“This is the thing about moral panics—while threatening, they can be illuminating.”
very moral panic has an expiration date. The Salem Witch Trials are now remembered as an outbreak of superstition, fear, and cruelty. Today’s students learn that McCarthyism was a period of rampant paranoia and injustice. And the illiberal moment we are living through now—the emergence of cancel culture, the groveling apologies and online heresy hunts, the strange capitulations of elite institutions to various mobs—will someday be a cautionary tale as well.
While it may seem like the woke mobilization has all the momentum right now, its march will inevitably be slowed by several inescapable realities. The first is that the bizarre moment we are living through—with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office amid a pandemic, a recession, and an explosion of civil strife—will come to an end. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful force multiplier than President Trump, who has aggravated the situation in every conceivable way with his disastrous failed response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19), his demagogic obsession with cultural and political flashpoints (monument desecration, street violence, fringe groups like Antifa, and so on), and his cynical declarations that he is the “law and order” candidate. Now President Trump wants to deploy 75,000 federal agents to American cities— a move that will only inflame protests and lead to even more rapid civic dissolution (the effect of the deployments that have already taken place has been to redirect protesters’ attention to the presence of federal officers in their cities).
This toxic cocktail of factors—the fear and anxiety generated by political upheaval and disease, a stratospheric unemployment rate and a devastating economic contraction, and a president who is uniquely ill-equipped to handle all of the above—has made for an exceptional historical moment. When things are this bad, people often have illusions of permanence. But some semblance of normalcy will eventually return, as it always does— a future that will arrive much more quickly if President Trump is dislodged in November.
Meanwhile, the resistance to cancel culture is becoming more robust. The Harper’s letter, which gathered the signatures of more than 150 public intellectuals, writers, and academics and called for the “free exchange of information and ideas” amid growing “intolerance of opposing views,” represents an important shift in elite discourse around free speech. Just a few years ago, the academics and journalists who were concerned about cancel culture were addressing a much smaller audience. Sure, there were some well-known people sounding the alarm (Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, etc.), but their concerns have gone mainstream over the past few months.
Recent events like the departures of Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss from New York magazine and The New York Times, respectively, have generated even more headlines about the issue, and figures across the political spectrum—from Matt Taibbi to David Brooks—are pointing to many of the same problems. When a group of students and professors recently signed a letter to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) calling for Steven Pinker to be removed as a fellow for a few tweets and cherry-picked lines from his work, the effort quickly fizzled out amid an outpouring of support for Pinker.
Many longtime critics of the idea that cancel culture is a significant problem have (to their credit) admitted their error. For example, Matthew Yglesias recently observed, “I wrongly thought the most egregious excesses of campus activists would stay on campus when they have instead spread as people age into other roles.” This is the thing about moral panics—while threatening, they can be illuminating. Some problems really do have to get worse before they get better. Americans who may not have bothered to read The Coddling of the American Mind or kept up with deplatforming attempts on American campuses a few years ago are now acutely aware of the woke authoritarianism that leads to the fear-driven renaming of storied institutions, the firing of editors and corporate leaders for minor deviations from brand new orthodoxies, and the unilateral desecration or destruction of monuments across the country.
Cancel culture has become a major political liability, in other words—another reason why the pushback will become stronger from the right and the left simultaneously.
Although President Trump’s opportunistic political instrumentalization of these developments is having a poisonous influence on our civil society, it could also have healthy consequences over the long term. While many conservatives are now well aware of cancel culture thanks to endless coverage on Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the like, liberals can also see that the phenomenon is a boon to President Trump and any other Republican candidates who can now present themselves as champions of free speech, defenders of the country’s history, and so on. Cancel culture has become a major political liability, in other words—another reason why the pushback will become stronger from the Right and the Left simultaneously. It is no surprise that a significant majority of Americans who report that they know what cancel culture is say it has “gone too far.”
None of this is to diminish the threat posed by cancel culture or the ominous developments (particularly in the media) over the past few months, such as the removal of New York Times editorial page editor James Bennett for running an op-ed by a sitting United States Senator. One of the reasons this particular moral panic is so stubborn is its sheer scope. The list of CEOs and editors who have resigned or been fired is long and growing, with many cities caving to demands to defund their police departments, and it is clear that politicians, the corporate sector, and especially media institutions are under immense pressure to make the right statements about race, police violence, and a range of other issues. While some of these demands and expectations are reasonable, many activists and activist journalists have made it clear that they are not interested in having an evidence-based discussion about new norms and policies; they want groupthink and are willing to punish wrongthink.
