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On the cancelling of comedians, culturally appropriated soup and racist donuts
At some point in recent years, it became clear to me that cancel culture was dangerous. Dangerous in the abstract sense, as in what it could do to open debate. But also dangerous in the practical sense, as in what it could quite conceivably do to you personally.
What began around the mid 2010s as a trickle of mildly alarming anecdotes, mainly originating on American campuses, featuring controversial public intellectuals who were “cancelled” — stripped of speaking engagements and/or positions, shamed and shunned — has now become a deluge. A tidal wave crashing into all areas of public life, leaving us all standing scared, soaked to our skin.
One can find, weekly, instances of mistakes or missteps that cost people their livelihoods. In isolation, each incident sounds a bit absurd and, almost always, hopelessly convoluted. But also, in some circles, at a stretch, somewhat justifiable.
Taken all together, it feels like a form of madness.
On the ground, speaking with people, there’s a surreal divide in reactions to this. On the one hand, there’s absolute terror from anyone in the media, academia, tech, the arts, or the non-profit sector — in other words, anyone likely to have a Twitter account. But on the other hand, there seems to be a lack of comprehension in the general public. (When I told one friend, for instance, that I was writing about cancel culture, she replied, “Is that when flaky people ditch plans?”)
While the culture wars clearly register for only a slim margin of people, the ideology driving them is slowly seeping out into all areas of daily life, from education to corporate culture and even food, with firestorms exploding over culturally appropriated soup and racist donuts.
This trend, I’m afraid to say, is made more pronounced by an almost complete lack of challenge to the Very Online crowd’s assumptions. Which is hardly surprising, since, at least in some contexts, questioning their ideology is now considered deeply immoral. And that, it turns out, is something that absolutely everyone in the public understands, whether they’re glued to Twitter or not.
The emotion driving cancel culture, then, is not outrage. It is fear.
I started thinking about all of this again this week, as I prepared to interview the leftist writer and thinker Ben Burgis for the podcast. He’s the author of Canceling Comedians While the World Burns (best title ever?), which argues that we need a “smarter, funnier, and more strategic left.” Here’s a great primer.
I was also reminded of the chilling effect of cancel culture this week reading Sarah Hepola’s essay in The Atlantic, The Things I’m Afraid to Write About. This passage in particular perfectly captures the mood in media and literary circles right now:
Everyone kept quiet (save for the brave few who did not). My writer friends and I huddled backstage at panels in green rooms filled with chocolate-chip cookies and veggie platters, whispering about everything we couldn’t say out there, in the scary beyond.
The reasons were simple, at least for me. Careerism. Fear. A nagging sense that I did not know enough about any given controversy to weigh in publicly (though that never stopped so many others). Back in 2015, I was putting out my first book, and then I was promoting that book, and then I was struggling to write a second book, and I could not risk the personal and professional blowback that might accompany stepping into the wrong lane. I’d long considered myself a liberal and a feminist, but I’d grown terrified of being banished for views I considered reasonable, or at least worth discussing — but maybe, but what about, but actually. Every day, I scrolled the endless river of outrage and all-caps, watching people express similar views to mine only to be pounced upon. Once-celebrated writers were being publicly rebranded as ghoulish, pieces of trash, red-pilled. The unwritten rule of elite media tribes seemed to be this: You spout the company line, or you shut up. And that’s why, midway through a career built on speaking out, I shut up.
On that note, The New York Times editorial board published an opinion piece about free speech and cancel culture today. To my mind, the editorial is fair, thorough, and long overdue:
For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.
This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.
How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around “cancel culture.” Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.
Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes, and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.
In response to the piece, certain factions on Twitter are busy doubling down. For anyone still invested in the idea that cancel culture is a mirage, or simply the fair consequence of bad speech, I point you to this Jonathan Rauch piece at Persuasion, The Cancel Culture Checklist, which offers a helpful diagnostic for distinguishing between criticism and cancellation, concluding:
Though our critics like to claim that those of us who worry about cancel culture just don’t like being criticized on the internet, cancel culture is all too real. And though it may at times bear a superficial resemblance to critical culture, the two are diametrically opposed — and not so very difficult to tell apart.
Lastly, for your weekend reading pleasure, here is a longform piece I wrote for The Globe and Mail last year, also on cancel culture, which is behind a paywall.
