The New York Times Inadvertently Exposes the Emptiness of Its Embrace of the 'Cancel Culture' Trope
by Neil H. Buchanan
I have been saying for years that "political correctness" is a meaningless term, and I have repeatedly called on people who should know better to stop using it -- even (especially) when they think it does have a straightforward meaning, such as "saving 'differently abled' rather than 'disabled.'" This has all become much worse, however, since the right's PC-panic-on-steroids of "cancel culture" and "wokeness" emerged over the last year or so -- again, abetted by liberals who truly should know better.
One bit of evidence that these terms merely mean "something I don't like and want to disaparage" came in yesterday's announcement by Donald Trump that he is no longer endorsing Mo Brooks's Senate run in Alabama. Why did Trump turn against the man who, perhaps even more than Rudy Giuliani, was a key part of the effort to keep Trump in the White House illegally? Brooks, Trump tells us, is now "woke" and thus unworthy of the MAGA brand. I kid you not.
This might all be pretextual, as some commentators have suggested that Trump needed a reason to pull his nomination from Brooks's sure-to-lose candidacy (currently running a distant third place in the polls for the Republican primary). Even so, that Trump contrived this excuse -- Brooks apparently (and surprisingly accurately) told Trump that there is no way to "rescind" the 2020 election and run a Special Election to reinstall Trump in Washington -- and then slapped the insult "woke" on the guy makes my point better than I ever could.
That does not prove, of course, that there is no content to the PC/cancel culture/woke trope. Just because many people badly misunderstand something -- like Herschel Walker, another embarrassing Republican candidate for Senate, saying that evolution is wrong because if man evolved from apes then there would no longer be apes -- does not mean that there is no there there. The difference is that people who care to do so can figure out what evolution is (and is not).
Not so with PC/cancel culture/wokeness. It is all vacuous word play that reinforces a reactionary mindset. And as I discuss in my new Verdict column today, the editors of The New York Times, of all people, have unintentionally added further evidence of same. It is a rather interesting, if depressing, story.
Jimmy Kimmel's late-night show runs frequent segments in which people walking down the sidewalk in LA respond to questions that are based on lies, but the interviewees almost always accept the premise and confidently opine about the "news." Questions are of the form: "Did you think it was good or bad that the Italian luge team at the Olympics decided to do their final run wearing nothing but their jock straps?" or "Was it a good idea for Kanye West to admit to dressing up like the Teletubbies?" People immediately say things like, "Oh yeah, I heard about that and I was amazed, but as I always say, 'you do you.'"
What does this have to do with the editorial board of The New York Times? They decided to create a self-serious version of Kimmel's shtick, in which they commissioned a poll that pushed people into responding to false premises, at which point the editors used the results to "prove" that, as their headline put it, "America Has a Free Speech Problem." (Notably, the URL for the piece is: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/opinion/cancel-culture-free-speech-poll.html. "Cancel Culture Free Speech Poll"? Hmm. I wonder if they had an agenda.)
In my column, I note that the editors rely heavily on the answers to one particular question -- "How much of a problem is it that some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech in everyday situations out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism?" -- and breathlessly report that 84 percent -- 84 -- of people say that this is a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem.
Note that the question merely says that "some Americans" are supposedly doing this. Should interviewees not be told how many people are in this situation? I mean, if I were told that one-half of one percent of Americans had voluntarily self-reported such worries (without being prompted to do so, which another question in The Times's poll did), that would not seem very or even somewhat serious to me. If it were sixty percent, that would at least matter on its own terms.
The problem is that those terms are wrong. No one is "not exercis[ing] their freedom of speech" simply by choosing not to speak. At best, the question is saying that some people are deciding not to say things in various situations because other people might be mean to them in response. As my wonderful editor at Verdict summarized my point in the blurb for today's column: "Professor Buchanan explains why the editorial board erroneously conflates the right to free speech with an expectation of speech without consequences."
