From The Wall Street Journal:
We’re in a terrible spot, and everybody knows it. Americans on the right and left detest each other, excoriate each other and, with every flaring of rage, move further from any sense of pluralistic common cause. Citizens have lost confidence in officialdom. Fashionable ideologies that brook no good-faith dissent have surged into every corner of life. Make a minor demurral, even a joke, and you risk being subjected to the ghastly nullification rituals of what is called cancel culture.
It is this predicament, all of it, that Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott address in “The Canceling of the American Mind,” a lucid and comprehensive look at where we are and how we got here, and, less persuasively, what we can do to make things better.
The authors do not merely analyze; they are in the fray. Mr. Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which defends free speech in workplaces and on campus. He is also co-author, with New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, of “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an important 2018 book about emotional fragility among young adults. Ms. Schlott’s college interest in “Coddling” eventually brought her to FIRE; she’s also a columnist for the New York Post.
“Cancel culture” is an imperfect term, but its meaning is well understood: incidents of public shaming and professional defenestration, often ginned up by activists high on their own sanctimony. “Cancel Culture has upended lives, ruined careers, undermined companies, hindered the production of knowledge, destroyed trust in institutions, and plunged us into an ever-worsening culture war.”
When did it start? The authors say 2014, when cancellations “exploded” in higher education. By 2017, following the outward migration of campus groupthink, canceling moved into art, publishing, comedy, journalism and, more recently, medicine, science and law.
Many of the authors’ examples will be familiar to habitués of Twitter—lately renamed X. It is the public square where witches are burned. It is also where witches, on the pyre, frantically recant and promise to “do better.” These apologies never save the victims, though they probably add to the enjoyment of their persecutors.
Politically, the authors strive to be evenhanded. They identify cancelers on the right (whose targets include progressive college professors and Republicans who fall afoul of Donald Trump) and fault thinkers such as Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule for fostering illiberality. Regrettably, they endorse the claim that conservatives are engaged in “book banning,” though most of their examples involve the curation of what’s on offer in public-school libraries. It is irksome that the authors don’t acknowledge that, in truth, no book is banned in the U.S.; you can buy whatever you want to read.
Efforts to address both sides notwithstanding, “The Canceling of the American Mind” leaves little doubt that cancel culture is primarily a tool of the left. Mr. Lukianoff and Ms. Schlott parse the Catch-22 tricks used to put targets in the wrong. They write of a “perfect rhetorical fortress” that allows righteous lefties to dismiss anyone for anything, to attribute to anyone a “phobia” or an “ism,” and to claim that the person in question is inflicting injury. What the authors call “thought-terminating cliches,” such as “dog whistles” and “punching down,” add to the weirdly chant-like hyperbole when cancelers get going. Jennifer Sey, fired from Levi Strauss for objecting to the Covid lockdowns, was smeared as “a racist, a eugenicist, and a QAnon conspirator.” James Bennet, dislodged from the New York Times for publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, was said to have made Times readers “vulnerable to harm.”
Someday it may be funny—actually it’s funny now, in a horrible way—that a Yale lecturer’s mild surprise at finding an artisanal coffee shop in rural Ohio could be spun into accusations of “dehumanization” and used to try to get her axed, as happened to Sally Satel when she came back east after a year of field research into the opioid crisis. Or that a teenager’s incautious tweets could destroy a woman’s career a decade later, as happened to Alexi McCammond when she was offered the top job at Teen Vogue. Or that some black intellectuals are told by progressives that they’re “not really black,” as John McWhorter has found.
It’s all a reminder of the sheer nuttery that has engulfed us since we all got online. Political correctness predated the laptop and the smartphone, as Mr. Lukianoff and Ms. Schlott remind us, but it took social media to bring the mass pile-ons of cancel culture.
In the final third of “The Canceling of the American Mind” the authors offer solutions. They call for the reinvigoration of free-speech culture, something 20th-century Americans will remember. Parents should teach the golden rule and a genuine appreciation for viewpoint diversity. Corporate executives should establish free-speech standards, get human resources on board, and, if a controversy blows up, avoid large meetings that might “devolve into browbeating struggle sessions.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal