Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Two Different Versions of ‘Cancel Culture’

I want to start this newsletter with two radically different stories. At first glance they have nothing in common, but they’re both directly relevant to the debate over cancel culture. Two very different kinds of speech faced private sanction, but only one was truly beyond the pale. Understanding the distinctions can help us achieve a greater degree of tolerance, one rooted in truth and grace rather than concerned about mistakes or poor judgment.

First, let’s talk about Scott Adams, the colorful creator of the comic strip “Dilbert.” Last week, after years of controversial statements on Twitter, he finally went too far — way too far. On a YouTube livestream, he ranted that Black Americans were a “hate group,” and that white Americans should “get the hell away from” them.

“Wherever you have to go, just get away,” he said. “You just have to escape.” In response, news networks that collectively controlled hundreds of newspapers decided to drop “Dilbert.”

Second, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the Energy Department had concluded (with “low confidence”) that the Covid-19 pandemic most likely arose from a Chinese lab leak. The Energy Department’s tentative conclusion hardly settles the debate over the roots of the coronavirus, but it does highlight a division within the federal government. While the F.B.I. (with “moderate confidence”) and the Energy Department believe that the coronavirus likely leaked from a lab, the National Intelligence Council and four other agencies still assess (with “low confidence”) that the coronavirus has an animal origin.

In other words, there is now government support for a theory that Facebook and Twitter once labeled misinformation and censored on their platforms.

I spent the majority of my career litigating First Amendment cases, and since I began my litigation days in the early 1990s, I’ve noticed two parallel and confounding trends. First, the law of free speech is only getting more robust. Americans have more concrete rights to speak free of government censorship than they have at any prior period in American history. At the same time, however, according to a survey from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, a strong majority of Americans self-censor. They’re afraid to exercise their rights.

Critically, much of this fear isn’t rooted in concern about the government but rather about employers and peers.

Questions about the pandemic

When will the pandemic end? We asked three experts — two immunologists and an epidemiologist — to weigh in on this and some of the hundreds of other questions we’ve gathered from readers recently, including how to make sense of booster and test timing, recommendations for children, whether getting covid is just inevitable and other pressing queries.

How concerning are things like long covid and reinfections? That’s a difficult question to answer definitely, writes the Opinion columnist Zeynep Tufekci, because of the lack of adequate research and support for sufferers, as well as confusion about what the condition even is. She has suggestions for how to approach the problem. Regarding another ongoing Covid danger, that of reinfections, a virologist sets the record straight: “There has yet to be a variant that negates the benefits of vaccines.”

How will the virus continue to change? As a group of scientists who study viruses explains, “There’s no reason, at least biologically, that the virus won’t continue to evolve.” From a different angle, the science writer David Quammen surveys some of the highly effective tools and techniques that are now available for studying Covid and other viruses, but notes that such knowledge alone won’t blunt the danger.

What could endemic Covid look like? David Wallace Wells writes that by one estimate, 100,000 Americans could die each year from the coronavirus. Stopping that will require a creative effort to increase and sustain high levels of vaccination. The immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki writes that new vaccines, particular those delivered through the nose, may be part of the answer.

Americans have read story after story (from across the political spectrum) of activists, corporations and colleges targeting individuals for speech that is squarely within the mainstream of either progressive or conservative thought. In other words, dissent — even thoughtful dissent — has become dangerous, in both right- and left-leaning America. Private organizations are acting punitively when the government cannot. This is the essence of cancel culture, the widespread use of private power to punish allegedly offensive speech.

That said, many of us who recoil from the excesses of cancel culture also reject the idea that organizations should have no standards at all. To take an extreme example, if you find out that a colleague is in the Klan, should you defend him from termination? Or should a private corporation remove a grand wizard from its payroll as an act of necessary corporate hygiene?

How can American culture square this circle? How can it defend a culture of free expression while still understanding that private entities can and often should draw lines in accordance with their own values and their own rights to freedom of association?

