Are Exaggerations About Cancel Culture Actually Leading To The ‘Self-Censorship’ People Screaming About Cancel Culture Are Worried About?
from the cancel-culture-is-a-moral-panic dept
I think, by this point, I’ve made my overall views on the hype around “cancel culture” pretty clear. To me it seems to be just as much of a moral panic about free speech as most other moral panics, though couched in language that pretends it’s about supporting free speech. As with most moral panics, that’s not to say there aren’t some legitimate concerns about whatever is at the heart of the panic, but the actual concerning bits are rare and quite limited, whereas the panic assumes that it’s widespread and pervasive.
Even worse (to me) is that those running around screaming about cancel culture are, all too often, using the very rare cases of legitimate concern to effectively raise a barrier against perfectly deserved criticism and accountability for those who were previously untouchable, but who might actually deserve some criticism and accountability. That is, it often feels like the hype around “cancel culture” is, in fact, an attack on free speech, rather than in support of it (as its proponents claim). It’s the attack on those who are speaking out and criticizing the speech of others — which should be seen as quintessential free expression.
All of this came to mind as I read Eve Fairbanks recent piece in The Altantic, where she discusses her own shock that she wasn’t “canceled” for her latest book. She was concerned that, as a white writer, who wrote about race issues in South Africa — where she has lived for over a decade — she would face a screaming mob who was upset because she wrote about Black South Africans while not being Black herself. Almost all of this fear was based on people fretting to her about all they’d heard about how pervasive cancel culture had become in America.
Friends and colleagues told me that one of my biggest jobs ahead of publishing my book would be to take careful steps to avoid cancellation for writing about race. (I am white.) My book, The Inheritors, follows several South Africans as they grapple with their white-supremacist country’s rapid transfiguration into a Black-led democracy. It begins with a young Black woman’s memory of preparing to go to school—she was one of the first Black students at an elementary school that for a century accepted only white kids—and ends on her mother’s reflections. Ninety percent of South Africans are Black, and I’d felt frustrated reading decades’ worth of writing, even by Nobel-winning progressives, that envisioned South Africa through anxious white families’ eyes. Two editors, though, told me in private conversations to evade criticism by cutting the manuscript so it focused exclusively on white people.
She goes on to give numerous other examples of people warning her about how much trouble she was going to get in for her book. And… then none of it happened.
Indeed, she notes that she ended up “self-censoring” herself not (as the cancel culture proponents would have you believe) out of fear that the cancel culture folks were coming for her, but because of how often everyone told her the cancel culture mob would definitely be coming for her.
I hid the book a little, in other words. I self-censored, not—it seemed to me afterward—because of a direct fear of censorious mobs, but because of the way the threats to free speech are now depicted in innumerable essays and whispered rumors from elders in the world of letters.
But, nothing at all happened. No one was pissed off. No one freaked out. She wasn’t canceled. And so now she’s coming around to what many of us have been saying all along. The whole narrative about cancel culture is itself a kind of moral panic:
The experience made me wonder: Why do we assume that cancel culture is a pervasive reality, and what’s the impact of that assumption? When the Times wrote in its editorial that Americans “know [cancel culture] exists and feel its burden,” the paper was referring to a poll it commissioned in which 84 percent of respondents said they believed “retaliation” and “harsh criticism” against opinions now constitute a “serious” problem. But substantial numbers of Americans also believe the 2020 election was fraudulent without that being the truth. I began to think that the way pro-free-speech advocates now talk about speech suppression constitutes a driver of the perception of it. And that, paradoxically, concern about cancel culture has itself become a threat to free speech.
It’s that last line that struck me as the most interesting, and telling, piece in the whole thing. As with lots of moral panics, the panic itself, based on little but overhyped and exaggerated anecdotes and stories, ends up becoming a weird sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, in that it causes people to act as if it is true, even if it’s not.
Fairbanks then compares it to all the nonsense being pushed in the media these days about crime rising. The media and politicians keep pushing this nonsense narrative that crime is rising, even as the data shows it really is not. But, the data is less important. The narrative lives on, and because people believe that crime (and cancel culture) is a problem, they act as if they are really happening, and the end result is, in some ways, effectively the same:
It might sound strange, or even offensive, to suggest that writing about threats to free speech could make people afraid of speaking. The thing is, we know this is how behavior works in other domains. When writers emphasize adverse reactions to vaccines, people shy away from taking them. People clean supermarket shelves out of toilet paper, creating a shortage, just on the warning that a shortage might happen. Americans consistently believe crime is rising nationwide even when it’s falling. In studies on crime and public behavior, researchers reliably find that increased worry in the press, on social media, and in public opinion—the same outlets on which journalists rely to describe cancel culture’s reality—do not correlate well with changes in crime rates. They also find, as one analysis put it, that “ironically, fear of crime” can “lead to other behaviors” that drive crime up: installing ostentatious security features, fleeing “bad” neighborhoods, voting for heavy policing that aggravates conflict between people and law enforcement.
This is one of the many reasons why I keep calling out exaggerations around cancel culture. Because those exaggerations, and the associated moral panic, are actually causing much of what those pushing that narrative fear is happening… to actually happen.
It remains perfectly reasonable to call out specific situations where you can talk about why that specific scenario is egregious or problematic, and let people discuss those specifics. But by continuing to promote the myth of pervasive cancel culture, you’re actually doing more to create the kinds of “self-censorship” that people are whining about. Of course, for those who have built up a reputation as being the voices decrying cancel culture, they actually benefit from the self-fulfilling prophecy part of it all, but that doesn’t meant that the people who are actually working for free expression need to help them just to assuage their own insecurities.