There is no tenet of good writing simpler or more repeated than “show don’t tell.” So it’s surprising in retrospect that so many people who trade in words (and appear to take doing so seriously), people like J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Gloria Steinem, attached their names to a letter published in Harper’s on Tuesday that was as void of content as it was open. The subject of immediate controversy and palpable disdain, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” bemoaned “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity” as a consequence of our culture’s social-justice reckoning. It fretted over lost editorial and research jobs and withdrawn books as a result of “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought” by the greater public.
“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” read the letter’s conclusion. “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”
It’s a plan of action so vague it barely seems like a plan at all. Surely, no one on the imagined other side of the divide will read those 500 words and think, “Huh, I’ve been canceling wrong all along.” Furthermore, just watching the public behavior of many signatories suggests that the demands of the letter are obvious: See how Rowling has doubled-, tripled-, quadrupled-, etc.-down on transphobia, allowing herself plenty of room for experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes, while maintaining the cultural position of someone who is heard whenever she speaks and losing none of her fortune in the process. The letter was more of a gesture, a way of italicizing already evident public behavior. When self-proclaimed (or implicitly so) “woke” people engage in criticism, it’s often classified by trolls and right-wing detractors as “virtue signaling.” The letter’s ostensible pushback makes it no less of a signal.
The letter does not specifically mention “cancel culture,” but was largely interpreted to be responding to just that (for example, the Twitter “event” that chronicled the letter’s publication and response referred to it as “an open letter calling for an end to ‘cancel culture’”). “Cancel culture” concerns the amorphous, often disproved notion that a public thinker could be banished from polite society for simply expressing their ideas, particularly unpopular ideas. Its subscribers, at least those who say they’re on the left, fear that groupthink is turning liberals conservative and that independent thought is an increasingly punishable offense.
Putting a label on how people communicate, however, is like attempting to nail down a cloud. There is no doubt that people, irrespective of their declared politics, behave on social media in punitive ways against that with which they disagree. Some of this expression may have a goal of effective cancellation in mind; some is clearly people mouthing off in the sort of exaggerated manner people use to make themselves clear and amusing online. There is demonstrable proof that titans of culture—Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr—have been toppled, though this ultimately is more of a direct product of the institutions that employed and affirmed their positions than the outcry that helped put the targets on them in the first place. Of course, Cosby’s ruin came as a result of what he was convicted of doing, not saying. And then there’s the intricate case of Woody Allen, who’s seen a deal with Amazon evaporate and pile of disavowals from previous collaborators. The release of his memoir Apropos of Nothing was canceled by Hachette in March but then picked up and released later that month by Arcade. His latest movie Rifkin’s Festival was selected to open this year’s San Sebastián film festival in Spain. Allen is a case study in what (and what little) “cancellation” actually means.
It has been argued that cancel culture doesn’t exist, but it’s not nearly that simple. R. Kelly is in jail and without a record label as a result of several allegations of rape and abuse, and yet his music streams remained robust well into last year (and in fact surged as a result of the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, the most thorough examination of the allegations against him the public has been able to access). Despite fervent, widespread protests, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket,” remained on full view throughout the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Joy Reid, who dubiously blamed homophobic blog entries on “hackers” just a few years ago, now has a primetime slot on MSNBC. Kanye West has made increasingly oppressive, malformed declarations over the past several years, and yet commands earth-stopping attention every time he opens his mouth/Twitter app. Forbes ran a massive feature just this week about the ridiculous notion of West running for president in this year’s election.
And the list goes on and on—in her piece on the Harper’s letter in Medium’s Gen, Jessica Valenti runs down and refutes a few examples of supposed cancellation that the letter vaguely alludes to, including the recently ousted New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet, who resigned in the wake of Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed that recommended military force against protestors, which as Valenti reminds us, Bennet didn’t even read before publishing.
