Exposing what is behind the ‘cancel culture’ meme

When I first read that a group of 153 well-known writers, politicians, artists, and intellectuals had signed a letter protesting ‘cancel culture’, my skepticism quickly got activated. It is fine when famous people write letters protesting injustices perpetrated against the powerless but when they protest actions taken against members of their own group, it warrants careful examination. My apprehension was increased when I found that Thomas Chatterton Williams was one of the organizers of this letter and that people like Malcolm Gladwell, David Frum, and J. K. Rowling were among the signatories. Williams is a columnist for Harper’ Magazine which published the letter, and I have found his opinions to be somewhat right-wing and establishment-friendly.

The key portion of the letter is where they complain about “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity… The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The letter goes on to say that “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture.”

They make some sweeping claims as evidence for their complaint:

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.

Some of the signatories are from the left and some from the right and some are people of color, thus providing a bipartisan and diversity sheen to the whole thing, suggesting that this issue is not ideological. But while it may be above partisan politics in terms of the conventional Democratic-Republican divide, it is still political.

The rebuttals to this self-serving document were swift in coming. Michael Hobbes wrote:

Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.

The panic over “cancel culture” is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis. The Harper’s statement, like nearly everything else written on this subject, could have been more efficiently summarized in four words: “Get Off My Lawn.”

“Cancel culture” has the same characteristics as previous episodes of pearl-clutchery. Nearly every example cited by the Harper’s letter turns out, upon scrutiny, to be something else entirely.

Journalists of color spearheaded a powerful rebuttal that was a detailed response to the claims in the Harper’s letter, arguing that the facts did not back up the claims, and that the underlying complaint seemed to be that people who have privileged positions in society are now finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of being criticized by the formerly marginalized, and they do not like it.

Some of the problems they bring up are real and concerning — for example, they seem to be referencing a researcher being fired for sharing a study on Twitter. But they are not trends — at least not in the way that the signatories suggest. In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive.

The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform. They are afforded the type of cultural capital from social media that institutions like Harper’s have traditionally conferred to mostly white, cisgender people. Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.

While the Harper’s letter is couched in the events of the last few weeks, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is actively informed by the actions of its writers, many of whom have championed the free market of ideas, but actively ensured that it is free only for them. It’s ironic that the letter gives highly sought-out space to some of the most well-paid and visible people in media, academia, and publishing. These are the same people who possess the money and prestige to have their ideas shared in just about any elite publication, outlet, or journal. There will always be a place for them to have their voices heard.

Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism.

The rebuttal letter says that some of the signatories to the Harper’s letter have done the very things that their letter condemns.

In fact, a number of the signatories have made a point of punishing people who have spoken out against them, including Bari Weiss (who made a name for herself as a Columbia University undergrad by harassing and infringing upon the speech of professors she considered to be anti-Israel, and later attempted to shame multiple media outlets into firing freelance journalist Erin Biba for her tweets), Katha Pollitt (whose transphobic rhetoric has extended to trying to deny trans journalists access to professional networking tools), Emily Yoffe (who has spoken out against sexual-assault survivors expressing their free speech rights), Anne-Marie Slaughter (who terminated her Google-funded organization’s partnership with a Google critic), and Cary Nelson (whose support of free speech, apparently, does not extend to everyone) — just to name a few. What gives them the right to use their platforms to harass others into silence, especially writers with smaller platforms and less institutional support, while preaching that silencing writers is a problem?

Rowling, one of the signers, has spouted transphobic and transmisogynist rhetoric, mocking the idea that trans men could exist, and likening transition-related medical care such as hormone replacement therapy to conversion therapy. She directly interacts with fans on Twitter, publishes letters littered with transphobic rhetoric, and gets away with platforming violent anti-trans speakers to her 14 million followers.

Jesse Singal, another signer, is a cis man infamous for advancing his career by writing derogatorily about trans issues. In 2018, Singal had a cover story in The Atlantic expressing skepticism about the benefits of gender-affirming care for trans youth. No trans writer has been afforded the same space. Singal often faces and dismisses criticism from trans people, but he has a much larger platform than any trans journalist. In fact, a 2018 Jezebel report found that Singal was part of a closed Google listserv of more than 400 left-leaning media elites who praised his work, with not a single out trans person in the group. He also has an antagonistic history with trans journalists, academics, and other writers, dedicating many Medium posts to attempting to refute or discredit their claims and reputations.

Gabe Schneider, one of the signatories to the rebuttal letter, appeared on the NPR radio show 1A with Williams and challenged him to come up with data that showed that what the letter dealt with was not a problem that affected just a tiny subset of privileged individuals.

