“Cancel culture,” long the subject of pedantic debates largely relegated to the most annoying corners of Twitter, is being pushed to the national fore by Republicans who believe that accusing liberals of censorship and cancellation will benefit conservative causes and reactionary politicians. Donald Trump’s lawyers accused Democrats of “cancel culture” for impeaching the former president after he incited a mob that attacked the Capitol, injured hundreds, and resulted in the deaths of seven people. GOP politicians are using “cancel culture” as an electoral strategy — convenient, because there are few legislative or policy solutions they can offer, but there’s a whole lot of grievance to be had. A new GOP-sponsored bill would include political affiliation under protected class status in an effort to fight “cancel culture.”
It’s unsurprising that a party that has fully embraced the white identity politics of victimization to shore up support would double down on the strategy of telling their base that liberals are out to get them. What’s frustrating, though, is letting them set the terms of the debate — when religious conservatives have long been the most censorious and cancel-happy force in America.
I’ve written before about the trouble with demanding maximum consequences for wrongdoing, and I do think that as advocates for social justice and racial and gender equality find greater power in society and in our workplaces, we are walking over new ground that can be tough to traverse. When for so long bad behavior — sexual harassment, racial harassment, subtler indignities and insults, the way powerful people (disproportionately white men) elevate and power-share with people who look like them to the exclusion of those who don’t — went not just unpunished but broadly unremarked upon, it is tempting to want to use any newfound power to make as much of an example as possible. I worry that we get ourselves into a bad place when the only measure of “accountability” or “consequences” is whether the maximum penalty has been leveraged — when we only see a satisfactory outcome if an employee has been fired, or if a private citizen has been roundly condemned and publicly humiliated, or if a wrongdoer goes to jail (and goes to jail for a long time). I am troubled by arguments that intent is irrelevant, and by attempts to enforce ideological conformity no matter what the ideology — my own included, as much as I wish everyone agreed with me on basic questions of fundamental rights.
All of which is to say: I am not a person who says that there’s nothing to see here when it comes to claims of left-wing over-reach. I think there’s often far less to see than what the loudest critics claim, but we are walking through new territory, and in an attempt to correct centuries of grievous wrongs, sometimes we over-step. This is worthy of discussion and debate.
But that discussion and debate needs to be full and honest. The truth is that it’s not the left doing most of the “canceling,” or penalizing people for their views, actions, and beliefs. It’s the right. They just believe that their long-standing version of cancel culture is legitimate and justifiable. And they know that they can appeal to liberal sensibilities — including mine — by emphasizing the importance of free speech, of human fallibility, of forgiveness and grace.
It’s a scam, though, and we shouldn’t fall for it.
Right-wing cancel culture is when a girl is expelled from her private school for wearing a rainbow sweater and having a rainbow cake at her birthday party. It’s when women the nation over lose their jobs at Catholic schools because they became pregnant out of wedlock and don’t have abortions. It’s when religious colleges formally bar students from forming pro-choice or LGBT rights organizations. It’s when religious organizations and individuals petition their way up to the Supreme Court for their right to refuse to serve or even fire people they disagree with, or whose “lifestyles” they don’t like. It’s when a U.S. congresswoman who has said that Muslims “do not belong in our government” tries to oust one of her Muslim colleagues. It’s when criticism of Israel gets you attacked by a right-wing mob that demands you be admonished or fired. It’s when the President of the United States bars an advocate for Palestinian rights from entering the U.S. and Republican politicians pass laws barring public institutions from doing business with anyone who supports a political movement they oppose. It’s when a Christian college fires a professor for wearing a hijab and saying Muslims and Christians worship the same god, or makes her formally pledge her allegiance to the college’s views after she wrote that Christians could learn from Black liberation theology. It’s when right-wing politicians and organizations push policies that penalize organizations abroad that so much as mention the word “abortion” or advocate for abortion rights — something that would violate the First Amendment if applied to domestic groups.
The conservative argument has always been that these are largely private institutions (or in other examples, recipients of government largesse). The government can use its pursestrings as persuasive, the argument goes, and private institutions can do what they want — certainly a private Christian college has the right to require its students and employees adhere to its own code of morality (this is the same argument that allowed the Christian Bob Jones University to expel students for being in interracial relationships). Conservatives and Republicans have fought tooth and nail, for decades, for expansive rights of employers to hire and fire employees at will; they have opposed worker protections, including anti-discrimination laws, at every turn. So it’s… interesting… to see people who have argued that private institutions should get to set their own moral rules and enforce them as they see fit so up in arms when private institutions set their own moral rules and enforce them as they see fit — at least when those moral rules are about pushing back against racism and sexism, and pushing for the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Don’t get me wrong: I also roll my eyes at pat bandaid gestures like companies using the words “diversity, equity, and inclusion” so that they don’t have to do the much harder work of looking at their own internal power structures and making big changes; I am also skeptical of all of the ways in which rhetorical nods to “safety” can be used, in practice, to concentrate more power in the hands of corporations and other private institutions that are answerable to no one, and can leave employees and the people those institutions claim to serve all the more vulnerable.
