The absurdity of the Republican National Convention’s adoption of cancel culture as cause célèbre hit a new peak Tuesday night during an address by Nicholas Sandmann, a former Covington High School student whose confrontation with a Native American activist in January 2019 near the Lincoln Memorial went viral. “I learned what was happening to me—it was called being canceled,” Sandmann recalled, regarding the media’s treatment of the incident, which he says framed him as the aggressor because of his MAGA hat.
But there he was, on a national platform: not canceled, not annulled, not revoked, not made void, and decidedly televised, as he further muddied the Republican Party’s messaging with marble-mouthed convolution. “Canceled is what’s happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left,” he monotoned. If said people aren’t in actual danger of being silenced, one has to wonder what the practical effects of cancellation actually are.
Sandmann’s take was a particularly inelegant rendering of an incoherent argument that hit a fever pitch this year. When conservatives and self-styled intellectuals publicly discuss “cancel culture”—the contemporary riff on 1990s “political correctness,” which diminished and dismissed (you might even say attempted to cancel, even!) the notion of striving for fairness and anti-bigotry through measured and considerate expression—their arguments tend to rely on vagueness, slippery-slope soothsaying, and examples that fail to leave an airtight seal. That is to say that they don’t say much. What is extremely telling, however, is who’s saying it. This summer, before our eyes, cancel culture has seemingly become a bipartisan issue, with conservatives and “liberals” enlisting as crusaders against those who would crusade against them. That this is one of the main themes of the RNC indicates that cancel culture was never a liberal notion to begin with.
When opinion writer and supposed intellectual stunt queen Bari Weiss performed an impassioned mic drop to announce her resignation from the New York Times on July 14, she bemoaned a “new McCarthyism” at the paper of record that stifled independent thinking and led to her “bullying” at the hands of her coworkers. But more revealing than her complaints was the public response to them. Some of the loudest applause came from the right, with the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Shapiro, Fox News’s Brit Hume, and Meghan McCain co-signing Weiss’s righteousness and bravery. Rep. Jim Jordan read an excerpt during a Congressional hearing on antitrust issues. Andrew Sullivan tweeted about it several times and announced, on the same day, he would be leaving New York magazine that week. Donald Trump Jr., called Weiss’s letter “STUNNING” on Twitter, adding, “If you RT/share 1 thing today THIS is it!”
Conservatives lined up to co-sign a letter complaining of an “illiberal environment” within the Times written by someone who has described herself as a “left-leaning centrist” (and who didn’t correct Bill Maher when he described her as liberal during the July 31 episode of HBO’s Real Time). The bedfellows may seem strange, but this alignment is part of a larger contemporary ideological tendency of writers and thinkers like Weiss and Matt Taibbi, who claim to be at least left-of-right (if not straight-up “liberal”), and yet espouse values conservative enough to be widely endorsed by those on the right.
So strong is the cancel-culture pull that even President Donald Trump has weighed in, ostensibly in solidarity with Weiss and the cancel culture concerns voiced in her letter specifically, as well as the widely derided, vaguely constructed group letter published by Harper’s the preceding week, more generally. The day after Weiss’s resignation drop—a gesture meant to reflect Weiss’s supereme virtue that was timed for maximum impact—Trump tweeted that the Times is “under siege”:
And in his July 4 speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump emphasized these points/this false dichotomy: “We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture. We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.” In a Fox News interview that aired July 19, Trump said, “You know, the whole thing with cancel culture? We can’t cancel our whole history. We can’t forget that the North and the South fought. We have to remember that. Otherwise, we’ll end up fighting again.”
Trump had been implicated specifically in the aforementioned Harper’s missive, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which bemoaned “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.” Nonetheless, the 150+ signatories of the letter, who included the likes of Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, and Weiss (“These are all liberals! This is what amazes me about this!,” said Maher on the Harper’s roster), found themselves in the same discursive ballpark, at least for a moment, as Trump. Here’s where cause and cure blur.
Trump, of course, has a long history of attempted cancelation, including but not limited to, a habit of calling for boycotts of entities that criticize or threaten him: of Starbucks, Macy’s, Apple, Mexico, The Megyn Kelly Show, Colin Kaepernick. Those are just a few of the litanies of examples from Vice and The Washington Post in pieces exposing the hypocrisy in Trump’s messaging.
In another circumstance, you could chalk up this seeming contradiction to Trump’s typical bumbling. But raging against cancel culture is consistent with a platform that helped win him the presidency: the flawed, exclusionary notion of anti-political correctness, which was defined and popularized in the early ‘90s to prevent the seeking of justice for marginalized groups like people of color, women, and queers, from going too far. While making a practice of targeting and firing those with whom he disagrees (especially when they’ve been critical of him), Trump has dodged similar targets on himself. Trump refused to be canceled (and indeed wasn’t) before “cancel culture” even had a name.