One of the most useful definitions of toxic cancel culture comes from the Yale University professor Nicholas Christakis. In a thoughtful 2020 Twitter thread that highlighted several examples of improper private censorship, he defined cancel culture as “1) forming a mob, to 2) seek to get someone fired (or disproportionately punished), for 3) statements within Overton window.”

The Overton window is a political term of art that roughly refers to those ideas within the political mainstream. The appeal of Christakis’s formulation was that it concisely captured the precise public fear — that a person can be cast out of polite society for saying something completely conventional, normal and in good faith.

But there’s a problem — the more that America polarizes, the more it contains not one but two Overton windows, the “red” window and the “blue” window. Speech that is squarely mainstream in Red America is completely out of bounds in Blue America, and vice versa.

We could list any number of topics where shifting standards and changing norms breed intolerance at the extremes and confusion in the middle. Millions of Americans thus tread lightly, fearful that even the tentative expression of a dissenting thought could lead to a vicious backlash.

Compounding the problem, our nation’s unrelenting mutual political hatred informs our judgment. The group More in Common recently attempted to measure partisan animosity in connection with our cultural conflicts over teaching American history. Its findings were disturbing. America’s most partisan citizens view their political opponents as deeply reprehensible. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats view the other side as “hateful,” “racist,” “brainwashed” and “arrogant.” That’s why they seek to squelch opposing views. They see no value in the speech of people they despise. Instead, they see only bad people expressing bad ideas in bad faith.

We’re losing the capacity for empathy. We simply can’t place ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Yet it takes a certain degree of arrogance to presume that we’re so obviously correct that disagreement isn’t just a sign of error but of moral defect.

Even worse, we’re wrong. Our presumptions of our opponents’ views are often simply false. Even as More in Common found unrelenting political hostility between red and blue, it also found that Democrats and Republicans have a “deeply distorted understanding of each other.” In fact, “Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider ‘extreme.’”

How can we end this cancel culture? Switch the presumptions. Rather than beginning with the idea that our opponents are evil people who express evil ideas, operate with a rebuttable presumption that our political foes are decent people expressing heartfelt thoughts in good faith.

Let’s apply this rebuttable presumption to Scott Adams and to the lab-leak theory. Is there a good faith defense of Scott Adams’s words? Absolutely not. The demand that white people “get the hell away from” Black Americans is gutter-level racism. I can’t even conceive of a good faith defense to his malicious words.

But what about the lab-leak theory? There was never a good reason for suppressing the idea that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab. There was never a good reason for presuming such speculation was inherently racist, even if the speculation sometimes came from people you might despise. It is easy to articulate a good-faith basis for the lab-leak idea. Lab accidents happen, and the proximity of the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the initial outbreak was enough to raise eyebrows (and questions) from the first moments of the pandemic. Unlike Adams, there was no reason to presume this belief was rooted in racism.

I’ll close with two good thoughts from my friend, the Atlantic contributing writer Thomas Chatterton Williams. When the Adams story broke, he wrote: “This is *not* ‘cancel culture.’ If you film yourself going on a stupid and boring racist monologue and upload it to the internet and people notice it and react negatively you just have to play it as it lays.”

Exactly so. Adams would have paid a rightful price for his comments years before the present wave of punitive corporate actions.

At the same time, however, just as Adams’s comments were an extreme outlier in American discourse, the response to those comments should be an outlier as well. A punitive private response to speech should be the exception, not the rule. Again, I agree with Williams: “I remain convinced you cannot cancel or intimidate your way to a better, more genuinely empathic and just society — whether individual cases seem merited or not,” he said. “The road to that society is narrowly wended through dialogue, patience, persuasion and almost certainly generosity.”

I would add another virtue to the list above: truth. The road to a more empathetic and just society is also paved by an accurate understanding of our neighbors. With exceptions, they are not monsters, their views aren’t rooted in malice, and we should extend the same grace to the good faith expression of their ideas that we seek for our own.

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