A spectre is haunting academia, journalism and politics – the spectre of Cancel Culture. The powers aligned together against this spectre today are as diverse as the Holy Alliance of “Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police spies” that Marx and Engels identified in 1848. But is “Cancel Culture” – as Marx and Engels proudly claimed of Communism – truly a world power recognized as such by the existing world powers? To use a more contemporary lexicon, is it even really a thing? Is this “New Intolerance” either new or intolerant?

The Republican National Convention and the Harper’s Letter

Some people think so. The danger of “Cancel Culture” was the theme of the August 2020 Republican National Convention. The 2020 RNC was the first in history not to include a platform of policy proposals, all the better to emphasize the cultural grievances of the staatsvolk, those whose ethnic identity is to be simply Americans.

This is hardly a new theme for Republicans, of course, who have been railing against the predecessors to “Cancel Culture” – “political correctness” or the “nattering nabobs of negativity” – since the 1960s. But the relative emphasis has clearly shifted. Freedom is no longer U.S. self-determination under threat from foreign actors – what remains of that theme has been left to MSNBC personalities like Rachel Maddow worried about Russian interference in American elections. Nor is Freedom really conceptualized any longer as market capitalism under assault from an Economic Left promoting redistributive taxation and spending or intrusive regulation of business. Republicans still talk about “socialism,” and the policy legacy of the first Trump Administration is undeniably lower business taxes and fewer environmental regulations, along with a lot of federal judges who will make these changes difficult to reverse. But that is not where the passion is.

To anyone listening to the speeches, it became clear that Freedom is really under threat from the Cultural Left: reformers or radicals who oppose “systemic racism,” particularly police violence disproportionately affecting black Americans, or contest traditional ideas of gender and sexuality, particularly to promote the rights of transgender people. The RNC occurred shortly after mass Black Lives Matter protests expanded across the world – sometimes accompanied by looting and violence. The BLM movement had been a target of Trump’s 2016 campaign and he quite clearly welcomed the ability to fight against it again, rather than defend his record on the COVID pandemic.

Conservatives have always promoted the defence of order and property against mobs, and American conservatives have long resisted demands for any sort of racial reckoning as disrespect to America’s Founding Fathers and tradition. It is also perfectly normal for conservative parties to support traditional gender norms and resist the demands of sexual minorities. What was perhaps surprising – at least to a listener who had not been paying attention to recent American political rhetoric – was that the Cultural Left was represented not just as a threat to law and property, but also, and especially, as a threat to the American public’s ability to speak. The party of racial and sexual order presented itself as the party of transgression, while supporters of change were presented as puritan scolds and censors. “Cancel Culture” was attacked not so much for undermining traditional propriety as for stopping Red Americans from saying whatever they want whenever they want. No one represents this position more than Trump, whose rhetorical style is borrowed from standup comedians and “shock jock” radio show hosts.

This rhetorical frame of healthy transgression stifled by the schoolmarms of the Cultural Left is also found among opponents of the Trump Administration and the current Republican Party. If there is a manifesto of this camp, it is the July 7 open letter to Harper’s magazine. The letter was signed by a popular front of the National Security Right, the Democratic-establishment Centre and the Economic Left, ranging from David Frum and Michael Ignatieff through baby boomer feminist icons Margaret Atwood and Gloria Steinem to anti-imperialist leftist academics Noam Chomsky and Cornel West. The Harper’s Letter (as it soon became known) described what this coalition is against as “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences.” The letter was careful to pair this new threat to tolerance with the “forces of illiberalism” associated with Donald Trump.

Perhaps as a price of such a broad coalition, the Harper’s Letter was unclear as to what events in the world it was responding to. It observes that “powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform,” a clear reference to the upsurge in mass protests that punctuated the COVID shutdowns as a result of the killing of George Floyd on May 25. The Letter implied that this movement, and movements associated with transgender rights, had “intensified” a challenge to norms of open debate in favour of that enemy of American individualism and sixties counterculture alike: “conformity.”

It is of course not at all uncommon for moderate members of reformist movements to criticize those more radical than themselves for extreme tactics or unrealistic goals. But, as with the Republican National Convention, the Harper’s Letter took up the more surprising perspective of the id against the superego. The problem with the excesses of the Cultural Left, as suggested by the cooler and wiser heads who signed the letter, were not the traditional problems of radicalism. Rather, their rhetoric, like the Republicans’, was about excessive conformism and limitations on debate. The warning was not of the risks of violence or utopianism, but of the danger posed to letting one’s freak flag fly.

