Proponents of cancel culture call for the rejection and vilification of any institutions, individuals or facts that make them uncomfortable or conflict with their world view. I find one recent example of this trend particularly troubling—an article published by the Conference on College Composition and Communication in which five college writing instructors demanded that university professors stop requiring African-American students to use standard English in the classroom, because it is
socially constructed … rooted in white supremacy, whiteness and anti-Blackness and contributes to anti-Black policies (e.g., English only) that are codified and enacted to privilege white linguistic and cultural norms while deeming Black Language inferior.
Standard American English is “rooted in whiteness,” in that the American colonies were subject to British rule for more than 100 years before they became independent—and Great Britain is a white-majority country. That white Europeans suppressed and supplanted indigenous cultures and languages when they conquered the Americas and introduced black slavery to the New World, which included forcing these slaves to give up their languages, indisputably demonstrates the harm white supremacy causes, an injustice further perpetuated through the institutionalization of slavery upon the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788. However, if we argue that the language itself is rooted in “white supremacy,” we would have to reject not only standard English, but French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and any other languages used by white-majority nations that participated in the slave trade or subjugated people of colour during three centuries of colonialism.
In addition, this argument deliberately ignores the fact that language continually evolves. Hundreds of new grammatical forms and words are added to the American English lexicon every year, some of them adopted from social media, popular culture (on which black Americans have had an outsized influence) and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) such as terms like chill out, lit and woke. Today’s standard American English is not the same as the English spoken in America two hundred—or even twenty years ago.
Moreover, no longer requiring students to use standard American English in the classroom only disadvantages them. English is currently the most widely used language in the world: being able to speak and write English well will enable people to effectively interact and communicate with others around the globe. And learning the rules of standard English doesn’t just benefit students who don’t speak it at home. All students would benefit from more thoroughly learning the basic grammar rules and rhetorical techniques of standard written English, beginning as young as is practicable. Many Americans of all colours, races and ethnicities would surely welcome this: senior corporate executives often tell me that they struggle to find employees who write English effectively.
I agree that American institutions—and American society as a whole—should acknowledge that many black Americans speak AAVE, sometimes also referred to as Black English or Ebonics. This variety of English, which is an integral part of black culture in America, should be treated with respect rather than erroneously seen as somehow inferior. I also believe that AAVE fluency can benefit people in the modern US marketplace. Just as American businesses increasingly value workers who can speak multiple languages in a global economy, those who speak AAVE can add value to corporations by reaching and marketing to the millions of black Americans who are also fluent in AAVE, perhaps lessening the pressure many of them may feel to code-switch between AAVE and standard English.
Moreover, just as many musicians incorporate black English into hip-hop lyrics, the American publishing industry should do more to embrace black storytellers, including those who use AAVE in fiction, poetry and other forms of creative writing, as an authentic voice is essential to any work of self-expression.
But to stop requiring the teaching and use of standard English would in no way help achieve racial justice. On the contrary, sharing a common language, lexicon, diction and grammar can only make it easier to exchange and introduce a diversity of ideas, and this is likely to produce a society consisting of a bigger, more diverse and inclusive tent, rather than several smaller, separate, homogenous ones. Standard English is one of the best tools we have to keep talking to each other regardless of class, race, religion, ethnicity or geography.
The demand to omit the teaching of standard English is a manifestation of cancel culture and is deeply illiberal. It reminds me of a poignant scene early in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: twenty-year-old Mirek, angry at his girlfriend Zdena, removes her picture from his photo album—as though that will help him forget he loves her. Kundera compares this to the way in which the Czech propaganda bureau airbrushed Vladimir Clementis out of all photos related to the Czech Communist Party after he was hanged as a party traitor in 1952. In an interview discussing the underlying theme of the novel, Kundera noted, “After the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe.”
When self-described progressives participate in cancel culture, they are engaging in the same kind of totalitarian tactics used by the former Soviet Union (as well as current-day Russia, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Syria and other dictatorships that trample on free speech, freedom of the press and other civil liberties).