But as efforts to suppress speech and enforce certain orthodoxies become more widespread, so too do alternative forms of media, statements, and articles in opposition to woke authoritarianism and other kinds of pushback. Consider a few recent developments in the media industry, for instance: Spotify paid Joe Rogan $100 million for the exclusive rights to publish his podcast (for perspective, The New York Times Company sold The Boston Globe for $70 million in 2013, and Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post the same year for $250 million). Within three weeks of relaunching his blog The (Weekly) Dish, Sullivan hit 50,000 subscribers. Many other independent podcasts and blogs have launched and become immediately successful, such as Yascha Mounk’s Persuasion. Weiss is not going to have a problem finding a home for her work.
There have never been more outlets for independent writers, broadcasters, and thinkers, and it is clear that a vast online audience is willing to pay for their content. While it is true that plenty of journalists and academics do not have the luxury of large platforms, there are proliferating outlets for them, too. In his announcement that The Dish is returning, Sullivan pointed out that “independent media is needed more than ever, especially for up-and-coming writers.” He must be heartened by the fact that we appear to be verging on something like a renaissance for independent media. Meanwhile, organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Heterodox Academy exist to promote free speech and viewpoint diversity on campus.
One near-term possibility is that we will see a bifurcation of the media, academia, and other institutions on the basis of their positions on cancel culture. Writers, academics, and students will self-segregate into institutions that share their values with regard to free speech and diversity of thought. For example, the University of Chicago has positioned itself as a bastion of free expression in academia in direct opposition to institutions that have given in to cancel culture. In July 2014, the university established the Committee on Freedom of Expression “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The committee then released a statement which affirms the university’s “commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas” and declares that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” FIRE now urges “colleges and universities around the country to adopt their own version of the Chicago Statement”—a recommendation that is all the more pressing today.
The Chicago Statement outlines a brief history of the university’s commitment to free speech. When a student group invited the Communist Party’s presidential candidate, William Z. Foster, to deliver a lecture on campus in 1932, the university was under immense pressure to cancel the event. But then-President Robert M. Hutchins argued that students “should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” The university also reaffirmed its responsibility to protect free inquiry during the turmoil on American campuses in the late 1960’s.
Every generation has confronted threats to free speech. The classic case of a prudent restriction on speech—preventing someone from shouting fire in a crowded theater – was an analogy used by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his 1919 opinion on Schenck v. United States, in which he argued that protesters of World War I should not have the right to distribute flyers opposed to the draft. In the middle of the twentieth century, the spread of McCarthyism led Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine to declare on the Senate floor that “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”
A little over a decade later, civil rights leaders were on the receiving end of a relentless campaign to suppress their right to free speech and assembly. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from a Birmingham Jail after being arrested for protesting nonviolently; Robert Moses was arrested in 1962 for handing out leaflets urging African Americans to vote; and John Lewis was arrested in Selma for holding up a sign that read “One Man / One Vote” outside the courthouse. Like King, many others were threatened and murdered for protesting segregation and other forms of institutionalized racism in the United States.
It is not a sign of self-confidence when one of the core priorities of a political movement is to silence voices of dissent, and this tendency undermines that movement from within.
Today’s enforcers of cancel culture are, of course, nothing like the violent racists who suppressed speech with fire hoses and firebombs. One of the reasons the emerging threats to free speech are so insidious is the fact that they are often part of larger campaigns to address real inequities in our society and resist the most dangerous form of authoritarianism in the country: Trumpism (which is itself hostile to free speech). But the vital importance of reforming the criminal justice system, reducing police violence, and defeating President Trump in November is all the more reason why illiberal tactics should not be tolerated. It is not a sign of self-confidence when one of the core priorities of a political movement is to silence voices of dissent, and this tendency undermines that movement from within. It is impossible to refine ideas and course-correct if dogma takes precedence over honest conversation.
There is always a temptation to treat the threats we face today as historically unprecedented. But defenders of free speech in the United States have endured one grueling battle after another over the decades, and the would-be censors have never been able to squelch the fundamental commitment to free expression in this country. The First Amendment does not protect Americans from speech; it protects speech. American civil society is built upon free expression, and it will take more than an outbreak of wokeness to overcome that fact.
Matt Johnson is a freelance writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including Haaretz, New York Daily News, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, and Quillette.