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Cancel Culture


A week or so ago, I shared with you my concern about the undermining of free speech in our society. In my opinion, the new “cancel culture” poses a serious threat to our national wellbeing. 

The reason I feel so strongly about the suppression of freedom of expression is because Western society supposedly recognizes it as a fundamental human right (see Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Along with its corollaries, the freedoms of information and press, the freedom of expression serves as an enabler of all other rights. 

In addition, Judaism has always championed debate as a means to reach a well-reasoned conclusion. Free speech is not only about your ability to speak, but also your ability to hear other people’s views. Tragically, we are going through a time where people do not want to participate on a panel with individuals whose views diverge from their own. However, feeling comfortable to debate our views is the only way to reach real change. 

Free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. It includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose and protest bigoted views. Bad ideas are most effectively defeated by good ideas – backed up by ethics and reason – rather than by bans and censorship.

I was very happy to see that over the past week, a group of over 150 prominent journalists, authors and writers published a letter in Harper's Magazine decrying what it called the "intolerant climate that has set in on all sides" of debate (see Blog #1). This article was then followed by cries of support, such as The New York Times article titled “The Real Problem with Cancel Culture” (see Blog #2), and The Los Angeles Times article “Boeing Executive Steps Down Over a 33-year-old Essay. ‘Cancel Culture’ has Gone Off the Rails,” (see Blog #3). However, it doesn’t appear that the advocates of “cancel culture” are going away anytime soon (see “A Deeply Provincial View of Free Speech” by Hannah Giorgis in The Atlantic).

I suggest that as we head into this year’s election season, we should inquire of candidates where they stand on this issue. As evidenced by the diversity of The Letter cosigners, this is not part of the right and left ideological divide. Rather, this has to do with a fundamental foundation stone upon which our country was built. And we all know what happens when you remove a foundation stone.

Blog #1:                                                                                                                                           

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified 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. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. 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. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us. 

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.


Blog #2:

The Real Problem With Cancel Culture

By Megan McArdle

The online “cancel culture” of Twitter mobs, public shamings and the occasional public firing has become pretty unpleasant of late. And unsurprisingly, people whose job it is to say things resent being hushed. Hence “The Letter,” published this week by Harper’s Magazine, in which 153 writers and public intellectuals warned that widespread cancellation is chilling the free exchange of ideas.

Indeed it is. I’ve been hearing from people, center-left as well as center-right, who have moved from astonishment to concern to terror as senior editors were fired for running op-eds written by conservative senators or approving inept headlines; as professors were investigated for offenses such as “reading aloud the words of Martin Luther King”; as a major arts foundation imploded because its statement of support for Black Lives Matter was judged insufficiently enthusiastic.

These people were becoming afraid of their own colleagues, who might, if they feel they’re not being listened to, leak internal communications to friendly websites, or organize a public protest on Twitter.

Twitter’s reaction to The Letter seemed to illustrate these concerns; unsurprisingly, the letter triggered some of the very tactics it implicitly condemns. To the panicked defenders of the old liberal order, it was a self-rebuttal of progressive claims that they weren’t trying to stifle free expression, even of anodyne sentiments like: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

Coincidentally, this controversy erupted just after Osita Nwanevu of the New Republic had published one of the best defenses of cancel culture, justifying it as an exercise of vital First Amendment rights, not just to express displeasure with the words of others, but to freely associate with like-minded people. Which implies the right not to associate, either.

For backers of The Letter, Nwanevu offers a useful clarification: “Free speech” has turned into a fight about institutional norms and associational privileges, not just civil rights. The arguments may overlap with the civil rights debate, but the points of difference matter.

To be clear, I’m not neutral in that institutional fight. The cancelers aren’t merely trying to expand the range of acceptable ideas so that it includes more marginalized voices. They are pressuring mainstream institutions, which serve as society’s idea curators, to adopt a much narrower definition of “reasonable” opinion. The new rules would exclude the viewpoints of many Americans.

Intellectual monocultures are inherently unhealthy, and the tactics by which the new orthodoxy is being imposed are destructive. But I’m enough of an old-school liberal to think that I have to persuade my opponents, and I doubt they’ll be moved by one more anthem to the glories of open inquiry.

They might, however, consider a few pragmatic problems with imposing their code by Twitter force. Twitter, with its 280-character limit, is not a medium for making lengthy, nuanced arguments. It’s most effective at signaling the things you can’t say. Consider the ultimate Twitter put-down: Delete your account.

That’s especially a problem for institutions that are in the business of making arguments. Effectively handing over the reins of power to the Twittersphere, as seems to be happening, means offering control to those who are especially adept at not making arguments.

More broadly, this approach is at odds with what makes any institution function as more than a collection of self-supervising individuals. When much of your workforce is worried about summary firing, they put more and more effort into protecting themselves, and less and less effort into advancing the work of the institution. Doubly so when it is fellow employees who are pressing public attacks, as happened with the Twitter insurrection against a New York Times op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Cotton had called for deploying the military to control riots; outraged staffers responded through coordinated tweets, which read, “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

Though it was framed in the language of workplace safety, this was the kind of critical pressure campaign that is normally run by outsiders, not insiders — customers, not workers. In this, they are demonstrating a growing tendency that conservative policy maven Yuval Levin recently identified among American elites: people treating their institutions as platforms for personal performance, rather than a group effort with its own larger work. That’s a tendency Twitter encourages, and not just among journalists, or academics: The foremost example is President Trump.

