“Cancel Culture” and Cultural Hegemony
There have been several posts related to free speech and anti-intellectualism in the last few days, and this is my contribution to the discussion. I consider “cancel culture” as a reaction to the cultural hegemony of the Western intellectual tradition and the systems of oppression it has spawned.
I agree with the essence of the Harper’s letter on free speech. I am a thoroughly indoctrinated creature of the Western intellectual tradition, and I consider free speech to be a foundational layer. The tradition is the framework for my ways of perceiving and thinking as well as the thoughts and actions that I produce. It’s a framework requires a radical openness to ideas, and it also requires a willingness to think critically and examine the evidence.
Given that, let me say that I’m suspicious of the provenance of the Harper’s letter (“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, Harper’s Magazine, July 7, 2020). Not of its sentiments, which I support, but of its genesis. Who instigated the letter? Who drafted it? Because while several people who signed it have been silenced by free speech opponents (most notably, Salman Rushdie), a few of the signers might have less than stellar motives.
J.K. Rowling, for instance, was recently embroiled in a Twitter (and later essay) controversy after she attempted to make a silly joke about a newspaper headline. When challenged, she reacted angrily, using the standard tactics of online bullies — posting furiously and repetitively, and submitting link after link to articles in an effort to silence her critics. She even used the standard White person tactic of “I can’t be racist, I have a Black friend,” only in her case it was, “I can’t be anti-Trans, I have a Trans friend.”
She forgot, if she ever knew, that it’s power, not proximity, that is racist or anti-Trans. As a successful White author, she has a lot of power compared to a Black Trans woman, so if J.K. Rowling publicly denigrates an (admittedly awkward) expression of Trans identity, Trans people will feel attacked. They might actually be attacked if someone reads a few Tweets and decides it’s permissible to attack Trans people.
Mr. Trump tweets about the “good people” who are White supremacists. Some of them then believe they have permission to plow through a crowd of demonstrators or to kill Latinx people at a Walmart. That’s what positional power can do.
It’s a difference, really, between can and should, as an essayist I’ll highlight later wrote. In any event, J.K. Rowling was never in danger of losing her free speech rights or of being deplatformed, but nonetheless she had to silence critics who had much less personal power than she possesses.
And at least one other person who signed the letter was involved in the termination of a job offer extended to Steven Salaita, a professor who supported Palestinians and the BDS movement against the Israeli government. The noble words of the letter didn’t apply to his intellectual freedom or free speech rights.
There are two things to keep in mind when we talk about free speech. First, only governments can infringe on our free speech rights. Private entities (Facebook, Twitter, your next-door neighbor) cannot. It’s not a violation of free speech if private entities deny you access to their platforms. Second, we must be aware of Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance, which states that if a society tolerates all intolerant speech it will be destroyed by intolerance.
Right away, tensions are evident. Speech can be denied a platform — canceled — by Facebook or Twitter, two powerful communication technologies, and we can’t do anything about it, because they are private entities. Alternatively, Facebook and Twitter, because it’s profitable, or because they are afraid of Republican politicians, can allow dangerous rumors about a virus to spread, resulting in deaths. Or they can allow intolerant speech and conspiracy theories to sway an election. Each of those actions are detrimental to society, yet free speech was given as a justification for them.
I don’t think the tension between free speech and the Paradox of Tolerance admits to a general solution; it must be resolved on a case by case basis.
John Milton, the poet, wrote the earliest and still the most powerful defense of free speech in 1644. Mr. Milton, in Areopagitica, argues forcefully and persuasively for free speech, believing that the validity of ideas can only be tested when disseminated for others to read and discuss. He wrote:
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where the immortal garland is to be run for, without dust and heat.”
George Sabine, a Milton scholar, described Mr. Milton’s belief:
“Its basic principle was the right and also the duty of every intelligent man as a rational being, to know the grounds and take responsibility for his beliefs and actions. Its corollary was a society and a state in which decisions are reached by open discussion, in which the sources of information are not contaminated by authority in the interest of party, and in which political unity is secured not by force but by a consensus that respects variety of opinion.”
Our Founding Fathers were influenced by Mr. Milton, which is part of the reason why we have the First Amendment. Areopagitica has also been referred to in a number of Supreme Court cases.
