Photography for Prospect by Sara Morris

Cancel culture is turning healthy tensions into irreconcilable conflicts

“Decent discourse” is dying. But we still need the antiquated virtue of tolerance
December 9, 2021

The most gut-wrenching exploration of what it feels like to be cancelled is in a novel written long before that term had become a weapon in the culture wars. In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, published in 2000, Coleman Silk, a professor and former dean at the fictional Athena College, is teaching a seminar with 14 students.

By the sixth week, two of them have yet to appear. Silk opens the class by asking “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” He is using the word as a synonym for ghosts. But it also has a long history as a term of abuse for African-Americans. He does not know that the two students he has never seen are both black.

This does not matter. Silk is branded a racist. (In a twist, he is later revealed to be African-American but passing as Jewish.) He endures a two-year purgatory of accusations and investigations. None of his colleagues have the courage to defend him. He resigns in disgrace. His life unravels. 

Roth’s initial scenario seems absurd, but it actually happened. In 1985, the Princeton sociologist Mel Tumin—ironically a greatly respected expert on race relations—uttered exactly those words in precisely the same context. Tumin—a friend of Roth’s—was accused of hate speech and placed under investigation by the university’s authorities.

In thinking about today’s conflict over so-called “cancel culture,” two things about this incident and its place in a great American novel seem relevant. One is that 1985 is 36 years ago. Ronald Reagan was president of the United States; Margaret Thatcher prime minister of the United Kingdom. Twitter was still something that birds did on leafy branches. Social media was still a tautology.

“The most effective way of silencing a person or a group is not to shut them up. It is to shut them out”

In other words, there is nothing very new in current anxieties about the tension between free speech and insult; between the innate slipperiness of language and the need to be vigilant about hurtful tropes; between the demands of fairness for individuals and the collective imperative to right historical wrongs. 

“Cancel culture” is a recent invention, and not an innocent one. It is a highly purposeful strategy to weaponise dilemmas that have been present for many decades. What has changed, however, is that this strategy has succeeded in turning these tensions into irreconcilable conflicts. For this is the second way in which Roth’s story and its real-life inspiration resonate today. Mel Tumin did not in fact suffer the fate of Coleman Silk. 

Tumin was subjected to months of investigation by Princeton. But he was also exonerated. His name was cleared and the incident was forgotten—it did not warrant a passing mention in his obituary in the New York Times. The brilliant critic Elaine Showalter later used The Human Stain as a text in her own classes at Princeton and had, as she recalled in 2018, “no problem reading passages for discussion aloud.”

But what would happen to Tumin now? He would surely be much more likely to end up like his fictional counterpart Coleman Silk—disgraced, sacked, ostracised. His obituary would not consign the unfortunate misunderstanding to oblivion. He would be the expert on race relations who had revealed himself as a racist. The brand would be on his forehead forever. 

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Nicole Kidman and Philip Roth on the set of The Human Stain, 2003. Image: AF Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

To map with any accuracy the present lie of the land, we have to be able to triangulate between these two truths. On the one hand, the questions that have to be dealt with are real and longstanding. They are not the products of a hysterical wokeism. They arise because people who are spoken about have, against great odds, claimed the right to answer back. Those who have enjoyed the privilege of consequence-free pronouncements—overwhelmingly white, university-educated men—find themselves challenged and scrutinised. Many of them don’t like it. 

On the other hand, politics and culture really have become more and more tribalised. Tribalism is binary: the grey zone of subtlety, ambiguity, complexity and hesitation shrinks almost to nothing. Mistakes become crimes. Momentary lapses are fixed forever like stars in the digital cosmos. The muddle-headedness to which everyone is prey becomes potentially suicidal. Human frailty becomes unforgivable. And the rest of the anglophone world imports what Roth calls in The Human Stain “America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.”

On the first side of this divide, we must keep in mind that even being cancelled is a kind of privilege. The most effective way of silencing a person or a group is not to shut them up. It is to shut them out. Both the media and the universities have long and deep histories of simply excluding those who do not fit.

To take just one example: the historian Niall Ferguson is one of the most prominent supporters of the planned new “anti-cancel culture” University of Austin. In March 2018, Ferguson organised a conference on applied history at Stanford. The speakers were 30 white male historians and a single (also white) woman. The consolation, perhaps, is that you can’t get cancelled if you’re not invited. You can’t be de-platformed if you never get near the stage.

This is what makes it so difficult to see the problem clearly—it is shrouded in a fog of hypocrisy. The right-wing blog Guido Fawkes suggests that its readers prefer to describe “people who want to ban and/or cancel words and people” as “red fascists” rather than merely “wokeists.” It also attacks invitations issued by government departments to non-white intellectuals like Afua Hirsch and David Olusoga—and boasts of its success in getting the Home Office to “no platform” the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. 

In so much of this, we see that the verb “to cancel” has its own peculiar conjugation: “I have absolute free speech. You are offending me. She is a red fascist. We must protect our values. You people are snowflakes. They are trying to silence us.”

