Cancel culture is a gift to the right
We are allowing right-wingers to pose as victims.
Tucker Carlson’s notoriety, nowadays a key measure of success, depends in no small part on the outrage he regularly elicits from liberals. They’re not just his targets; they’re his patsies, as the Anti-Defamation League recently demonstrated. Calling on Fox to fire Carlson after his Trumpist rant accusing Democrats of trying to ‘replace the current electorate… with more obedient voters from the Third World’, the ADL obligingly dramatised his skill at owning the libs. Of course, its demand to cancel Carlson utterly failed to encourage any disciplinary action against him. Instead, his boss, Lachlan Murdoch, issued a letter strongly (and predictably) defending this valuable Fox asset. The ADL also gave Carlson a reason to repeat his invocation of ‘replacement theory’ (not that he needed one) and an opportunity to portray himself, at least implicitly, as a potential victim of cancel culture.
Maybe ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt didn’t naively expect a different response from Fox. Maybe, like Murdoch, he was simply playing to his constituents, and maybe publicly excoriating Carlson boosted the ADL’s fundraising. But in the not-so-long term, his foray against Carlson, and other liberal or progressive demands easily derided as cancel-culture campaigns, helps strengthen the forces they aim to defeat.
I’m not deriding the merits of the ADL’s criticism of Carlson. You don’t have to be woke to disdain his repeated maligning of immigrants or his nonsensical claim that in invoking replacement theory he’s defending voting rights. You don’t have to be a snowflake to lament his dishonest attacks on journalists that are regularly followed by death threats against them. He can be a fount of smug cruelties. But the merits of a demand to cancel Carlson are or should be beside the point for his liberal critics. He has a right to what they regard as his bigotries, and his show will live and die by its ratings, which their expressions of outrage can only enhance.
Besides, so many progressive campaigns to cancel speech and speakers condemned as hateful or merely offensive are entirely lacking in merit and so overwrought in their censoriousness that they can only alienate moderates and independents who fear being targeted by them. If I were a deranged conspiracy theorist, I’d consider woke culture an invention of right-wing extremists, who may be its primary beneficiaries.
Consider the recent firing of Georgetown University Law Center adjunct professor, Sandra A Sellers, for sorrowfully observing, in a discussion with a colleague, that her lower ranking students tended to be black. ‘I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are blacks – happens almost every semester… You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.’ These comments were quickly and widely condemned as racist by students and alumni, and Sellers was quickly fired for what the Georgetown administration considered her ‘abhorrent’ speech. Her colleague resigned for the sin of not immediately correcting her.
Were Sellers’ remarks empirically true, or, at least, arguable? That question wasn’t asked, much less answered, by the Georgetown mob. But it is surely a crucial question for the university in considering its treatment of black students as well as its decision to fire Sellers. If her observation was accurate, Georgetown had an obligation to figure out why black students were disproportionately represented in the lower ranks of her classes. Maybe it was her fault and a reflection of what an investigation might reveal was her disparate treatment of them. Maybe it was the university’s fault for ignoring the needs of black students. And maybe it was a consequence of affirmative-action admissions policies – an extremely controversial hypothesis that liberals tend to reject out of hand and conservatives reflexively embrace. I don’t know if or why black law students might be less successful collectively, but I do firmly believe that a professor should not be fired for making an empirical observation (accurate or not), unaccompanied by any expression of racial animus.
Sellers did not contest her firing. Instead, she offered the usual self-flagellating apology for her ‘hurtful and misdirected remarks… Regardless of my intent I have done irreparable harm and I am truly sorry for this.’ Often the liberal victims of woke censorship seem to suffer from Stockholm syndrome. But maybe they’re just being practical, trying to repair their reputations and salvage their careers, because the high costs of defying progressive sensibilities on campus have long been obvious.
The case of Sandra Sellers is typical, even routine, as spiked readers surely know, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) can confirm: a professor at the University of San Diego is under investigation for criticising the Chinese government, calling its pronouncements ‘Chinese cockswaddle’, FIRE recently announced. ‘We have an oppressive institution cracking down on dissent by investigating a professor for criticising an oppressive government cracking down on dissent’, a FIRE analyst explained.
Denizens of woke culture will cheer cases like this, but they probably helped elect Donald Trump and will likely help his political acolytes in 2022. When Trump declared that he was ‘tired of this politically correct crap’, he was speaking not just to his right-wing base but to politically moderate Americans who felt at risk for speaking their minds. A 2017 CATO survey on free speech and tolerance found that 70 per cent of Americans agreed that PC was a big problem that silenced important discussions. A majority of political independents (58 per cent) acknowledged that they engaged in self-censorship.
Cancel culture is not simply a left-wing phenomenon. Trump and his followers strive to cancel any Republicans who deviate from the Trumpist party line; they even tried to cancel a national presidential election. But cancel culture is primarily associated with the left, understandably, considering the highly effective soft power of woke censors on and off campus. Ask a political moderate who’s afraid to speak his mind who he blames for his predicament and he’s unlikely to point to Trump or Tucker Carlson. Instead, thanks to woke culture, he may end up voting for them.
Wendy Kaminer is an author, a lawyer and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Picture by: Getty.
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