On “Cancel Culture”
A deep dive into the narrative that America is experiencing an acute “free speech crisis” – and why it is so misleading
Scott Adams has finally been canceled. After the cartoonist behind the “Dilbert” comics had gone on a brutally racist rant on YouTube almost two weeks ago, most newspapers in the country decided they didn’t want to be associated with him anymore and announced they would cease to publish his work. In a livestream, Adams had called Black people “a hate group” and announced that “I don’t want to have anything to do with them.” He had also advised white people “to get the hell away from Black people.” Yup, that’s the kind of aggressive racist confession, open plea for segregation, and overt personal bigotry that will get most people in trouble in America.
What had not gotten him “cancelled” previously, however, was the fact that he’s been very open about how he has been subscribing to the regular universe of rightwing extremist conspiracy theories for years, be it on Covid vaccines, the war in Ukraine, or trans people. This latest racist rant was, finally, where most publishers in America were willing to draw the line.
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Adams, of course, feels wronged – as we would expect from someone who is convinced that it is white people who are being discriminated against and persecuted in America. The fact that he is now bemoaning his “cancellation” at the hands of the mob is unsurprising, both as a purely opportunistic move and as an individual coping mechanism. Since the “cancel culture” narrative has become so pervasive in the social, political, cultural discourse, it is out there as a constant offer for everyone who deliberately seeks to present themselves as the victim and as a way to make sense of our own (bad/uncomfortable) experiences: Am I being canceled? A victim of “wokeism” running amok? It is actually an enormously attractive frame of reference: If you accept it, an action or opinion that provoked pushback is immediately legitimized, an unpleasant experience is instantly dignified. You’ve become a character in a major societal and political struggle for “free speech.” In this way, “cancel culture” – a specific diagnosis, a claim about the world widely perpetuated not just on the Right, but pretty much across the political spectrum – is shaping, rather than just reflecting, reality and individual experiences, regardless of whether or not there actually is a phenomenon that is adequately described in such terms.
A “free speech crisis” pundit letting the air out of the “cancel culture” balloon?
Adams hasn’t exactly gotten a lot of mainstream support in his quest to portray himself as the victim, however. And this is where this affair does get interesting. Some of the most influential “cancel culture” pundits who have significantly contributed to cultivating the idea that America is currently facing a “free speech crisis” have come out against Adams. Thomas Chatterton Williams, for instance, declared this *not* a case of cancel culture, but just someone “going on a stupid and boring racist monologue” and rightfully having to deal with the consequences. He is absolutely right. But it’s not really a position that is consistent with all the “cancel culture” moral panicking that TCW has often helped to legitimize in the eyes of a broader mainstream public. After all, Adams uploaded his rant to YouTube and was then attacked by what the “cancel culture” discourse likes to deride as an “online mob”; and in contrast to most anecdotal evidence that is usually presented as a manifestation of encroaching “woke” illiberalism, a cancellation did actually happen in this case, as publishers distanced themselves from Adams in reaction to public speech.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on why anyone should care whatever Thomas Chatterton Williams has to say about the Dilbert affair. TCW is a well-known cultural critic who mostly writes for The Atlantic. When he is regularly given a platform by the country’s most important media outlets, it is often in his function as a crucial mainstream critic of “the Left” and “wokeism.” TCW was a leading author behind the (in)famous “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published in Harper’s Magazine in July 2020. While the letter didn’t use the term, it used all the building blocks of the “cancel culture” panic. It decried “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” yet directed most of its attention and energy towards illiberal threats from the Left, describing the situation in terms and with examples that are clearly coded as left or “woke”: the spreading “ideological conformity” and “censoriousness,” the “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 letter concluded with a plea that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
To be fair, others have taken the “cancel culture” paranoia to much greater extremes than TCW. He is rarely in the trenches like some “free speech” pundits are who have built their entire personas and platforms around the idea that they are the brave truth-tellers daring to fight back. But TCW fulfills an important role in the mainstreaming of the reactionary moral panic precisely because he upholds the image of a thoughtful voice, a thought-leader who will not be pulled into the mud.
It's also not like TCW is above doing some proper, run-of-the-mill “cancel culture” punditry. Shortly after the publication of Harper’s Letter, for instance, he strongly defended the notion that “cancel culture” existed and that it was an acute threat in an interview with Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker. In fact, he outlined what is the standard tale the “cancel culture” discourse wants us to believe: Not just that there is some annoying stuff going on – but that it is a) a new phenomenon, b) rapidly getting worse, c) coming mostly from the illiberal Left, and d) constitutes an acute national crisis in desperate need of intervention.
