Walter Lippmann once wrote: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Sure, that all too buzzworthy alliterative phrase, “cancel culture” is not completely synonymous with groupthink. But it comes awfully close, as the authors of the October 2023 released The Canceling of the American Mind set out to prove.
As the penmen of any pejorative manifesto must, Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott offer parameters for the very thing they are railing against. The two define cancel culture as: “Campaigns to get people fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is, or would be, protected by the First Amendment standards and the climate of fear and conformity that has resulted.” But they toy around with several other definitions, too. They quote journalist Aja Romano as arguing that cancel culture is nothing more than the natural evolution of callout culture— “the natural escalation from pointing out a problem to calling for the head of the person who caused it.” Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institution breaks it down into 6 components: 1. Punitiveness 2. Deplatforming 3. Organization 4. Secondary boycotts 5. Moral grandstanding 6. and Truthiness, or the distortion of accuracy.
Where The Canceling of the American Mind excels is in its ability to identify the core tragedy and contradiction of cancel culture, by any definition—that it reinforces homogeneity of thought and a fearfulness around productive debate, despite purporting the defense of the opposite. Rather than foster a more inclusive society by, in theory, eliminating its more inflammatory figures, cancel culture sows the seeds of disingenuity. By its hand, we have become increasingly guarded in sharing and discussing potentially controversial subjects, afraid that we will face the ultimate punishment—public shaming that, thanks to social media, is possible at a worldwide scale.
According to Lukianoff and Schlott, we’ve become trigger-happy when it comes to shooting down unpopular opinions.
Importantly, Lukianoff and Schlott make an important clarification: that neither do they endorse, nor does the First Amendment protect, those items and methods of speech that are clearly derogatory and dangerous. Harassment, prejudice, discrimination and libel are worthy of no codified protections, nor do they receive defense in the authors’ book. Lukianoff and Schlott express concern, rather, for the constriction of a free press, free speech in academia, and the perpetuation of an ideologically intolerant culture by both sides of the American political aisle. Liberals, they argue, have lost touch with “the once liberal idea of a full-throated defense of free speech” while their Republican counterparts appear determined to “gag discussion of certain topics with bills preventing the mention of divisive issues in classrooms.” What results, they contend, is a “… tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
Even writing about cancel culture requires wandering through a minefield. In 2022, The New York Times proved as much.
In March of that year, the Times published a story on the data it collected from a national poll, commissioned by the newspaper in partnership with Siena College. The results pointed to the fact that Americans are both aware of heightened illiberal sentiment, and concerned about its consequences. The piece ignited a firestorm on Twitter. MSNBC Commentator, Keith Olbermann, tweeted that the entirety of the Times’ editorial board has “lost the plot.”
Lukianoff and Schlott use The New York Times as the book’s news outlet case study to argue that, paradoxically, media has become the largest promulgator and victim of cancel culture. Increasingly, the practice and risk of cancellation has led to a more partisan media—one that abandons journalistic objectivity for ideological purity. And the shift contributes to both the public’s distrust in its media organizations, and the broader epistemic disaster threatening the shared universe of facts—both of which are essential to sustain democracy.
So, what is there to do? Well, Lukianoff and Schlott suggest we can make a start by embracing Free Speech Culture as the antidote to Cancel Culture. They suggest discouraging collegiate administrations from taking political stances, as to foster universities’ role as forums of debate. And before children even reach those venues of higher education, educators must avoid pigeonholing young students into certain groups and respect their individuality. The idea is not to coddle, but to raise a new generation of intellectually independent, free-thinking Americans so the culture problem takes care of itself.
Most importantly, we must refrain from the ad hominem tendency to believe that “bad people only have bad opinions.” We must again extol, according to Lukianoff and Schlott, those 20th century American platitudes of “sticks and stones” and “different strokes for different folks.”
But therein lies my biggest issue with the book. While it is easy to romanticize the stiff-upper-lip Americans of generations past, we must also remember that theirs was a generation rife with racism, xenophobia and homophobia. As a country, we have taken up the task of dismantling those people from power who not only hold unproductive views but have wished to see those views written into policy. That, inarguably, is a good thing. And Lukianoff and Schlott, I think, are onto something—when we bend so far as a society to lean on outright cancellation as our only means of social checking, we will break. But we should remember, too, that free speech is a principle best exercised when we refrain from saying whatever we want just because we can, but rather, say what we believe is true, productive, and engages meaningfully with the beliefs of others.
There are better means of policing moral accountability than through externalized cancellation. That much is obvious. But the grain of salt which comes along with the idea “to each his own because it’s a free country” looks an awful lot like personal, internalized responsibility.