The Canceling of the American Mind

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

13 thoughts on “The Canceling of the American Mind”

  1. The claim that “Cancel Culture” began in 2014 is unserious. The authors seem to be pretending, just to pick the low hanging fruit, never to have heard of the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and ’50s. Or perhaps they really have never heard of it, yet feel qualified to write on the topic. It is an interesting philosophical question which would be more damning.

      • Yep. In a writing course in college, one class was specifically about censorship. We had to read “Bastard out of Carolina” and “Native Son,” which were originally censored by the editors. Censored as in, having parts of the story removed at the insistence of the publishers, because the book would otherwise not be published.

        The point of the class — in those pre-KDP days — was to be prepared as writers to deal with editors who demanded we tell our stories in the way the editors wanted. To present ideas and themes in the ways editors wanted, and be prepared to be forced to go with the editors’ ideology if said editors didn’t like the POV of the writer. This was the true censorship, the teacher wanted us to know, because it was the one that was commonplace yet unspoken about compared to sent-to-the-gulag censorship.

        If I remember correctly, we were assigned the true, “unexpurgated” edition of Native Son, and the teacher talked about how oddly the official expurgated version read to her and her peers back in the day. Certain scenes and character interactions made no sense in the expurgated version, she said. That said, I think the changes with BooC had more to do with the violent incest the child protagonist suffers at the hands of her stepfather, so it may not have been as cut-and-dry. I only vaguely remember that story, and the movie version we had to watch.

        At any rate, the Native Son-type censorship is not something authors have to worry about, Post-KDP, unless a writer insists on tradpub for some reason.

  2. I’m always sort of amused by the various characterizations of Cass Sunstein (disclosure: whom I’ve know for nearly three decades, whose work I’ve edited, and who left the University of Chicago for Harvard in part due to his… disquiet at certain aspects of informally-enforced orthodoxy) as “right,” “left,” “libertarian,” or whatever label happens to be convenient. Cass is pretty much a scholarly outlier, constantly experimenting with different analytic systems to try to discern more — especially about unorthodox behaviors (thus his early involvement with the “behavioral economics” movement).

    That said, the group of CEOs approved of by the OP for objecting to questionable (and questionably characterized) statements concerning recent atrocities in the Levant, proclaiming that Harvard among others should give them a list of every student who is a member of those organizations so that those CEOs can refuse to ever hire those students, sure sounds like “cancel culture” to me. Pot, kettle, black, still no justification.

    • On principle I agree.
      Orthody of the left is just as bad as the orthodoxy of the right.
      And cancelling began before the Mayflower.

      But as a contrarian I would be greatly amused to see the entire Harvard crew doxed, just to hear them squeal. Because what is sauce for the goose can’t possibly be sauce for the gander, right?

      Besides, If doxed they’ll have no shortage of job opportunities in academia, politics, and the media. It might even make their careers.

  3. Anyone notice the video trucks circling Harvard Square condemning the Anti-Semitism of various student leaders? Bill Ackman and major CEOs looking for their names so they can refrain from hiring them? The president of the NYU Law School Student Bar having her great job offer rescinded? Times do change.

      • Muddy thinking has been getting a free pass for so long, I suspect many are truly surprised at the recent reactions. I think Orwell said something like “some ideas are so foolish, only an intellectual could believe them”

    • Yes, and I consider this vital to the health of the Republic, as it were. For too long these brats and their ilk were allowed to cancel decent people, and went out of their way to find ways to destroy lives and dox people who had the audacity to think differently than the crybullies did.

      There shall not be diverse weights and measures: we will live by one rule. Not rule-for-thee-but-not-for-me, but ONE rule. Those who want others to lose their livelihoods because of their POV need, indeed must lose their livelihoods on account of their vile and disgusting POVs. They must be made to live by their own rules, good and hard. Let the salt flow. And when they drown in it, and sue for peace, we can civilize them to live and think in a free market of ideas, where we can agree to disagree, and live and let live. But until then, let the brats live and die by their own rules.

      • Oh, and when I said “for the good of the Republic,” I was not being sarcastic. Note how many, and how often Supreme Court justices come from Harvard / Yale / other Ivies. The Yalies (and the not-Ivy Stanford) earned being on the blacklist of one judge, who said he wouldn’t hire anyone from there, because of how those law students treat dissenting points of view. They scream and shout and throw tantrums and make threats of violence. They do not engage in cool, reasoned debate and discussion.

        The “we love people who behead babies” crowd at Harvard needs to learn early — preferably in childhood, but better late than never — how civilized people deal with those who disagree with them. Preferably before they enter Congress, or our courts. If they cannot be taught, if they cannot be educated in how to conduct themselves with those who hold opposing points of view, then let them be knocked off the cursus honorum to the halls of power.

        Our government is too big, and too powerful, to let such people have their hands on the levers of power if they cannot bear to allow those they disagree with to coexist with them.

  4. I’m sure most of the readers & commenters here are already aware of The Free Press. As a former AP reporter & newspaper editor, I enjoy (if not always agree with) the reporting and editorials on this Substack publication. Its editor and founder, for anyone who may not know, is Bari Weiss, a former editor/writer at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. In addition to the hard-hitting reporting, the Friday TGIF column is an often hilarious, sometimes endearingly snide commentary on the week’s events. Just thought I’d mention it.

    • I’ve been following two news services on youtube: Straight Arrow News for basic, no opinion/no slant reporting. And America Uncovered for snark-filled news commentary. I like snark.

    • I’ve seen Bari Weiss here and there. I don’t think I realized she had a “home base” as it were. I’ll check it out, thanks.

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