The Week That Was

Don’t Equate Anti-Cancel Culture With Promoting Free Speech

Those most concerned about people feeling too shamed and shunned to speak show little curiosity about what holds people back from speaking out and the not-so-distant history when broadcasting an opinion in public was reserved for a privileged elite.

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I want to tell you a secret, something I’ve only shared with very, very few people over the last 20 years: I once wrote an anonymous political blog. My biggest scoop was being the first to report the date of John Edwards’s official campaign announcement, which got my blog cited in print by my hometown paper, The Tennessean. I was pretty proud of that, but mostly my memory of being a blogger was being terrified that someone would figure out it was me. Following the running debate about cancel culture and the state of free speech, I often think about why I have been so determined to keep my blogger past a secret. Obviously, posting thoughts on politics online is not a controversial activity today. But it was at the time, at least as I saw it. My biggest worry then was that I would lose my job. After four years of living in New York City on a $31,000 salary, I was deeply in debt and had taken a position that paid double that as a staff writer at Us Weekly. Sometimes I’d blog on company time late on closing nights while waiting for edits on my pages. I feared that if my bosses knew I was blogging about the presidential campaign, they’d figure out that the absolute last thing I wanted to be thinking about was the burgeoning romance of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.

So I could relate, in a way, to the theme of status anxiety that ran through Sarah Hepola’s recent essay in The Atlantic, which kicked off the past week’s round of cancel culture discourse, about her fear of writing about certain topics. Early in her piece, she confesses that, as a Dallas-based writer, she felt like she “didn’t deserve” to be at a 2018 “informal gathering at the sumptuous Brooklyn brownstone of a writer deemed problematic” — though Hepola doesn’t name names, my guess is Katie Roiphe — with guests like “a New York Times columnist who would eventually be publicly excommunicated.” (That’s Bari Weiss, right? Though, in point of fact, she excommunicated herself.) Hepola, and her editors at The Atlantic, framed her complaint as a crisis for free expression, but it read to me more like a career crisis. “Last year marked a low point for me,” she writes, ticking off disappointments like a stalled book project and unfinished freelance assignments. Meanwhile, writers like the ones she met back in Brooklyn are spouting off “dangerous” opinions, being celebrated as heroes for their bravery, and raking in millions on Substack. It seemed to me like Hepola’s main complaint is that she isn’t one of them. At least not yet. 

On Friday, The New York Times opinion section got involved in the cancel culture battle in a big way with a lengthy editorial signed by “The Editorial Board” — and a specially commissioned opinion poll — which announced “America Has a Free Speech Problem” because cancel culture has made it impossible for people to “speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” The editorial apportioned blame to right-wingers who have embraced censorship of discussing topics that offend them, like the existence of racism and same-sex couples, equating them with those on the left who “refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all.” That latter argument would be a lot more credible if The Times could define what cancel culture is. “However you define cancel culture,” their periphrastic introduction to their poll results began, “Americans know it exists and feel its burden.”

That’s an epic punt. And probably because the definitions of cancel culture are all over the map these days. As a New York magazine profile of a Hollywood “cancel-culture” consultant published this week defined it, cancel culture is when a producer’s career “imploded after her assistant said she threw an iPhone charger at him.” In an idea popularized by Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Trump administration official Monica Crowley, and Russian president Vladimir Putin, the international sanctions after its invasion of Ukraine are an attempt to “cancel Russia.” An Atlantic column by Conor Friedersdorf, a prominent voice in the free speech commentariat, went so far as to parse how Russia could be “fairly” canceled. In his piece, he uses the word cancel to refer to Russian sanctions, stopped COVID vaccine shipments, restaurants losing reservations, films being removed from festivals, and athletic competition boycotts. If, as the Times editorial put it, “Americans are understandably confused … about what they can say and where they can say it,” you would think that those most concerned about cancel culture would strive first to explain exactly what it is. 