Writers call for a more nuanced alternative to ‘cancel culture’
The acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for speaking her mind. And recently, she tackled one of the most controversial topics of the year, on the BBC program Newsnight. When asked about “cancel culture” — the social media trend of demanding people who say objectionable things be “de-platformed,” stripping them of speaking engagements, livelihoods and reputation — Adichie said she found it lacking in basic compassion. “In general, I think that the response to bad speech is more speech,” she said. “The problem with just sort of no-platforming people, cancelling people, sometimes for the smallest things, I think that it then makes censorship become a thing that we do to ourselves. I often wonder how many people are not saying what they think because they’re terrified. And if that’s happening, how much are we not learning? How much are we not growing?”
It’s not a new sentiment for the author, but it is one that’s found new traction in a moment when the online world feels uniquely receptive. The New York Times recently ran several pieces on how cancel culture is playing out in high schools and on campuses — including a profile of the feminist scholar Loretta J. Ross, who teaches a course at Smith College combating cancel culture, encouraging students to instead engage people they disagree with in conversation.
The same day the Times piece came out, the queer feminist writer Adrienne Maree Brown published a new book-length essay, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice.
“I think the thing I’m wrestling with, all the time, is that I want to be able to challenge the idea that we can dispose of each other when we do things that we don’t like,” Brown tells the Globe, on the line from Detroit. “Or even do things that cause harm. That we can dispose of each other and that will dispose of the problem.”
In We Will Not Cancel Us, the community organizer argues that the “call-out,” or cancellation, has a long history in social-justice movements and is an important tool for marginalized people to demand accountability. But these days, she writes, call-outs can sometimes feel like a feeding frenzy. “We are determining that someone is guilty based on hearsay, a lot of times,” she says. “We’re not hearing everything that’s happened, and we’re not giving people the room to recover, to apologize, to respond.”
Brown advocates for a loving mindset, for robust community, and for “generative conflict.” All with the goal of healing — most especially for those who’ve been harmed, she says, but also for those who have harmed.
“Cancelling,” as a shorthand for publicly exposing perceived wrongs and demanding justice, is a neologism that’s been around for years. The term has its roots on Twitter, where, as the New York Times podcast The Daily notes, it originated as a joke. At some point, though, the meaning shifted. The term has since been used for high-profile cancellations such as that of Harvey Weinstein, but often involves far less egregious transgressions — something Brown is drawing attention to — such as misunderstandings or mistakes. Or, as other writers argue, differences of opinion on what’s considered acceptable thought. The concept of cancelling, and the culture that it portends, has spiked demonstrably in the last year. The public repudiation of it, notably from the left, is also a recent phenomenon.
Chloe Valdary, a former Wall Street Journal fellow and the founder of the New York-based Theory of Enchantment antiracism training startup, is another writer calling for more humanity and more nuance. “I don’t know if this is a snapshot in time or if it will continue to carry on into the new year,” she tells the Globe, reflecting on the new timbre of conversations around cancel culture. But she thinks it’s significant that the criticism is coming from the left. “I think when the right does it, it can sometimes be reactionary,” Valdary says. “It can sometimes fall on deaf ears.” It has more weight, she believes, coming from the left.
“Complexity of ideas, and the ability to hear from people who we disagree with, is critical for a functioning democracy,” Valdary says. “With millions of people in a republic, you are obviously going to have a difference of opinion. And if you see every single difference of opinion as a threat to your identity, that doesn’t bode well in terms of the health of a republic and keeping the social fabric together.”
It’s a critique that’s been gathering force for months. And one that encompasses the biggest stories of the year: President Trump, the coronavirus and the anti-racism movement.
The events of 2020 have highlighted glaring inequalities, and many on the left maintain that what we’re now witnessing is the powerless holding the powerful to account. They argue that there have always been limits to free speech. That Trumpism poses too grave a threat to democracy in general, and to marginalized people’s safety in particular, for anything less than a united front. And that those who claim to protest cancel culture are actually protesting the upending of old hierarchies and the attendant loss of privilege.
A controversial open letter published in Harper’s Magazine in July took a different view. Titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” it was signed by 153 prominent intellectuals, including Ross, Valdary, and Canadians like Margaret Atwood and Malcolm Gladwell. The letter argued that what’s unfolding is “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.”
