speech: the will “to establish new orthodoxies and seek out fresh heretics” is ever-present.
In the United States today, the left and right alike have aggressively embraced cancelation campaigns. Each side has its own distinctive objectives, strategies, initiatives and networks—as well as its own particular strongholds. The left and liberals are ascendant on most college campuses and predominate in the arts, culture and publishing industries. The right, of course, has the Fox News bullhorn and other like-minded media outlets. But its most vital sites of power are state legislatures. Fueled by alarm surrounding critical race theory and LGBTQ+ hysteria, Red State legislatures are in the midst of a frenzied, mass cancelation spree.
For many people who are left-of-center, if the right is ringing the alarm bell on cancel culture, then it must be a false alarm. With headlines like “Cancel Culture: Tool of the Maoists,” it’s not hard to understand why. Indeed, conservative politicians, organizations and media have weaponized the cancel culture discourse to attack “political correctness” and “identity politics”—and to score political points by assailing colleges and universities as propaganda machines devoted to liberal groupthink.
Nonetheless, cancel culture is much more than a ginned up moral panic. This becomes evident when you zoom out to look at the U.S. censorship landscape beyond a narrow, partisan frame. In this piece we will debunk the myths about cancel culture advanced by both the left and the right.
Let’s start with the misguided claims espoused by liberals and progressives.
Myth No.1: There is no such thing as cancel culture
The first myth is what we might call the Chappelle fallacy. It’s summed up nicely in this tweet: “Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Kanye, DaBaby and Marilyn Manson all nominated for Grammys today. Still waiting for ‘Cancel Culture’ to be real.”
“The notion that cancel culture exists at all is bullshit,” Daily Beast entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon says. “If anything, whenever a person being criticized claims ‘cancel culture,’ their career and financial situation improves.”
The same dozen or so names are trotted out whenever people make the claim that “canceled” people just get handed a louder megaphone. Chappelle, Louis C.K.; writers and journalists like Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald who are thriving on Substack.
The Chappelle Fallacy is a quintessential example of “survival bias.” The fact that some rich and famous people continue to maintain their platforms and followings after being “canceled” is NOT evidence that cancel culture is BS. For every Chappelle, there are dozens whose cancellations only register as a blip on our cultural radar, if they even register at all.
Do you recognize this individual?
That’s Nashville composer Daniel Elder. Post George Floyd, several white protestors attempted to set Nasvhille’s Metro Courthouse on fire. Concerned by the destruction he was witnessing, which he thought was being fueled by a dangerous “mob mentality,” Elder posted this message on Instagram:
Elder was inundated with messages accusing him of being a racist—a “white supremacist piece of garbage,” as one social media comment put it. Others said they had appreciated his “beautiful” music but could no longer listen to or recommend it. Elder’s music publisher condemned his allegedly “incendiary” post and said they would be suspending future publishing with him. Local choir directors effectively blacklisted him. These career losses were, in Elder’s words, “devastating blows.”
The impact of cancellations is far reaching. Documentary filmmaker Ted Balaker puts it best: “we shouldn’t judge cancel culture simply by what happens to a celebrity in the crosshairs.” The big stars capture all of the attention while ordinary people pay the biggest price.
Myth No.2: It’s not cancel culture, it’s criticism
You don’t have to be fired, jailed or assaulted to claim you’ve been “canceled.” “All you need is some pushback against your positions.” So says Carnegie Mellon psychologist Timothy Verstynen. “Criticism,” he insists, “is not canceling.”
Those decrying cancel culture, according to professors Jared Schroeder and Jessica Maddox, are the powerful and the privileged—people who aren’t used to receiving criticism and who “don’t appreciate the feedback.” Kevin Fallon expands on this idea: cancel culture is “a desperate shield used amidst a panic attack that changing norms, values, and, finally, the validation of marginalized voices might diminish a person of their cherished power: the ability to say and do anything without repercussions or the need to change and evolve.”
There is definitely something to the claim that “cancel culture is how the powerful play victim.” Bad faith actors, especially culture warriors on the right, can and do cynically invoke cancel culture as a means to deflect legitimate criticism or evade responsibility. Historian L.D. Burnett was surely right to highlight the “absurdity” of GOP Congressman Jim Jordan’s claim that impeachment proceedings against Trump were “a dangerous manifestation of ‘cancel culture.’”
So what, then, distinguishes cancel culture from criticism?
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch explains: “Criticism marshals evidence and arguments in a rational effort to persuade. Canceling, by contrast, seeks to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents.”
