Amid a renewed focus on social justice and structural inequalities in America, some commentators have argued that there is a growing hostility toward opinions that deviate from the norms of the cultural left in public discourse.
Earlier this month, the issue received significant attention after an open letter titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” now generally known as “the Letter,” was published by Harper’s Magazine, leading to widespread public debate.
The letter argues that while strong calls for equality, inclusion and justice are welcome, even necessary, such calls are increasingly being accompanied by “an intolerant climate” and “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate.”
In another cultural flashpoint, a New York Times journalist, Bari Weiss, resigned from her job a week after the Harper’s letter was published, claiming that she was bullied by colleagues for her views and that the newspaper’s editors would self-censor or avoid topics that might garner a backlash, especially on social media.
In response to these two events, a flurry of reactions poured forth from the left, right and center. Some on the left, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, argued that the term “cancel culture” was a misnomer.
“The term “cancel culture” comes from entitlement — as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked,” she added.
For years, many on the right have lamented the alleged intolerance of their views in popular discourse, but an increasing number of political centrists and academics are wondering whether the ability to legitimately debate and explore a range of topics – from evolution and gender to social behavior and psychology – is now taboo.
Crossing the line
According to Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist and managing editor at Quillette, a self-described “platform for free thought,” cancel culture is indeed a problem. Wright claims he faced a strong backlash to an article he wrote that criticized the opinions of some left-leaning activists and academics who claim that biological factors have little or no tangible role to play in sex differences, personality, preferences or behavior.
Wright says he was privately warned that publishing views deemed controversial in some circles could impact his career. After the article was published, he later found out that someone had posted on an influential job board that Wright was a “transphobe who supported Race Science.”
Others have also publicly pushed for Wright to be denied jobs and professional opportunities for his views. Wright, who was working at Penn State at the time, said that while the academic institution did not fire him for his views, he felt like getting tenureship in such an environment would be difficult.
He later left academia, saying that one of the final straws came when a research colleague told Wright that he was receiving inquiries from staff at his university about the nature of his relationship with Wright. According to Wright, the researcher felt obliged to publicly denounce Wright’s views to clear his name, which he suggests was a performative act meant to safeguard his career.
Cancel culture on the right?
In addition to cancel culture on the left, some observers have noted that a tendency to be intolerant of dissenting views has also been a feature of conservative circles, especially on the far right.
For Max Boot, an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, while some on the left do seek to repress views they find offensive, the right can be just as intolerant. During a time when President Trump is often seen as catering to far-right tendencies and engaging in us vs them rhetoric, Boot argues that the right’s intolerance “might even be more powerful.”
Boot also noted that some conservative media outlets have pushed out Trump dissenters within their ranks, suggesting that in some conservative circles there is little opportunity to legitimately criticize the president.
The letter in Harper’s Magazine also noted the existence of illiberalism on the right, especially in an era where groups on the radical right show intolerance for opposing views and have a “tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
Steven Pinker, a linguist and cognitive scientist at Harvard, had his own run in with cancel culture after an open letter signed by various left-leaning academics was published in early July that alleged he had a history of “downplaying injustices,” particularly against “Black and Brown people.”
Pinker suggests that what’s needed most in American public discourse is humility. With extreme social justice ideology, there is “a very different mindset from a more … scientific in the broadest sense, perhaps [far from] enlightenment ideals that [say] the world is a complex place [where] none of us understand it, none of us are omniscient or infallible. We have to broach possible explanations through collective evaluation … therefore debate and free speech are essential,” Pinker said.
There is some recent data, however, that suggests that there is a long way to go to ensure various opinions and viewpoints can be made without fear of ridicule or reprisal.
In a recent poll released by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, 62% of Americans say they have views they feel they are unable to share in public.
The poll also showed, however, that views based on anger, resentment and polarization still pervade segments of society, as 50% of “strong liberals” support firing Trump donors from the workplace and 36% of “strong conservatives” feel the same about Biden donors.
After the letter against Pinker went public, he later thanked those who supported him during the ordeal and lamented the culture that allowed it to gain traction.
“I’ve received a dozen published defenses and 200 private letters of support, from all ages, races, & genders; left & right; academic allies & adversaries; friends & strangers,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Not a random sample, of course,” he continued, “but it makes me wonder whether identitarian cancel culture depends on a Spiral of Silence: a majority intimidated into wondering “Am I the only sane one left?”’
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