by Noah Carl
Monday, 12
April 2021
Response
17:00

Cancel culture is real — and it’s getting worse

Both conservatives and liberals should oppose the new censoriousness
by Noah Carl
(Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

In a recent article, UnHerd’s science editor Tom Chivers argues that culture war debates are futile because the people on each side are working with different definitions of key terms. He takes ‘cancel culture’ as an example, arguing that “there’s nothing solid there to argue about” since the term has “no stable or universally agreed definition”. For Chivers, debating the existence of cancel culture is “all mood affiliation and tribalism”.

I’m a fan of Chivers’ writing on science and culture, but in this case I have to respectfully disagree with him. He wants to take a middle path between — as he sees it — two equally zealous factions: those who claim cancel culture doesn’t exist, and those who argue it’s a very real problem. However, this isn’t a debate where the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Rather, those who deny that cancel culture exists are simply wrong.

To begin with, it is possible to define the term in a coherent way. I offered my own definition in a piece for Quillette last year. In short, it’s when activists pressure an institution to sanction someone because others perceived that they were psychologically or emotionally harmed by the individual’s speech (or historical actions). But if you don’t like my definition, that’s fine. A term can still be meaningful, and useful, even if we can’t agree on the precise definition. (Biologists can’t agree on the precise meaning of ‘species’; one 2006 article listed 26 separate definitions.)

As Chivers may be aware, there are various lists of people and things that have been cancelled, or targeted for cancellation, over the last few years. If you totted up all the people, you might get to several hundred. However, he isn’t convinced that these examples add up to a “cancel culture. And maybe just as many people were getting cancelled back in the 1990s? Perhaps the base rate hasn’t changed.

There are several reasons why such scepticism is unwarranted. It’s obvious that most people, most of the time, aren’t at risk of getting cancelled. Out of all the opinions one can express, only a tiny number impinge on the sacred values that motivate cancel culture. And the majority of us don’t actually like political correctness. If a construction worker tells an offensive joke, his colleagues probably aren’t going to notify the boss. However, there are certain domains where cancellations do happen quite frequently: universities and social media being the two most obvious. In other words, just because cancelled individuals comprise a small share of the total population, doesn’t mean cancel culture is a myth (or is too vague to define).

Another reason why there aren’t that many examples we can point to is that cancel culture causes people to self-censor. As Steven Pinker (who has himself been the subject of a scurrilous open letter) notes:

The sheer number of cancellations (though not small) misses the point: it’s the regime of intimidation that silences many more and warps our knowledge. It’s like saying, “Criticizing that autocracy is based on anecdata, since it imprisons only a few journalists.”
- Steven Pinker, Twitter

Aside from counting the number of people who’ve lost their jobs over social media outrage, we can look at evidence from surveys.

In a poll carried out for the Cato Institute last year, 62% of Americans agreed with the statement, “The political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe because others might find them offensive”. This was up from 58% in 2017. Unsurprisingly, conservatives were much more likely to agree than liberals. When asked, “Are you worried about losing your job or missing out on job opportunities if your political opinions became known?” 38% of Republicans said “yes”. And this rose to 60% among Republicans with a post-graduate degree. Alarming levels of self-censorship have also been documented in academia and the arts.

We don’t need rigorous data going back several decades to know that cancel culture represents something new. Besides, there actually is data showing that the problem has gotten worse over time. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains a database of over 400 disinvitation attempts at US universities (where activists demand that an invited speaker not be allowed to speak). Plotting the number of such incidents by year, there is a clear upward trend since the early 2000s.

Last July, following a particularly intense spate of cancellations, 153 mostly Left-leaning intellectuals wrote a letter to Harper’s Magazine. They noted that censoriousness is “spreading more widely in our culture”, and referred to “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”. The fact that such a large number of public figures felt the need to say this testifies to cancel culture’s impact.

Chivers is right that debates are almost invariably more fruitful when they focus on real issues, not semantics. However, the disagreement over cancel culture isn’t just a matter of definitions. There has been an increase in censoriousness – in attempts to get people sanctioned for expressing views that others find objectionable. This extends well beyond people losing their jobs, and includes lectures being cancelled, statues being removed, and public figures being kicked off social media. The new censoriousness is something that both conservatives and liberals should oppose. But doing that will be harder if we don’t have a name for it.

Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90

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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

I find it baffling that companies and institutions are allowed to dismiss an employee or terminate a contract, for non-criminal matters, which have no relation to an individual’s ability to do their job competently.

