The real problem with ‘cancel culture’

Twitter’s reaction to The Letter seemed to illustrate these concerns; unsurprisingly, the letter triggered some of the very tactics it implicitly condemns. To the panicked defenders of the old liberal order, it was a self-rebuttal of progressive claims that they weren’t trying to stifle free expression, even of anodyne sentiments like: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

Coincidentally, this controversy erupted just after Osita Nwanevu of the New Republic had published one of the best defenses of cancel culture, justifying it as an exercise of vital First Amendment rights, not just to express displeasure with the words of others, but to freely associate with like-minded people. Which implies the right not to associate, either.

For backers of The Letter, Nwanevu offers a useful clarification: “Free speech” has turned into a fight about institutional norms and associational privileges, not just civil rights. The arguments may overlap with the civil rights debate, but the points of difference matter.

To be clear, I’m not neutral in that institutional fight. The cancelers aren’t merely trying to expand the range of acceptable ideas so that it includes more marginalized voices. They are pressuring mainstream institutions, which serve as society’s idea curators, to adopt a much narrower definition of “reasonable” opinion. The new rules would exclude the viewpoints of many Americans.

Intellectual monocultures are inherently unhealthy, and the tactics by which the new orthodoxy is being imposed are destructive. But I’m enough of an old-school liberal to think that I have to persuade my opponents, and I doubt they’ll be moved by one more anthem to the glories of open inquiry.

They might, however, consider a few pragmatic problems with imposing their code by Twitter force. Twitter, with its 280-character limit, is not a medium for making lengthy, nuanced arguments. It’s most effective at signaling the things you can’t say. Consider the ultimate Twitter put-down: Delete your account.

That’s especially a problem for institutions that are in the business of making arguments. Effectively handing over the reins of power to the Twittersphere, as seems to be happening, means offering control to those who are especially adept at not making arguments.

More broadly, this approach is at odds with what makes any institution function as more than a collection of self-supervising individuals. When much of your workforce is worried about summary firing, they put more and more effort into protecting themselves, and less and less effort into advancing the work of the institution. Doubly so when it is fellow employees who are pressing public attacks, as happened with the Twitter insurrection against a New York Times op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Cotton had called for deploying the military to control riots; outraged staffers responded through coordinated tweets, which read, “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

Though it was framed in the language of workplace safety, this was the kind of critical pressure campaign that is normally run by outsiders, not insiders — customers, not workers. In this, they are demonstrating a growing tendency that conservative policy maven Yuval Levin recently identified among American elites: people treating their institutions as platforms for personal performance, rather than a group effort with its own larger work. That’s a tendency Twitter encourages, and not just among journalists, or academics: The foremost example is President Trump.

In fairness, the insiders of cancel culture might say that they have no choice: Twitter was their only way to accelerate urgent value shifts that might otherwise have taken decades. They’re right that Twitter speeds everything up, and they’re right that causes like racial equality are urgent — and also that white, straight, cisgender liberals always seem to be asking marginalized people to wait until they get around to fixing things.

And yet, even the critics clearly recognize that there is great value in these institutions. They might also recognize that there are reasons that institutions favor incremental, internal change. If you hold those sorts of fights on a public and inherently limited platform, then some part of your audience will inevitably wonder whether the ensuing consensus, such as it is, reflects what people actually think, rather than who they are afraid of.

So achieving victory this way risks damaging the ultimate prize, which is the power those institutions have as institutions, not just algorithmic amplifiers. That power is rooted in the perception that they are the patient accumulators, and, yes, the occasional revisionists, of something broad enough to be called “mainstream discourse.”

It’s that power, not the names on the doors, that lets those institutions establish the boundaries the cancelers are really hoping to control: not just of what people are willing to say in public, but what they are willing to believe.

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