The New York Times editorial board weighs in
This is the narrative that is constantly being pushed in mainstream media outlets. One of the most remarkable examples was the intervention by the New York Times’ editorial board in March 2022, titled “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” It attracted a lot of attention when it was published, even though and/or because it presented a purely mythical idea of what “free speech” is, an a-historical tale of the country’s past, and a narrative that was entirely detached from the current reality of the political conflict.
To get things started, the editorial perpetuates a misleading myth of what “free speech” is, initially defining it as the right of the people “to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” Deep into the piece, the editorial board acknowledges that this is actually not what “free speech” means, and that the Constitution defines it, in their words, as “freedom from government restrictions on expression.” But the editorial simply pivots away from that acknowledgment with a strikingly nonchalant “Yet…” – choosing to frame the issue along the lines of what they say is a “popular conception” of free speech: that anyone can say whatever they want and never face consequences. But this has obviously never been the case anywhere in the world. Public speech is always regulated, there are always boundaries to what is considered acceptable and what is not. And everyone agrees that certain transgressions should be met with consequences, with shaming or shunning.
The next problem with the editorial is that it’s completely a-historical. It presents a narrative of decline: It states that “something has been lost” – but when, exactly, was that golden age of free speech when all Americans were free to speak their minds at all times? Unless we are talking about wealthy white Christian men only, it makes absolutely no sense to construct a version of U.S. history in which the past was characterized by free speech, in which the very recent past has been marked by a loss of such freedom.
Finally, the “free speech” crisis presented in this editorial is utterly detached from the reality of the political conflict. There are two competing narratives about what the actual threat to civil rights and civic freedoms is: A rightwing assault on multiracial, pluralistic democracy - or illiberal leftwing cancel culture. These two narratives are not equally plausible. The evidence for a rightwing assault on democracy, an all-out campaign to roll back civil rights on the state level, is overwhelming – it comes in the form of actual state censorship, in hundreds of Republican bills and actual legislation. Crucially, the editorial itself is proof of this, uhm, imbalance of empirical evidence – it cites the state-level Republican assault and never comes up with anything from the “Left” that would be remotely equivalent. But that has no influence on how the problem is framed. In fact, the editorial actively obscures the threat from the Right, assuring us that, unlike in Russia, actual government censorship is “not the kind of threat to freedom of expression that Americans face.” Then what are all these state-level GOP education bills about?
Speaking of which, when the topic of education comes up, the editorial presents a stunning inversion of the political reality. First, an elderly man from San Antonio is cited who is “alarmed by scenes of parents being silenced at school board meetings” – he means *conservative* parents. Then, an elderly woman who claims to be a liberal, but also “a little to the left of Lenin” (??), is given room to describe her dismay at “woke” college kids “doing us so much harm” on the campus. As Republicans are literally installing an authoritarian white nationalist education regime, these are the voices the New York Times editorial board decided needed to be elevated.
So many “cancel culture” anecdotes, so few actual cancellations
Ok, maybe the editorial was not great – but isn’t there so much evidence out there by now? Where there is so much smoke, there must be fire? I implore you to check out this video breakdown by Michael Hobbes who actually examined the evidence presented by those who warn of “cancel culture,” the cases invoked as supposedly irrefutable evidence of a crisis.
Two things stand out: First, there really aren’t that many cases to begin with, even if we accept the parameters set by the “cancel culture” warriors themselves. Strictly in quantitative terms, we are not looking at numbers that anyone, in any other public policy field, would accept as proof of a national emergency. Secondly, on a qualitative level, it is striking how so many of the anecdotes that come up over and over again do not hold up to scrutiny. Quite often, the “cancellation” in question turns out to be just pushback, with no one losing their job or income or facing serious consequences in any other conceivable way.
The aforementioned interview with Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New Yorker is actually an excellent example of how the “evidence” quickly evaporates when exposed to even the slightest scrutiny. When pressed, TCW brings up two cases of academics who were supposedly “silenced,” as he claims, by their respective universities – one for just reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and one simply for questioning “some aspects of the orthodoxy on Black Lives Matter.” That sounds terrifying! But look at the clarifications in square brackets, added by the magazine:
In both cases, TCW’s description completely sanitized and obscured what these professors had actually done; and the “silencing” consisted in… no formal investigation in one case and a formal investigation that didn’t lead to consequences in the other. Are we supposed to accept this as strong empirical evidence for encroaching left-wing totalitarianism on the college campus and in public life?