The France-based American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams was one of the organizers of the letter. “When we talk about what happens on social media and what targets our media and cultural institutions,” he tells the Globe, “then you have to take a strong look at this new progressive distaste for ideas that are difficult, or even mildly offensive, or are outside of an emerging consensus.”
He points to cancellations like that of David Shor, a 28-year-old political data analyst who worked for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Shor was fired from his job this summer after tweeting research from Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow showing that riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination reduced Democratic vote share by two per cent in surrounding counties, which was enough to tip the 1968 election in Nixon’s favour.
“The thing that is so dangerous about this is not that there are so many cases of someone like David Shor — that’s pretty extraordinary,” Chatterton Williams says. “But there is a very powerful onlooker effect. And that’s what we were also trying to draw attention to.”
A group of writers and thinkers across the political spectrum agree and are arguing in favour of more dialogue, more civility and more diversity of viewpoint.
Libertarian podcaster and media entrepreneur Kmele Foster also signed the Harper’s letter. “What we have actually seen develop in the States,” he tells the Globe, “… is a real appetite right now to punish people who have bad ideas. And the universe of things that are considered bad, objectionable ideas is expanding at a pretty rapid clip.”
And while Foster is far from a technophobe — he believes places like Twitter have become “really important watering holes” for contemporary opinion-shapers — he thinks the incentives on that platform can be unhealthy. “I don’t think it’s healthy for debates to incentivize otherizing people, demagoguery, sweeping generalizations, crass categorical denunciations,” he says. “But all of those things are likely to get you abundant retweets.”
“There’s a capacity inside us to hurt one another, to mob one another,” he says. “The story of our progress as a species and the development of our civilization, really, has always been about overcoming that impulse and broadening the circle of concern, and imagining more and more people from much more diverse backgrounds are people like us — and ought to be respected in the same way that we want to be respected.”
Coleman Hughes, contributing editor at City Journal and fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, is another Harper’s signatory (who, incidentally, interviewed David Shor on his podcast in late November). He’s worried about the rising tide of self-censorship.
“I get e-mails from people practically every day saying, ‘I’m afraid to voice my thoughts and opinions,’” he tells the Globe. “A lot of these are smart people with opinions that are not in any way, shape or form morally outrageous. But they are afraid for their livelihoods. And they’re right to be afraid.”
One of this year’s noteworthy incidents involved Adolph Reed, a Marxist scholar and a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.
In May, Reed — who campaigned for Bernie Sanders — was scheduled to give a talk to the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter. He planned to speak jointly with Merlin Chowkwanyun, a Columbia public-health professor, on COVID-19 and race, exploring, as Reed puts it to the Globe, “why the racial disparity framework didn’t really help us,” based on an article the pair had published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
On the morning of the talk, one of the DSA caucuses e-mailed Reed, “demanding that the event be either cancelled or redesigned as a debate between what they characterized as my class-reductionist views and their intersectional Socialist views.” The sponsors assured him the event would proceed as planned, but Reed and Chowkwanyun cancelled it anyway, essentially because they didn’t want the hassle of looking over their shoulders, expecting the Zoom call to be crashed.
Reed says he didn’t feel particularly silenced, but he has seen this kind of thing happen to a number of people and believes there is a chilling effect.
He stresses that we shouldn’t romanticize open debate, either, and that there should be bounds on free speech — Holocaust denial, for instance — but “if we’re all considered to be part of a broader movement that’s broadly rowing in the same direction, the pecking and virtue-signalling has an unhealthy effect on a culture of open debate.”
Additionally, Reed believes that the left’s current focus on interpersonal conflict limits the ability to build the solidarity required to enact broad structural change.
Division is something Canadian Irshad Manji, author of Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times, has been thinking about a lot. In her book, she calls for a dialogue that’s basically the opposite of cancel culture — instead oriented toward curiosity, listening, and the affirming of individuality, dignity and respect.
Manji believes that identity politics, as it is currently practised, runs the risk of negating pluralism. “Labels can be starting points for further discovery, but they should never be finish lines,” she tells the Globe, reached in New York. “They can flatten each of us to one dimension.”
“People within identity groups don’t all think the same way,” she says. “Part of our individuality as human beings is that we will have different experiences, different passions, different proclivities. And therefore, we will also have different ideas, and opinions, and points of view.”