While no single case seems to have provoked the Harper’s Letter, it was widely seen as a response to the resignation of James Bennett as senior editor for the New York Times op-ed page. On June 3, the Times published an opinion piece by Tom Cotton, a right-wing senator from Arkansas, calling for using the U.S. military to suppress the protests. Cotton had earlier tweeted that there should be “no quarter” for “for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters”(the order of “no quarter” in war means to kill surrendering soldiers and is universally regarded as a war crime).

The op-ed was published two days after the Trump Administration apparently directed the use of tear gas by federal police to disperse protesters in Lafayette Park near the White House so that Trump and other senior administration officials, including the Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, could cross to a nearby church. Milley later apologized for his involvement, amid reports that the military had been asked – and refused – to become involved in policing the Black Lives Matter protests. The printing of the Cotton op-ed sparked a backlash both within the New York Times staff and among its predominantly upper-middle-class liberal readership. Bennett resigned on June 7.

The Harper’s Letter was widely interpreted as having been triggered at least in part by these events. Bennett-hire and Harper-letter-signator Bari Weiss publicly resigned, accusing the Times of discrimination, hostile work environment and constructive discharge. Weiss came to prominence organizing a campaign to deny a Palestinian American anthropologist tenure at Barnard because of controversial criticisms she had made of Israeli archeology. Weiss had long been a leading figure among ostensibly liberal critics of the censorious nature of “identity politics” linked, coherently or otherwise, with a frequent tendency to see anti-Semitism lurking under criticisms of Israel or America’s pro-Israel foreign policy. Weiss received support from many centrist pundits and politicians, including Andrew Yang, the pro–universal basic income candidate for the Democratic Party nomination.

There are paradoxes here. It might seem that the obvious, even proud, authoritarian in the story was Senator Cotton. Even on the most sympathetic view, he represented the party of order and tradition, not of transgression or sceptical thought. The inclusion of “anarchists” – an ideological category that includes Chomsky – among those who should be put down by violence suggests a lack of concern with the First Amendment, however understood. Cotton followed up by calling for restricting federal funding to any state or local education system that used a Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times series, the “1619 Project,” which argued that race and slavery and had not been made sufficiently central to American history. By September, President Trump had instructed the Department of Education to follow up on this and promised he would consider Cotton for the Supreme Court if reelected. Critics like Bari Weiss wondered whether they had correctly identified the main threats to freedom of expression and civil liberties in America today.

The anti-Trump-anti-Cancel-Culture coalition was more concerned with what happened to Bennett, as editor, than with really defending the Cotton op-ed. They saw here a threat to the kind of cross-ideological-but-curated discourse represented by the New York Times. The paradox here is that the New York Times is a for-profit enterprise that, like the Washington Post, increased its subscriber base by more or less explicitly presenting itself as part of the opposition (“resistance”) to the Trump Administration. Its op-ed page is intended to generate money. It does not of course purport to represent all opinions tolerated under the First Amendment, or even a reasonable cross-section of actual American political views: it has three regular “Never Trump” conservative columnists (ranging from the interesting Ross Douthat through the past-his-prime David Brooks to the execrable hack Bret Stephens), despite the tiny share of the electorate that this strand of opinion represents.

The New York Times’s subscriber base certainly thinks of itself as open-minded and likes to be “challenged,” but like everyone else, they have their limits. In July 2020, in the midst of a worsening pandemic, the Trump Administration was preparing to put troops in the streets of the big cities where those subscribers live. From the perspective of the kind of people who keep the Times afloat, this was a personal threat, not a debating point. The Times is not a charity. And the customer is always right. In the best traditions of American capitalism, the Times acted to protect shareholder value – and while we can all sympathize with Bennett’s fate, he knew the business he was getting into.

Of course, lingering on a particular example may miss the point. A culture is not a law, and it is not a single instance either. I could have given the more Canadian example of Don Cherry’s loss of his perch at “Coach’s Corner” last year for accusing immigrants of not wearing poppies for Remembrance Day. Or any number of other controversies that seem to punctuate the news cycle. But a list of examples never gets us closer to a concept.

Opposing “Cancel Culture” gives meaning to both a certain kind of Cultural Right and a Cultural Centre in just the same way that opposing Communism did to homologous parts of the political spectrum after World War II. But Communism had a clear referent in the form of the Soviet government. It had secret police and loyal party members. It was clearly devoted to a form of coercion that liberals, of all stripes, could coherently oppose. By contrast, Cancel Culture consists of a loose array of human resources professionals, youthful activists and cultural anthropologists exercising the preeminently liberal rights of employers, protesters and academics to contract, assemble and theorize.