We need proper legal protections of the right to hold beliefs and opinions which are contrary to our employers, regardless if they cause offence to others. Until this is the case, Cancel Culture will continue to gain momentum.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

We do have legal protections and if the individual being fired so wished they could go to a tribunal. Maybe they don’t because they’re given a bung. Only reason I can think of.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 year ago

Most employers have a social media policy and rules covering public behaviour which could bring the company’s reputation into disrepute. This gives them excessive leeway to dismiss employees.

So whilst you couldn’t be fired by your employer for been known to have Christian or conservative beliefs. You could be, if you were to express common Christian beliefs on sin or express a non-progressive opinion on issues of race or gender on a online forum. This is where we need greater protection.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
1 year ago

We do not have much protection against getting fired for opinions in the US, and that needs to change. We have an elaborate legal system of regulations and oversight to make sure that no one is fired or otherwise held back in the workplace for a large number of immutable characteristics such as race, sex (and now gender identity), and religion. But we don’t have a protection for political or other beliefs that are expressed outside the workplace.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

A lot of bad things get worse until sane people rebel against them. What’s worse is that we’ve seen the likes of cancel culture before, from the Jacobins to the point of “first they came for X and I said nothing to mass purges of suspected ideological enemies.
Many liberals sat silently when the early targets were almost always conservatives and libertarians. Then, the virus began to spread, attacking people who think biological men are not actual women or who think free speech is just that, or refuse to believe that everyone on the right is a white supremacist. The firing squad has gone circular, yet the chilling effect that was put in place allows for that point to be glossed over.
One key source of reversal lies, ironically enough, in academia. At some point, the chronological adults who run these places have to remind the inmates that they are merely guests. At some point, phony offense has to be called out for what it is. At some point, people who repeat ideas they first heard ten minutes before have to ignored.
Of all the religions to ever grace the planet, wokeism is the only one which offers no path to redemption. The heretic must not just be banished, he/she must also be un-personed. No one looks back at the Salem witch trials as something worth repeating. Yet, here we are repeating, with very few saying “wait a minute; we did this before and it ended horribly.”  

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Struggle Sessions!”

Mao used these, particularly during the Cultural Revelation, where people were made to denounce themselves and the witnessing crowd would then attack them. Show us your White Guilt, Admit it. It is your original sin, your birth mark, it is all your fault.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Struggle” – the foundation word of socialism of all branches, showing perfectly well how communism and naz¡sm are the twin chips off the same block. The Guardian is heaving with the ‘struggle’ word every day like a maggot-ridden corpse – this struggle, that struggle, class struggle, black struggle, shtruggle struggle kampf kampf struggle.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago

Yes, if one is to believe the words of Guardian journalists, life is one endless futile struggle against oppression from some vast intangible source like the Patriarchy.

Jayne Lago
Jayne Lago
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

I can’t believe how many people on here read the guardian but clearly criticise it. Don’t get me wrong I think the paper is run by a bunch of hypocrites, of which there are many today! A Hirsch for one. I set myself a task some months ago, to look into several journalists/academics backgrounds because I am sick of hearing how dreadful the UK is, How we should all behave, how we should all think. Too many of these people arrived from other countries to enrol in our universities, obtain their degrees and when finished at Uni, they do not go home. They stay here and subsequently decide that they want to change our country to suit their agenda. I am not stating all of these people are black, indeed a good many are white, Asian, European. This is far more serious than covid……the Wokeraty are doing their level best to destroy us. Of course we are generally referring to the left………these people are outraged with the likes of China controlling their population like they do…….the very same actions by the wokeraty…….but until someone with grit stands up for us…..the majority, they will become more powerful and more evil.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

There is also the very good possibility that things will blow up before it reaches that point. I still would not like to be a liberal. “Hey you kept quiet when they tried to come for us. Whose side are you really on?”

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

As long as the Equality Act 2010 – legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/149 combined with Hate Crime legislation is in place cancel culture will only get worse. The threat of litigation is greater to institutions than reason or proportion.
It seems to me it’s a case of writing to your MP to object or stand up to it all and risk losing your position and livelihood.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Thank you, Claire D. That legislation, and some acts earlier than those, give teeth to the most egregious forms of resentment culture — the body of thought rooted in identity politics, and that underpins cancel culture. The striking point about almost all such acts of parliament is that, like just about everything else surrounding identity politics, they achieve precisely the opposite of the ills they aim to cure — ills that were adequately covered by older legislation, though not adequately enough for the grievance mongers.
I’m retired, and so have nothing to lose at a professional level. But I have written to my MP about all this. He’s good; and I suspect he would agree with me. But so few people have an understanding of the deeper issues involved in the exercise of these pieces of legislation, that I doubt they’ll get anywhere, even with an ostensibly conservative party that, in reality, is anything but.

