What follows are a few thoughts on how to view wokeism and cancel culture with nuance:
Two Basic Principles (or, Too Much of a Good Thing)
There are two principles that first spring to mind when considering cancel culture. First, reason and ethics, to this writer, suggest that social consequences are a good thing. There are certain words and actions that one in a free society would certainly not wish to result in fines, community service, imprisonment, or execution by government, but are deserving of proportional and reasonable punishments by private actors, ordinary people. It is right that someone who uses a racial slur loses their job or show or social media account. A decent person and decent society wants there to be social consequences for immoral actions, because it discourages such actions and helps build a better world. One can believe in this while also supporting free speech rights and the First Amendment, which obviously have to do with how the government responds to what you say and do, not private persons and entities.
The second principle acknowledges that there will be many cases where social consequences are not proportional or reasonable, where things go too far and people, Right and Left, are crushed for rather minor offenses. It’s difficult to think of many social trends or ideological movements that did not go overboard in some fashion, after all. There are simply some circumstances where there was an overreaction to words and deeds, where mercy should have been the course rather than retribution. (Especially worthy of consideration: was the perpetrator young at the time of the crime, with an underdeveloped brain? Was the offense in the past, giving someone time to change and grow, to regret it?) Readers will disagree over which specific cases fall into this category, but surely most will agree with the general principle, simply that overreaction in fact occurs. I can’t be the only Leftist who both nods approvingly in some cases and in others thinks, “She didn’t deserve that” or “My, what a disproportionate response.” Stupid acts might deserve a different response than racist ones, dumb ideas a different tack than dangerous ones, and so on. It might be added that overreactions not only punish others improperly, but also encourage forced, insincere apologies — somewhat reminiscent of the adage than you shouldn’t make faith a requirement of holding office, as you’ll only end up with performative religiosity.
Acknowledging and pondering both these principles is important.
“Free Speech” Only Concerns Government-Citizen Interaction
Again, in most cases, the phrase “free speech” is basically irrelevant to the cancel culture conversation. It’s worth emphasizing. Businesses and individuals — social media companies, workplaces, show venues, a virtual friend who blocks you or deletes your comment — have every right to de-platform, cancel, censor, and fire. The whining about someone’s “free speech” being violated when they’re cancelled is sophomoric and ignorant — the First Amendment and free speech rights are about whether the government will punish you, not non-government actors.
Which makes sense, for an employer or individual could just as easily be said to have the “free speech right” to fire or cancel you — why is your “free speech right” mightier than theirs?
Public universities and government workplaces, a bit different, are discussed below.
Why is the Left at Each Other’s Throats?
At times the national conversation is about the left-wing mob coming for conservatives, but we know it comes for its own with just as much enthusiasm. Maybe more, some special drive to purge bad ideas and practices from our own house. Few involved in left-wing advocacy of some kind haven’t found themselves in the circular firing squad, whether firing or getting blasted — most of us have probably experienced both. It’s a race to be the most woke, and can lead to a lot of nastiness.
What produces this? Largely pure motives, for if there’s a path that’s more tolerant, more just, that will build a better future, we want others to see and take it. It’s a deep desire to do what’s right and get others to do the same. (That the pursuit of certain kinds of tolerance [racial, gender, etc.] would lead to ideological intolerance has been called ironic or hypocritical, but seems, while it can go too far at times, more natural and inevitable — there’s no ending separate drinking fountains without crushing the segregationist’s ideology.)