But as we move from a single example, we have trouble getting hold of the thing itself. The paradox is in making a specific conception of open debate beyond legitimate debate, and in labelling the questioning of polite, social tolerance of certain “differences” an intolerable difference. It is possible to forbid some considerations from entering into state action against certain ideas. And it is also possible to say that other considerations should not be part of deciding what is published in particular forums, or grounds for promotion or firing. But it is not possible to forbid cultural sanctions for expressing opinions – at least not without formal censorship. It is not even possible to criticize such sanctioning without engaging in sanctioning of one’s own. We are in need of some analysis, whether linguistic, historical or psycho.

Intolerance: An intolerably confused concept

Anyone who wants to supply analysis better show their credentials – particularly in a case like this one. They need to “situate” themselves.

I am a middle-aged White man with a well-paid professional job. I am probably more sympathetic to the movements of the Cultural Left than the median person fitting that demographic profile. But it would not be hard to find someone woker than me. For example, I am not in favour of abolishing or defunding the police, although I think some of the reforms unfortunately gathered under one or both of those slogans are worth taking a look at. While there is no doubt that social problems in North America – from COVID deaths to police violence – are disproportionately racially distributed, or that the reasons this is the case are the product of racial and colonial histories, I agree with those who say these problems have primarily race-neutral class-based solutions.

While I am not going to bite the bullet of defending every statement or action by every antiracist or transgender activist, though, I do not think that the “Cancel Culture” frame is defensible. In some cases – most transparently Trump’s or Cotton’s, but also among their anti-Cancel critics – it is a rhetorical device to silence or marginalize the people the user of the phrase disagrees with. Trump regularly calls for people who criticize him to be fired or even prosecuted and has repeatedly bemoaned the restrictions the First Amendment places on his ability to sue people for defamation. But even people more self-reflective than he is sometimes confuse criticism with censorship.

Alternatively, “Cancel Culture” might be identified with discourteous or self-righteous expressions by activists, especially online. To be sure, “piling on” on social media can be destructive and it would be unresponsive to contemporary reality to regard much of what happens when a large group focuses on one person’s alleged misdeeds as just “criticism” that should be addressed with resilience. The paradox, though, is that this is precisely what free speech centrism counsels. Moreover, whatever the sins of the Cultural Left in this regard, they are hardly the worst offenders. Anyone who wants to be controversial online faces trolls, most of them right-wing. Women who express controversial opinions can count on threats of sexual violence and ethnic minorities can be sure of racial epithets. While there is indeed a problem of “troll armies,” it is a cross-ideological problem, and one of lack of effective regulation of speech – to which American First Amendment fundamentalism has undoubtedly contributed.

One issue that quickly comes up in these conversations is how big a deal it is to label someone’s actions or statements “racist.” Outside the Cultural Left, at least in the North American middle class, racism is seen as an individual moral flaw that is both rare and terrible. From this perspective, accusing someone of being racist is essentially accusing them of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This is not how the Cultural Left understands things: racism for them is primarily structural. It is difficult to get White liberals to understand that this implies that claims of racism are therefore injunctions to reform, but not statements of irremediable evil. By contrast, middle-class men in heterosexual relationships have no particular difficulty understanding that a claim something they did or said was “sexist” does not imply that they are morally indistinguishable from Marc Lepine. It is a call to rethink behaviour. Whether you agree with a particular claim or not, it would obviously be unacceptable to make it a precondition for any polite conversation to preclude the possibility that anyone other than the most violent misogynist is in any way sexist. But it is considered a perfectly reasonable demand by both right and centrist critics of the Cultural Left that talk of racism be limited to references to neo-Nazis.

The final type of “cancellation” that raises difficult issues is the exercise of economic power over hiring and firing – either directly by employers themselves or through the market power of major customers – to discipline those who have engaged in what is considered intolerable expression.

From the libertarian or classical liberal perspective adopted by both Canadian and American free speech law, the exercise of economic power does not violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Some people on the Cultural Left take this as meaning that targeting a person’s job for what they say cannot raise freedom of expression issues in a broader sense. As a social democrat, however moderate, I disagree because I regard employer power as power potentially as despotic as that of the state. This is a particularly stark reality in America, where almost all employment is “at will” and few jurisdictions have protections against employer retaliation for political expression.

Of course, a right to say things an employer or its customers do not like to hear cannot possibly be absolute – a vice president of marketing cannot be expected to be allowed to praise a competitor’s products as better than those of her own company. But the American system of total protection from censorship by the state – to what seem to me like ludicrous extremes (the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against pretending to have a military medal or limiting the use of racially offensive trademarks1) – combined with total vulnerability to censorship by employers seems to me a real problem. And, it must be conceded, sometimes this power is exercised by the Cultural Left.