Alongside this double standard, there is the self-pity of those who believe that free speech goes only one way. The media and political cultures of the digital age value “provocation” for its own sake. But “provoke” is a transitive verb. If you poke your stick into the wasps’ nest, you are a fool not to expect them to come out and sting you.

“If you poke your stick into the wasps’ nest, you are a fool not to expect them to come out and sting you”

The historian David Starkey (a ubiquitous figure on British television, radio and in print) now declares himself “the most notorious example—I refuse to write victim—of the ‘cancel culture’ in Britain.” He has been “obliterated,” he claims, because of a single word. On a right-wing podcast in June, he pronounced that the slave trade was not a genocide, “otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain.”

Interestingly, one of Starkey’s explanations for this slur was that there was no BBC editor around to cut out the “damn” for him: “In normal broadcasting of course there would have been someone to remind me.” He cited a text from a sympathetic “features editor of one of the Sundays” who claimed to be “aghast at the lack of care shown towards you.” Not, note, at the overt racism of the utterance, but at the failure of the podcasters to protect Starkey from himself.

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Niall Ferguson: You can’t be deplatformed if you never get near the stage. Image: Alejandro Garcia/ EPA-EFE/ Shutterstock

Starkey’s real complaint, in other words, is not that he was censored, but that he wasn’t. This opens a window onto a world of entitlement. There has been an ecosystem of privileged provocateurs who knew that they could rely on an editorial infrastructure to keep them out of trouble, like a Jeeves to their Bertie Wooster. But one of the things that has happened with the proliferation of online media and the cutting of editorial staff at mainstream outlets is that this safety net is removed. A chap can no longer blurt out a racist provocation and trust a useful desk wallah to make sure that no one is actually provoked. Who would not be aghast at such injustice?

Faced with such hypocrisy and with these assumptions of privilege, it is tempting to conclude that the fear of cancellation is just a demon conjured by those who resent encroachments on their own status as the arbiters of public discourse. But that would be to evade the other side of this reality. Political and cultural tribalism have indeed made it increasingly difficult for people to accept as legitimate views that they do not themselves hold. And social media really has amplified Roth’s “ecstasy of sanctimony.” The sadistic pleasures of ostracisation have become more widely available and easier to attain. 

Disgust at the double standards deployed by the right cannot be allowed to blind us to another, necessary kind of doubleness. Democracy is a perpetual motion machine, always in transit between two poles: the core value of free speech and the limitations without which decent discourse is impossible. Freedom is not being able to do—or say—whatever you damn well please in every possible context. It is the condition of not being subjected to domination. 

That means that nobody should be allowed to dominate the collective conversation by using hateful stereotypes to exclude others. But it also means that shouting people down or declaring some issues beyond discussion or leaping on honest mistakes as if they are unforgivable crimes are forms of domination that damage democracy—and cause unjust harm to individuals.

When Kathleen Stock has to leave her job at Sussex University because of physical intimidation, understanding of the rights and experiences of trans people is not deepened. It is flattened into a brutal battlefield in which there can be only one winner and one truth. When Kate Clanchy writes, as she does here (see p68), of being driven to suicidal thoughts during the controversy about her use of racial tropes in her Orwell Prize-winning book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, the line between justified criticism and personal cruelty becomes dangerously thin.

When editors at publications like the New York Review of Books and the New York Times lose their jobs because they publish things that cause upset, “safety first” become the watchwords of editorial judgment. When mere accusations, justified or not, are enough for a person to be banished as a heretic, even the ecstasy of sanctimony must be tempered by an awareness that today’s witchfinder can be tomorrow’s witch. 

“All great truths,” wrote Bernard Shaw, “begin as blasphemies.” But not all blasphemies, we must add, are great truths—some of them are vile lies. Public discourse has to hover between these facts. Sanitise common speech and democracy has no immune system. Let the privileged and the malign say what they want without challenge and democracy will succumb to their toxicity.

“Reasoned criticism and the practice of accountability are much harder than placing your enemies beyond the pale”

There is no shortcut out of this jungle of contradictions. There are only distant landmarks by which to plot a direction of travel. One is the folly of pitting freedom and respect against each other in a savage cockfight. The culture warriors want to make cancellation a blood sport in which the enemy is obliterated. It is not a game that anyone who values democracy ought to play. Reasoned criticism and the practice of accountability are much harder than placing your enemies beyond the pale. But civil society is impossible without them.

The other obvious truth is that we are in a period when those who get to speak are both too many and too few. A notion of “civilised” debate is easy to maintain when those who get to take part in it are of the same gender, come from the same ethnic backgrounds, went to the same schools and colleges and share a million unspoken assumptions about the way the world works. That notion has unravelled because these circles are being broken by intruders on the walled estates of privilege.

But far too many of those who have forced their way in still feel that they are there on sufferance—and far too many people are not there at all. An old order of decent discourse is dying. A new, much more open one is struggling to be born. We must hasten its arrival while holding open as much space as possible for the antiquated virtue of tolerance.