Transcript: Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder
My conversation with the Carleton College professors about cancel culture
When Dave Chappelle’s recent show at First Avenue in Minneapolis was cancelled amid protests, it reignited the debate around cancel culture, with all of the old arguments resurfacing once again.
So the timing could not have been better for my guests on today’s podcast, who published a comprehensive essay that same week on Substack, titled “Cancel Culture: It’s real and on the rise, on the left and the right.” The piece examines the dominant myths about this phenomenon — and debunks them.
Jeff Snyder is professor of educational studies at Carleton College, and Amna Khalid is a history professor there, as well as the host of the Banished podcast on Substack (and a previous guest on the Lean Out podcast).
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers, but you can listen to the podcast interview for free here.
TH: Amna, Jeff, welcome to Lean Out.
AK: Thank you so much. It’s great to be back on.
JS: Thanks for having us.
TH: It’s so good to have you on. This piece is very powerful and I’m glad that we’ll get a chance to talk about it. It goes in-depth on what cancel culture is, why it’s real, why it’s on the rise — and how it operates on both the left and the right. The timing could not be better. We saw a number of cancel culture issues this week in the news. To start, for listeners who may be new to your work, Jeff, could you tell us how you and Amna came together and started working on this project?
JS: Amna and I started collaborating maybe five or six years ago at this point, when we started to notice a change in some of the campus dynamics, both at our own campus, Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, and at other colleges across the country. There was just a change in the tenor of the campus climate — with issues that hadn’t been particularly controversial becoming almost too hot to handle. So, Amna and I found each other through that. And, in particular, at the time there was a move to create these initiatives on campus called bias response teams and Amna and I got together and started talking about these initiatives and how we found them particularly concerning.
TH: Moving on to cancel culture specifically. Amna, what is your shorthand definition of cancel culture?
AK: The simplest definition I can come up with is when there is a demand by a set of people for something, or an idea, to be completely silenced. It often has repercussions for an individual, an organization, whatever the case may be, where they are either fired, or they go out of business. So that is what I would call cancel culture. It’s also a broader culture where this is acceptable, and where this becomes the norm. So what we see is a rapid increase in censoriousness. And people’s comfort with censorship seems to be increasing.
JS: If I could just briefly add on to what Amna said. In terms of what constitutes cancel culture, I would note that of course we need to pay attention to outcomes. Do people lose their jobs, is a book not published? But we also need to think about the attempt itself. Amna and I are trying to encourage people to think about the crux of cancel culture as being the attempt to cancel an individual, a work of art, a particular political idea. Because in law there’s a concept called “the process is the punishment,” which talks about even if you come out okay on the other end, if you’re subjected to a multiple month-long investigation, the actual investigation itself is stressful. And has these chilling effects that reverberate out from that individual case. But a lot of people will get hung up on the fact that Dave Chappelle is not cancelled. He’s a millionaire, he’s got a show every other night. So it’s the attempt to cancel that is ultimately the heart of cancel culture.
TH: This conversation around cancel culture in the mainstream is incredibly polarized. One of the great contributions of this piece is it goes through all of the myths that are most common and debunks them. I want to start with those trafficked by the left. Jeff, what do you say to those who claim that cancel culture is just not real? That it’s a ginned-up moral panic, and that those who claim to be cancelled — you mentioned Dave Chappelle — often wind up being more successful, not less.
JS: Yeah. Well, to me, Dave Chappelle represents what Amna and I call the survival bias. That’s intrinsic to the conversation about these high-profile stars. People who are already rich and famous, who have large platforms. You know, Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, people in that league are effectively uncancellable. Critics, especially on the left, will point to them and say, “Hey, Louis CK is still doing gigs. He’s still a multimillionaire. He didn’t truly get cancelled.” But I think it’s precisely by focusing on those high-profile, big stars that we lose sight of the real impacts among less high-profile individuals. Our piece is filled with many examples of those individuals who don’t have the fame, who don’t have the platform, who can’t withstand an attack or a cancellation campaign, in the same way that these high-profile stars do.
To my mind, it’s sort of like if you interview Beyoncé, and you say, “What’s your advice?” And she says something like, “Never give up, follow your dreams.” And there’s 10,000 Beyoncés who are still living in their parents’ basements, who don’t have the platform. You don’t hear from them!
