‘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…