We’ve been down this road before. Many times. Too many times. We’ve been down it about the words that became untethered from well-established and meaningful definitions like “rape” or “violence.” We’ve been down it with cool new phrases that were birthed by the left, seized upon by others, then denied by the left, like “social justice warrior” and “woke.” And we’ve gone down it again with characterizations of identitarianism as “critical race theory,” and we’re there again with “cancel culture.”
One might be inclined to dismiss this otherwise inconsequential “take” but for the fact that it’s got more than 52,000 “likes,” as of the moment, reflecting a great many people with neither shame nor concern for intellectual honesty. We might struggle mightily to define the parameters of what this phrase, “cancel culture,” might be, but there is no sentient person who thinks this is anything other than denialist bullshit.
That it’s “liked” by the swarm of unduly passionate gnats who employ it in furtherance of its goal of pressuring third parties to punish or silence a hated person is unsurprising. This is the chief weapon of the Spanish Inquisition, surprise notwithstanding. Ironically, Emma Camp, the UVA student excoriated for stating the obvious in a New York Times op-ed, that cancel culture has had a significant chilling effect on campus speech, notes the UVA school newpaper claiming that Mike Pence speaking on campus “threatens the lives of those on Grounds” and must be “de-platformed.” Do they contend that Pence will step out from behind the podium and beat students with his mighty fists? Nah.
In looking at each of these instances, we as an Editorial Board found ourselves questioning what should be protected under the premise of “diversity of thought” and more importantly, what values we choose to accept on Grounds. For us, the answer is simple. Hateful rhetoric is violent — and this is impermissible.
They are almost right about one thing. To them, “the answer is simplistic.” Cancel Pence. They can disagree with him all they want. Dispute his words. Call him names. But that’s not what they want. They want the University of Virginia, notably a state school, even if the principle applies where the First Amendment does not, to refuse to allow Pence to speak on its campus. So what if one group invited him. So what if some students want to hear what he has to say, for better or worse. By their word, his “hateful rhetoric is violent.”
This is where someone does a Potter Stewart, but that’s no more helpful here than it was in his concurrence. The phenomenon is real, and our cultural failure to define words and phrases, or adhere to definitions, has put us in the position of arguing about rhetoric rather than the underlying problem.
FIRE president Greg Lukianoff and Komi German try to offer a working definition of “cancel culture,” arguing that its denial and abuse (Putin’s been canceled?!?) don’t make it disappear.
But just because the term has been grossly overused doesn’t mean we should give up on its popularly understood definition—which aptly describes a real (and growing) problem. This is the measurable uptick, since around 2014, of campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is—or would be—protected by First Amendment standards. That’s “cancel culture.”
Does that work as a definition?
The problem, they contend, is that the phrase has gone the way of so many others, SJW, woke, critical race theory for example, reduced to meaninglessness as a phrase and useful only as a cultural signifier, first for the left to extol its virtue, then for the right to denigrate the left.
But that would be a mistake, not only because cancel culture, the phenomenon, is all too real, but also because “cancel culture,” the term, is an effective, widely understood descriptor. And despite the denialism surrounding its very existence, we will demonstrate through empirical data and polling that cancel culture is not only a real problem, it is one that continues to expand in scope and size.
In support, they point to the anecdotes they assert are cancel culture, and to the FIRE survey showing that 60% of Americans believe it to be a threat to our freedom, and 70% “said they were afraid to say what they believe because they were worried it could impact their job or standing in school.” The problem with these arguments in support is that they beg the question. If 70% of Americans said they believed Bigfoot was real, does that make Bigfoot real? As for the anecdotes, they’re “cancel culture” because they say so, just as the UVA editorial says “hateful rhetoric is violence” because they say so.
I’ve tried to define cancel culture, but to no apparent avail.
Cancel culture is the breakdown of social norms that allow for the free speech of criticism but inhibit people from joining together with like-minded people to not merely disagree with words or ideas they find unacceptable (or perceive to be unacceptable on behalf of others), but then act upon them for the purpose of inflicting secondary punishment to their antagonists, whether based on fact, opinion or false accusation, without need for proof or due process and disconnected from the nature of the original “offense.”
In other words, what distinguishes “cancel culture” from criticism is that it’s directed not at the target of hatred, but at “secondary impacts,” coercing others to inflict punishment, de-platform or otherwise harm them for wrong words or ideas, Whether that’s because my definition which seeks to distinguish between criticism, a criticially valued right, and cancel culture is too narrow or broad, or simply not a good definition, I dunno.
One of the most vocal critics of The New York Times editorial is journalist Adam Davidson. He asked, “Can one of you believers in cancel culture just write one piece that gives evidence and doesn’t just speak to a feeling you have?”
Yes, we can. On campus there are hundreds of examples in only the past few years limited just to scholars, and likely thousands if you count students, which is amazing because 80 percent of students at not-for-profit four-year colleges attend only about 600 schools. (We are gathering data on student cancellations, but from the approximately 1,500 incidents we look at each year, we already know that students get in trouble far more often than professors.)
And indeed, I could probably give hundreds, if not thousands, of examples as well. But without a definition, more than 52,000 people, including someone as woke as Davidson, can continue to deny it exists, anecdotes and public belief notwithstanding. Definitions matter, and the absence of definition has given rise to the impossibility of even acknowledging a problem, no less fixing it. At least to those of us who want problems fixed.