Working from Rauch’s insightful “Cancel Culture Checklist,” here are what we see as the hallmarks of cancel culture:
moral grandstanding; that is, the display of moral outrage to impress one’s peer group, dominate others or both
caricatures and false accusations, especially quotes and information taken out of context
an emphasis on punishment
guilt-by-association boycotts that target people who support the person under fire
Here is Journalist Nick Gillespie, throwing the distinction between criticism and cancellation into sharp relief: “Somebody calling you a jackass on Twitter is criticism. Somebody organizing a mob to get you kicked off of Twitter…is cancel culture.”
Myth No.3: Cancel culture is just another name for accountability
According to CNN digital writer AJ Willingham, cancel culture is simply “accountability for one’s actions.” Echoing Willingham, feminist author Jessica Valenti says: “What people call cancel culture is really just run-of-the-mill social and moral consequences.”
“When people are in the public eye,” Kevin Fallon asserts, “they make missteps. Those missteps are called out—yes, sometimes loudly and angrily, but most often rightfully.” Burnett concurs, asserting that there is nothing wrong with deplatforming “heinous people who say heinous things.” Valenti too agrees, contending that many people are canceled because their “actions are indefensible.”
But this they-had-it-coming perspective only makes sense as long as we are talking about the Richard Spencers or Bill Cosbys of the world, people who have clearly said or done indefensible, heinous things. But most cases of “canceled” individuals are not so clear-cut. They run the gamut, as New York Times media columnist Ben Smith points out, from a “deep injustice …brought to light” to “an innocent person harassed by trolls.”
Some cancelation campaigns are fabricated out of whole cloth—as was the case when “Jeopardy” contestant Kelly Donohue was caught in a firestorm of misinformation and harassment for allegedly flashing a white supremacist hand gesture after his third victory. Even after the Anti-Defamation League concluded Donohue’s gesture was not a white power signal, many of Donohue’s critics stood by their claim that it was a harmful, racist dog whistle.
Other cancelation efforts are fueled by misinterpretations—including willful misrepresentations—of unremarkable social media posts. Civis Analytics political consultant David Shor lost his job after he tweeted a summary of a paper by Black political scientist Omar Wasow. The paper provided evidence that riots in the wake of MLK’s assassination depressed Democratic voter turnout. Coinciding with mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, progressive activists successfully mobilized to have Shor fired—asserting that his tweet was “racist,” minimized Black rage and unfairly maligned Black protesters.
In higher education, espousing mainstream opinions can lead to cancellation drives, if they come into conflict with campus orthodoxies. In the fall of 2021, University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot was slated to deliver a prestigious public talk at MIT on the potential for life on other planets. But he was disinvited after a social media furor erupted surrounding his public criticism of campus DEI initiatives. As one vocal disinvitation proponent explained: “a university should not invite speakers who do not share its values on diversity and affirmative action.” Abbot’s views on affirmative action may offend some at MIT but they are broadly popular among the American public. A recent Pew survey found that 74% of U.S. adults oppose the consideration of race in college admissions, including majorities of all ethno-racial groups.
And what of the cases when individuals really have done something wrong or harmful? In many instances, we’re not convinced that the punishment matches the crime.
Black feminist, activist and cancel culture critic Loretta Ross describes two of the essential features of cancel culture as “unforgettability” and “unforgivability.”
Here’s how writer Emily Yoffe explains this one-two cancel culture punch:
“Today, people are held to account for everything they have said or written, no matter how long ago, and no matter how much their minds may have changed…Do we really want a world in which someone’s educational and professional prospects are diminished because of something they said—genuinely stupid or offensive though it may have been—when they were fifteen?”
Consider the case of Black journalist Alexi McCammond. In the spring of 2021, she was forced to resign from her appointment as Editor in Chief of Teen Vogue after screenshots of offensive tweets she posted as a teenager in 2011 resurfaced. As reported by the New York Times, the tweets included comments “on the appearance of Asian features, derogatory stereotypes about Asians and slurs for gay people.”
McCammond apologized for these tweets in 2019 but the public criticism and pressure from Teen Vogue staff and advertisers proved overwhelming.
Myth No.4: Cancellations are few and far between so cancel culture is not a pervasive problem
In a piece called “The Methods of Moral Panic Journalism,” Michael Hobbes argues that concerns about “cancel culture” are a tempest in a tea-pot, nothing more than a series of overblown, un-representative anecdotes.
While it is difficult to wrap your arms around the scope of the cancel culture phenomenon, cancel culture deniers like Hobbes fail to acknowledge the chilling effects of each individual episode. A single instance can “cast a dark shadow,” as Komi T. German and Greg Lukianoff remind us.