Last year in The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu characterized social media backlash that is often seen as the root of cancel culture as not a threat to speech itself, but perhaps just noise. “It seems at least possible that tweets are just tweets—that as difficult as criticism in the social media age may be to contend with at times, it bears no meaningful resemblance to genocides, excommunications, executions, assassinations, political imprisonments, and official bans past,” wrote Nwanevu. “Perhaps we should choose instead to understand cancel culture as something much more mundane: ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people across new platforms.”
This seems reasonable to me. As communication has proliferated, it’s easier for people outside of the media and literary elite to be heard. Annoying as its effect may be, this is in line with the very purpose of journalism and public speaking. Disagreements can be registered, and when in unison, may appear worth taking seriously to employers, just as a published exposé on corruption might be. The writers who signed the Harper’s letter are no less free to express themselves than before, and in fact, social media has given them a license to do so without any third-party editing. But they are more beholden to the consequences of doing so, and that’s scary.
So scary, in fact, that it prompts supposed free thinkers to react preemptively, effectively investing faith into a force that is beyond their control. The Harper’s letter has all the piousness and potential usefulness as a prayer. And like many religions, the cancel culture congregation is teeming with members eager to point out the sins of others to deflect from their own. Mass free expression is chaotic, clearly, which at the very least means we should be wary of pat explanations that attempt to squeeze the nature of the problem down to 500 words and place certain manners of expression in tidy boxes on either side of an ideological divide.
But if one side is to be believed, an independent thinker could barely do worse than by aligning with a supposed liberal decrying cancel culture. It’s astonishing how often they get it wrong.
The article that Harper’s letter signatory Bari Weiss pointed to regarding Jeanine Cummins’s controversial novel American Dirt included the book publisher’s plans to pivot to “town halls” instead of typical readings. The author tour, as originally announced, was canceled, but the book’s promotion wasn’t. This came as a result of a backlash that was largely satirical and humor-driven in response to American Dirt’s alleged cultural insensitivity about the Mexican immigrant experience. The book remained for sale, Oprah Winfrey kept it in her book club (devoting two episodes of her Apple TV+ series Oprah’s Book Club to it), and Flatiron Books president and publisher Bob Miller admitted his company’s own “exposed deep inadequacies.” American Dirt has, as of today, spent 24 weeks on the New York Times’s bestseller list.
There was no cancellation, only a reconsideration, which is an integral part of free-thinking, a point made plainly in the Harper’s letter’s allowance of (allow me to quote it again) “experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes.”
“I think this cancel culture is a cancer on progressivism,” proclaimed Bill Maher during a March episode of his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. He was ostensibly defending Chris Matthews, who had resigned from his MSNBC show Hardball on-air that week after the publication of journalist Laura Bassett’s account of a “sexist run-in” with Matthews on set. Matthews had effectively canceled himself, and then in an interview on Vanity Fair’s Inside the Hive podcast the following month, affirmed that Bassett’s telling was accurate and it “highly justified” Matthews leaving his post. An act of personal accountability was nonetheless decried by Maher and his panel, with Harper’s letter signatory Caitlin Flanagan declaring on-air, “If every woman… if we are now empowered to take a flamethrower to every mosquito, then we’ve become the thing we hate.”
But see, Flanagan has no similar reservations about her right to flame-throw. A longtime critic of MeToo, she sat for a rather rushed and ultimately incoherent diatribe in front of The Atlantic’s cameras in 2018.
“Matt Damon said that groping someone’s butt was different from sexually molesting a child,” she recounted in disbelief. “The mob said he was callous, misinformed, and part of the problem.” And… what? Matt Damon, who did make such an analogy and had other poorly received things to say about MeToo, is still a millionaire, still making movies, still just resplendent in his Matt Damonness. Matt Damon said a thing, many people disagreed, Matt Damon apologized, and that was that. Either people are refusing to see the forest for the trees, or they need something to feel oppressed by, often on behalf of other people who have no idea who they are.
Meanwhile, Bassett said that after she published her piece about Chris Matthews, people called her a whore, ugly, and told her to go away. Where is the Real Time panel’s outrage on the attempts at canceling Basset?
