‘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

Jessica Valenti
GEN
Published in
5 min readJul 8, 2020

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J.K. Rowling. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

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

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Jessica Valenti
GEN
Writer for

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.