Consider the 537 incidents of scholars targeted on ideological grounds for constitutionally protected speech since 2015, as documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Commentators like Liberal Currents Editor in Chief Adam Gurri see no cause for alarm: “The total is very small relative to both the size of the populations they are drawn from and the time period over which they occur,” he says. “If any other problem in social life was occurring at this frequency and at this scale, we would consider it effectively solved.”
We call this the small-n fallacy.
When scholars are targeted for sanction or dismissal, there are significant reverberations well beyond each individual case.
Let’s review what happened at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in August 2020: Greg Patton, a professor of business communication, used the Mandarin word nèige, which literally means “that” but is commonly used as a filler word like “um,” as an example of how filler words can be distracting during presentations. After some students complained that nèige sounded like the n-word, USC Dean Geoffrey Garrett removed Patton from the course. He then wrote an email to students where he said it was “simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.”
A survey of faculty after the incident painted “a portrait of a business school in which professors [were] now convinced that a single student complaint, even a questionable one, could upend their careers and that the school’s leadership…doesn’t have our back.”
“I’m scared to death to teach in this environment,” one professor said. “Any innocent phrase can be turned around on you.”
“Faculty will have to walk on eggshells all the time,” another professor said.
“Makes me not want to teach,”yet another dispirited faculty member concluded.
Cancel culture deniers tend to share a kind of “all’s well that ends well” sensibility. Here’s Hobbes again, writing about a 2019 case where the poet and New School professor Laurie Sheck was investigated for using the n-word in class:
For weeks, centrist and conservative media outlets sputtered to her defense: The word appeared in a quote from James Baldwin! She was leading a class discussion about racial slurs! The case became a totemic example of Wokeness Gone Mad that still pops up in anecdote-parade feature stories two years later.
But that version of the story leaves out an important epilogue. The university cleared Sheck without any punishment…The term “investigation” conjures up comparisons to Orwell and Kafka, but in this case it appears administrators interviewed Sheck and the student, reviewed their policies and moved on.
In the legal arena, there’s a relevant concept called the process is the punishment. As Cathy Young outlines in Arc Digital, Hobbes neglects to note that the college took more than two months to dismiss the complaints. Indeed, she was initially advised by the school’s faculty union to consider “changing her curriculum, providing trigger warnings, or having students read potentially offending passages themselves, instead of out loud.”
Sheck herself said the “prolonged time frame” attested to a “culture of intimidation rather than one that holds precious the principles and practice of genuine inquiry.”
The heart of cancel culture is the attempt itself.
Would Hobbes agree that the case of Jerry Craft is also an example of the process working, so no-harm, no-foul?
Craft, author of the semi-autobiographical graphic novel The New Kid—a coming of age story about a 12-year old Black boy who goes to a predominantly white private school—was slated to talk to schoolchildren over Zoom in Katy, Texas. After a parent complained that The New Kid promoted critical race theory, Craft’s appearance was canceled and his books were pulled from library shelves.
Craft described a sense of bewilderment in getting caught up in the firestorm—his book is “a story about finding your place in middle school,” not about “police violence or slavery or civil rights.” He resented being distracted from his work, noting that he had “to protect my own brain and my own psyche” in order to keep drawing “humorous stuff for kids.”
After a 10-day investigation that found The New Kid did not contain “inappropriate” material, the school district returned Craft’s books to the library shelves and he was reinvited to meet with students on Zoom.
The system worked! Or did it? Consider the stress it put Craft under, not to mention the case’s reverberations. On the same day Craft met virtually with students, the school board held a meeting where parents complained that the event was allowed to move forward; what’s more, convinced that the library had been infiltrated by CRT materials, parents demanded a full audit of the whole library, which they eventually won.
Myth No.5: Self-censorship is not a problem
Some commentators have argued that self-censorship really isn’t a problem because people do it all the time in order to make nice and get along in the world. But this conflates self-censorship with tact. If I refrain from saying something to be polite, that’s quite different from keeping my mouth shut out of fear.
Others have argued that self-censorship is to be applauded if it means people are keeping “hateful” or “fringe” views to themselves.
“Sixty years ago,” Michael Hobbes writes, “you could say, ’Black people and white people shouldn’t get married’ in nearly every church, workplace and college campus in the country. These days, people who hold that view hesitate to express it just about everywhere. Good.”
We think the notion that most people self-censoring are closeted bigots is mistaken. From what we have observed, it’s clear many people are keeping mainstream political views to themselves because they are out of step with the prevailing views of their specific, local community—a trend that does not bode well for a democratic society.
Self-censorship is especially pernicious in educational contexts, as it inhibits genuine dialogue and reduces the transformative power of diversity in terms of sharing different experiences and viewpoints. As a recent Knight foundation survey shows, 65% of students said that their campus climate prevents people from saying what they believe for fear of offending someone, up from 54% in 2016.
