Column: 'Cancel culture' is not the problem. The Harper's letter is

Mary McNamara
·9 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 file photo, writer J.K. Rowling poses for the media at the world premiere of the film "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" in Paris. Dozens of artists, writers and academics have signed an open letter decrying the weakening of public debate, it was announced Wednesday, July 8, 2020 warning that the free exchange of information and ideas is in jeopardy. J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood are among dozens of writers, artists and academics to argue against ideological conformity in an open letter in Harper's Magazine. The letter comes amid a debate over so-called cancel culture - where prominent people face attack for sharing controversial opinions. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, file)
J.K. Rowling is among dozens of writers, artists and academics to argue against ideological conformity in an open letter in Harper's magazine. The letter comes amid a debate over so-called cancel culture — where prominent people face attack for sharing controversial opinions. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

Here's how you know that satire is an elemental force of the universe: Even as many were celebrating the firing of the "I feel threatened" guy — a Florida man made infamous by a widely circulated video of him screaming threats at a woman who had asked him to wear a mask in Costco (which requires masks) — Harper's magazine published an open letter, signed by many famous and well-respected people, criticizing progressives for, among other things, creating “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” that has led to folks being fired.

In other words, a call to cancel cancel culture. OK, boomer. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

I realize we are all under a lot of pressure these days, and the novel coronavirus shutdown has forced many of us to spend far too much time in our own heads, but what do you even call a cultural juxtaposition like that?

Well, for accuracy's sake, let's just call it Tuesday. The day a group of established writers and activists appeared to be defending people like a man who, while wearing a "Ruling the World Since 1776" T-shirt and flip flops, had a vicious and potentially lethal meltdown in a superstore.

Actually, I’m going to assume that the signatories of the "Letter on Justice and Open Debate" were not all that concerned about some random guy losing his job for being a complete jerk. Although they mention no specifics during their criticism of what they perceive as a growing intolerance and censoriousness among liberals, they make it pretty clear: The "calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought" that concern them most involve either themselves or people they might know.

The vagueness of the examples forced many readers to guess: Was one of the editors "fired for running controversial pieces" James Bennet, who resigned from his post as editorial page editor at the New York Times after the publication of an incendiary column by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, which he said he had not read before publication, caused a staff revolt? Was the "good faith disagreement" that should be preserved a reference to J.K. Rowling, a letter signatory, who has been criticized for her recent assertions that trans women are something other than women?

In the mixed and heated response — exactly what such a provocative missive is written to provoke — the letter became a Rorschach test of subtext. Many saw it as supporting Rowling and others who believe that gender is a fixed and biological determination; others saw it as a criticism of a recent push, spurred by the Black Lives Matter protests, for increased diversity among media platforms — including the L.A. Times — and a re-evaluation of how those platforms name and cover Black communities and protests.

Some also saw it as a necessary corrective to cyber-bullying, mob rule and digital excavation that allow sins of the past to haunt, and occasionally harm, without the traditional softening agents of time, maturation or context.

Given current events, the letter's carefully nonspecific terms — "blinding moral certainty," "disproportionate punishments" and "restriction of debate" — could certainly apply to the "I feel threatened" guy and others who have been sanctioned in one way or another for protesting the use of face masks or for removing Black Lives Matter signs. Quite possibly, the signatories believe they should. But again, the lack of specifics makes it impossible to judge.

Any way you look at it, the timing is … odd. I have no idea why those who wrote and signed it thought that the middle of a global pandemic and a worldwide uprising against law enforcement’s long history of racist brutality was an ideal moment to give young people a stern talking to about the moral and societal risks of cancel culture.

The letter offers a hint, asserting that while calls for racial and social justice are good things (whew), “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion — which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting.”

Ah, so fear of President Trump and his supporters, and of their talent for shouting “hypocrite” and “fake news,” are — at least in part — the motivation. Yes, Trump and his supporters will definitely cool it if only young lefties on Twitter quiet down.

I am old enough to disdain cancel culture, though not for the reasons the letter gives. My disdain comes from the belief that it doesn’t exist — at least not as anything new, anything more than yet another term used as a blanket criticism of people, often young but not always, deploying new forms of communication (in this case, social media) to call out those they believe are espousing or enabling racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment and capitalistic exploitation. (Or, less grandly, to promote inter-influencer feuds.)