Mr. Milton, however, was aware of the Paradox of Tolerance, although he never used that phrase. While the general rule was no prior restraint on speech, he did believe that speech that was known to be harmful could be suppressed before or after publication.
In his day, that meant anything written by Roman Catholics, because the republicans in England were deathly afraid that Catholics, aided by a pope who had spies and an army at his disposal, would attack England and overthrow the Commonwealth.
This compares to incidents in which students protest the appearance on their campus of a conservative provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos. The students suspect, based on his public statements, that what he will say is not just obnoxious, but harmful to individuals and to society, so they deplatform him.
Milton’s attitude is both useful and fraught with danger. Who decides what is harmful? A group of students or a timid administrator? With what criteria? For whose purposes? As a society, we do have a rule about how to deal with “dangerous” ideologies: we periodically suppress them, or at least some of them. The Red Scares of the 1920s and 1930s and McCarthyism are cases point. The Left is suppressed, but Nazis rally in Madison Square Garden and Klansmen appear on our streets.
I believe in free speech, but what I don’t believe in is the existence of a “free marketplace of ideas,” at least not as Mr. Milton and others usually consider it. It’s not that I don’t value of the exchange of ideas: Like Mr. Milton, I cannot praise a “fugitive and cloistered virtue.” Rather, it’s that ideas aren’t as free as they might appear.
Ideas always have a relationship to the dominant culture and power, which is, to use Antonio Gramsci’s concept, culturally hegemonic. The dominant culture defines what’s valuable, acceptable, and how the world works. If you’re not part of the hegemonic culture, your ideas and criticism have little value and may be ignored or suppressed.
Many people (People of Color, Native people, poor Whites) have historically been subjected to the equivalent of a hegemonic “cancel culture”. Their voices, literature, and history were deliberately suppressed, sometimes for centuries.
And now they are angry. I think cancel culture is anger that has discovered power. And power, as Dr. Ibram Kendi notes in Stamped From The Beginning, is what changes systems of oppression.
Should the young, the poor, People of Color, and Native people now refrain from retaliation? That’s what “cancel culture” feels like, doesn’t it? Retaliation. It may be dangerous to intellectual freedom — and perhaps even political freedom — but it’s fruitless to expect people to “get over it” and become functioning members of an intellectual tradition that is as foreign to them as speaking Chinese.
Asserting “this has to change,” as the Harper’s letter does, is dangerously close, in my opinion, to the racist trope that “slavery was a long time ago, get over it.”
I’m going to expand the discussion a little by considering free speech and the Western intellectual tradition, because ideas about free speech originate in that tradition. I want to consider how the tradition might be perceived by an outsider, who might be a Person of Color, a Native person, or a working-class White person.
I began life as the last of those categories, a member of the working class, and I had a steep learning curve when I attempted to enter the tradition. I had not read all the books that people were talking about. I couldn’t participate in many aspects of collegiate life because I had a job.
Some of it was imposter syndrome, and I eventually discovered that people had not, in fact, read all the books they talked about — they had read about them, which is a very different experience. And I am White and male, so I did have certain other advantages. I survived and even thrived.
I still have a consciousness, which is somewhat suppressed in America, of class, which I acquired through working from a young age, reading, and then studying in England. A class perspective is an “outsider” perspective in America, dismissed as the province of Leftist radicals. Sometimes it’s actively suppressed.
A clarifying definition.
“Anti-intellectualism is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism, commonly expressed as deprecation of education and philosophy and the dismissal of art, literature, and science as impractical, politically motivated, and even contemptible human pursuits. Anti-intellectuals present themselves and are perceived as champions of common folk — populists against political and academic elitism — and tend to see educated people as a status class that dominates political discourse and higher education while being detached from the concerns of ordinary people.” (C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 1980.)
Almost anyone can learn the Western intellectual tradition, but they must first desire to learn it. They must willingly assimilate not just a proclaimed functional importance (which is taught in school to some degree), but an aesthetic, a soaring beauty — a beauty that isn’t obvious to an outsider. The beauty of a rigorous argument, a well-turned phrase, and styles of painting and composing, are foreign or intimidating to some outsiders.
