You’ll hear that "cancel culture" isn’t real. You’ll hear that the phrase is just a way for powerful people to complain when they are criticized. You’ll hear that it’s just a way of “calling out” people who have done stupid or evil things.
Don’t believe a word of it. There genuinely exists a "cancel culture," and the frightening element in it isn't so much the “cancel” as the “culture.” Although a great deal of the phenomenon takes place—and gains its megaphone power—from social media, the real home of the culture is American academia: our colleges and universities.
And that should make us all tremble, because from there, it filters down to the grade schools and high schools. And it leaks out into industry, business, and government, as the inculturated students move out into the workforce.
It’s true that we are bringing up a generation of young people who don't believe in free speech, but that’s just one side of the critique in which they are being trained. They think that they shouldn't have to hear views they don’t like and that those who hold such views shouldn't be allowed to express them.
But they also believe the next step: that those with bad opinions should be fired, even if they don’t express those opinions. Cancel culture demands, first the non-expression of “evil” ideas, and then the non-existence of those who hold “evil” ideas.
Fire Her!But here’s a new example—not as bad as some, but worth thinking about. Diana J. Schaub is a professor of government at Loyola University in Maryland, a profound student of political theory, the best reader of Montesquieu in captivity, and a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. (She’s also a treasured friend, which probably adds some accelerant to the bonfire of my anger about her treatment.)
That probably should have used the adverb “similarly” rather than the adjective, but, well, you know, they’re just undergraduates. We can’t expect them to be polished writers.
For that matter, Harvard University itself will simply nod understandingly toward their complaint, condescendingly agree, “It is a problem, isn’t it? My goodness,” and make no moves to fire Schaub in the remaining months of her visitorship. These are undergraduates, after all, and we can’t expect them not to make loud self-righteous denunciations of the university.
The CulturingBut I said that the greatest threat in cancel culture isn’t the canceling but the culturing. And think what's revealed about the author by his Harvard Crimson editorial. His education at Harvard has taught him that those with wrong views shouldn't be allowed to express them, and it has taught him the next step: Those who hold wrong views shouldn't be employed.
We can regret here the hurt his education has suffered by teaching him that he needs to be sheltered from evil—and that future generations need never to hear evil words. But that’s the culture in which he hatched from high schooler to adult. He and his fellow students will walk out the gates of Harvard Square into premier jobs, careers, and power.
You may not think that Harvard shouldn't be the entrance to an elite life. You might even consider Harvard a net loss to our society. But the fact remains: A Harvard degree allows its holders to start several feet above others on the slippery climbing post of social advancement.
And those with that degree now believe—deep in their hearts, at the seat of their moral self-esteem—that people who hold wrong views shouldn't be allowed to speak in public or even exist in public. And their culture is spreading.
The complaint about this? A tendentious and willful assertion that her writing is “if not outright bigoted, [it is] ignorant and deeply concerning.” The irony here feels thick enough to suffocate. One of the finest scholars of our time, denounced as ignorant. Her views might not actually be bigoted, the Harvard student admits, so what’s wrong with them? It’s that they don’t align perfectly with the received opinions held by the right-thinking.
Schaub is no utilitarian, but John Stuart Mill must be rising from his grave in outrage on her behalf.