But perhaps the inner turmoil also comes from troublesome ideas of group monolithic thinking, plus a desperate desire for there to be one right answer when there isn’t one. Because we sometimes look at impacted groups as comprised of members all thinking the same way, or enough thinking the same way, there is therefore one right answer and anyone who questions it should be trampled on. For example, you could use “person with autism” (person-first language) rather than “autistic person” (identity-first language) and fall under attack for not being woke enough. Identity-first language is more popular among the impacted group members, and the common practice with language among non-impacted persons is to defer to majority opinions. But majority opinions aren’t strictly “right” — to say this is of course to say the minority of the impacted group members are simply wrong. Who would have the arrogance and audacity to say this? It’s simply different opinions, diversity of thought. (Language and semantics are minefields on the Left, but also varying policy ideas.) There’s nothing wrong with deferring to majority opinion, but if we were not so focused on there being one right answer, if we didn’t view groups as single-minded or single-minded enough, we would be much more tolerant of people’s “mistakes” and less likely to stoop to nastiness. We’d respect and explore and perhaps even celebrate different views within our side of the political spectrum. It’s worth adding that we go just as crazy when the majority impacted group opinion is against an idea. It may be more woke, for example, to support police abolition or smaller police presences in black neighborhoods, but 81% of black Americans don’t want the police going anywhere, so the majority argument won’t always help a case. Instead of condemning someone who isn’t on board with such policies as not caring enough about racial justice, not being woke enough, being dead wrong, we should again remember there is great diversity of thought out there and many ideas, many possible right answers beyond our own, to consider and discuss with civility. One suspects that few individuals, if intellectually honest, would always support the most radical or woke policy posited (more likely, you’ll disagree with something), so more tolerance and humility is appropriate.
The same should be shown toward many in the middle and on the Right as well. Some deserve a thrashing. Others don’t.
The University Onus
One hardly envies the position college administrators find themselves in, pulled between the idea that a true place of learning should include diverse and dissenting opinions, the desire to punish and prevent hate speech or awful behaviors, the interest in responding to student demands, and the knowledge that the loudest, best organized demands are at times themselves minority opinions, not representative.
Private universities are like private businesses, in that there’s no real argument against them cancelling as they please.
But public universities, owned by the states, have a special responsibility to protect a wide range of opinion, from faculty, students, guest speakers, and more, as I’ve written elsewhere. As much as this writer loves seeing the power of student organizing and protest, and the capitulation to that power by decision-makers at the top, public colleges should take a harder line in many cases to defend views or actions that are deemed offensive, in order to keep these spaces open to ideological diversity and not drive away students who could very much benefit from being in an environment with people of different classes, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and politics. Similar to the above, that is a sensible general principle. There will of course be circumstances where words and deeds should be crushed, cancellation swift and terrible. Where that line is, again, is a matter of disagreement. But the principle is simply that public colleges should save firings, censorship, cancellation, suspension, and expulsion for more extreme cases than is current practice. The same for other public entities and public workplaces. Such spaces are linked to the government, which actually does bring the First Amendment and other free speech rights into the conversation, and therefore there exists a special onus to allow broader ranges of views.
Cancel Culture Isn’t New — It’s Just the Left’s Turn
If you look at the surveys that have been conducted, two things become clear: 1) support for cancel culture is higher on the Left, but 2) it’s also a problem on the Right.
50% of staunch progressives “would support firing a business executive who personally donated to Donald Trump’s campaign,” vs. 36% of staunch conservatives who “would support firing Biden donors.” Republicans are much more worried about their beliefs costing them their jobs (though a quarter of Democrats worry, too), conservatives are drastically more afraid to share opinions (nearly 80%, vs. just over 40% for strong liberals), and only in the “strong liberal” camp does a majority (58%) feel free to speak its mind without offending others (liberals 48%, conservatives 23%). While almost 100% of the most conservative Americans see political correctness as a problem, 30% of the most progressive Americans agree, not an insignificant figure (overall, 80% of citizens agree). There’s some common ground here.
While the Left is clearly leading modern cancel culture, it’s important to note that conservatives often play by the same rules, despite rhetoric about how they are the true defenders of “free speech.” If Kaepernick kneels for the anthem, he should be fired. If a company (Nike, Gillette, Target, NASCAR, Keurig, MLB, Delta, etc.) gets political on the wrong side of the spectrum, boycott it and destroy your possessions, while Republican officials legislate punishment. If Republican Liz Cheney denounces Trump’s lies, remove her from her leadership post. Rage over and demand cancellation of Ellen, Beyonce, Jane Fonda, Samantha Bee, Kathy Griffin, Michelle Wolf, and Bill Maher for using their free speech. Obviously, no one called for more firings for views he didn’t like than Trump. If the Dixie Chicks criticize the invasion of Iraq, wipe them from the airways, destroy their CDs. Thomas Hitchner recently put together an important piece on conservative censorship and cancellation during the post-9/11 orgy of patriotism, for those interested. And don’t forget what happened to Sinéad O’Connor after she tore up a photograph of the Pope (over the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal) on SNL in 1992: her records were crushed under a steamroller in Times Square and her career was cancelled.
