The case against cancel culture

January 28, 2021 | By BRITTANY HUNTER

Freedom of speech is a core value in American society. There is a reason our Founders included it as the First Amendment to our Constitution. Both our intellectual and economic lives depend on the free exchange of ideas and information.

Pacific Legal Foundation is committed to protecting an individual’s right to free speech. While our role is usually litigating on First Amendment issues, we believe the broader cultural point is that “bad” speech should be met with more speech, rather than calling for the silencing of views with which we might disagree.

But this exchange of ideas is being threatened by the social phenomenon “cancel culture.”

Where we used to be able to disagree with each other civilly, over the past several years respectful discourse has been harder to find. Now, individuals on both sides of the aisle are calling for the “cancelling” and “de-platforming”—the removal of individuals’ access to public platforms and from positions of power—of those who don’t agree with them.

Cancel culture has become so widespread, it has ruined lives, damaged reputations, and jeopardized the futures of young people whose lives have barely begun.

Yet, there is a national debate as to whether cancel culture actually exists, and if it does, if it is necessarily a bad thing.

To address these questions and help foster the free exchange of ideas, PLF recently had the privilege of hosting a virtual event, Coming Together or Breaking Apart: The Case Against Cancel Culture, featuring panelists:

  • Professor Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, author of The Righteous Mind and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind
  • Professor Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law, Emerita at New York Law School, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union
  • Professor Eugene Volokh, Gary T. Schwartz Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, and founder of “The Volokh Conspiracy,” one of the most influential and widely read legal blogs in the country

Addressing what has become a virtual witch hunt to name and shame those who hold opinions that go against the culture of wokeness, the panel began by discussing whether cancel culture is as big a deal as many seem to think it is.

Strossen started the conversation by explaining that she did not find the fear over this social phenomenon to be overblown. She explained that the seriousness of the situation is what led her to sign the Harper’s Letter, which called for open debate and stated that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

Strossen explained that as a professor, she has witnessed the growing fear that has caused students to self-censor lest they be attacked for their opinions.

Haidt made a bold statement, calling cancel culture, “the social death penalty.” He explained that in this current climate, those calling for cancellation make “no effort to see what the accused actually said or what the context may have been.”

He continued, “It’s about cutting them off, it’s about calling for their ostracism.” Haidt also attributes a rise in teen suicide to social media. “Social death,” he explains, “actually leads people to want to commit suicide.”

Volokh later added his concerns over social media, expressing that it has changed so much over the years that it makes the impact of cancel culture greater than it otherwise would be.

“Now, you can get 10,000 signatures, and that’s not the tip of the iceberg, it turns out, it’s actually bigger than the iceberg. The actual number of people who are outraged is probably a lot less than that. But the result is that I think a lot of times universities, for example, their reaction is ‘Oh my God, we need to do something, we need to take stern action to convey to students that we are taking them seriously.’”

He added, “The problem is, the outrage mobs look so large—it looks like this giant mob, but that is just because the technology has made it so easy for people to cheaply just say ‘Okay, fine. I’ll sign up.’”

Volokh offered a slightly different view of cancel culture, expressing that social ridicule is not akin to being sent to the gulags or even being sent to jail. “It’s not death, it’s not even really social death. So, we need to keep things in perspective.” But he does admit that this is a huge problem, agreeing with Haidt’s sentiment and explaining that the threat of being fired or the threat of being kicked out of college “powerfully deters people from expressing themselves.”

He continued:

“As a result, all of us are losers because the people who are deterred from expressing themselves aren’t just the idiots who don’t have anything useful to say…it’s people who have any views that they think are dissenting in some measure or might be viewed as dissenting five or ten years from now.”

He went on to say:

“That is poison for the academy where we can’t know what’s true. You can’t know that something is true unless people are free to say the opposite. And then their arguments are substantively disproven.”

Strossen made a distinction between healthy self-censorship and unhealthy callout culture. Productive self-censorship, she said, “is part of a healthy discourse on campus and elsewhere…in a healthy, vibrant discourse you are seeking to pursue the dialogue, to exchange and refine and refute and debate ideas and perhaps, change minds.”

She continued, “Whereas the goal of cancel culture seems to be, as the word implies, to end the discussion to take not only certain ideas and certain subjects off the table entirely, but to take certain people out of the discussion entirely. It is effectively the death penalty.”

When asked why so many are quick to participate in cancel culture, Haidt explained, “When we see professors piling on, I think it’s more driven by fear than the desire for prestige. It’s driven by the fear that you’ll be next.”

Haidt later continued, “We need a sociological perspective to understand why these things happen, what is the goal of them. It’s not necessarily focused on shutting down speech; I think it’s focused on strengthening the group that is pursing political ends.”

Haidt also spoke of the rise of “campus safetyism,” a concept mentioned in his book The Coddling of the American Mind.

“While safety for most people means primarily physical safety, we began to see this concept-creep, the idea of safety extended to emotional safety, and then just to ‘things that offend me.’ So this big change that happened around college campuses in 2015 and 2016 reflected the rise of the idea of safety in the classroom.”

Volokh built on Haidt’s comment:

“A lot of the rhetoric used these days is the rhetoric of the emotional fragility of minority groups, and also sometimes of women. One thing someone pointed out is that feminism in the past was ‘I am woman hear me roar’…feminism today is ‘I am woman, I am super vulnerable.’”

Strossen added:

“As a pro-liberty feminist, this reminds me of a famous line in a Supreme Court decision by the great liberal Justice William Brennan, but he took it from an ACLU brief written by the great then-ACLU lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsberg, striking down a supposedly protective law for women. He said, ‘This reflects romantic paternalism, which far from putting women on a pedestal actually puts them in a cage.’”

Grim as the situation may seem, the panel ended with an air of optimism.

When asked what makes each panelist optimistic about the future of cancel culture, Haidt chimed in first, saying, “A lot of survey work shows that most people hate cancel culture, political correctness, and wokeness—even most people on the left.”

Strossen paid PLF a great compliment saying she stays optimistic in part because of “programs like these. There is such a growing interest in an opportunity to learn about and empower people to raise their voices. I also just read a survey that shows that people in this country are not politically active at all, and unfortunately, they are not raising their voices at all to counter the excesses of cancel culture.”

She continued, “I think we should take every opportunity we have, including through forums like this, to tell people what a big difference they can make by raising their voices. As my favorite ACLU T-shirt says, ‘You have the right not to remain silent.’”

Volokh gave his opinion from a legal scholar’s point of view:

“The law is pretty good on a lot of these things. The judges in recent years have been pretty good—by  and large, mostly judges from the left and from the right and from the center…court decisions make a difference.”

Watch the full video below.


Don’t forget to register for our next virtual event in our Battleground America Series, Our Path Forward: Reviving America After a Year of Chaos on Friday, January 29.