In the words of a University of Michigan undergraduate: “Anyone who has dissenting opinions on such cultural issues as abortion, Covid or Israel knows that self-censorship is rampant on campus.” A Harvard undergraduate concurs: “There are topics, mostly around capitalism, race, identity and free speech that students simply refuse to debate anymore—my peers think they don’t need to be argued.”
And here is an excerpt from the lightning-rod op-ed University of Virginia undergraduate Emma Camp wrote earlier this year:
I went to college to learn from my professors and peers. I welcomed an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement. Instead, my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights demonstrations and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.
Dismiss it as anecdotal data if you must but on our own campus, we have had conversations with dozens of students of all ethno-racial backgrounds who have reported similar experiences. One despondent student said she felt like the ideological conformity on campus was robbing her of a genuine education.
many longtime book people have said what makes the present unprecedented is a new impetus to censor—and self-censor—coming from the left. The desire to heal historical wounds and promote social justice is conflicting with the right to speak and write freely. Call it political correctness, cancel culture, wokeness—and the fear of challenging it—this is the censorship that, as the phrase goes, dare not speak its name.
In the Atlantic, author Sarah Hepola describes how fear of “being banished for views [she] considered reasonable, or at least worth discussing” put a damper on the topics she wrote about. She reluctantly set aside pieces about “consent, complicity, moral trespass [and] power dynamics”—the most vital topics, the stuff of novels. As a liberal and a feminist, she was dismayed to see “the intolerance that my liberal friends once decried on the censorious right flood to our side of the street.”
In the young adult literature world, cancel culture has devolved into farce. In 2019, Kosoko Jackson pulled his debut novel after it was deemed “insensitive to Muslims and unduly focused on people of privilege.” As Jennifer Senior observes:
There was an obvious irony to his story, a karmic boomerang: Jackson, who is black and gay, often worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishing houses, which meant his job was to flag just the sort of problem content for which he was now being run out of town. He was Robespierre with his own neck in the cradle of the guillotine. One of the captains of “cancel culture”—which urges people to shun the insensitive, the oppressive, the morally questionable—got canceled himself.
Commenting on the perils of censorship, Judy Blume sums up the matter at hand: “it’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written.”
The Right traffics in its own myths to deny its contributions to cancel culture. Two in particular stand out:
Myth No.1: It’s not censorship, it’s saving young people from indoctrination
At a Forsyth County, Georgia school board meeting last year, one parent testified that schools should get back to teaching students the Three Rs, “factual history” and “how to think, not what to think.” Another speaker said: “If you have materials that you’re providing where it says if you’re born a white male, you’re an oppressor, you are abusing our children.”
The claim that public schools are rife with political indoctrination is at the heart of the anti-CRT movement. It’s a charge propelled by controversies surrounding the role that racism has played in the United States (in the past and present). And more pointedly, as the hullabaloo over the 1619 Project shows, whether racism is a feature or a bug in the American project.
Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis has vigorously promoted the anti-CRT cause to make political hay. “We need to be educating people, not trying to indoctrinate them with ideology,” DeSantis declared last year. “We won't allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”
Florida is just one of 19 states that now have laws on the books restricting the discussion of race, gender and sexuality in public schools. The Manhattan Institute and the Goldwater Institute have played leading roles in promoting anti-CRT legislation.
These laws, according to American Enterprise Institute research fellow Max Eden, are not a form of censorship. They simply aim, he says, to prevent “race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.” They are necessary, Eden contends, to combat “CRT-indoctrination” and to protect impressionable young minds from dangerous propaganda.
The claim that anti-CRT laws won’t result in censorship does not hold water.
Invoking the history of McCarthyism and other anti-Communist “Red Scares,” PEN America uses the term “Ed Scare” to describe the anti-CRT crusade. They aptly refer to the wave of anti-CRT legislation as “educational gag orders” which pose “serious legal, financial [and] reputational” consequences for schools and schoolteachers. In Tennessee, schools found to be in violation of a new law will have a portion of their state funding cut. In Oklahoma and New Hampshire, teachers who don’t comply with new laws on the books could lose their teaching licenses.
“New critical race theory laws have teachers scared, confused and self-censoring.” As this Washington Post headline indicates, these laws are already having predictable chilling effects.
“There is a nervousness in the air,” Texas teacher Scott Frank said, regarding vague state restrictions about discussions of racism and controversial public policy issues. “It’s just a feeling like, don’t rock the boat. Are you willing to lose your job over this kind of thing?”
