David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Should We Be Worried About “Cancel Culture”

Brandon Sun, August 24, 2020 – David McConkey

What is “cancel culture”? And – considering all the other things to worry about now – should we be concerned? This question came to the fore with an open letter to Harper’s Magazine signed by a host of luminaries including Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Gloria Steinem. Even though the concept of “cancel culture” is a vague one, the issue is well worth exploring. 

The Harper's missive is titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter is signed by about 150 writers, artists, academics and activists. In addition to Atwood, other Canadian signers are academics Michael Ignatieff and Steven Pinker; and writers David Frum, Malcolm Gladwell and Jeet Heer. Also signing: The Perils of 'Privilege' author Phoebe Maltz Bovy, an American who is a Canadian permanent resident living in Toronto.

Signatories reflect a range of opinion, but tilt left. They applaud the recent “powerful protests for racial and social justice” and the “calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society.” But they decry the “new moral attitudes” that “tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.” They lament a spreading “censoriousness,” such as “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.”

The letter refers to several unnamed incidents: editors fired, books not published, professors investigated and the heads of organizations ousted. Although the phrase is not used, in popular parlance the letter is talking about “cancel culture.”

Underpinning this phenomenon has been a cultural shift. Activists on the left now resemble dogmatists on the right: judgemental, anti-intellectual and humourless. Advocates for social justice have morphed into sanctimonious busybodies who want to “cancel” everyone else. Good grief!

A recent incident involving Pinker illustrates this dynamic. A group of 600 professors and students wrote an open letter to the Linguistics Association of America. The group charged Pinker with academic transgressions in several of his tweets and in a line from one of his books. The group demanded that the Linguistics Association remove Pinker from its list of “distinguished fellows.” Pinker said he was being threatened by "a regime of intimidation."

Is this a case of “cancel culture” running amok? Or is this just a Twitter tempest in an ivory-tower teapot?  

A conservative newspaper in the U.K., The Telegraph, labels it the latter. The Telegraph mocks Pinker, smelling “the stink of academic hypocrisy” in Pinker’s playing the role of victim. The Telegraph notes that Pinker – a tenured Harvard professor and bestselling author – is in no risk of being “cancelled.” Even if the petitioning group were successful, Pinker would only lose one accolade from his resumé, which, The Telegraph observes, is 38 pages long!  

But the Pinker saga reveals the very danger identified by the letter to Harper’s. Sure, Pinker will be OK. But now people will be more cautious about expressing themselves. Wouldn’t almost anyone be worried when hundreds of vindictive people can suddenly coalesce into an online mob and publicly denounce you? This is today’s chilling “vogue for public shaming and ostracism.”

Where are we at? I would like to make two general observations and one plea.

My first observation is a long-term perspective. Right now there is a greater diversity of people, expressing a greater range of viewpoints, from a greater variety of places, than ever before. And anyone can join in: get a Twitter account for free and start opining. At the same time, the concerns expressed in the Harper's letter are serious and deserve our attention.

My second observation is to point out two big factors fueling today’s acrimonious environment: social media and the Trump era. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, Thomas Chatterton Williams gives us an eloquent description of this roiling zeitgeist. (American writer Williams was an initiator of the letter to Harper’s.)  

“Twitter has become all-consuming, especially if you work in the media or in academia,” Williams says. “It feels like Twitter has taken on this invisible, impersonal force that works through people but no one in particular, that sweeps through and enacts public humiliation and punishment, and has become another figure in all of our lives, like the spectre of Trump hanging over us.”

Both social media and the Trump era discourage thoughtful, considerate discourse. And so this is my plea. Somehow, we need to transcend the current moment and communicate with more humility, honesty and humour. And we need to develop better communication both within institutions and in informal settings. This could well involve spending less time on social media! And let’s remember our shared goal: human well-being – although apparently this goal is easy to forget.  

Citizens, stay tuned.

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See also: 

You are Both Right – and Both Wrong

Reflecting on Big Questions

Telling the Truth Today

Appreciate Everyday Goodness All Around Us

Getting to Good Ideas

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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