One can only hope that Friday, March 18, 2022 will mark the nadir of the moral panic over "cancel culture" that has gripped not just the American right, but also the upper echelons of elite journalism upset by the hoi polloi commenting aloud about their writing. Because that is the day the New York Times editorial board published an editorial equating actual government censorship with the "fear of being shamed or shunned" for expressing an opinion in public.
Really, "equating" is an overstatement. The editorial makes it quite clear that the board sees shaming-and-shunning as exponentially worse than actual government censorship.
"For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned," the diatribe about mean tweets begins.
And right away, we see the fundamental flaw in the argument replicated throughout all 2,500 words of this ill-advised editorial: Shaming and shunning are also forms of free speech. Rude, over-the-top or idiotic at times, perhaps — but if someone calls you a name on Twitter over an opinion you've expressed, that is just as much of an exercise of free speech as the opinion that triggered the name-calling.
And yet at the same time, there actually is a nationwide, bona fide censorship campaign being conducted by the Republican party. In schools across the country, books about the civil rights movement and the Holocaust are being censored. Conservatives are trying to bring back the bad old days of Christian nationalism and white supremacy, and don't want kids to learn about the horrors wrought by those ideologies in the past. In Florida, the state government is literally inviting right wing parents to sue teachers for acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people — or allowing students to, say, mention their same-sex parents in class. And of course there's also the GOP war on voting, which is a direct attack on the right of citizens to express their views.
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Indeed, the de facto lead of the Republican party, Donald Trump, is calling for violence to suppress anti-racist speech, calling on his followers to "lay down their very lives" to stop educators from teaching books they don't like. Lest this be dismissed as hyperbole, it's worth remembering this is the same man who wanted law enforcement and the military to "crack skulls" during Black Lives Matter protests, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. And yet Trump isn't even mentioned in the editorial.
Sure, the editorial pays lip service to denouncing this very real censorship and violence, decrying the right for the "even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms." But despite acknowledging that this is "more extreme" than, say, people yelling at Joe Rogan for vaccine disinformation, a very basic statistical analysis of this editorial shows that it's not the real priority for the writers.
For one thing, the issue of actual censorship at the hands of conservatives is not addressed in any depth until paragraph 30 — long after most people have stopped reading. And even then, it's only glancingly discussed before the writers get back to the cancel culture handwringing. In this 2,500 word essay — not including multiple polling charts — 413 words are dedicated to legislation passed by Republican-controlled legislatures to ban books and silence educators.
This disparity of attention is the exact inverse of the severity of the problem. Witness just two examples from last week. First, the New York Times published yet another panic piece about "cancel culture," in which University of Virginia senior Emma Camp complains she saw people "saw people shift in their seats" in class when she offered what she felt was an unpopular opinion. We can't know for sure, however, because, by her own account, her classmates didn't talk back. The Times didn't bother to ask them what they thought about that particular classroom discussion. Camp, despite her claims to be censored, is the one from this story who is not silent.
On the flip side, there's this story from Mississippi of Toby Price, an elementary school assistant principal, being fired for reading a silly book called "I Need A New Butt!" to second graders. His experience isn't just different from Camp's due to the disparate levels of harm. There's also a wide gulf between the triggering situations. Even in her self-valorizing and single-sided telling of the story, Camp sounds like she may just be a young person who is still learning how to express herself in more politic terms. Price, however, was doing his job, which is getting kids to care about reading by meeting them on their level. He was fired because of indefensible and harmful prudery.
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To make things worse, it's clear that the writers of the editorial can't even define what is and isn't "cancel culture."
"However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists, and feel its burden," they write. The best they can come up with is "fear of retaliation or harsh criticism." And even then, it's clear from the context that they're not talking about all harsh criticism or retaliation, just the kind that comes from assumed progressives. The polling they did on the question only asks if "sometimes you have shut down speech that is anti-democratic, bigoted or simply untrue." They did not ask, for instance, if dudes should show up on someone's Instagram to call them the C-word, which is a common form of "feedback" I routinely receive for expressing feminist opinions. That kind of relentless hate is just wallpaper — the price of being a public figure, apparently. But if a liberal calls someone a racist, that's beyond the pale.
By their own measure, the Times admits that some speech is simply out of bounds, noting the "Times does not allow hate speech in our pages" and people "know they shouldn't utter racist things." The call, then, isn't for some free speech free-for-all — which would allow the "harsh criticism" they find so disconcerting anyway. The dispute is over what does and doesn't constitute an unacceptably bigoted opinion that deserves harsh criticism or boundary-drawing. Frustratingly, the editors refuse to draw the line even as they complain that they don't know where the line is.
As journalist Michael Hobbes wrote in a thorough examination of "cancel culture" last year, the complaint has all the hallmarks of a moral panic, akin to fears of Satanic ritual abuse in the '80s or claims that frivolous lawsuits were out of control in the '90s. The details in many of these "cancel culture" stories frequently turn out to be misleading. Take the story about supposedly overly-woke Oberlin students protesting cafeteria bánh mì with allegations of cultural appropriation. It turned out that, actually, it was just kids complaining about the quality of the food and had nothing to do with the larger debate about what constitutes cultural appropriation.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that it's true, as the editorial board says, that "social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety." Indeed, that it affects them is why the New York Times editorial board seems more worried about people being mean on Twitter than the actual censorship faced by educators across the country. As Hobbes notes on Twitter, this discourse is "being led by people whose jobs subject them to public criticism." They feel it more keenly when someone calls them a name on social media than when a teacher is fired or sued for teaching history, but that doesn't actually make it a bigger problem.
As a writer who uses social media, I'm well aware that a lot of people are idiots and jerks, and social media has empowered some really ugly behavior. Bad faith arguments or distortions of what a person said lead to unfair and upsetting pile-ons. This often spirals completely out control, such as when progressive video blogger Natalie Wynn was deluged with abuse after false accusations that she, a trans woman, had made transphobic comments. There are absolutely people on the left who appropriate the language of social justice to abuse other people and to score points. In many cases, it's just because they're plain old bullies.
But this is not a free speech problem. This is a people-acting-like-jerks problem. Conflating the two not only contributes to this moral panic, it makes it harder to talk about solving the people-acting-like-jerks problem. This misleading framework only distracts from people who doing the real work to make these uncomfortable conversations about other people's opinions more productive. As the board argues, people online could show "greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us." (Hell, I would just settle for people actually reading and understanding your argument before they yell at you about it.) By the same token, people could also exercise some self-restraint before going on Twitter to unleash an ill-informed opinion about trans people's bodies or Black Lives Matter protests.
But the latter must not feel like a crisis to the editorial board. Perhaps it's because we don't expect reactionaries to act right, so we don't get too ruffled by them. I certainly don't care much about right wing dudes calling me "fat" and "ugly." But when some 19-year-old leftist on Twitter deliberately misrepresents my carefully considered opinion, I get angry. For both, the solution is to block their accounts and move on. People exercising their right to free speech by being jackasses sucks, but it is not a crisis. And it's certainly not an assault on the free speech rights they use to do it.
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