The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cancel culture is a real problem. But not for the people warning about it.

I signed the free speech letter in Harper’s. And then I realized the central paradox of the debate.

Andrew Martin, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, holds a class syllabus for a course on campus free speech on his way to his office in February. (Nick Schnelle/For The Washington Post)

When I was approached late last month to sign a letter in support of “open debate,” I can’t say I gave it a tremendous amount of thought. I signed because I agreed with what I took to be the gist of the letter: that writers should get to choose their topics, and that progressive overcorrection helps Trump.

“Resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion — which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting,” the text read. Exactly. I had no part in writing the letter, but I’ve written similar sentiments. While free speech sometimes serves as a euphemism for the right to hold forth a la Archie Bunker, spewing bigotry from the comfort of an armchair, consequence-free, I happen not to believe that’s all it is.

It was only once the letter appeared, in Harper’s, that I began having doubts. Doubts, that is, inspired not by the content of the letter itself, or even by the identity of the 152 others who had signed (revealed to me only after it was published), but rather with the sheer illustriousness of the cohort. (“Luminaries” as per the New York Times story on the letter and the ensuing backlash.) On a personal level, I was stunned to be imagined to keep such company (Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, and … this random, if not altogether unpublished, lady whose main obstacle to publishing is the absence of child care, not a silencing mob). Being included on a letter I’d lost track of having even signed wound up being by far the most glamorous part of a week that otherwise included splurging on the large shopping cart at the hardware store.

But on a more principled level, I cringed. Here was a list made up largely of un-cancellables (Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling) and high-profile usual suspects (Mark Lilla, Steven Pinker), with, yes, a few unexpected names here and there (Noam Chomsky).

The message itself was — is — sound. And yet the messengers, as a collective, risk obscuring it.

It came as little surprise that the letter drew backlash, nor that some of it took the form of accusations of bad faith, or maybe sour grapes at having not been included. But the most predictable response, which I wish the letter had anticipated and dealt with in the text, was that here were a bunch of people whose voices are heard, and then some, claiming to be silenced.

Donald Trump is the king of cancel culture

Judd Legum tweeted, “This letter perfectly illustrates my issue with the 'cancel culture’ trope[.] The signatories of this letter have bigger platforms and more resources than most other humans. They are not being silenced in any way [.]” Wilfred Chan, meanwhile, asked followers to “think about how many of these clowns’ net worth is over $1 million.”

Such criticisms overstate the power and wealth of many signatories (hello), but they do also get at something accurate: The paradox of cancel culture is that one only ever hears about it from those unlikely to be harmed by it. Indeed, the loudest voices on the topic are those with careers as contrarians — public figures whose fame and fortune increases with every attempt at cancellation. For a handful of people, being deemed problematic by cultural influencers is not a feared break with anonymity, but central to their job description.

The intellectuals I’m thinking of cut across the ideological spectrum. There are profiteering provocateurs and unapologetic offense-seekers, but also liberal and progressive writers who get categorized as iconoclastic, or really anyone who makes a living (or part of a living; remember that as a rule, writers who are not J.K. Rowling have day jobs) from having ideas that challenge received notions.

As a practical matter, the overrepresentation of the un-cancellable in discussions of cancellation is unavoidable. After all, successful writers are disproportionately represented among those getting their thoughts published, regardless of topic. At the same time, people who are (or feel) one misstep away from loss of livelihood aren’t about to speak their minds for the heck of it, even if presented with an opportunity to by a journalist asking to interview them. Or by a group putting together an open letter. It’s not entirely unknowable how many feel silenced for their political views — somewhere perhaps a risk-loving sociologist is on the case — but for the moment, it needs to be inferred from the odd private message or Twitter poll.

So in one sense, the letter is an attempt by the powerful to look out for the powerless. In sharing controversial opinions, or just in defending the right to voice such thoughts, those with a platform offer comfort and potentially material support to those actually afraid to state their views, views that include a support for dissent itself. (A cast of characters who remain in the shadows, until they do state those views.)

The problem is that fandoms and personalities get in the way. Rather than centering worrying stories of adjuncts fired for wrongthink, the letter and the reaction to it became yet another installment of “Me and My Haters.” Teams assemble for or against various media figures, and the ideas themselves fade into the background. Even if it is in your overall professional interests to receive social media pile-ons, it can still be hurtful (and, at times, professionally damaging) as it happens. But the focus winds up elsewhere, instead of on the impact of ideological conformity on people who are actually marginalized and precarious — the people for whom speaking truths far more often takes real courage than it does for, say, op-ed columnists, tenured professors or well-paid magazine writers.

The end result is a futile culture war over whether whichever A-lister is an out-of-touch complainer, or a martyr hybrid of Voltaire and Zola. A big name will invoke the nameless hordes who send them private messages of support, which their detractors will read as self-aggrandizing, not as evidence that anti-cancel-culture writers do in fact speak to ordinary people’s concerns. (Why not both?)

All the while, what gets lost is that most people do not stand to benefit from being caught up in controversy.

Ultimately, the names at the end of the letter are as prominent as they are in part because of a widespread sense that anyone (no, not just white men) can be fired or ostracized over earnestly held beliefs or unremarkable ones ungenerously interpreted by a rival. A culture of walking on eggshells is not, as certain workshop-runners would have it, the only way to fight bigotry, nor is it the most effective. The message of the letter itself is valid and at least urgent-ish. Maybe we need to make peace with — and find a way to listen to — the less-than-optimal messengers.

Read more:

Free-speech absolutists aren’t protecting democracy. They might even be endangering it.

The real threat to free speech on campus isn’t coming from the left

Here’s what happened when I challenged the PC campus culture at NYU