This article is a part of an eBook by Dr. Jeff Myers.
By continuing, you’ll analyze a devastating “cancel event” from the inside, and discuss some surprising things you can do and say to become a free-speech champion in times like these.
In his tongue-in-cheek poem “The World State,” G.K. Chesterton mused about learning “to love my fellow-man and to hate my next-door neighbour.”1 The so-called “cancel culture” is the ultimate love-humankind-but-hate-people strategy. Jesus said it is morally upright to love your neighbor and turn the other cheek. “Cancellers” believe it is morally upright to despise your neighbor and verbally abuse those whose viewpoints differ from your own. All in the name of social justice, of course. Dictionary.com defines the concept of cancel culture as “the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.”2 Unfortunately, it is much bigger than that. Canceling has become a new form of online bullying aimed at far more than public figures and large corporations. Anyone who dissents from the mob mentality could be a target. So, assuming that you will be targeted by cancellers at some point, what should you do? Let’s take a look at what the cancel culture is and the threat it represents, analyze a devastating “cancel event” from the inside, and discuss some surprising things you can do and say to become a free-speech champion in times like these.
Cancel Culture is Big & Growing
Contrary to the dismissive claims of mainstream media outlets, the cancel culture is real. Ryan Lizza of Politico says that 40% of voters claim to have engaged in a form of cancel culture. Ten percent say they participate “often.”3 Since the average person has eight friends, one of your friends is probably a die-hard canceller, and three of them are ready to pile on when they have the chance. Who are the cancellers? Mostly young Democrats. The Politico poll reviewed by Lizza found that half of Democrats have admitted to being involved in the cancel culture, and more than half of voters ages 18-34 say they have participated. Yet canceling is not exclusively the domain of the left. A third of Republicans say they have been involved as well.4
“Is cancel culture a real thing?”
Cancellers seem to be motivated by a set of virtuous traits that, when stirred together in today’s toxic social media atmosphere, become vices. The line between a sense of justice and self-righteous indignation is easily crossed on Facebook. The need to “do something” can spur people to thoughtlessly sign petitions that organizers adroitly manipulate to create the impression of godlike force. Skill at social media communication quickly whips the easily offended into a frenzied mob bent on revenge.
However, it is not unheard of for high-level leaders to use cancel culture tools to further their political ambitions. As a recent example, vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris has publicly—and repeatedly—lobbied to have President Donald Trump’s Twitter account suspended.5
Hardly a day goes by without a new cancel culture story. A well-known example, because it happened at the New York Times, occurred in June 2020, when the paper pushed out editorial page editor James Bennet—a diehard liberal Democrat—because he published an op-ed by a conservative United States senator, the decorated war veteran, Tom Cotton.
That incident—and many other lesser-known cases that preceded it—compelled a group of prominent journalists and artists to pen a “Letter on Open Justice and Debate,” published by the reliably liberal Harper’s Magazine. The letter warned against the “vogue for public shaming and ostracism” and “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”6
And yet, the canceling continues. In July 2020, liberal atheist Harvard professor Steven Pinker found himself the object of a petition to demand that the Linguistic Society of America strip him of his status as a fellow.7 Why? Because five years ago he re-tweeted a news report about data on police shootings and race that contradicted current popular opinion.
A few weeks later, communications executive Niel Golightly was run out of Boeing because thirty-three years ago he had written an article arguing against women in combat (a viewpoint he no longer holds, by the way). The company’s CEO added insult to injury with a statement promising to drive such “bigotry” out of the company.8 Golightly apologized, but his career—and his reputation as a brilliant executive and former naval aviator—is wrecked.
Another recent cancel culture controversy has arisen in my normally “chill” home state of Colorado. John Eastman, a University of Colorado professor appointed to a one-year position as a token conservative professor (paid for with private donations), has been threatened with cancellation because of an August 12th Newsweek editorial. In the offending piece, Eastman points out that the courts have never ruled on whether a person like Kamala Harris, who was born in the United States to parents on temporary visas, legally qualifies to be president.
Two days after the publication of Eastman’s article, Newsweek added a rare ex post facto preface saying that the piece conveyed an “ugly message” that “gave rise to a wave of vile Birtherism directed at Senator Harris.”9 The University of Colorado chancellor, Phil DiStefano, piled on, criticizing Eastman for having “marginalized” the community and “sown doubts in our commitment to anti-racism, diversity, equality and inclusion.”10 Nevertheless, the chancellor wrote that he would not rescind Eastman’s appointment, because to do so would “falsely feed a narrative that our university suppresses speech.”11 In other words, we’re going to refrain from hurting you not because we believe you have free speech, but because we don’t want to be perceived as the kind of people who believe that you shouldn’t have it.
“… the walls protecting free speech are rapidly crumbling …”
The attack on Professor Eastman is especially worrisome because it signals that higher education—once considered a bastion of free speech and “academic freedom,” is forfeiting this time-honored tradition. In the old days, professors would say, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Now, the walls protecting free speech are rapidly crumbling and it is not just conservatives who are under attack. A gay, atheist, Hispanic professor named Charles Negy at the University of Central Florida has drawn fire for social media messages his detractors say are racist. Negy lays the blame at the feet of Democrats: “They scare the hell out of me. Because they’re so anti-freedom. I’m concerned. I’m very concerned.”12