The more I think about this hand-wringing, the clearer it is that it’s a hobby and sometimes a way of using persecution as an angle, something surely many of cancel culture’s subscribers would decry about identity politics. Rape apologist Katie Roiphe complained on CBS Sunday Morning about an attempted silencing of her by “Twitter feminists” for daring to suggest that some women thought MeToo had gone too far. A piece that she wrote for, haha, Harper’s called “The Other Whisper Network” ignited controversy prior to its publication when word spread that one of the magazine’s fact-checkers had contacted a then-anonymous supposed creator of the so-called Shitty Media Men list of journalists and editors. The rumblings led Moira Donegan to out herself as the list’s creator, though Roiphe told the New York Times that she never would have published Donegan’s name without her permission. That was, of course, by then a moot point, which made it easy to gloss over in Roiphe’s retelling of the backlash she received that had precisely zero effect on her ultimate ability to say her peace.
But she complained about it nonetheless. Think of it as a near-death experience, a brush with the god of cancel culture.
I can’t discuss cancel culture, generally, and the Harper’s letter specifically, without pointing out the hypocrisy from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Jennifer Senior, who both cheered on the demise of Gawker, where I used to work, when a billionaire with a vendetta financed a lawsuit to take it down.
On the Longform podcast in 2016, Gladwell, a frequent and wholly justified target of Gawker, said:
Gawker chose to pick its battles over the most preposterously trivial, nonsensical…over a videotape of a guy having sex with his friend’s wife. That’s the rock you want to die on? If it was the Pentagon Papers, I would be saying, “Go for it, this matters.”…This whole thing would have been averted if they did what everyone else is doing for 25 years, which is just say, “Actually, that’s going to get us in trouble. We’re not gonna do it.”…Everyone wants to escalate cases like this into the realm of high principle. There’s no principle here. It’s just like, listen to your lawyer. Lawyers are right, you’ll get in trouble.
Do “what everyone else is doing for 25 years” is exactly the sort of orthodox mindset decried by the letter to which Gladwell attached his name. “You and I can start Gawker in this room right today for $50,” he continued on Longform. “Right? So like, no billionaire can silence us. That’s the whole point of the internet. So why are we forgetting the point of the internet the minute there’s a controversy?” Gee, when he puts it like that, it makes fighting the power that he’s fighting by signing the Harper’s letter seem awfully silly.
And yet it’s undeniable that unless you’re just parroting the status quo and repeating the prosocial (yet ever-changing) script set by Twitter on any given day (a career path that I’ve seen many self-styled thinkers take), as a writer expressing original thought, you are bound to meet resistance and you are bound to be annoyed. Twitter is fucking annoying. People are needlessly rude and detrimentally self-absorbed, and so much criticism amounts to a furor that a writer used their platform to say something that their critic wouldn’t have. This way of thinking is anti-intellectual and fundamentally mistakes expression as dogma.
But, of course, so does “cancel culture.” Besides the distortions and hypocrisy of those who decry them, a crucial reason to be wary of those who quake at the Calvinist force of cancel culture is that it is impossible to divorce this sentiment from capitalist dread. It is impossible to say how much of this supposed ardent belief in free expression is actually just a symptom of anxiety over one’s irrelevance—the idea that so many people can disagree with you that you no longer will retain your cultural standing. The writers and thinkers who signed the Harper’s letter affirmed their elitism, their refusal to be taken down by consensus. It’s not entirely unreasonable. The world is chaotic, media is imploding, and many writers’ careers follow unpredictable trajectories that bear no resemblance to the perpetual ascendence promised by the American dream. Latching onto a threat helps assuage the existential crisis of accountability and allows you to ignore the idea that you’re a fraud who doesn’t deserve the good fortune of your cultural space.
But there’s an even easier method of coping with the onslaught of cultural noise that bombards us as soon as we deign to say something in public. Grow up, log off, and find a better god.