You need more evidence – or, rather: evidence that the “evidence” in support of the “cancel culture” narrative doesn’t hold up to scrutiny? Let’s talk about Stanford University supposedly banning the use of the word “American.” Remember this? Shortly before Christmas, the news that “woke” radicals at Stanford University were branding everything they didn’t like, that wasn’t – to use a slightly outdated term – “politically correct,” as “harmful language” led to a nationwide outcry and criticism from around the world (no, really, the story was widely reported internationally). Is it true, though? Will you be canceled at Stanford for using the word “American”?
On his Substack, Adrian Daub, who is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford, dove deep into the story. Please read his essay. Adrian is not only at Stanford and therefore directly on the front line. He also just published an excellent book (in German) on the transnational dimension of the “cancel culture” moral panic. He is better qualified than anyone to look into this. And would you believe it, this story that was utterly ridiculous on its face did not hold up to the least bit of scrutiny. Here’s what was actually behind that dangerous blacklist suppressing free speech at Stanford – to quote from Adrian Daub’s piece: “a group of volunteers within the IT department appears to have put together this document, talked about it a bit over the early summer and then seems to have largely forgotten about it.” The document was apparently discussed in a Slack channel and was always meant purely as a suggestion: “The document proposes (again: proposes) to regulate something that the IT department is also responsible for: what kind of language appears on Stanford’s official websites.” No matter what you think about the changes proposed in this document: It was utterly inconsequential, never affected anyone’s individual speech rights, was not reflective of “Stanford University.” No totalitarian speech codes, no crazy leftist takeover – no one, not a single soul, in danger of being canceled by the “woke” mob.
And the Washington Post editorial board wants in too
Let’s do one more high-profile case widely presented by professional “cancel culture” pundits like Conor Friedersdorf as evidence of a free speech crisis on campus. On March 30, 2022, the Washington Post editorial board issued an urgent warning that an insidious campaign to “silence and cancel” Mike Pence was underway at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Here’s what actually happened: Pence was scheduled to speak at UVA – on “How to Save America from the Woke Left,” of course – and a student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, argued he wasn’t welcome. This was cause for alarm, the WaPo decided, supposedly indicative of U.S. universities risking to become “a tribal talking shop of the like-minded, in service to censorship”; a national outrage, a manifestation of cancel culture running amok. Time to make a stand!
The first thing that is striking about this episode is the enormous power imbalance that is on display here: The editorial board of one of the country’s most important media institutions punching down at a student newspaper. That probably should have rung some alarm bells. Maybe such a stark intervention was warranted by what was actually said in the Cavalier Daily? Well, I certainly invite everyone to read the student editorial: “We refuse to condone platforming Pence,” it said. That’s it. They refused to condone. It’s clear the Cavalier Daily didn’t like the fact that Pence had been invited to speak on campus. But they didn’t issue a call to boycott, and no one else was trying to “silence” Pence either: No one was taking any steps to actually prevent him from speaking.
In order to justify making this a national story about the insidious forces of cancel culture, the Washington Post presented a superficial caricature of the student editorial. They focused on the Cavalier Daily’s argument that Pence’s rhetoric was dangerous, as would his presence on campus have been. The WaPo editorial board simply brushed this aside as utterly silly – “Mr. Pence has spoken at scores of universities, to the detriment of no one’s safety” – without engaging with the actual argument the Daily Cavalier was presenting. Pence had been planning to speak on the supposedly dangerous leftwing assaults on American history, specifically on the founding, and the Cavalier Daily saw problematic parallels to the ideology that animated the far-right “Unite the Right” rally in the summer of 2017. Moreover, the students emphasized Pence’s well-documented homophobic, anti-trans positions – which seems quite relevant in the context of a red-state wave of legislation intended to roll back the post-1960s civil rights regime that has been targeting LGBTQ rights specifically. If the WaPo editorial board disagreed with the Cavalier Daily’s position that these contexts mattered in the debate on whether or not Mike Pence should have been invited to speak on campus, they should have made that argument. Instead, they just bemoaned “cancel culture.”
What the Washington Post completely ignored – because it would have obviously undermined the “cancel culture” narrative – is the fact that the Cavalier Daily even ran an opinion piece strongly opposing its own editorial board’s position on Pence. Let’s look at the timeline: On March 17, the Cavalier Daily editorial board argues against inviting Pence; on March 26, the paper runs a piece arguing Pence should be welcomed, explicitly criticizing the paper’s own editorial board; on March 30, the WaPo goes “Cancel culture at UVA!” It is evidently absurd to claim that there was an insidious “cancellation” campaign underway when the student newspaper supposedly leading this attempt to “silence” Pence was also platforming pieces arguing why inviting him to campus was fine.
