Cancel culture can bite liberals, too

“Cancel culture” has become a “thing.”

The term refers to something along the lines of boycotting someone “as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure,” according to the definition here.

It’s generally associated with liberals, who’ve shut their ears to people saying things they don’t like, torn down statues of Columbus and Confederate heroes, forced the cancellation of campus speaking engagements, etc.

The last time I wrote about this subject (here), about a geophysicist invited — and then disinvited — to speak at Berkeley about geophysics, I concluded boycotting him wasn’t really about academic freedom, or even his opposition to affirmative action, but rather was a visceral reaction to his published remarks “that impliedly compared campus diversity programs to Nazi purges of German universities in the 1930s.”

I didn’t say they shouldn’t have disinvited him. I said, “You can’t conduct an honest debate about diversity on those terms.” He changed the subject, albeit before arriving on campus, and not in his planned presentation. He got canceled because of that.

Well, what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander. So it seems.

Jon Meacham (bio here) is a editor, writer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. He was invited by Samford University (profile here), a private Christian college in Alabama, to “give a lecture on the current state of civility and discourse in the U.S.,” but his support for Planned Parenthood created an uproar that resulted in the invitation being withdrawn (story here).

Not knowing what he planned to say, I don’t know whether he would’ve touched on the abortion debate in his Samford talk. That audience wouldn’t be receptive to any unkind words about abortion opponents. But what’s clear is that everything worthwhile he had to say about civility and uncivil discourse, like everything informational the geophysicist has to say about his scientific specialty, got sunk by a distraction.

That’s the students’ loss.

The larger issue here is that we’re becoming intolerant of other people’s views, less willing to listen to each other, less interested in rationality, and more closed-minded, which in the end will leave us all more ignorant. That can’t lead to anything good. When it impairs our ability to do science, or the functioning of our society, they cheer in Moscow and Beijing. They want America to fall apart.

This is a sticky problem without simple solutions. Comparing good-faith campus diversity efforts to Nazi pogroms probably shouldn’t go unpunished. But if you want academic freedom to flourish in our country, you can’t exactly say academics should keep their big mouths shut when not talking about their academic subjects. Do that, and you’ll be grading professors on their personal opinions, not their academic contributions. We don’t want to go there. On the other hand, we also don’t want provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos (profile here) polluting our learning environments.

So it’s a line-drawing problem. What lines do you draw, and where do you draw them? It’s complicated, and figuring it out in a fair, rational, and productive way requires sharp minds and a lot of work. Should a geophysicist who Nazi-baits college diversity programs be excluded from liberal campuses? Should a journalist who hobnobs with abortion providers be chased off conservative campuses? This isn’t a Milo Yiannopoulous problem, because unlike him, they have subject-matter expertise on serious issues and didn’t come to campus to agitate.

Another “canceled” campus speaker is John Eastman, the Trump lawyer who crafted a scheme to overthrow the 2020 election (details here), which has caused him to lose teaching positions at Chapman University and the University of Colorado. But that’s not cancel culture, it’s accountability. It’s not “canceling” him because of his opinions, but holding him accountable for his actions. That’s a different thing.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    The key is actually letting Milo Yiannopoulos fucking speak, and expecting everyone to be reasonable civil. Disagree with Milo well speak up. If someone is invited to speak on geophysics no matter their other opinions let them speak. Even those with lousy putrid ideas should be able to speak on campus. If a lawyer has teaching positions universities should hesitate to take caution over their political actions, more so if they have tenure.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    If you want to let Milo speak, you’ll need conservatives’ permission, because they banned him for defending pedophiles. Facebook and Twitter banned him for harassing women. Oxford expelled him. Kinda sounds like everyone is tired of him. No wonder — he advocated shooting journalists, praised pipe bombers, embraced neo-Nazis. The lawyer in question schemed to violate the voting rights of 81 million Americans. You don’t draw a line with any of this? Seems not.