But most of the time? Is it really true that economic power to restrict expression is mostly from the Left? No, it is not. The most comprehensive data set of political firings at American postsecondary institutions since 2000 is maintained by Acadia Univesrity professor Jeff Sachs.2 There are interpretation issues, but it is clear that the majority of terminations occur because of criticism from the right (usually for being unpatriotic or too critical of Israel). As Sachs points out, since there are far more left-of-centre academics than right-of-centre ones, the probability of being fired from an academic position for political speech is lower on the left. But academics in fact have unusually high levels of job security. If we broaden our gaze to American society more generally, there can be no question that job insecurity chills speech, but also no reason to think it particularly chills right-wing speech.

By any reasonable metric, there is a broader array of political opinions available than ever. While social and economic pressures as well as the unwanted attention of troll armies make most people unwilling to attach their own names to controversial views, pretty much any opinion can be expressed on the internet pseudonymously. Canada, like every other country outside the United States, takes a less absolute view on free expression as a matter of constitutional law.3 But Canadian law is more protective of freedom of speech than it has ever been.4 More practically, it has proven very difficult for any country that wants to participate in the global internet to enforce more restrictive standards than those permitted in America. While all this speech has not led to the flourishing of the reasoned discussion hoped for by John Stuart Mill, that perhaps speaks more to the lack of realism of Mill’s ideal than any culture of intolerance.

Why cultural change is experienced as silencing

Nevertheless, we overwhelmingly think “Cancel Culture” or “political correctness” is a thing. In a comprehensive study in 2016, Angus Reid found that two thirds of Canadians thought political correctness had “gone too far,” with a similar number agreeing that “it seems like you can’t say anything without offending someone these days.”5 Americans are polled on these issues more regularly: they agree with similar statements in similar numbers. While people say things are worse than they used to be, they have always said they are worse than they used to be – there is no upward trend over time in people thinking this is a problem. The sentiment that political correctness has gone too far is held in similar numbers across racial groups in both countries, although it is slightly higher among men than among women.

The ubiquity of this sentiment makes sense once we accept that any speech act will take place in a context of social approval and disapproval. Unless we are absolute monarchs, when we say something we are simultaneously asserting some kind of authority and making ourselves responsible to the judgement of those who are listening. These norms are invisible when they are traditional and universal. But cultural reform consists precisely in seeking to change those norms, based on some higher norm of equality or autonomy. It can only be expressed as disapproval of the existing structure of value, and therefore only experienced by those within that existing structure as an unexpected loss of status.

Think of Mill’s complaint in On Liberty of the “tyranny of custom” restricting the principle of individuality in Victorian England, particularly of women or eccentric men. The only way this culture could change was by a self-conscious group of reformers – the first wave of feminists, along with the Victorian/Edwardian freethinkers so influenced by Mill. But the disapproval of these feminists and freethinkers for what they saw as the bigotry of more conventional Victorians was experienced as elite condescension at best and as suppression of the freedom of Englishmen at worst.

Moreover, any movement of reform must rely on solidarity. If those within that movement are seen as conceding to the social structures it is struggling against, they can only be disciplined by social disapproval within the movement. In some cases, this results in sectarian division, in others in conformity around the cause. But for anyone whose identity is caught up in the broader movement, disapproval by those “to one’s left” is likely to sting more than it would for the self-consciously reactionary.

Of course, once the cause is won, the norms that the movement sought to create become part of the tyranny of custom. I grew up in the 1980s in a relatively liberal city, Victoria. But I can assure you that no one at my high school was as free to say they were gay or to express a nonconforming gender identity as their children are. This newfound freedom is only possible because homophobic and transphobic abuse became subject to social sanction (and sometimes school discipline), which they were not in the 1980s. Then and now there were things that could be said and things that could not be said. The total amount of “tyranny of custom” has been conserved – but it has been redistributed in a way that allows for greater freedom and equality.

Not every effort at social reform in the past succeeded, and many of those efforts may not have been good ideas. And I would not suggest that all such efforts in the future will or should succeed either. But if they are meaningful at all, they will all involve changing what is socially disapproved. Custom may change from a tyrant to a constitutional monarch, but will never cease to rule. In that sense, someone will always feel cancelled.

Notes

1 United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012); Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. ___ (2017).

2 The US Faculty Termination for Political Speech Dataset (2000–2020).

3 Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott, 2013 SCC 11, 1 SCR 467

4 See, for example Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61 (CanLII), 3 SCR 640, restricting the availability of defamation to promote communication on matters of public interest.

5 Angus Reid Institute, Majority of Canadians Say Political Correctness Has ‘Gone Too Far’ August 29, 2016.