Jayne Lago
Jayne Lago
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

I did write to my MP several times and received the usual brush off……….but then the wokeraty have got to them too…..they are indoctrinating our schools (check out School gate campaign who are trying their best to stop the indoctrination). Our industries, our legal,profession, most definitely our media…….! I am retired so remember when there were still grown ups who aspired to be doctors, scientists and lawyers, not a Kardashian or a Beyoncé, or some other shallow celebrity. Our politicians are not going to aid us , the silent population can only have their say at the ballot box…..remember Brexit! There are people all over the world fighting for democracy and we are giving ours away. One last question I would like to pose to all on here………..if we are truly a democratic country, how is it that the minority groups have a louder voice than mine!

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
1 year ago

I used to do voluntary work for a major national mental health charity. I was doxxed and they wanted to discipline me for my privately held views which had no effect on my performance as a volunteer. I was not prepared to be censored like this and resigned.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

Which, effectively, cancelled you…at the very least they took your job even if it was voluntary.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Constructive dismissal, I’d say.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

Without knowing what your views were or how they were expressed it’s impossible to judge whether or not they were relevant.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Ah, the reflex apologist

Last edited 1 year ago by Niobe Hunter
Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

I find it funny that people are still arguing there is no cancel culture. This was a great article by Dr. Carl. Here in Canada cancel culture is rampant. A prof at University of New Brunswick has been arguing there is no such thing as CC, since the number of incidents of protests and last-minute cancellations has fallen in the last few years. This is hilarious that he uses this as “evidence”. It would be like Stalin saying “nobody disagrees with me! I’ve never heard anyone disagree!”. Scare the shit out of people and they stop trying.
I am a physician, removed from my med school admissions committee because I suggested that a better way to boost black and indigenous enrollment was by doing outreach to help young people in those communities reach the necessary standards, rather than the suggestion to further lower standards for black and indigenous applicants. Keep in mind there has been a lower standard for 20 years (behind the scenes – not overt). But given that in our area black and indigenous high-school leaving rates are far above the rates for whites and Asians, it’s not entirely surprising that we still don’t have many black or indigenous applicants. Rather than anyone on the committee debate me, explain why I’m wrong, or take my idea seriously, it was suggested that I resign. After I refused I was then fired.
I do have a history of being “problematic” dating back quite a few years. I you google “Chris Milburn Chronicle Herald”, you’ll get a sense of why.

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

I read up about you in the Chronicle Herald. I salute you and urge you to stick to your guns.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

Congratulations, Dr Milburn.
Before I retired I made several attempts at being “problematic”. It’s not easy; and I was nowhere near as successful at it as you seem to have been. But then my subject area is nowhere near as fundamental as is yours. So I pray you’ll keep at it — for everyone’s sake. Thank you!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Yes, all true, and it is evil. But i’ve just watched a Tim Pool video in which he celebrates the fact that many writers who have been cancelled, people like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald, are now making $1m a year from Substack. The NYT and CNN etc are, by their own admission, freatking out about this. Good. They are evil.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

We should focus on defining unacceptable acts not speech, thoughts or beliefs. The vast majority of unacceptable acts are already defined in criminal and civil law and can be enforced by appropriate authorities, with whom those affected by them / witness them should cooperate freely and confident that appropriate action will result. Hate speech law should be repealed and then replaced by a tautly defined direct incitement / coercion to commit an illegal act. Violence, harassment, bullying etc are already covered by law. There is no need to take account of the race, religion, sex, sexual orientation etc of the perpetrator or victim, it is all similarly illegal and enforcement action should apply proportionate to the severity and / or frequency. In this way the time and effort currently wasted by authorities on other things could be far better spent.
Outside of that we should be free to say, think and believe what we want, noting that what we say and how we say it tells others a lot about our character. People should judge other people, whether it is as an employer or in a social context, on the content of their character. Just as someone is free to say what they want, everyone is free to listen to or ignore what others say.
We should strive to become a kinder more considerate society, but equally we should strive to develop thicker skins so we are only bothered by the hornet stings and not the gnat bites.

Scott Carson
Scott Carson
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Very well said, and I agree with every word.

