The phrase cancel culture has been all over the internet over the past few weeks.
The publication of the Harper’s letter defending free speech and a number of high profile cases of people who have resigned or been fired have drawn additional attention to the phenomenon. Many have argued that the tendency to shame and reprimand people scares writers into silence, while others claim that cancel culture is a term wielded by the powerful, to silence criticism.
The frequent misuse of the phrase cancel culture to characterise situations that do not constitute attacks on free speech has devalued the term, leaving some of those who use it open to charges of hypocrisy. There are some problems within western sociopolitical discourse, and we do need to pursue a more open and less ideological public square. However, the terms of the debate must be better defined.
Many conflate criticism, which is protected speech, with canceling. Some opponents of the cancel culture do not want writers or citizens to face reprimands for objectionable conduct. In addition, almost all the well known cases of cancellation involve difficult judgment calls—hence it is impossible to establish an objective definition of cancel culture.
Let’s examine some recent examples:
- New York Times opinion editor James Bennet “resigned” after a barrage of criticism from Twitter users and colleagues for allowing Tom Cotton’s controversial op-ed to be published.
- The curator of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art “resigned” after saying that he wouldn’t ban art by white artists.
- Andrew Sullivan was forced out of New York Magazine because, as he puts it, “They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.” (Sullivan does not consider this an example of cancel culture, however, and has argued that the magazine has a right to choose the kinds of ideas it publishes.)
- New York Times columnist Bari Weiss resigned, accusing the Times of creating a “hostile work environment,” which makes its workers fear crossing socio-ideological red lines. (It is not clear that Weiss was forced out.)
- A Mexican-American utility worker was fired for holding his hand in a manner that Twitter users interpreted as the okay sign, which has been adopted by some white supremacist groups.
- Tucker Carlson’s head writer, Blake Neff, “resigned” for posting racist and misogynistic comments on an anonymous forum.
Many people have risen up to defend those who were wrongly fired: signing petitions and complaining that woke scolds are taking over the elite media. But these supporters of free speech have been largely silent about Blake Neff’s dismissal.
The reason is clear: most reasonable people agree that Neff is a bigot.
If you argue that Cafferty, the utility worker, wasn’t being racist—and hence did not deserve to be fired—but that Neff’s racism is a fireable offense, then, effectively, the real argument is not whether people should be reprimanded for hateful speech but what constitutes hateful speech. This is clearly a judgment call.
The New York Times writers who argue that Cotton’s op-ed was “dangerous to black people” are themselves exercising their free speech. Like almost all these cases, this is a judgment call. Very few people support unconditional employer-granted freedom to publish absolutely anything.
Few would dispute that editors and publishers have a right to determine what they publish, and few would disagree that refraining from publishing bigotry is a legitimate standard to pursue. However, once you agree on this, the argument changes from these people are trying to suppress speech to these people are wrong about what constitutes bigotry.
All publications reflect an ideology or agenda, to some degree or another, and that ideology need not be a simple matter of placement along a left–right spectrum, but might also reflect cultural preferences, economic agendas and overarching worldviews. CNBC, for example, isn’t biased in favor of conservatism so much as in favor of a pro-investor free market system.
Bennet and Neff were fired by media employers for things directly related to their jobs. However, Bennet was a semi-public figure and Neff was not. Cafferty, on the other hand, was a completely anonymous figure, who was fired from his job for an alleged offense that doesn’t appear to have happened and had nothing to do with his job.
The chain of events leading up to Bennet’s firing included a period of public criticism. Was that criticism itself an example of cancel culture? His career with the Times was only actually canceled when he got fired. If critics had explicitly said that they wanted him to be fired, would that be cancel culture?
Neff was fired almost immediately after the publication of the CNN article about his racist forum posts. Fox News preempted the barrage of criticism they knew they would otherwise face. If an employer fires someone without having been pressurized to do so by a Twitter mob, is that cancel culture? Or is the expectation that such a mob would otherwise form enough to make it cancel culture?
Lots of people who are said to be canceled have not even been fired at all. Often, just being criticized is enough for someone to be described as canceled.