People on the right, in the middle, and on the left share a common conceptual enemy: the limiting of speech. But this is a shaky bipartisan ideological allegiance. Those who stand against cancel culture as a potential suppression of speech are themselves attempting to suppress speech that, suppressive as its aims may be, is still speech often in the form of protest and boycott. What unites those who speak out against cancel culture, is a plain and simple investment in power and the retention of it. This is how the interest spans ostensible political boundaries. The desired power is to decree without interruption and to be understood without questioning. It’s to be able to make inherently conservative anti-justice statements and arguments without blowback or criticism. As Weiss put it in one of her columns: we’re all fascists now.
In a July New Yorker interview with Harper’s letter architect Thomas Chatterton Williams, Isaac Chotiner summed up the ideological vagueness that muddies the moral grandstanding against cancel culture: “I suppose I’m wondering whether we’re all drawing the line somewhere, and therefore if in fact both you and people to your left who you view as restrictive are drawing lines on a spectrum, rather than there being some giant chasm about what the meaning of liberalism is.”
Maybe it’s this simple: As the right becomes more extremist and the left becomes less patient, the Overton Window shifts so that any push for social change (even the kind that has been well established in the mainstream since the Civil Rights Movement, if not earlier) can itself be framed as extremism by those who disagree. Pushback receives pushback, horns lock, and nostrils flare.
Regardless of the high-minded ideas about the dangers of fostering a culture of suppression and creating a new world in which bravery is a liability, it’s impossible to dissociate those who stand to be served by a reduction in “cancel culture” from their egos. If self-interest weren’t so blatantly wrapped up in the elite’s supposed crusade for free-thinking, it might be easier to take seriously. If branding weren’t a key feature of taking a stand against a culture that is supposedly out to suppress writers with massive/built-in audiences—Sullivan, of course, launched a Substack immediately following his New York departure–it might be easier to locate the nobility.
The RNC speakers thus far have done a terrible job of supporting their thesis that cancel culture represents a threat to modern democracy. But then, propaganda is rarely patient or reasoned. Scrutinizing the words of self-appointed intellectuals who have spoken at length on the subject yields similarly spoiled returns of lopsided logic and deep self-investment.
In his New Yorker interview, Thomas Chatterton Williams said the Harper’s letter that he helped draft was a “successful” document. It was not “successful” for achieving its apparent goal of eradicating the intellectual world of its “stifling atmosphere.” It was successful, by Williams’s measure, in terms of the attention it commanded. It begat, in his words, an “international conversation,” which reflexively proved its worth. Mind you, “cancel culture” itself has spawned an international conversation, and it has gotten people thinking about the exact same stuff as the Harper’s letter. The difference in framing, you might observe, comes down to intent.
Beyond the precariousness of ferreting out intention to decide whose speech is important enough to be considered an unassailable public service, it’s striking how frequently incorrect those decrying cancel culture have been when forced to break their habit of vagueness and provide solid examples. In July, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany erroneously claimed that the children’s show Paw Patrol had been canceled and that LEGO discontinued its LEGO City Police lines—another faked example of cancel culture (in this case, supposedly spurred by those who have it out for the United States’ veneration of the police) going too far. Weiss claimed that Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt was a casualty of cancel culture, but it was published and widely discussed (by Oprah Winfrey, in fact) and, after 30 weeks, remains on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Williams’s New Yorker interview required editorial clarification when he cited UCLA professor William Peris and University of Chicago’s Harald Uhlig as academics who had been silenced in the cancel culture epidemic, as neither were silenced, per se—they were reported and investigated for perceived transgressions.
Williams cited Kaepernick as a cancel culture casualty, which seems right considering that he remains a free agent after having the nerve to protest American racism on NFL turf. But Williams also mentioned David Shor, a data scientist whose firing became a cancel culture cause earlier this year. During the thick of the Black Lives Matter protests catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, Shor tweeted a study that suggested nonviolent protests were more effective than so-called riots. Shor’s tweet was met with backlash and within weeks, Shor no longer held his position as Civis Analytics’ head of political data science. He’s suspected to have been fired from his job (though Shor has said that he is not at liberty to comment on the terms of his parting ways with Civis).
Shor would seem to be as canceled as they come, and nonetheless, according to a July 17 interview with New York’s Intelligencer, he “is still consulting in Democratic politics, but he is no longer working for a firm that restricts his freedom to publicly opine.” Well OK, then. Maybe that’s an even better move for someone who cherishes that freedom to publicly opine. The supposed cancelation did not deter Shor from once again broaching the subject of nonviolent protest, at any rate. In the more than 8,000-word Intelligencer piece, a sizable platform unto itself, Shor doubled down on the idea that got him into hot water, and opined about non-violent protest. If this is what being canceled looks like... well, what in the world is anyone talking about?
