The day after the election in 2016, students at Hampshire College lowered the flag to half-mast. The University of Pennsylvania organized a ‘breathing space’ where traumatized students could cuddle with puppies, color, draw, and soothe their souls over chocolate and tea. At colleges across the country, classes were canceled, or turned them into impromptu therapy sessions (mine included).
Are the youth better prepared to deal with disappointment this time around? Are they steeled or sufficiently resolute to assess the damage and move on—again?
How about liberals as a whole? Win or lose, have they learned the lessons of the Trump presidency—how they misread the mood of the nation, in particular, the willingness of millions of Americans to elect a president with racist instincts and authoritarian leanings, who disdains democratic institutions? Do liberals better understand how they must share the nation with people who were—are—susceptible to Trump’s message?
If Cancel Culture tells us anything, the answer is ‘no.’
According to this aggressive new form of political correctness, purported offenders who betray sexist or racist attitudes, habits, or language, they must be canceled—fired, dismissed, expelled or expunged from the public sphere.
The key term here is ‘Cancel.’ According to this aggressive new form of political correctness, purported offenders who betray sexist or racist attitudes, habits, or language, they must be canceled—fired, dismissed, expelled or expunged from the public sphere. Their voices ought not be heard.
This is no way to manage a democracy. Perceived racism cannot simply be wished away or magically cured by censorship. Racist expressions and sympathies have been soundly denounced over the last few decades; this did not stop them from flooding forth in the age of Trump—with a vengeance.
At many colleges this past tumultuous summer, students organized social media campaigns to publicize accusations of racism and sexism against faculty. At the school where I teach, said accusations were often followed by outrage that the college would continue to harbor and employ the accused. This contradicts the mission of the college, critics complained, and its commitment to cultivating a diverse workspace where people feel safe. Never mind the fact that most accusations were not subjected to official review or adjudication.
In an instructive example outside academia, Cancel Culture has impacted a popular beer maker in my hometown, Baltimore. Facing sexual harassment claims in the workplace, Union Craft Brewery hired a consulting firm to root out the problem, and dismissed an employee at the heart of the accusations. A local activist decided to publicize the brewery’s problems on social media, and solicit more complaints. Responses included sighs of resignation from former Union Craft devotees, who announced they must take their business elsewhere—though the brewery was indeed taking action. The Cancel Culture crusaders are prepared to let Union Craft Brewery sink, though it is doing good, hard work in the city of Baltimore, providing much-needed jobs, anchoring a collective of locally owned businesses and artisanal shops.
Critics complain that Cancel Culture is a new kind of puritanism, which demands that people and institutions fit a perfect liberal mold, and never issue anything that may be construed as sexist or racist. It amounts to a circular firing squad, where liberals commit a Stalinist purge of their ranks, infecting one another with stifling paranoia.
That may be the case— but it’s also worth noting that liberals do themselves no favor by demanding that people they disapprove of or disdain should be silenced. This evokes the kind of intolerance that got them into trouble in the first place—in 2016.
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Liberals were caught flat-footed by the Trump phenomenon. They refused to believe he could win. They were sure most Americans had disavowed the kind of overt racism Trump flirted with. They were wrong. Emboldened by Trump, white supremacists have come out of the woodwork—where they were lurking all along—and the president has hardly distanced himself from them, practically cheering them on.
This sorry episode makes clear you cannot extinguish racism, sexism, homophobia, hate, or any kind of bias simply by silencing it. This doesn’t make it go away. Popular culture long forbade overt expressions of racism; people who clung to those views were not transformed in the meantime. They were not converted from their racism simply by being shut up and shut out. Quite the opposite. Their resentment simmered and grew; their anger welled up, at being disdained by a ‘morally enlightened’ elite. And then they exploded onto the public stage, and appall liberals –still—with their shameless embrace of Trump.
Thanks to Cancel Culture, liberals are doubling down on the same mistake again. Much is lost when you disqualify people from public life, or refuse to acknowledge them. You don’t get to see the real diversity of said views; you don’t get to understand their nuances, motivations, influences, and inspirations—even if morally dubious. Crucially, you are not prepared for when exiled views—which do not die—come roaring back.
Cancel Culture would ensure that liberals only know how to speak and work with their own—and the purest form thereof. How can they possibly be prepared to deal with surprises in the future? How will liberals work with opponents, or court independent voters and voices—as our democracy demands—if they deem such people morally flawed, and unworthy of consideration or respect?
Plato was no friend of democracy. He considered it ‘rule by the rabble’ or lowest common denominator, and preferred government by an enlightened elite—philosopher kings. Cancel Culture crusaders evoke Platonist sympathies in their hostility to people who are not sufficiently enlightened or morally reconstructed. Their view of democracy is not nearly as accommodating as it should be. Like it or not, democracy is necessarily inclusive of all kinds of voices, many of which will seem narrow-minded, unsavory, or unrepentant. Democracy gives these people a voice, and does not disqualify them on the basis of moral shortcomings or cultural disposition. Democracy is necessarily a messy melting pot of diverse views—at its best. This of course makes democracy inefficient, which it should be; beware democracy that is ‘efficient’—that’s when some or many voices do not have their say.
Liberals must work to expand their base, not narrow it according to some kind of purity test. They must recruit allies, instead of censoring the impure, and pretending that opposition views are too immoral to exist. This is not how political change happens anyway. That’s the business of legislation, which necessarily entails working with people who are ideologically—and morally—diverse.
Political change is not merely or principally a matter of changing people’s outward behavior and words. As the saying goes, ‘words are cheap.’
Or as Princeton professor Eddie Glaude argues, it has been too easy to say the right things, and evoke an ideal of racial reconciliation and harmony—as if it were just around the corner, and would materialize if we wish it hard enough. This illusion, he says, “hides the rot.” It covers up how policies sustain racism—the social and economic structures that perpetuate and propagate racist prejudice. These policies must be tackled and transformed if we would engineer the ‘revolution of value’ that racism demands, according to Glaude.
This means working with the other side—or with people of various political shades and colors. It means finding a path towards compromise. It means learning to talk, and listen, to people who are very different from you, who are morally imperfect.
Aren’t we all?