‘Cancel Culture’ Is How the Powerful Play Victim
A letter published in ‘Harper’s’ mistakes critiques of the powerful for the silencing of free speech
A few years back, my old high school found itself embroiled in a controversy over dress codes. The girls were protesting what they believed were sexist rules: bans on bare shoulders and midriffs and code violations that almost entirely targeted female students. What I remember most, though, was the response by the school principal, who said, “Some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.”
But whose learning was he talking about? Surely not the young women who were being pulled out of class just to be forced to change into oversized T-shirts. No, the principal was referring to the boys: He feared the girls’ clothing and bodies would distract from their learning.
It didn’t occur to the school that routinely pulling girls out of class would be a distraction — not to mention a humiliation — because the girls’ learning was never really the point. It was a perfect distillation of how institutions center policies around those they deem most important.
That’s why an old dress code was the first thing that came to my mind when I read the public letter in Harper’s decrying America’s “intolerant climate” and “a vogue for public shaming.” The letter’s signatories read like a who’s who: political luminaries, columnists, authors, and professors — people with powerful platforms, and access to large audiences. And at first glance, the letter seems innocuous — there’s nothing wrong with being against “the restriction of debate” or wanting to “preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”
But a closer look shows the “good-faith disagreements” are anything but. The letter mentions professors being “investigated for quoting works of literature in class,” for example. What I assume they’re referring to is a white teacher at UCLA who used the n-word repeatedly in class while quoting Martin Luther King Jr. even after Black students asked him to stop. (Ohio State University professor Koritha Mitchell has a terrific podcast episode on why teachers shouldn’t be doing this.) The students made a formal complaint, as is their right, but there’s been no mention of their free speech in the ensuing media furor.
The Harper’s letter also mentions editors being “fired for running controversial pieces” — a reference to the ouster of New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet. What the letter doesn’t mention is that Bennet lost his job for, among other things, running an op-ed section that published a senator advocating the use of military force against peaceful American protesters — a column that employees pointed out literally put Black lives in danger — and without even having read it before publication.
Who signed the letter in Harper’s is just as important as what’s written in it. Ian Buruma, for example, was fired from his job at the New York Review of Books after he published an essay by Jian Ghomeshi — a Canadian radio personality who had been accused by more than 20 women of sexual assault. Buruma later defended the decision in a disastrous interview where he said, “The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea nor is it really my concern.”
New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss, who has made a career for herself railing against “safe spaces,” was recently outed for reporting a Black editor to management just because she declined an invitation for coffee. Emily Yoffe, who has been criticized by anti-rape activists for multiple columns in the past, was recently taken to task by a Washington Post journalist for publishing the story of her assault in a piece riddled with errors and bias. Olivia Nuzzi just wrote a fawning obituary of a woman known for harassing a leading Black journalist and his family. Then of course there’s J.K. Rowling, who recently used her considerable platform to push forward bigoted ideas and debunked myths about trans women while fashioning herself a defender of women’s rights.
An arrested journalist is never referred to as “canceled” nor is a woman who has been frozen out of an industry after complaining about sexual harassment.
I could go on. The point is that a good number of the people attached to the letter — which presents itself as an objective defense of free speech — are those eager to excuse their own bad behavior and bigotries. (There are also signatories I respect; since its publication, New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is trans, has apologized and tweeted that she didn’t know who else had signed the letter.)
The truth is that we are in a political moment when free speech is in danger, just not in the way this letter outlines. Americans have watched as thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against racist police violence — only to be tear-gassed and beaten. Video after video shows journalists, clearly identifying themselves as such, being hit and dragged, knocked over and arrested. The most challenged book in American libraries last year? A children’s book about a trans child.
Where is the free speech outrage, the letter signed by powerful thinkers, over these injustices?
The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them. As the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah put it, “This is about whose ideas, opinions and expressions are worth protecting.”
At the end of the day, “cancel culture” is a term full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s certainly not about free speech: After all, an arrested journalist is never referred to as “canceled” nor is a woman who has been frozen out of an industry after complaining about sexual harassment. “Canceled” is a label we all understand to mean a powerful person who’s been held to account. It’s a term meant to re-center sympathy on those who already have privilege and influence — a convenient tool to maintain the status quo.
But facing consequences for what you say and do is not a free speech violation. And there’s nothing new or brave about signing a letter that characterizes criticism of the powerful as dangerous.