I had heard of some of these cases that the Harper’s letter alludes to but they hardly make up a major trend. It is often the case that one or two similar events that affect high-profile people are taken as evidence of a major trend and generate much media attention, soul-searching, and think pieces, while things that affect poor and marginalized groups require massive numbers of outrageous actions to get the same attention. Two newspaper editors at prestigious newspapers resigning because they published poorly-thought out, insensitive pieces merit agonized hand-wringing while it takes hundreds of incidents police brutality and other actions against marginalized groups to get the same level of media attention.

In essence, the ‘cancel culture’ phenomenon seems to me to be much like the deservedly ridiculed ‘intellectual dark web’ case where highly privileged and visible people complained that they were being denied speaking opportunities because of their views, never mind that they all had access to major media megaphones, and also to those famous comedians who complained about not wanting to perform on college campuses because student audiences objected to their ‘edgy’ humor (which is usually code for humor aimed at marginalized groups), and to speakers like Charles Murray and Ann Coulter who whined about protests when they were invited to give speeches.

The term ‘cancel culture’, like ‘political correctness’ before it, seems on the surface to be condemnation of limiting speech and a call for more openness and tolerance but when looked at more closely, is really a plea by privileged groups to not be harshly criticized for their actions and words. These people have been so used to living in their privileged bubble that the idea that they now have to face criticisms from the great unwashed masses is difficult for them to stomach.


  1. mailliw says

    If anyone has in fact been harassed by “cancel culture”, it pales in comparison with the actions of the right both in terms of abuse on the internet and actual violence.

    The German Green member of parliament Renate Kunast who as a Green and a woman receives a lot of abuse on the internet was interested if these same people would be prepared to say the same things to her face. Together with a journalist she tracked down some of the abusers. They were just as nasty face to face -- so the notion that they are just keyboard warriors is very far from being the case.

    There are local government politicians in Germany from the SPD, Linke and Green parties who have faced so much abuse from right wing radicals that they are seriously considering giving up their positions.

    The CDU (conservative) politician Walter Lübcke was murdered by a right wing extremist because of his support for refugees.

    I am in no way in favour of abuse from any side, but the complaints of the those who wrote the letter seem absurdly trivial in comparison.

  2. says

    I embrace “cancel culture”
    The idea is: “I listened to you and I respect your views. In fact, I respect them so much that I concluded you are a genuinely abhorrent person, and I want to hear nothing from you again unless it’s an apology for your life. I’m not trying to tell you what to say or believe, but you can’t expect me to keep listening to the shit you spout.”

    I used to be a huge fan of Bill Cosby. I have all of his old audio CDs and his epic performance in Vegas in the 80s. I went to see him live at Wolf Trap back in 1999. I used to think he was tremendously funny but now I don’t -- he was a pretty disgusting person and did a fair job hiding it from his audience until he was old enough that he couldn’t hide any longer and was pulled down from his pedestal. I still think his comedy is great comedy but I haven’t listened to any Cosby material since it became clear what had been going on in his secret life. Is this “cancel culture”? I think of it as having good taste. But if it’s “cancel culture” let me raise the banner high and accept the label.

  3. Matt G says

    These brave defenders of privilege -- the status quo warriors! It takes a lot of courage to stand up to people who have been canceled for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

  4. mailliw says

    Was the abolition of the slave trade an example of “cancel culture”?

    Lord Nelson was strongly against abolition, though if you mention that someone will probably say you want to tear down that statue in Trafalgar Square and will immediately place a police guard around it.

    On the other hand the persistence of abolitionists like Wilberforce, Pitt and Clarkson was remarkable in the face of defeat after defeat in parliament over years before their final victory. Where are the politicians of that moral stature and persistence today?

    I am currently reading Hugh Thomas’s The Slave Trade which covers the whole history of this most ignomious of businesses in astounding and naturally often shocking detail.

  5. Sam N says

    When someone starts talking about cancel culture, which as Mano explains, doesn’t even exist, see also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szybEhqUmVI&t

    Overreactions to only somewhat bad actions do occur stochastically, to the powerful at an extraordinarily low rate, to those at economic and social margins, at very high rates. It’s strange how people that drone on about cancel culture spend so much time considering the plight of a tiny minority of the powerful, and very little time considering the plight of the far more regularly and frequently abused masses. Of course, they will typically acknowledge, oh yes, that is awful, too, without acknowledging the disparity in harms done, or the wildly inappropriate apportioning of their concern to one group over the other. Almost as if they are doing exactly what the powerful want…

  6. says

    On the other hand the persistence of abolitionists like Wilberforce, Pitt and Clarkson was remarkable in the face of defeat after defeat in parliament over years before their final victory. Where are the politicians of that moral stature and persistence today?

    We’re being tear gassed in Portland right now, but wait an election cycle or two and you’ll see us taking office.

  7. mailliw says

    @7 Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I wish you every success in your bold endeavours.

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