Precise definitions are important here because, first, the kind of consequence-free speech that anti-cancel culture warriors idealize is, in the most favorable light, a recent invention of the early internet’s unmoderated era that has now largely passed. A more accurate description would be to say that what they’re describing was the monopoly power of publishers, radio and TV networks, and universities to dispense privileges to a small group of people (usually white, mostly male) through opinion columns, talk shows, and tenure, that has now been challenged by people using new technology. When the internet made it possible for anyone to share their opinions, it’s also subjected those elites to the kinds of “fear of retaliation or harsh criticism,” as The Times put it, from which institutions traditionally shielded them. At the very least, it’s a vexing inversion to call cancel culture a diminishment of free speech when, on the terms advanced by those who worry about it most, the crux of the problem is too many people saying the wrong things. As The Times opined, “social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety.” 

From what I’ve gathered, the Times editorial sparked internal dissent as soon as it was published, especially from people of color on its staff. There was no mass outrage in its company Slack, thanks to the company’s clampdowns. But among the most frequently shared tweets internally were one from Adam Davidson, a former New York Times Magazine columnist and co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money, “If I still worked at the NYT, I would seriously think about quitting today.” Another was from New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, posted shortly after the editorial went up, noting that teaching from the 1619 Project she led has now been officially and specifically banned by the state of Texas, which would seem a more immediate and dire threat to the paper’s First Amendment rights than something as amorphous and difficult to define as cancel culture. “Our NYT journalism is being banned from being taught by name in state law,” she tweeted. “Let me repeat: Our New York Times journalism.”

I have been trying to wean myself off Twitter these last few years because I find endless overpitched arguments corrosive to my emotional state and don’t find it as useful to uncover news as I did when I first joined in 2007. At the start of my Twitter detox process, I would casually make sweeping pronouncements like “Twitter is the worst.” But I’ve tried to stop because I’ve heard from people, many of whom are people of color or had grown up feeling on the margins of their local communities, who say that Twitter has been a vital and positive force in their life because it’s connected them with an empathetic community that they had lacked in real life. For all of the downsides of our current digital discourse, the internet’s ability to connect people was — and is — its most profound cultural achievement. All of the early utopian pronouncements about the world wide web giving individuals the same abilities as every newspaper, radio station, and TV network weren’t wrong. (We just didn’t see the novel downsides to come.) Objectively, by any measure, we are living through a revolutionary expansion of free speech.

The continuing moral panic about cancel culture and overheated worries about people being too afraid to speak is blind to the not-so-distant history when the ability to speak was not so democratically distributed. Whatever fear that held me back as a political blogger was passing, as I went on to write for and edit publications where I could, for the most part, write anything I wanted. Most people were not so lucky. In the 20th century, the furthest most people could air their political views was getting a letter to the editor printed or calling into an AM radio talk show. The myopia of equating free speech with anti-cancel culture is something that could only arise in the kind of elite circles whose ability to communicate has never been questioned before. 

But don’t take my word for it. Just look at The New York Times’s own survey data. While 52 percent of white respondents said they felt “less free” to express their political viewpoints on a daily basis than they did ten years ago, just 34 percent of Black respondents said the same. Indeed, 64 percent of Black people said they were “more free” or “as free” as they were a decade earlier. 

The Times editorial, though, highlighted a different data point that elided this distinction, noting that “a full 84 percent of Black people polled shared the concern of this editorial that it was a ‘very serious’ or ‘somewhat serious’ problem that some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.” This was some clever data cherry-picking: 84 percent of all respondents answered the same way, which was consistent across all the demographic groups broken out in the results. 

A more curious — and less blinkered by the experiences of elite opinion professionals — consideration of free expression would pause for a moment to wonder exactly what “retaliation or harsh criticism” the respondents were thinking about when they gave their answer. The Times didn’t include the term “cancel culture” in their survey, but we can be pretty sure that the results would have been a lot different if they had.