Jonathan Oldbuck
Jonathan Oldbuck
1 year ago

Cancel culture, as well as being very real, causes people in all walks of life to self-censor. This is clear enough from endless surveys and obvious anyway. It was the first point to come to mind in the opening paragraphs – then I saw the apposite quote from Pinker.
Anecdotal lived experience for me but not for thee.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

When Voltaire covered the execution of Admiral bird, “pour encourager les autres”

And why kill this Admiral?”
“It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him.”
“But,” replied Candide, “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral.”
“There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.””

Chivers being an odd bird, and not being an Admiral, fails to be encouraged by the execution of them, or the canceling of so very many of his ilk either, apparently; which I suppose means his thinking is correct enough, such that he has no worries, and so no issue with it.

The issue is we all are in constant terror we will be the next one to be made an example of, as all are guilty, although some, like me, are more guilty than others.

If Twitter, and Youtube, and Universities used some form of gibbet, rather than concealing the bodies in the night, Chivers would be absolutely amazed at the vast number being pilloried.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Very good.

andrew harman
andrew harman
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Do you mean Admiral Byng?

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
1 year ago
Reply to  andrew harman

He does.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago

It’s what I call the Woke Fatwah however they have nothing on the Political Islamicists, They really know how to cancel cartoonist and teachers.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Agreed. Cancel culture is very real and, despite a relatively small percentage of people being cancelled, its deadliest poison is the silencing effect it has on others who dare not speak their minds.
Nonetheless, I think there was some truth in Tom Chivers’s article. Noah Carl states, “For Chivers, debating the existence of cancel culture is “all mood affiliation and tribalism.” The sad fact is that’s an accurate characterization of the current debate. People are increasingly polarized and will not engage in a true debate; they just scream at each other from opposite sides of the playing field.
We shouldn’t allow debates about semantics and meaning to distract us from the pernicious reality of cancel culture and the need to fight fire with fire.

Lou Campbell
Lou Campbell
1 year ago

I think of them as modern McCarthy Whitehouses.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

Isn’t it important to also consider what is being cancelled (accepting the author’s definition) and why? It strikes me there is a difference between cancelling someone who claims the Holocaust is a myth propagated by a worldwide secret Jewish cabal and cancelling someone who wants to maintain safe spaces for biological women while also supporting Trans rights.
So, in effect, there could be some sort of middle ground or consensus.
The article relates instances of self censorship but unless we know what people are censoring themselves about how can we know if it’s a good or bad thing?
A teacher who publicly states unmarried mothers are morally degenerate and their offspring are bound to fail is probably not going to be a very good teacher but a teacher who believes in the benefits of marriage as a personal religious choice might be a perfectly good teacher, as long as they don’t teach their opinion as fact.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

No, the Holocaust denier must be heard, so he can hear the catcalls and derisive laughter his statements provoke.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Niobe Hunter

But one of the examples used to describe cancel culture is people being heckled and shouted at when they speak. If the holocaust denier gets a platform it gives a legitimacy to their views, in the eyes of some.

David Foot
David Foot
1 year ago

This is pure Marxism in the XXI century trying to force an outcome which otherwise would be consigned to history because it has no merit.
What is so strange is that it also appears to be as a “fascism of the left” with students, trade unions and large corporations trying to enforce outcomes which normally should fail because they totally lack merit to succeed.
It is as if the very powerful corporations were suicidal, they are where they are because they had to fight their way to get market share and good products competing in the market and now they give a blessing to the merit-less groups supported by the Marxists who if they succeed will get rid of them and take over all forms of production.
These “political allies” are incompatible with each other, it is not like the fascism of the right where large corporations are allied with the political classes, however the competition and the market economy will also have some limitations in such a political configuration. With this “fascism of the left” the corporations are on the menu. They may be forced because of company law to do things, but even so they should be fighting to change that and they don’t seem to be doing that.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  David Foot

It’s almost as if there is some sort of shared moral code being adopted by people previously thought to be diametrically opposed to each other because they believe it to be the right thing to do.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

What if it’s a defunct moral code that is founded on vengefulness and vindictiveness? One that views fairness as racist? Competence as oppression? Free speech as hate speech? Mistakes medieval justice for social justice?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brian Dorsley
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

Then argue that case and explain why your case is morally superior. Defending the right of racists to say racist things (but calling it free speech) is not a very appealing argument.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

But it is free speech. Only saying things which the moral consensus ( that would be thee, I suppose) is unfree speech.
let the racist say racist things. Then we can express our disagreement.

Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
1 year ago

Excellent article.

Peter KE
Peter KE
1 year ago

Good article.