Cancel culture also undermines democratic principles such as free speech and a free press. Earlier this year, more than 200 Simon & Schuster employees signed a petition demanding that the company cancel its planned publication of former vice president Mike Pence’s memoir—and refrain from publishing any books written by former members of the Trump administration. While I disdained Pence’s actions as vice president and found his recent claims that systemic racism doesn’t exist in America fatuous, members of the publishing industry should not advocate suppressing certain views (as long as such views do not call for violence against an individual or group).
Cancel culture is not, of course, strictly the purview of the woke left, as was demonstrated when House Republicans stripped arch-conservative Liz Cheney of her leadership role for telling the truth about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The far right, particularly white nationalists and religious fundamentalists, often embraces cancel culture as a form of ideological purity. The Trump administration, for example, rejected anything, including scientific facts, that interfered with Trump’s personal and political agendas. For example, Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump, ordered the deletion of thousands of pages on climate change from the agency’s website. Trump even attempted to cancel the COVID pandemic: repeatedly announcing for nearly three months how the coronavirus would soon “be gone” or “miraculously disappear.” And an expansive Texas law recently signed by ardent Trump supporter Republican Governor Greg Abbott has not only banned public schools from discussing critical race theory but even prohibits giving students academic credit for internships that involve advocacy work related to racism.
The ability of Google, Amazon and other technology companies to access and mine huge amounts of personal data compounds the dangers posed by cancel culture. Data mining has enabled Big Tech to customise and personalise the spread of information so fully that Americans are less likely than ever before to watch the same movies, hear the same music, read the same books, be exposed to the same ideas, or even hear about the same events in the news.
Thus, America today is not a nation whose citizens feel connected to each other through shared experiences and values. Instead, personalisation of information-sharing and the deliberate spread of misinformation on Facebook and other online channels have led to disunity, isolation, the fragmenting of belief systems and the loss of a collective American identity. And many Americans no longer accept the concept of objective truth, opting instead, as Stephen Colbert once brilliantly put it, for “truthiness.”
I get it. Too many Americans are, as the great civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said more than 50 years ago, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” We are tired of the constant misinformation, divisiveness and rancour—coming not only from political leaders and pundits but from people we work with, our neighbours, even, sadly, members of our own families.
Few of us, given recent events, feel safe. Ironically, fear drives cancel culture. If something feels unpleasant, contradicts one’s view about how the world, society or system of government should function, too many of us Americans opt to eliminate or erase the offending person, institution or idea from our lives and history. Yet doing so only dooms us to repeat the mistakes of the past.
I am currently writing a historical novel, set in seventeenth-century Moscow and based on the lives of the five daughters of Tsar Alexis I, who—due to both security concerns and strict religious and social rules—were forbidden to study, marry or bear children, and could only leave the Terem Palace at the Kremlin when hidden behind a canopy so no one of lesser rank could see their faces. The endless spread of gossip, misinformation and demonization of political opponents in the Kremlin more than 350 years ago parallels the way social media and cancel culture function today. As Megan O’Grady has recently observed in “Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?”
Too many for too long were left out, the true architectures of power concealed. [The] novels that reveal the emptiness of the old stories destabilize our ideas of history rather than affirming them—which is, after all, one purpose of literary fiction. In our days of sloganeering and apocryphal tweets, it’s also a form of resistance.
Literary fiction can be a form of resistance against those who believe in an us-versus-them, yes–or–no mentality, and who make no allowances for maybes, I don’t knows or somewhere in-betweens. Cancel culture embraces dogma over freedom of original thought and values identity politics over individuals. And, as a storyteller, perhaps what I find most disturbing of all is that cancel culture rejects chiaroscuro—the glorious complexity of life’s shadowy ambiguities, in which flawed, conflicted protagonists often find themselves forced to make difficult choices—and do not always choose well.