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Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.