For the most part, however, the folks addressed by the letter — the supposed cancelers — have little or no institutional power. All they have is the influence of the collective. Which makes the letter something of a feint.

The speed with which social media allows people to communicate certainly begs for an increased sense of responsibility — "internet sleuths" accurately identified the perpetrators of many real crimes and transgressions during the recent protests, but they also misidentified a few and, in any form of media or institution, that is no small thing (see please "Central Park Five"). A rush to judgement can be a terrible thing, but so too is the insistence that "everything has two sides" (see please the coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign).

Either way, the notion of "canceling" is not the problem. Substitute “boycott” for “cancel” in all those Twitter feeds and you have the United Farm Workers.

The left, like the right, has always had extremists, and "canceling" is hardly a new concept. I have been working as a journalist for so long that I have lost count of the many times a letter, voicemail, email or tweet sent by someone who objected to something I had written ended with: “Cancel my subscription” (as if I even knew how to do such a thing).

It will probably happen after the publication of this column. (Note: I still do not know how to do such a thing.)

Any person with a platform will be subject to criticism and pushback — some of which will be, unfortunately, abusive and extreme, often when you least expect it. The thousands of angry, threatening and often obscene emails I received after I gave less than a rave to the Hugh Jackman-hosted Oscars were so shattering that I almost quit criticism (seriously, do not mess with the Jackman stans). And the scariest death threat I ever got was from a woman who, feeling that I had given away too much in my review of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” wanted my children and me to die — but my children first, so I'd have to watch.

For worse and better, those “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought” that the Harper's letter decries have been made since this democracy was established. I mean, have you seen “Hamilton”? Talk about cancel culture: Say the wrong thing and those guys — you know, the ones who built democracy — fought freaking duels.

When I was a young feminist, the pejorative term applied to those calling for change in a way that upset the establishment was … well, actually “feminist” worked pretty well, even among liberals. But so did “politically correct.” You want diversity in the workplace, equal pay, a nonbrutal police force, rapists brought to justice? How “politically correct” of you. Male co-workers complimenting my hair or outfit would follow it with a smirking “I know that’s not very politically correct of me” as if a compliment could easily be mistaken, by me, for sexual harassment.

Which is one reason the term "politically incorrect" became a synonym for "cool."

Since the letter gives no specific examples of the punishments inflicted “in the spirit of damage control” (are they talking about Matt Lauer? Because he will definitely think so), it’s hard to know exactly what the problem is. Is it that a younger generation is less interested in the “context” of an individual’s racist, sexist or homophobic behavior or their use of a racist, sexist or homophobic epithet — and more interested in making that behavior and those epithets socially unacceptable?

Are the signatories mostly upset because some of these campaigns have been successful? Because, say, unapologetic bigot and pedophile apologist Milo Yiannopoulos didn’t get to speak at UC Berkeley?

They certainly can't possibly be objecting to the systemic revelations of #MeToo or the goals of #BlackLivesMatter, so is it the rejection of "traditional" forms of discourse that’s the concern?

Should we all be respectful of one another? Sure, but too often that respect has been by its very definition one-sided. Those in power not only demand respect but they also write and rewrite its very definition. For their own benefit. The "I hear what you're saying, young lady, but I don't appreciate your tone" redirect is one of the power elite's most effective tools. So here we are, still fighting against police brutality and the white male domination of virtually every industry in the U.S. under the so-called leadership of a president who regularly lies about the nature of a global pandemic.

How helpful is it, really, to argue about tactics at this moment? As Cynthia Ozick once wrote: “In saying what is obvious, never choose cunning. Yelling works better.”

There is no denying that righteousness turns into self-righteousness at the twist of a prefix and, as history and literature prove, those who fight tyranny often become tyrants themselves. But that danger should not prevent anyone from fighting tyranny, including the tyranny of condescension.

Should the social-media masses call for the head of every person who has put a single foot or word wrong? No, and as far as I can see (and again, without specifics, it’s difficult to get a clear view), it is far more common for criminals, predators, racists and oppressive institutions to remain in place despite years of criticism and protest than it is for a person to be fired for an innocent mistake because an angry mob on Twitter demanded it.

And on the occasions when that might happen — well, if, as the letter says, “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms,” that’s not on those calling for change or even retribution. That’s on the institutional leaders.

Who, if I’m understanding the gist of the letter, should probably be fired.