How did this story ultimately play out? In mid-April, Pence spoke at UVA, and as the WaPo reported, he “was greeted by a standing ovation in the hall Tuesday, laughter at his jokes, and repeated applause during his speech.” What about those insidious leftwing forces, though? Take it away, WaPo: “A dozen protesters stayed outside the building where Pence spoke.” Woah. Is it just me or does that not really sound all that dangerous, authoritarian, extremist? A dozen protesters! Waiting outside! Here’s where the WaPo editorial board might argue: Well, our timely intervention helped prevent another dangerous cancellation. But if that were the case, wouldn’t it prove how harmless the situation was in the first place? A stern warning in the WaPo was all it took?
The numbers don’t lie – or do they?
Let me try to anticipate some of the criticism to my line of argument here: “Ok, you are debunking some of the most prominent cancel culture anecdotes. But that doesn’t change the fact that surveys and polls tell us that people in the United States believe their speech rights are under assault and that more and more people on the Left are displaying staunchly illiberal tendencies with regards to free speech.” Alright, let’s talk numbers. For instance, the New York Times editorial board’s intervention on “America Has a Free Speech Problem” I talked about earlier cited a lot of numbers, from a Times Opinion/Siena College poll they had commissioned. These numbers were then presented as a reflection of an objective, undeniable truth. But that’s not how it works, ever. There is often a striking degree of (willful?) naivety in the way these polls are treated: No discernible reflection on the ways results are often pre-determined to a considerable degree by who is asked, by the way the questions are framed, by the context in which people are approached.
The piece argues that “only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely” – but what does that actually mean? What does “free speech” mean to the people answering? What does it mean to enjoy that “completely”? When people say they *don’t* enjoy “complete” free speech, does that automatically translate to “I am suffering from a worsening cancel culture”? And these polls don’t happen in a vacuum. The people answering these questions have been subjected to a barrage of “cancel culture” pieces in mainstream media sources. The NYT has told them over and over again about this supposedly massive problem and then asks: Do you think this is a problem? There is a striking circularity to this argument. Journalists and media institutions love to pretend they are just observing from the sideline – but they have agency, and in this case, they have been instrumental in propagating and popularizing the “cancel culture” idea.
We also need to discern what, exactly, participants think they are being asked in these polls: The question behind the question. In the current context, questions regarding free speech and “cancel culture” have a pretty clear political valence, and that shapes people’s responses. If you are aware that one side in the political conflict is constantly railing against “cancel culture” and the other is criticizing this as a fake rightwing moral panic, you probably understand the question “Tell me what you think about cancel culture” as “Tell me which team you are on.”
Then there is the issue of measuring attitudes on free speech across time. According to the Times Opinion/Siena poll, “46 percent of respondents said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago.” The editorial board straight up translates this to meaning that people in America are less free to talk about politics today than in the past, which seems to support the declinist “There used to be free speech, but we have lost it” narrative. But that’s just weaponized nostalgia draping itself in convenient numbers – of which, unfortunately, there is a lot out there, especially in certain elite moderate / centrist circles. A particularly egregious example is the idea that Americans are less free to speak their minds today than in the 1950s. That’s a tale Yascha Mounk, who is one of the high priests of anti-“woke,” status-quo affirming centrism, has been pushing.
The 1950s! Obviously, the notion that anyone but straight white men enjoyed more freedom to speak their mind publicly in that era is just preposterous. And even for that narrowly confined group, this doesn’t really hold up. These comparisons across time are inherently problematic if they pretend to be measuring something stable: “free speech” in the 1950s vs. “free speech” today. But what did people actually associate with such a term seventy years ago? What did “free speech” mean in widely accepted parlance in the past, and how has that changed over time? What associations did the term evoke back then compared to now? Seriously, if you think your numbers tell you that people in 1950s-Red Scare-Segregated-Patriarchy America enjoyed more “Free Speech” than today, you need to think a little harder – and you should consider picking up a history book, perhaps.
Polls don’t simply capture the real world in an objective way – they do at least as much to construct and shape reality as they do to describe and mirror it. The numbers may not “lie,” in a narrow sense, but they are never telling simple truths. And sometimes, the numbers are produced and/or presented in a deliberately misleading way. Recently, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) has emerged as the supplier of polls and surveys that cancel culture pundits like to reference as proof of America’s allegedly acute free speech crisis. Last September, for instance, Graeme Wood warned in The Atlantic that “Most college students, according to a FIRE report published this week, do not believe that speakers who hold various conservative beliefs should be allowed on campus; I am grateful that these students do not (yet) run a whole country, as the ayatollahs do.” Wood was very much alarmed by these numbers – so much so that he compared the attitude of those college students directly to the repression and censorship of the Iranian regime. And the actual FIRE study did indeed find, as they put it, “that majorities of students believe campus speakers with opinions that stray from liberal orthodoxy should not be allowed to speak on campus.”