In fairness, the insiders of cancel culture might say that they have no choice: Twitter was their only way to accelerate urgent value shifts that might otherwise have taken decades. They’re right that Twitter speeds everything up, and they’re right that causes like racial equality are urgent — and also that white, straight, cisgender liberals always seem to be asking marginalized people to wait until they get around to fixing things.

And yet, even the critics clearly recognize that there is great value in these institutions. They might also recognize that there are reasons that institutions favor incremental, internal change. If you hold those sorts of fights on a public and inherently limited platform, then some part of your audience will inevitably wonder whether the ensuing consensus, such as it is, reflects what people actually think, rather than who they are afraid of.

So achieving victory this way risks damaging the ultimate prize, which is the power those institutions have as institutions, not just algorithmic amplifiers. That power is rooted in the perception that they are the patient accumulators, and, yes, the occasional revisionists, of something broad enough to be called “mainstream discourse.”

It’s that power, not the names on the doors, that lets those institutions establish the boundaries the cancelers are really hoping to control: not just of what people are willing to say in public, but what they are willing to believe.


Blog #3:

Boeing executive steps down over a 33-year-old essay. ‘Cancel culture’ has gone off the rails

By Robin Abcarian 

I used to argue with my very progressive mother about whether women belonged in combat.

Women create life, she told me. They should not be in the business of snuffing it out.

I think her rationale probably sprang from her pacifist tendencies, but hers was not an unusual point of view.

Indeed, American women were not officially allowed to serve in all combat roles until 2016.

When I read this week that Boeing’s new communications chief is out of a job for penning an essay almost 33 years ago opposing women in combat, which he had long since renounced, I have to admit, I was surprised. I probably should not have been.

After all, we are in the midst of this decade’s great reckoning, which was unleashed by women who were sick and tired of being sexually harassed and violated by powerful men. The #MeToo movement, among other things, caused a great culling of abusive male bosses that continues to this day. The current iteration of the reckoning is more complicated. At its roots are a rage against racism and sexism and longstanding social inequities that have manifested themselves in every aspect of American life. There is, in addition, something relatively new afoot. It has to do with the nebulous concept of safety.

This idea, as Jonathan Chait recently wrote in New York magazine, “frequently collapses the distinction between words and action … by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.” I first encountered the concept during free-speech debates on college campuses, where, for instance, students were virulently opposed to inviting, say, a right-wing provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos onto campus, because he made them feel unsafe.

So, for example, when Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton wrote an overheated essay urging the president to call out the military to quell violent protests, he was accused of endangering the safety of Black reporters at the New York Times, where his essay appeared. The opinion editor was forced out for his poor judgment, both because the piece was shoddily edited and also because he hadn’t read it before publication.

Around the same time, a young political data analyst who worked on the reelection campaign of President Obama tweeted out a Princeton study that found — to greatly simplify the work — that violent protests after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. reduced the Democratic vote, and peaceful protests increased it. The analyst, David Shor, was attacked for, among other things, “anti-Blackness” and soon lost his job.

As Chait put it, “Since criticism of violent protests is racist, and racism obviously endangers Black people, an act as seemingly innocuous as sharing credible research poses a threat to safety.”

Of course, Shor was not criticizing anything.

He was highlighting a research paper produced by Omar Wasow, a Black political scientist who co-founded the social networking site BlackPlanet. Wasow has spent 15 years studying civil rights protests of the 1960s, and has, as he tweeted, “paid particular attention to how nonviolent and violent actions by activists & police influence media, elites, public opinion & voters.”

Seems pretty innocuous, but the very act of studying violent protests is perceived in some quarters as inappropriate, or “not helpful,” as one history professor told the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even raising the question, University of Michigan Professor Heather Ann Thompson told the Chronicle, puts an undeserved onus on people protesting injustice.

In 1987, Niel Golightly was a young Navy pilot when he wrote a long piece called “No Right to Fight” in Proceedings, the magazine of the U.S. Naval Institute. Although he was trying to make a serious argument, the piece reads like parody straight out of the He-Man Woman’s Haters Club.

“Women do not naturally band together for ritual comradeship,” he wrote, in a passage characteristic of the entire ridiculous piece. “Their enormous personal courage usually reflects their loyalties to family and home rather than to each other and ‘the group.’ But while feminine loyalties are arguably more civilized, productive, and intellectually defensible than the male compulsion to be part of a group, it nevertheless remains that the bonding imperative is crucial to the collective mettle of men in combat.”

The essay was recently brought forward, according to Boeing, by an employee who used it as the basis of an internal anonymous ethics complaint against Golightly. Apparently, Boeing officials, already reeling from a series of devastating setbacks, did not want to face another controversy at a moment when the company says it has made an “unrelenting commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Apologies and renunciation were not enough.

In a statement released by Boeing, Golightly explained that the article was “a 29-year-old Cold War Navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time.” He said that his argument “was embarrassingly wrong and offensive,” and that the criticism that followed “quickly opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since.”

This is a fraught moment for discussions about race and gender. Emotions are raw and, as we see in the current discussion about “cancel culture,” free speech and responsibility, there is little room for error.

I just don’t see how firing someone for something they wrote — and disavowed — decades ago, helps advance the cause of justice. And yes, to my surprise as well as yours, I am defending a middle-aged white man I’ve never met.

I guess we could all use a little compassion and empathy right about now.