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Drew Holden: Fighting cancel culture – here are the cases we should worry about the most

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We’ve heard a lot about “cancel culture” of late. From debates about what it is and if it really exists to a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) dedicated to it, politicos of all stripes have weighed in. Just last week, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, called for congressional hearings about its threat.

The definition of cancel culture is tough to nail down but, fundamentally, it’s about punishing someone for something they’ve said or done in the past that is deemed unacceptable. This judgement is often a result of changing cultural norms and mores by a subgroup of people who are often unaccountable to the broader public.

The punishments vary but usually involve a loss of money or status – ensuring someone is fired or de-platformed, blackballing a company or product, invalidating awards or honors.

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Much of the recent coverage around cancel culture has been focused on high-profile cases of people in the public eye – the firing of Disney star Gina Carano for social media posts, President Trump’s social media ban, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., having his book dropped by its original publisher.

But our concerns should be less about whether a celebrity gets booted from a show or a senator has to change book publishers – since there’s only so much capacity for outrage and discussions around the chilling of free speech – and focus our attention on the many real crises happening below our collective radar.

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Perhaps the most acute crisis is on college campuses across the country. College professors and administrators are increasingly losing their livelihoods and reputations as a result of transgressions that often border on the ridiculous.

The latest example to make headlines happened in 2018 at Smith College, an elite private school where a janitor was placed on paid leave over allegations of racism that, despite an investigation, much handwringing, and an administration that apologized profusely, proved entirely unfounded. This did not prevent the social ostracizing of employees found to be on the “wrong side” of the charges.

While the specifics of this case are jarring, that it happened shouldn’t surprise us.

A running list at the National Association of Scholars counts 128 incidents of professors and administrators facing the metaphorical guillotine on campus. The Atlantic’s John McWhorter recounts a period last summer where he was receiving about 50 messages a week from academics fearful that their (predominantly liberal) beliefs would run afoul of the progressive orthodoxy in a way that could imperil their careers.

Upending someone’s life because you don’t agree with all of their political views – past and present – isn’t something a healthy society does.

Cancel culture run amok is increasingly not simply a problem at colleges, though. Numerous educators have lost their jobs in high schools and middle schools across the country for not supporting Black Lives Matter and other protests. A high school principal in Vermont even lost her job, not even for opposing, but for supporting the effort but raising questions about the methods.

Concerns go beyond education. In workplaces across the country, everyday Americans fear they could be next. As Yascha Mounk laid out for The Atlantic last June, these worries are not unfounded. The last few years have seen numerous people lose their jobs for everything from misunderstood comments to unintentional hand gestures.

Part of the reason the limits of cancel culture get blurry is that it can be difficult to determine what constitutes “canceling” and what is simply a matter of accountability. People have a right to choose who they break bread with. Too often, “cancel culture” gets thrown around as a term for rejection – when someone’s ideas are dismissed or old allies abandon them.

But upending someone’s life because you don’t agree with all of their political views – past and present – isn’t something a healthy society does. A country that walks on eggshells around the slightest transgression, that lives in fear of the most innocuous of comments, that is unwilling to speak and act in a way consistent with their conscious because of reprisals, is untenable.

Cheapening the definition or focusing just on the flashiest celebrity cases undermines this threat that greets countless everyday Americans when they walk through the door of their job, their parent-teacher association, or a local school board.

In a Cato Institute study last year, nearly two-thirds of Americans reported that they self-censor their personal and political beliefs. Worries about the implications of cancel culture aren’t far-off hypotheticals or slippery-slope concerns – real people are being punished and changing their behaviors right now.

It can be easy to write off these concerns as isolated incidents – a journalist loses a job over seemingly mundane comments here, a university professor facing a boycott for so much as attending a pro-police protest there.

A well-informed resistance to cancel culture should be concerned with protecting the little guy, ensuring that unfashionable views aren’t shouted out of the public square. That requires an active stance against the phenomenon, a position that’s constantly at-the-ready to reject attacks on both the letter and the spirit of the freedoms that all Americans hold dear.

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And opposing cancel culture is important not just where fairness is concerned. It’s also the best way to kill bad ideas. Human history has shown that reason is a powerful antiseptic; bad ideas die faster in the light of better ideas than in the darkness of banishment, where they’re often left to fester. 

The American experiment requires that each and every one of us tolerates certain opinions and beliefs that don’t share and may even revile. Maintaining that experiment will require that we start living up to our responsibilities.

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