More importantly, when we place this phenomenon of study in the context of history, we come to suspect that rather than being something special to the Left (or naturally more powerful on the Left, because liberals hate free speech and so on), cancel culture seems to be, predictably, led by the strongest cultural and political ideology of the moment. When the U.S. was more conservative, it was the Right that was leading the charge to ensure people with dissenting views were fired, censored, and so on. The hammer, rather than wielded by the far Left, came down on it.
You could look to the socialists and radicals, like Eugene Debs, who were literally imprisoned for speaking out against World War I, but more recently the McCarthy era after World War II, when government workers, literary figures, media anchors, and Hollywood writers, actors, and filmmakers accused of socialist or communist sympathies were hunted down and fired, blacklisted, slandered, imprisoned for refusing to answer questions at the witch trials, and so forth, as discussed in A History of the American People by conservative Paul Johnson. The Red Scare was in many ways far worse than modern cancel culture — it wasn’t simply the mob that came for you, it was the mob and the government. However, lest anyone think this was just Republican Big Government run amok rather than a cultural craze working in concert, recall that it was the movie studios doing the actual firing and blacklisting, the universities letting faculty go, LOOK and other magazines reprinting Army “How to Spot a Communist” propaganda, ordinary people pushing and marching and rallying against communism, etc.
There was also [black socialist] Paul Robeson, who had his passport revoked by the US State Department for his political beliefs and was forced to spend more than a decade living abroad. Racism and red-scare hysteria also canceled the acting career of Canada Lee, who was blacklisted from movies and died broke in 1952 at the age of 45. The [anti-segregationist] song “Mississippi Goddam” got Nina Simone banned from the radio and much of the American South, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics essentially hounded Billie Holiday to death for the sin of stubbornly refusing to stop performing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.”
Connectedly, there was the Lavender Scare, a purge of gays and suspected gays from government and private workplaces. 5,000-10,000 people lost their jobs:
“It’s important to remember that the Cold War was perceived as a kind of moral crusade,” says [historian David K.] Johnson, whose 2004 book The Lavender Scare popularized the phrase and is widely regarded as the first major historical examination of the policy and its impact. The political and moral fears about alleged subversives became intertwined with a backlash against homosexuality, as gay and lesbian culture had grown in visibility in the post-war years. The Lavender Scare tied these notions together, conflating gay people with communists and alleging they could not be trusted with government secrets and labelling them as security risks, even though there was no evidence to prove this.
The 1950s was a difficult era for the Left and its civil rights advocates, class warriors, and gay liberators, with persecution and censorship the norm. More conservative times, a stronger conservative cancel culture. This did not end in this decade, of course (one of my own heroes, Howard Zinn, was fired from Spelman College in 1963 for his civil rights activism), but soon a long transition began. Paul Johnson mused:
The significant fact about McCarthyism, seen in retrospect, was that it was the last occasion, in the 20th century, when the hysterical pressure on the American people to conform came from the right of the political spectrum, and when the witchhunt was organized by conservative elements. Thereafter the hunters became the hunted.
While, as we saw, the Right are still often hunters as well, and therefore we see much hypocrisy today, there is some truth to this statement, as from the 1960s and ’70s the nation began slowly liberalizing. Individuals increasingly embraced liberalism, as did some institutions, like academia, the media, and Hollywood (others, such as the church, military, and law enforcement remain quite conservative). The U.S. is still growing increasingly liberal, more favoring New Deal policies, for example, even though more Americans still identify as conservative:
Since 1992, the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal has risen from 17% then to 26% today. This has been mostly offset by a shrinking percentage of moderates, from 43% to 35%. Meanwhile, from 1993 to 2016 the percentage conservative was consistently between 36% and 40%, before dipping to 35% in 2017 and holding at that level in 2018.
On top of this, the invention and growth of social media since the mid-2000s has dramatically changed the way public anger coalesces and is heard — and greatly increased its power.
So the Left has grown in strength at the same time as technology that can amplify and expand cancel culture, a convergence that is both fortunate and unfortunate — respectively, for those who deserve harsh social consequences and for those who do not.