Why Do So Many Liberals Buy Into the Cancel-Culture Hype?

by Neil H. Buchanan 
In a growing but unplanned series of columns, I have been engaging in a post mortem of sorts on the American experiment, which is clearly in its final death throes.  One particularly interesting question is the amount of blame that establishment Democrats bear for the ongoing tragedy.  Although one might argue that there was never truly any way to prevent the Republicans from using the deeply antidemocratic flaws in the Constitution to create their one-party autocracy, I suspect otherwise.  In any event, there have certainly been plenty of times in which the nominally liberal party's leaders did nothing while the system was being destroyed under their noses.

In a new Verdict column today, I offer something of a mash-up of two very different examples of the bad instincts of many liberals and Democrats.  Specifically, I point out that the center-left's blithe agreement with the Republicans' framing of the political correctness/cancel culture/wokeness "problem" is surprisingly similar to the center-left's agreement with the Republicans' framing of criminal justice issues.

Despite the conceptual similarity, I do go out of my way to emphasize that the immediate consequences are much worse in the criminal justice arena.  I discussed that problem in a Dorf on Law column earlier this month, arguing that the label "limousine liberal" should not be applied to people merely because they have money but only when their commitment to liberal causes flies out the window the moment that they feel any discomfort in their lives.  Hence, today's Verdict column appears under the headline: "The Complicity of the ‘Comfortable Liberals’ in the Decline of American Constitutional Democracy."
I point out, moreover, that it is not merely that these nominal liberals lose perspective when they feel personally threatened.  The more surprising -- and morally indefensible -- problem is that they immediately lapse into Nixonian law-and-order reaction, even though the evidence shows that such policies always make matters worse.  So the poor, the weak, and the reviled end up being victimized yet again because some liberals stop thinking and let their lizard brains take over.

But what about the panic over this nonexistent thing that is currently being labeled cancel culture?  As I noted, there is nothing immediately at stake in that debate that in any way resembles the awful consequences for the victims of beat-their-heads-and-lock-'em-up carceralism.  In some ways, however, the intensity of the discussion around this fake thing called cancel culture is more intense.  And even if one were to believe the supposed liberals who are panicking, their own descriptions of the horribleness at issue are so vague and low-stakes that they are almost comical.  Why the disproportionate response?

One possibility is that this is the current manifestation of Sayre's Law (sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger, who merely copied it), which says that "[a]cademic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low."  Even though we are not talking exclusively about academia in the PC/cancel/woke debates, the flavor is very much the same throughout, with people in high dudgeon because someone violated a dearly held principle that turns out to be self-serving nonsense.

Doubt it?  The New York Times editorial board still wins the prize for inanity with this: "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."  The problem, supposedly, is that some people are using their free speech rights to "trample" other people's free speech rights, which apparently include the right to say shameful things without being shamed.  I am hardly the first person to have noticed that the purveyors of center-left orthodoxy are in a snit because the masses have started to call out their supposed betters, and the elites do not like it one bit.

A second possibility is that nominal liberals' embrace of PC/cancel/work panic is merely a manifestation of the way that "public intellectualism" caters to elite's concerns.  For example, The Times devotes disproportionate space to stories about the trials and tribulations of applicants to selective universities.  If this exalted part of the media culture thinks it is worth devoting column inches to exploring the admissions process at, say, Swarthmore or Wesleyan, then we should not be surprised when they hype stories about how "free speech" is being squelched by the Thought Police on what are said to be increasingly intolerant college campuses.  It sounds high-minded to talk about how college kids should be open to new ideas, and recycling overwrought stories about a supposed turn toward censoriousness is likely driven by the intellectual elites' sense of priorities and self-image.  "When I went to Brown, we were always willing to listen to contrary viewpoints.  What's the matter with kids today?!"

By contrast, the story on the right is about very high stakes.  For all of their performative nonsense, the Ted Cruz's and George Will's of the world seem to truly believe that the nation's soul is at stake whenever someone they like is (in their view) mistreated by some elite institution or another.  They think that being concerned about pronouns is tied up in the cultural degradation that will end in people like them losing their (entirely deserved) place at the top of the pecking order.  As far as they are concerned, not hiring a scholar because he makes openly racist statements is merely part of the rot that, gasp, has led universities to consider their ties to slavery.  And where does that lead?  To "The 1619 Project," that's where!  And we must never allow our kids to be taught to hate America by learning the truth about their country.

The stakes are high for the right, then, because they are defending indefensible positions.  That requires them to exaggerate the supposed problem, to scream about every example, and generally to act as if the left's word choices are the problem.  (Ironic, I know.)  The anti-woke warriors want to claim that, say, a company that tried to sweep a sexual harassment claim under the rug lost out on a contract because women are overreacting, not because the company did anything wrong.  Complaining that liberals want people to stop using offensive words saves conservatives from having to defend their offensive policy ideas.