But this is a strategy that the American right has already pretty well-honed when it comes to conservative and religious institutions. They have fought hard to make these institutions wholly unaccountable. They have fought hard to give these institutions the right to cancel employment or service at will, simply because they disagree with a person’s private behavior or political views, or because they simply don’t like who a person is. The same people who complain that rules against sexual harassment are getting so stringent that a guy can’t even ask a gal out at work anymore have very little to say when a child is expelled from a religious school because she said she had a crush on a girl. The same people who are up in arms about JK Rowling getting “canceled” and sales of Harry Potter nosediving didn’t have anything to say when religious schools were banning Rowling's books.
These stories, though, aren’t jammed into the “cancel culture” box, because they don’t fit the right-wing aim of portraying progressives as the truly intolerant ones. They don’t fit the right-wing aim of hamstringing employers and institutions when it comes to fighting discrimination and pushing for greater fairness. They don’t fit the right-wing aim of expanding the ability of religious institutions and individuals to discriminate while radically shrinking any ability to push back.
There is an entire right wing cottage industry of complaining that conservative voices are kept out of mainstream media and institutions of higher education. And yet, while you cannot find a single major newspaper or news network that doesn’t regularly feature conservative views and doesn’t employ high-profile conservatives, how many liberals are paid to write for the Daily Caller or Breitbart? How many have contracts at Fox News or OAN or NewsMax? American colleges and universities do indeed have more liberal than conservative faculty, perhaps because conservatism has not lent itself quite so well to intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of higher education, and perhaps because education may in fact make one more open-minded, curious, and tolerant, and less prone to dogma and authoritarianism (the more educated a person in the US is, the more liberal they get). And yet the norm of tenure protects a great many conservatives at American colleges and universities, including many with objectively bigoted views, while religious colleges routinely require faculty members to sign “statements of faith” that violate academic freedom and require ideological conformity, and allow them fire anyone who appears to transgress.
There is indeed broad enforcement of “wrongthink.” Just ask the girl who was kicked out of her school for a photo of her rainbow birthday party, “which demonstrates a posture of morality and cultural acceptance contrary to that of Whitefield Academy’s beliefs” and “we made it clear that any further promotion, celebration, or any other actions and attitudes that are counter to Whitefield’s philosophy would not be tolerated.”
None of this is easy, especially in the workplace and in institutions of higher learning. It is an inconvenient truth that robust worker protections will sometimes be at odds with strict enforcement of institutional values. It is an inconvenient truth that robust worker protections will sometimes be at odds with protections for the public or for vulnerable groups (for example: there is certainly a tension between protecting the rights of workers to refuse to participate in activities they believe are morally wrong — for example, allowing health care workers to opt out of providing abortion services — and protecting the rights of women to access health care, including abortion services). It is an inconvenient truth that those of us who want workplaces that broadly protect the rights of workers are going to face tough situations where different groups of workers have competing sets of rights, where the right to feel safe and to be treated fairly may conflict with someone else’s right to hold and express certain political, personal, or other views outside of work (for example: workers have the right to hold unpopular social or political views and to express those views in their off-the-clock lives; female employees have a right to be treated fairly in the workplace; how would you balance those interests in the case of a male employee who posts to his personal Facebook that he believes mothers of small children should be at home full-time?). These are not simple problems, and there will not be a singular fair solution to every one of them. Working through them will be messy and imperfect, and doing that work is particularly ill-served by falling back on lazy arguments about cancellation. It’s also ill-served by denying the reality that this work is difficult, and that there are multiple competing interests in play.
I think that generally, the U.S. would be much better off if we had stronger protections for workers, even if that meant that people whose views and actions I find ugly and objectionable sometimes get to keep their jobs. But the American right has fought against that. They will continue to fight for the ability of conservative and religious institutions to discriminate, punish, fire, and cancel people at will, even as they demand liberal, feminist, and anti-racist ones behave entirely differently, and even as they engage in mass public shaming campaigns to socially enforce their will. We shouldn’t shy away from these difficult conversations. But we also shouldn’t let a loud and dishonest group of people warp and manipulate the debate to serve their ends.
There is a stifling of dissenting voices. There is a culture of cancellation, punishment, expulsion, and firing for those who don’t toe a very narrow political line.
But it’s not coming primarily from the left.
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By Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17112276