That many people, Left and Right, have not embraced the tradition points to a weakness in its transmission. I don’t have an answer for that, but we need one.
We are expecting outsiders — people who were subjected to genocide, 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, deliberate economic suppression, and police brutality — to accept the ideology of their oppressors. They have a reason to be suspicious and angry, which is what “cancel culture” represents.
People are angry about the repression they’ve experienced, and they’re not likely to be amenable to special pleading by writers and intellectuals. The Western intellectual tradition needs to earn their respect; the world is too complex and interconnected for there to be “The West and all the Rest” (to borrow the title of a book written by a conservative historian).
Noam Chomsky (who signs any letter advocating free speech) is a formidable critic of Western culture. In particular, he criticizes our failure to live up to our own ideals or standards, whether they are intellectual, political, or (especially) in foreign policy. He’s a proponent of human rights, including the rights of oppressed people in the U.S., but he defines all issues in terms of the Western intellectual tradition. He does not think in Tweets.
Dr. Chomsky accepts the Paradox of Tolerance, but, as an anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist, his parameters are very wide. And he doesn’t think people need to be intellectuals to engage in political or foreign policy discussions, but they must read widely and think carefully.
In his 1967 treatise, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” he criticized the human rights abuses Americans were committing in Southeast Asia, and he also criticized intellectuals for being too subservient to power. According to Dr. Chomsky, ideas are not free when an intellectual works for the government or corporations (including many universities), because they are conditioned by power or the desire for power.
He concludes his essay by writing:
“Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. ‘Why should they? What have I done?’ he asked. Macdonald concludes: ‘Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.’ The question, ‘What have I done?’ is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam — as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.”
Each of us needs to ask that question of ourselves. What do we accept, what do we mouth, that oppresses others and engenders anger, at home and abroad? “Those people hate us for our freedoms” is the wrong foreign policy answer, and “Those people hate us for our culture” is the wrong domestic answer. In both instances, our repressive behaviors generate anger.
I doubt Dr. Chomsky is more than marginally aware of the controversies that have erupted on Twitter. He is a man who thinks and speaks in paragraphs, not sentences, so that platform is useless to him. While he would consider the anger beneath “cancel culture” justified, I suspect he doesn’t support “cancel culture” itself.
His world view is defined by the Western intellectual tradition, including steadfast support for freedom of expression. After all, Dr. Chomsky, a Jew who lost members of his extended family to Hitler’s death camps, did support a French professor’s right to publish Holocaust conspiracy theories. As I wrote earlier, Dr. Chomsky’s Paradox of Tolerance parameters are set very wide.
Interestingly, unlike many on the Left, he advocates “lesser of two evils” voting in the 2020 election, especially if you’re in a swing state. He recognizes that there is a difference between what a crackpot scholar writes about the past and the very real dangers of a living, breathing fascist.
On the other hand, if Howard Zinn, the radical historian with working class roots, were alive, I suspect he would support cancel culture. He wouldn’t cross picket lines, and he was fired from a job because of his radical teaching and actions in support of the Civil Rights Movement. He understood what it was like to be deplatformed. So although he, too, valued free speech, I think he would be happy to help the underdog “poke the bear” that is Western hegemony anytime an opportunity presented itself.
Dr. Chomsky, by the way, has been subjected to a form of “cancel culture,” but from the “establishment” (cultural hegemony) not the government. Since the late 1960s, major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which act as cheerleaders for American imperialism, have rarely published his articles on foreign policy. NPR, too, is reluctant to broadcast his opinions (especially when there is a Democratic president) — and if they do, he must submit for approval what intends to say. Given that condition, he usually declines. Dr. Chomsky has been deplatformed, but not silenced.
The Western intellectual tradition is something of a closed system, dominated by White males, many of whom are from comparatively privileged backgrounds. One of the things they defend against is anti-intellectualism, and they may perceive (or use to justify their opposition) that opening it up to other voices will bring anti-intellectualism into the academy. Perhaps. But it may also provide space for people to engage fruitfully with the tradition. If there is a problem (and I think anti-intellectualism is a problem), it’s one we’ve brought on ourselves. We have not invited the oppressed to participate in the traditions, which seem obscure and pedantic. We have assumed an openness that doesn’t always exist.