You ultimately don’t hear from many of these people who have been cancelled in some way, because they can’t even talk about it. It’s just completely under the radar. So, for every Chappelle, there are many people who have felt the repercussions of cancel culture much more acutely.
TH: There are also those that argue that cancel culture is about accountability. Amna, when you hear that argument — the claim that an easy way to avoid negative attention online is just to stop saying heinous things — what’s your response?
AK: I think if you look at what these cancellation attempts are about — and this is where I think some of the empirical examples we gave in the piece are really helpful — you realize that this is not morally reprehensible things that we’re talking about. In many instances, the examples are of things that people just don’t like, and that’s counter to the reigning ideology right now. It doesn’t jive with that, and therefore it must be cancelled.
What that doesn’t take into account is that tomorrow it’s going to shift. Tomorrow another kind of view is going to be cancelled, according to the ideology of that time. It will be considered beyond the pale. So I think the important thing is that this is not accountability — where we’re talking about harassment or something that we would consider legally a crime — but this is about people saying things and expressing ideas which are heterodox.
JS: And heterodox within specific communities. I think one of the things that frustrates both of us is having these conversations in purely abstract terms. So a heterodox view on a liberal arts college campus might be, “I’m opposed to affirmative action.” But that’s not a heterodox position among the American public at large. Every single ethno-racial group, if you poll adult Americans, is broadly opposed to the use of affirmative action in hiring and, say, college admissions. So you need to look at how a view lines up with a particular local community.
The other thing that I would add on to what Amna said: There’s accountability but then there’s the question of how much accountability. I think one of the things that everybody who’s paid attention to cancel culture has observed is that the punishment often doesn’t fit whatever the crime is.
We give the example of a young woman named Alexi McCammond, a young African American journalist. When she was a teenager, she tweeted out some things that were clearly homophobic, that were clearly anti-Asian. There’s no question about it. They’re deeply offensive to me. I’m sure they’re very offensive to many people. She apologized shortly thereafter. She went on to start to build a career. She was offered to be the head editor of Teen Vogue. Some years later, the tweets came back to light. She tried to talk through it again, but it went nowhere. There was too much pressure from Teen Vogue staff themselves, as well as the Twitterati — or whatever you want to call them — who were calling for her head. So in that case, here’s somebody who tweeted out something that was hateful, that was discriminatory, that was bigoted. But does that mean that for the rest of her life, something that she did as a teenager should define and limit her career possibilities? To my mind, that’s not proportional. That’s disproportionate. So I think that’s one of the fundamental problems here.
AK: This allows us to kind of talk about another aspect of cancel culture, which Loretta Ross has identified as “unforgivable” and “unforgettable.” I mean, which one of us hasn’t had problematic views at some point in our lives? If we haven’t, then there’s a problem. We should have the freedom to revise those views. That’s called growth. It’s called learning. And one of the problems with the current atmosphere is that there’s no room to even allow for people’s past mistakes, let alone mistakes that they may make now. So those come to haunt them. That, I think, is a key feature. It’s a trial by fire. If you’ve ever done anything that will run afoul of the reigning wisdom of whichever group is calling the shots, then you’re in trouble.
JS: This dynamic at its most egregious and most comical, in my view, when students who’ve been admitted to a particular college, and something comes out — a tweet, or comment on social media, from when they were 14 or 15, that is offensive or allegedly offensive — and they actually have their admission offer rescinded. To me, that’s basically saying, “We, as college X, as an institution, don’t actually believe in our own mission.” Right? The whole idea of a four-year college is that you come largely unformed, and through those four years, you learn and grow and develop. To me, it’s absolutely reprehensible that institutions of higher education are saying, “We are not going to give you the opportunity to educate yourself; we’re just rescinding your offer of admission.” Of course, it depends on the individual case in question, and the context — there may be cases when that is worth doing — but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s often cases that are, yeah, offensive, but juvenile. That somebody did when their frontal cortex was only half-baked.
TH: That’s the other side of it, too, isn’t it? People’s brains aren’t even fully formed at that age. I mean, it’s really something. Let’s spend some time on the right, now. Because you’ve been careful, in this piece, to look at both sides of this issue — on the left and on the right. So, Amna, what do you make of the argument that the anti-CRT laws that we’ve seen are justifiable in that they’re saving children from political indoctrination, and that political indoctrination has no place in the classroom.
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