But maybe Shor is an outlier, someone whose conviction goes above and beyond that of the average thinker, whose newly instilled fear of cancellation is now a barrier to the kind of free expression to which they feel entitled. This fear was the premise of Katie Roiphe’s contrarian Harper’s piece regarding MeToo, “The Other Whisper Network,” and it’s a sentiment that has been repeated by Taibbi and Williams. “I have a lot of discussions with people who work in the media who in the last few months have said they are afraid to pitch a certain kind of story because they don’t want it to get around that they’re interested in a certain topic because they might end up on the radar of people in the union or those who are very politically engaged in the newsroom,” Taibbi said in a Politico story regarding a public survey on cancel culture. Williams described similar conversations to The New Yorker.
Maybe this fear, though, is a good thing. Editing and judiciousness are cornerstones of effective speech. At a time when technology has afforded us the ability to stream our thoughts, uninterrupted, all day long, what has resulted is a culture of noise wherein the necessary and frivolous are increasingly difficult to parse. Maybe fear is the regulator we need.
“Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery,” claimed Weiss in her resignation letter. I disagree. Such bravery would help separate those who are spinning their wheels in their cushy jobs and reveling in provocateur status, from those who have actually something important to say. “To create today means to create dangerously,” said writer Albert Camus in a recently republished 1957 speech. “Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.” More than 60 years have gone by since and increased connectivity has only made these words truer. As former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt recently tweeted, Republicans are afraid to stand up to Trump “because they are terrified of mean tweets.”
Cancel culture is the pervasive fear of mean tweets in general. Beyond words, what are people so afraid of anyway? Writing about the attempt of some 550 academics to oust Harvard professor Steven Pinker from “distinguished fellows” list of the Linguistic Society of America, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf claimed that despite the failed attempt (yet another case of supposed cancelation that... just wasn’t), the academics “did send a message to less powerful scholars that certain opinions, publicly stated, could result in professional sanction.” But why would that be the lesson gleaned from anyone evaluating the outcome of the situation, especially a scholar? That certain opinions could result in professional sanctions is hardly news. The attempt has thus far not removed Pinker (“It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression,” the executive committee wrote in a letter addressed to Pinker after receiving the petition), presumably in part because its logic and interpretation fell short of the proof needed to oust Pinker. That could send its own message to aspiring cancelers.
The fears of cancelation’s normalization are exaggerated as well. “All it takes is a dozen people to repeat a lie about you: that you’re a racist, that you’re a transphobe, that you’re a bigot, for that lie to become true. And that’s extremely dangerous,” said Weiss on Real Time in July. But dangerous how? A writer like Weiss’s fellow Harper’s signatory Jesse Singal, whose contrarianism on trans issues has made his name synonymous with transphobia to many, has a podcast whose Patreon currently generates more than $17,000 a month. The “lie” here either didn’t become true, or it attracted followers. It seems like pushback has been most “dangerous” to Singal’s ability to spout with impunity.
There is no doubt that social media has empowered people to target that with which they disagree. In July, Pitchfork’s Jill Mapes was doxxed and harassed by Taylor Swift fans. Unlike many in stans’ crosshairs, Mapes reviewed Swift’s latest album Folklore positively, but the rating on her review (an 8.0) brought down Swift’s Metacritic score and so Swifties decided that Mapes had to pay with threats to her livelihood. That is absurd, and so is a lot of the public shaming that people face for perceived infractions on opposing sensibilities. Such shaming can be detrimental to one’s professional future and psyche. But so often, what persists after the would-be cancelers fail is those vulnerable to cancelation holding up such examples as proof that our culture is on the decline. In fact, Rome’s been burning.
I’m less dazzled by the heat than astonished by its spread. The Harper’s letter and then Weiss’s resignation essentially handed Republicans a template that they have run with. “Cancel culture” is now less of an abstract whine by intellectuals than a battle cry to silence silencers, though that I suspect was always the motivation. “Offense-taking is being weaponized,” claimed Weiss on Real Time in 2018. “It is a route now to political power. Saying that I am offended is a way of making someone radioactive. It’s a way of smearing their reputation, of making them a liability.” This leaves no room for the expression of actual offense, and casting all potential dissent as disingenuous might say more about one’s skewed world view than actual discourse.
As cancel culture gains mainstream steam, so does the possibility of real-life consequences that target oppressed people, which the “liberal” intellectuals decrying cancel culture, or their brethren at the RNC, are not. Republicans are particularly incoherent on this matter, even as it pertains to their convention. If the McCloskeys were allowed a seat at the RNC’s table, one has to wonder how invested in “cancel culture” the party actually is. After all, the couple turned guns on peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors in front of their St. Louis home on June 28, threatening those who were exercising their right to free speech with the ultimate cancelation—death.
It’s as though to prove their point, Republicans had to will cancel culture into existence, and brandish the weapon that they claim to fear.
Correction: A previous version of this post claimed that the Linguistic Society of America’s executive committee “stood by” Steven Pinker in its response to the petition seeking to oust him. As the society clarified in a follow-up letter on July 17, “The recent message from the Executive Committee to the membership, despite alternative interpretations placed on it by some, was not intended to be a rejection of the open letter, but rather an affirmation of our collective values and principles.”