As unhinged as all of that is, it explains the underlying basis for conservatives' constant vigilance against any perceived left-leaning tendencies in universities or other intellectual venues.  But as I noted above, the story is very different for the people on the left who have joined with conservatives to deplore this nonexistent problem.  In today's Verdict column, for example, I quote from a talk that Barack Obama delivered in 2019, in which he smirked his way through a denunciation of young people who "tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb."  Putting himself in the head of a person who would do such a thing, Obama said: "I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, man, you see how woke I was?  I called you out."
Wow, what an important thing for the former president to say!  Cue the bipartisan plaudits (including from Ann Coulter).  But honestly, why would Obama bother with this?  He had college-aged daughters at the time (the younger one still is in college), so he might have heard them complain about someone criticizing their use of a verb.  Or maybe Obama himself was annoyed by something that happened to him on Twitter.  The closest he came to explaining why this mattered was to create a false choice between being woke and being politically active, saying that criticizing people's word choices is "not bringing about change" and is "easy to do."

I readily concede that I find it annoying when young people correct my word choices, but so what?  Sometimes they are right, and I adjust.  Other times they are merely being contentious, and I am not amused.  But young people have always done this (I certainly did), and there is no evidence that it is worse than it was before.  In fact, the examples offered by the people who complain about cancellation span the last few decades.  There are undeniably examples of bad decisions by university administrators, and recently some of them have been based on race or other social justice issues, but for every truly worrying example that I have seen in the last few years, I have seen similarly bad decisions over the course of my forty years in academia.

That is obviously unlikely to make a person who is harmed by a bad decision today feel better, because misery does not like company as much as we might think.  But in any event, the people who are sure that there is an unprecedented wave of censoriousness cresting over American intellectual life have failed to make anything more than an anecdote-based case to prove their point.  If the problem were so bad, should it not be something that we could detect systematically, not just by reading the occasional Times story about a professor or other "knowledge worker" who was arguably wronged?

In some of my earlier writings about this issue, I have noted that Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in 2020 joined a who's-who list of public intellectuals in signing an open letter organized by an editor at Harper's, complaining about the whole cancel culture thing.  To her credit, Goldberg eventually admitted that the problem seemed to be limited to a few oft-told anecdotes, some of which were tendentious on their own terms, while the genuinely troubling examples were genuinely troubling but few in number.

Some of those examples, in fact, were essentially staged.  Goldberg's former colleague Bari Weiss, who had been hired to "intellectually diversify" the Times opinion page, set up an operatic scene that allowed her to claim victim status, all the while setting up her next career move.  She presented her resignation as a cancellation, but more importantly, she is now doing just fine in her career, thank you very much.  Similarly, when a Princeton professor named Joshua Katz recently became a cause celebre on the right for being fired over charges of dishonesty, his wife noted that he had received multiple job offers, adding snarkily that "[t]he canceled have a way of looking out for each other.  But none of them is the job that he has loved doing his whole life."

None of which is to say that there are not examples of people who endured undue consequences in less ambiguous situations.  One of the stories that made news a couple of years ago had to do with a former Obama campaign worker named David Shor, who was fired from Civis Analytics after he tweeted about an academic study that suggested that the 1968 riots turned that year's election in Nixon's favor.  Shor did this in the period of intense protests after George Floyd's murder, and based on what I have read, I think it is accurate to say that he lost his job because a lot of people misinterpreted what he wrote.

Like Weiss and Katz, however, Shor has easily landed on his feet.  He is back to doing the work that he loves (which, unfortunately, involves telling Democrats not to campaign on social and cultural issues).  Indeed, he has been lauded by center-left columnist Ezra Klein in The Times, who noted: "For Shor, cancellation, traumatic though it was, turned him into a star."  Sounds like a win.
Among the people with whom I otherwise agree but who worry about PC/cancel culture/wokeness, the stories that they tell often boil down to having "heard about a guy who lost his job because people overreacted."  Which, again, does happen.  And yes, career changes can be harrowing, even if they end well.  I am currently in my dream job, and I would not want to lose it.
None of that, however, explains the intensity of the feeling among so many nominal liberals that this is really bad, so bad that they must make common cause with the right to bring lefty campus crusaders to heel.

Again, it is easy to see why the right is so invested in talking about imaginary things like cancel culture.  They need to distract us from what they are really doing.  Even on their own terms, however, the Obamas and Goldbergs have not been able to tell a story that adds up to anything that deserves air time.  Every injustice is an injustice, but the particular injustices (even including the iffy ones) are simply not a big deal, nor are they a trend.  Why do Comfortable Liberals continue to reinforce this contrived framing?  It is indefensible.