The editors' claim, after all -- stated bluntly in the opening paragraph -- is that "Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned." I was not aware that that was a fundamental right. The title of my column, "No, America Does Not Have a Free Speech Problem—At Least, Not the One The New York Times’s Editors Imagine," refers to my argument that if there is a free speech problem in the US, it is that groups like the editors at The Times want to tell people how they are allowed to respond to other people's speech. As I note, Justice Brandeis's "The answer to bad speech is more speech" concept is premised on the idea that people can respond to others' speech by saying, "You're wrong," sometimes making it clear that the wrong is egregious.
If "cancel culture" has been reduced to being the label for people making judgments about other people's ideas -- sometimes deciding to shame, shun, or both -- then we have truly reached the bottom of nothingness. That the editors try piously to tie this to the possible death of democracy only makes it more embarrassing.
None of which is to say that there are not situations in which people overreact (in my judgment) or where people choose their words more carefully or, yes, choose not to speak. But the public square is not guaranteed to be welcoming, even to ideas that seem to the speaker (and others) to be innocuous or misunderstood. I certainly hate it when people refuse to listen to a clarification, but my freedom to speak is not the same as any else's obligation to listen to me.
Moreover, to the extent that there is a problem, the idea that "this is getting worse" is difficult to take seriously. As I point out in today's column, the reliable purveyors of the conventional wisdom on "Morning Joe" picked up on the editorial and spent more than 17 minutes bemoaning the state of "free speech" in America without being able to point to any meaningful examples of the problem -- and most of what they did talk about were not recent occurrences.
And when a co-host tepidly acknowledged that the whole cancel culture trope, which they had already presented as "a problem on both the right and left fringe" (in Al Sharpton's formulation), might possibly be a problematic form of bothsidesism, NeverTrump conservative Charlie Sykes offered this: "You don't have to say that they are morally equivalent or that they are the same thing, but the reality is that both sides are responsible. You have a two-front war against liberal democracy and free speech." That sounds morally equivalent, does it not? (To his minimal credit, Sykes did admit that The Times overstated the case.) Moreover, Sykes admitted that it -- whatever "it" is -- has been "going on for a long time." So why the current panic?
Above, I acknowledged that Trump's nakedly political and content-free use of "woke" does not rule out the possibility that there could be an apolitical and meaningful version of that idea. Similarly, even thought the editors of The Times and the "Morning Joe" panel failed miserably to make their case, that still does not prove that there is no underlying content to PC/cancel culture/wokeness. I have been trying mightily to find any such content without success, but maybe it is still out there for me to uncover.
The other day, Professor Dorf offered a potential route forward, noting (in a column discussing college admissions and potential legislative intrusions into the university space) that "although the term 'cancel culture' is vague and much abused, the underlying phenomenon of using social pressure to influence personnel and policy matters in ways that stifle free expression is real." That is to say, outside political pressure can be used to try to punish professors for expressing unpopular views, and universities too often cave to such pressure.
Note that Professor Dorf did not offer this as a defense of either the term "cancel culture" or of its widespread abuse in public debate. Being admirably fair-minded, he wrote that "colleges and universities [are] already subject to excessive external pressure from both the political right and the left," which is not bothsidesism, because in this context it is in fact true that some who identify as "the left" do try to influence internal decisions inappropriately, even though (again, as Professor Dorf points out) the real action is coming from extremely aggressive Republican state legislatures (and soon from the Supreme Court's arch-conservative majority).
At most, then, if a person were inclined to justify the continued public fixation on supposed cancel culture -- which I am not inclined to do, nor is Professor Dorf, I suspect -- the most that we could impute to the idea is that some people are trying to get universities to ban subjects of study, to punish professors, and so on. That is not always a bad thing (some professors do things that should be punished, just as people in all walks of life sometimes deserve sanction), but it is often very bad indeed. Again, however, it is not a new phenomenon, where even relatively recent history has seen conservatives in Colorado contrive charges to get a tenure professor fired for making "unpatriotic" arguments in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
In the end, the world would be a better place if we could get people -- at least non-Trumpists like (I presume) most of the editorial board of The New York Times -- to stop feeding the PC/cancel culture/woke narrative. It is easily abused, it almost never has any content, and when it does, that content can be easily described and dealt with on its own terms, not by reinforcing and validating Republican-slanted buzzwords. And what of those people who will not stop? Shaming and shunning is always an option.