Valanna White, the only African American teacher in a predominantly white high school in Tennessee, now hesitates to answer student questions about slavery and Jim Crow. “If she is asked about critical race theory, she…replies, ‘I don’t have a thought on that.’”
White’s reticence is understandable. Under the new Tennessee anti-CRT law, a complaint has already been filed about a second-grade “Civil Rights Heroes” reading unit that focuses on the life stories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges and Sylvia Mendez. The complaint alleges that the books betray a “narrow and slanted obsession on historical mistakes … that makes children hate their country, each other, and/or themselves.”
Myth No.2: It’s not censorship, it’s shielding young people from pornography and other “inappropriate” material
In Clay County Florida, Ben Friedman recently made a case to school administrators that sexually explicit books, including Alice Sebold’s Lucky, should be pulled from local school libraries. “I’m not looking to ban books or burn books. It’s not Kristallnacht,” Friedman said. Friedman explained he just wanted to keep age-inappropriate material away from young people. “I don’t know a good parent that wants their child to read porn,” he said.
Friedman leads Florida’s chapter of No Left Turn in Education, which along with other parental rights organizations such as Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education, has been at the forefront of book challenges and bans.
“What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity and success.” That’s the expert assessment of PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman (no relation to Ben).
Within the last year, according to PEN America, more than 1,100 unique titles by 874 different authors have been banned across 86 school districts in 26 states.
Here is the list of the top 10 most challenged books from 2021 courtesy of the American Library Association:
Notice any patterns? About 4 in 10 banned books have central characters who are people of color. More than a third address LGBTQ+ themes or feature prominent LGBTQ+ characters.
Indeed it was in part controversy surrounding Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer that prompted Texas governor Greg Abbott to write to the Texas Association of School Boards telling them to do an inventory of the “pornography or other inappropriate content” in the state’s public schools.
Several states have proposed legislation that would prohibit school libraries from lending books defined as “harmful” to minors. An Idaho bill even proposes slapping librarians with a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison if they provide “explicit” materials to anyone under the age of 18.
Some conservative activists have even taken matters into their own hands, preemptively checking out public library books they see as inappropriate to prevent other people from accessing them. Earlier this year, one parent in Frederick County, Maryland went so far as to check out all of the books from a pride month display to make her local public library a “safe place for children.”
In this kind of environment, we shouldn’t be surprised that many librarians are starting to self-censor. As reported in the Washington Post, some librarians are “refraining from recommending or reading aloud certain titles to students, from displaying certain books on prominent shelves — and even from ordering certain kinds of reading material in the first place.” There’s a term for this among librarians: “soft censorship.”
Everytime Kansas librarian Shelly McNerney orders a book now, she sits down with her husband to consider: ‘Is this the book I want to end up on Fox News for?’”
In Annandale, New Jersey, during a live-streamed school board meeting, a parent called out the head librarian of her son’s school by name for allowing her son to check out “pornographic” books like Gender Queer and Lawn Boy. The video recording shows her saying, “This amounts to an effort to groom our kids to make them more willing to participate in the heinous acts described in these books. It grooms them to accept the inappropriate advances of an adult.”
Sarah Chase, a longtime high school librarian in Southlake, Texas, decided to take early retirement rather than have to navigate the pitfalls of being a librarian in the current climate. “I got out,” Chase said, “because I was afraid to stand up to the attacks. I didn’t want to get caught in somebody’s snare. Who wants to be called a pornographer? Who wants to be accused of being a pedophile or reported to the police for putting a book in a kid’s hand?”
And if Chase’s move to retire early seems like an overreaction, consider what happened to Toby Price, the assistant principal of Gary Road Elementary School in Mississippi. Earlier this year, during a virtual read aloud event for second graders, when the scheduled reader did not show, Price stepped in and read out I Need A New Butt. He was fired a couple days later for reading a book that contained cartoon butts and references to flatulence which were deemed inappropriate.
In the face of severe censorship challenges, we can continue to debate “cancel culture” from a partisan point-of-view. But we’ll end up like squabbling siblings, with endless debates about who started it and which party is most guilty.
The urge to censor—an impetus common to governments, corporations, organizations, communities and individuals—is always there as a kind of default setting. But it seems clear to us that attempts to censor ideas, political viewpoints and individuals are on the rise in the United States. Some attempts will succeed. Others won’t. But all of them will help contribute to a polarized country where people increasingly turn to censorship in order to advance their agendas and vanquish their ideological opponents.
No matter your political leanings, you should be troubled by the spread of cancel culture. It speaks to a nation that has lost faith in the capacity of its people to discuss, debate and deliberate. And reveals a society that revels in raw power over the power of persuasion.
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