Our hegemonic culture of skeptical empiricism, which coexists uneasily with rationalism, has discounted and suppressed other forms of knowledge — folk, traditional, spiritual, Black, Native. We dismiss much of it as superstition because it’s not empirical (which is important for science and technology), but we don’t acknowledge the non-empirical, rationalist assumptions at the foundation of our own tradition: we have axioms, not proofs. Nor do we acknowledge that empiricism can’t form the basis for human relationships.
The suppression has been so thorough that it has not only blocked out other voices, it has caused us to become abstracted from the physical world. We can extract and pollute at will because the world has nothing to do with us: It is pure Other, as are subject peoples. It’s irrational behavior, and it denies empirical evidence, but we do it anyway.
Now, of course, we’re reaping the whirlwind.
While we must accept the tension between free speech (and intellectual freedom more broadly) and the Paradox of Tolerance, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders and give up. I think the sociology of knowledge may provide tools for grappling with these issues. An important scholar, Edward Said, managed to straddle European and non-European scholarship and ways of approaching the world. His book, Orientalism, critically examines similar issues. And there are others.
To me, the greatest challenge is not “cancel culture,” but persuading young people of diverse backgrounds and abilities that Western culture is worth not only preserving but invigorating with new life. We have not done this, and many young people see only the oppression of the Western canon (techniques and content). They cannot identify with its importance, usefulness, or beauty.
In particular, the Harper’s letter does not demonstrate the truth of the three hallmarks of Western intellectual culture that it asserts:
“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”
These are self-evident to me, but being self-evident, they lack proof. I can say that White middle-class intellectuals feel more comfortable with governments and societies that aren’t repressive, but I also know that we have created a society in which many non-White voices have long been repressed.
When they bemoan “cancel culture,” they aren’t speaking up for those who have been repressed, they’re using free speech claims to protect themselves by denying the legitimacy of the angry voices of the oppressed.
In a response to the Harper’s letter, Gabrielle Bellot wrote:
“But the fundamental problem implicit in the letter is confusing freedom of speech with the freedom to a platform or the freedom to act without consequences. I may support your right to say whatever you wish; that doesn’t mean that I support your right to say whatever you wish in a major publication (or that I myself am entitled to having my views aired anywhere, for that matter). I reserve the right to call you out for spewing rhetoric that unjustly maligns a particular sect of humanity. Having the freedom to say anything, in theory, does not mean that one should, in fact, be able to say anything in any publication or on any platform without ramifications.” (Gabrielle Bellot, “Freedom Means Can Rather Than Should: What the Harper’s Open Letter Gets Wrong,” Lit Hub, July 8, 2020.)
She concludes with a simple point: that freedom means can rather than should.
I can easily understand why the Harper’s letter might be viewed with suspicion by someone whose life has been stunted by oppression. If the opposite of a repressive government or society is one that helps the many rather than the few, then why, they might reasonably ask, haven’t I and my family been helped in a liberal democratic society? If rigorous debate guarantees good ideas, why hasn’t racism vanished? Or misogyny? If freedom and justice coexist, why are there so many poor people?
Western intellectual values haven’t helped very many Black or Brown or Native people. Nor have they helped poor people, regardless of race or ethnicity. Yes, medicine and technology have improved their lives to a degree, but poverty and lack of opportunity are still far too common. To them (on the Left and the Right), the Western intellectual tradition is a dead thing they’re forced to genuflect before, but it’s otherwise of no real consequence except as a negative bar to their flourishing.
Anti-intellectualism — and that’s what “cancel culture” is, whether enforced by young radicals, disaffected White blue-collar workers, religious conservatives, or the hegemonic culture more broadly (represented by most of the people who signed the Harper’s letter) — isn’t new. Richard Hofstadter makes it clear that anti-intellectualism, Left and Right, is a recurring theme in American culture.
Most people don’t worry about ideas or their free expression, or the art, literature, and music that are both its product and its support. So when times are difficult or frightening, as they are now, anti-intellectualism become stridently militant, growing with, and abetting, Left or Right populism.
And that’s when anti-intellectualism becomes dangerous because it could cancel us all.