I just listened to a long podcast by smart people on “cancel culture” (or its doppelganger, “free speech” or being “politically incorrect”) and as so often, I felt like they missed the point. To me this seems really clear, so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts. (And sorry, they’re not brief.)
The discussion is, at its root, one of power. “Cancel culture” is the idea that if someone holds an unpopular view, they can now be “canceled” by angry mobs. What they’re really saying is that they’re uncomfortable with the shift in power; once certain people were allowed to say anything without consequence, and now they can be held to account. This is no doubt very unnerving for people who are used to speaking without seeing the consequence of their language.
Three thoughts on all of this:
One: All speech has consequences. In many cases, the consequence lands on someone other than the speaker. Very often we aren’t aware of the effect. We may say something very kind and gentle or rude and mean and go about our day, not realizing that the speech affected someone. Sometimes the language does real damage.
It used to be common for white people to joke publicly about races and their supposed negative qualities. We don’t need to go into the examples—you know them well. There are even phrases in our language like “Jew him down” that were so common they became euphemisms. For decades, a white protestant could use that phrase without suffering even the indignity of a raised eyebrow. That didn’t mean the speech didn’t have a consequence—just that it landed entirely on the target, not the speaker. A public figure using such a phrase in 2020 would spark enormous blowback. An on-air personality using it would probably be fired.
The shift between the two eras is the shift in societal power. In the first case, the bigot inhabited a world in which such violence could never be met with a response. In the second, they are made aware of the consequence of their words and made to account for it. For people newly alive to the latent violence in their speech, this feels like an assault on their liberty. “We used to be able to say this, but now the social justice warriors won’t let us.” But what’s really happened is that society now recognizes the equality and humanity of its members and naked displays of bigotry are offensive.
People who argue for “free speech” when they want to convey bigotry do so in bad faith: the very deployment of speech is intended to have an effect. Bigots intend to harm. They bring up “free speech” as a way of inoculating themselves from consequence. The debate around cancel culture is in most cases one of whether racist speech will be accepted or punished. For people long used to acceptance, this new punishment feels like a “canceling.” But let’s examine that more closely.
Two: Some speech is always censored. The anti-Semite who wishes to use the phrase “Jew you down” may complain that their speech is being inhibited. They’re right! This happens not by government fiat, but societal agreement. We are not emerging into a time of repressed speech, however, just into a time when different speech is repressed. For 400 years, white people have policed what BIPOC people could say. It takes very little imagination to understand this if you transport yourself back to a 1950 diner in Alabama. A Black couple even trying to enter the building would have faced the force of law—never mind if they’d started speaking harshly of the white clientele. When certain people are not allowed in the presence of others, that’s real, tangible cancelation, not merely the burn of shame.
The privilege to speak has always been reserved for a small, elite group. In 1950, everyone on a TV newscast or writing in the op-ed pages of the local paper was a white man. To the extent diversity ever appeared, it might have been in the form of a white woman. Giant segments of the population have for centuries always been canceled.
Recently, two high-profile writers resigned from their posts at the New York Times and New York Magazine. Citing blowback they received on social media for their words, they invoked cancel culture. The right wing media went into fits of hysteria, claiming this as evidence of illiberalism so profound it stamped out their voices. But we’re talking about resignations by two people with the most powerful platforms in the country. They weren’t jailed or lynched or evicted or stripped of their livelihood (indeed, both will just retreat to safer domains where their articles won’t be scrutinized by ideological foes) like actually-canceled people routinely are. And of course, the system they decry as impossibly unfair was the one that installed them in these positions to begin with. Andrew Sullivan, the New York writer, posted his final column, a jeremiad describing his supposed oppression, on the very platform he claimed was silencing him. (The irony characteristically eluded him.)
The tumult of the moment is scrambling what we consider acceptable and unacceptable speech. The important thing for those who feel put out that they have to watch what they say is this: people have always had to watch what they say. Now you do, too.
Three: Being embarrassed is not being canceled. We are having a debate in the US right now about what speech will be censored, and it is deeply disorienting for those who thought they understood the rules. One day it’s okay to exalt Jefferson Davis and the Washington Redskins, and the next day people tell you you’re a racist for doing so. It surely feels unfair. For people used to thinking they weren’t doing anything wrong, it stings to learn of the harm they’ve caused. No one wants to feel that.
But shame and embarrassment aren’t cancellation. Even losing a job is for most people not true cancellation, because given the structural realities of society, it is not disqualifying. They will land in another job. (In the vast majority of cases, of course, there’s no consequence beyond loss of status, of being forced to feel shame.) Before the Black Lives Matter protests, the phrase “cancel culture” applied to sexual harassment more than race. Here, too, the actual consequences experienced by the offender (sexist, assaulter, rapist) we’re almost always far smaller than the victim who brought the charge. When cases like Matt Lauer’s came up, people were laser-focused on his losses rather than those of the women over whose jobs he had control. Republicans are still apoplectic about Brett Kavanagh, despite the fact that he now sits on the Supreme Court.
I get how hard this is for people. As a middle-aged white guy, I am privy to a lot of the anxiety other whites are feeling about the possibility of being canceled. I do understand it. I also know that since whites do have social power, when that shame curdles into victimhood and grievance, we end up with far more sinister problems like the one we elected President. And I get how even people of good will feel that this is such a fraught moment they’re worried about causing offense even when they don’t mean to. There’s a very real risk we will, as a consequence of the ambient and structural racism we’ve all imbibed, say something racist and feel the shame of having to see it. That’s scary, and this will be a painful transition.
I do hope, however, we can at least begin to tease these issues apart in good faith. Much of the "cancel culture" discussion isn't good faith--it is an effort by some to try to police speech and herd it back to the comfort zone they always inhabited. And that muddies the water for those actually engaged in a good-faith effort to understand these things.