If we want to be able to assess what is being measured here, however, and how to interpret it, we have to at least find out what it actually was that college students were asked about – what Wood calls “conservative beliefs” and what FIRE describes as straying from “liberal orthodoxy.” So, let’s take a look:
There you have it. “Transgender people have a mental disorder,” “Black Lives Matter is a hate group,” “the 2020 election was stolen,” “abortion should be completely illegal.” Those are the actual positions that a majority of college students would not like to see platformed on campus. Translating that as “conservative beliefs,” as Graeme Wood does, deliberately obscures the substance. It is meant to mislead by invoking “respectable” conservative positions – on taxes, perhaps, or government spending – when what we are actually looking at are, by any definition, extreme attitudes, shared only by a tiny percentage of the American public. Conversely, what FIRE defines as “liberal orthodoxy” actually translates as trans people are real and are not simply mentally ill; Black Lives Matter is not a hate group; the 2020 election was not stolen; and abortion should not be completely illegal. Again, all of these positions are shared by the vast majority of people in America. What FIRE was actually asking college students was something more along the lines of: Do you support allowing extremists (think: Marjorie Taylor Greene) to speak on campus? And they want us to believe that it’s actually a bad thing, evidence for a worsening national crisis, that a majority of students said no.
If “cancel culture” isn’t real, why are so many people committed to the idea?
Inevitably, someone will react to this essay by pointing to a real case of a person having faced disproportionate criticism and unfair consequences for public speech. Because those cases exist, they have always existed. But the first problem is that the “cancel culture” discourse deliberately obscures the fact that the amount of pushback as well as the level of sanctions one has to expect for deviating from established speech norms has always depended on who does the deviating – with the results always being worse for traditionally marginalized groups. In contrast, notice how most of the examples regularly brought up as evidence for the “free speech crisis” emergency depict people in positions of power facing criticism. Secondly, for the sake of clarity, let me emphasize one more time: The “free speech crisis” discourse doesn’t simply warn that unfair “cancellations” happen. It diagnoses a national emergency: an acutely dangerous situation in which radical “woke” leftists are succeeding at undermining free speech by imposing an ever-more restrictive culture of censoriousness on the country, with dramatic consequences for anyone who dares to speak up. What I and many other people are arguing is *not* that no one has ever had to face unfair consequences for what they said publicly – but that the evidence for the narrative of a worsening national emergency caused by “wokeism” running amok is simply not there.
If that is true, then we need to shift our attention to the question of what all this talk about “cancel culture” is actually about? If we don’t accept the pervasive “cancel culture” discourse as a mere representation of an objectively existing free speech crisis, then how do we explain and interpret its omnipresence and the fact that so many people are fully committed to it at this exact moment?
That’s where the reaction of Thomas Chatterton Williams to the “cancellation” of the Dilbert guy can really help us unpack what is going on here. Since we are already well over 4,000 words in, we will take it to a Part II (which I’ll post in the next few days). Spoiler alert: There is indeed something going on in America, and it does make a lot of people – including Thomas Chatterton Williams, Conor Friedersdorf, and Graeme Wood – really uncomfortable. We are in the midst of a profound renegotiation of speech norms and of who gets to define them. And that can be a messy process at times. But it’s not “cancel culture.” From a democratic perspective, it is necessary, and it is progress.
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Absolutely brilliant. My theory of the “cancel culture” ruse is the use of subversive language to convince 80% of normal kind white citizens to believe the other 20% complaint is anyone not white will destroy their way of life and replace them with sub-nominal violent people who do not look or sound like them yet are just as American as they are. 1619 Project was a real threat to their heritage.
Despite being very much a non-American who does not live in America, I find myself engrossed by the journey of the American Right and the learnings from it that I see in the countries I belong to (Australia and the UK). The decades fight, and eventual victory, to overturn Roe vs Wade is particularly instructive. We know that the shots that ended that war were fired by Donald Trump with his judicial appointments, and we know that Donald Trump has zero ideological opposition to Abortion and no Christian tendencies at all. The fight against Roe was only ever slightly about abortion, but mainly about galvanising an immovable base with something to fight. Tell them them what they hate, and they will vote to let you trample all over whatever the hell you like.
With the abortion war over, the culture war is the new rallying point. Anti-trans, anti-BLM, anti-woke, whatever.. it doesn’t matter what is true and what is not. It doesn’t matter if any of the people talking believe what they are saying.. they need something that gets the attention of their base laser focussed on an enemy that isn’t the one that is actually doing them, and their rights, harm. And they are winning.