Cancel culture letter sparks fierce backlash

Censors and sensibility: The letter demands room for “risk-taking, and even mistakes”.

Is “cancel culture” destroying argument? A letter signed by 150 public figures in defence of freedom of thought has launched a debate about intolerance, privilege, and the right to boycott.

The names on the letter look like a TV interviewer’s dream. Among them are the novelists Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling; the feminist icon Gloria Steinem; the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov; the psychologist Steven Pinker; the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Between them, they have a following of millions.

The letter appears in the latest issue of one of America’s oldest and most revered magazines, Harper’s. “Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” it begins. The signatories welcome calls for greater equality and resistance to right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump. But, they say, “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion”.

In particular, they deplore “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 restriction of debate,” they argue, “whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

While many have welcomed the letter, others have taken issue with it. One of the original signatories, the historian Kerri Greenidge, has withdrawn her name. A transgender colleague of the journalist Matt Yglesias insists that his involvement “makes me feel less safe”.

“Safe” and a noun derived from it, “safetyism”, have become key words in the debate. In particular, students in America, Britain, and elsewhere are demanding that their universities should be safe spaces, in which they are protected from words and ideas that make them feel uncomfortable.

In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, psychologist Jonathan Haidt and constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff criticise this and argue that the whole point of university is to develop critical thinking by engaging with new ideas.

But many have pointed out that the right to boycott people and brands you oppose is nothing new – and has been a powerful force for good in society. Mitsubishi, Burma Campaign, De Beers, Fur Trade, and The Body Shop have all been forced to change policy in the past 20 years after successful consumer pressure.

“This isn’t cancel culture. This is consequence culture. Some people hate the sudden accountability, while others worry the focus will turn to them because they have much to be accountable for,” says the writer Alisha Grauso.

“For me, canceling isn’t about having an apocalyptic worldview, it’s about the exact opposite: wishing that people were better, kinder, more empathic, compassionate, and good. It’s about being able to look myself in the mirror and feel okay about who and what I support,” adds writer Carla Sosenko.

“How else do we, the public, often largely powerless in the everyday execution of systems of value, moderate society without something like cancel culture?” says strategist Camonghne Felix. “That said, does cancel culture work? I don’t know, but it’s what we have. I think it helps mobilise people and direct intentions toward better legislative possibilities.”

So, is cancel culture destroying argument?

Danger zone

No, of course not. People in positions of great authority and influence think they can say what they like and use the defence of free speech. But choosing not to listen to them is a powerful way of expressing disagreement. Of course, powerful people hate – more than almost anything else – not being heard!

Yes. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study, and the heads of organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes,” says the Harper’s letter.

You Decide

  1. Is there any public figure you would like to boycott? Why?
  2. Is it wrong to claim the right of free speech in order to say offensive things?

Activities

  1. Think of a book you hated reading. Design a poster warning people not to buy it.
  2. Think of a public figure whose views you fundamentally disagree with, but respect as a person. Write a letter to the head of your school making the case for inviting them to speak at the school.

Some People Say...

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the balance of power in universities has shifted. It used to be the case that students could only invite speakers that the governing body approved. That changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement, launched by Californian students in the 1960s. Now, the students are the ones acting as censors and, because they are seen as fee-paying customers, the authorities are reluctant to go against them.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how the culture of ‘safetyism’ developed. Haidt and Lukianoff believe that it stems from “paranoid parenting”, with adults obsessively protecting children from possible threats – physical to start with, but now emotional too. Their fears have rubbed off on their children, who are increasingly likely to perceive the world as dangerous. At the same time, political debate has become more polarised and aggressive, making them more nervous about taking part in it.

Word Watch

Margaret Atwood
Canadian novelist whose best-known book is The Handmaid’s Tale.
Salman Rushdie
British-Indian novelist who had to go into hiding when his book The Satanic Verses was condemned as offensive to Islam by Muslim leaders.
Martin Amis
British novelist whose books include The Rachel Papers and Money. His father, Kingsley Amis, was also a leading novelist.
Gary Kasparov
A Russian who became World Chess Champion at the age of 22. He is a leading critic of President Putin.
Wynton Marsalis
American musician. He is the only person to have won Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical music in the same year.
Dogma
Belief which is not open for discussion. It comes from a Greek word meaning “decree”.
Coercion
Forcing someone to do something. It derives from a Latin verb meaning “to restrain”.
Vogue
Fashion. A French word, it is also the title of the world’s leading fashion magazine and a song by Madonna.
Coddling
Treating in an overprotective way.
Moderate
As a verb, make less extreme or intense.
Alleged
Said without proof.
Inauthenticity
Not authentic; not real.
Ousted
Expelled; forced out (from power).

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