For example, Robert Wright has falsely accused Bari Weiss of trying to cancel novelist Alice Walker. In her resignation letter, Weiss points out the Times’ hypocrisy in publishing an interview with Walker, whom she calls “a proud anti-Semite who believes in lizard Illuminati”— a reference to Walker’s longstanding public support of antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke.
Nowhere does Weiss call for Walker to be denied a platform, but according to Wright, “to call someone an anti-Semite is to argue for their cancellation.” That’s like saying that calling someone a racist is the same as calling for their cancellation. But some people are antisemitic and racist. For example, should Simon & Schuster publish a book by David Duke? And, if they did, wouldn’t you criticize that decision?
Of course, people shouldn’t automatically define disagreement as racism. A country as diverse as the United States, for example, contains many different ethnic groups and many different ideologies. The only way America can exist as a stable pluralistic democracy is if we tolerate a wide range of views.
People of different ages, educational backgrounds, life experiences and ideologies will have different views on such things as white fragility, Critical Race Theory and intersectionality—differences in opinion that are not attributable to bigotry.
At the same time, racism itself should not dismissed as mere disagreement. Some public intellectuals defend people’s rights to make racial slurs without facing opprobrium or confuse racism with alternative political views.
For example, Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, was banned from Patreon in 2018, for violating its terms of service against the use of racial slurs because of the following comment on a YouTube video:
You’re acting like a bunch of n******, just so you know. You act like white n******. Exactly how you describe black people acting is the impression I get dealing with the Alt Right … Look, you carry on, but don’t expect me to then have a debate with one of your f****** … Like why would I bother?… Maybe you’re just acting like a n****r, mate? Have you considered that? Do you think white people act like this? White people are meant to be polite and respectful to one another, and you guys can’t even act like white people, it’s really amazing to me. [The original passage, now inaccessible, probably contained the asterisked slurs written out in full.]
When Sam Harris left Patreon, he suggested that Sargon was banned because of his politics: “Although I don’t share the politics of the banned members, I consider it no longer tenable to expose any part of my podcast funding to the whims of Patreon’s ‘Trust and Safety’ committee.”
Other alt-right activists who have been banned from Patreon include James Allsup, who spoke at an event organized by Richard Spencer and attended Unite the Right, and Milo Yiannopoulos, whose record speaks for itself.
Richard Hanania’s unscientific survey of forty-two, mostly right-wing, suspended Twitter accounts attempts to prove that “Twitter Treats Conservatives More Harshly Than Liberals.” But Hanania includes David Duke, the American Nazi Party, Alex Jones, Tila Tequila, George Zimmerman and Milo as examples of conservatives—once again, conflating racism with political disagreement.
People should be treated more harshly for offenses that render them unqualified for their jobs. Neff’s racist commentary, for example, was directly relevant to his job as a writer on a show about social and political issues. If the show’s writer is racist, he might write racist things into the show’s scripts. This seems to have been the case: some of the comments Neff makes on the forum echo comments Tucker Carlson has made on his show.
By contrast, J. K. Rowling does not write novels about trans issues, so her stance on such issues is irrelevant to her work.
We should also consider when an alleged infraction happened and whether it happened in real time. We don’t want people going through everyone’s history to try to smear them. But what about a comedian or broadcaster’s public work?
This is a gray area, because people must be given some leeway to make mistakes and change their opinions. But when racism is central to the message itself, as in this rant by comedian Shane Gillis, it is hard to treat it as an innocent mistake.
The internet makes it easier for people to discredit others. For example, some redditors created a subreddit dedicated to smearing charismatic YouTuber Bald and Bankrupt, who has almost two million subscribers, claiming that he was a member of Roosh V’s pick-up artists forum. This was a private matter—like Neff, the YouTuber did not post under his own name. He made no controversial remarks. And the postings took place before he started his YouTube channel and therefore do not impact his ability to film travel vlogs. However, his critics seem to have had no impact on Bald and Bankrupt’s career. It was not cancel culture, but Covid-19, which put him out of action for over a month.
If we want to respond to cancel culture more effectively, we need to get a better idea of what it is—and what it isn’t. As I hope I have shown here, this won’t be easy.
Image by Tumisu