NY Times' columnist Michelle Goldberg downplays cancel culture (but her readers disagree)

To really appreciate Michelle Goldberg’s latest column on cancel culture, you need to consider how the left’s talking points on the topic have calcified over the past few years. For most of the past 5-6 years the left has been writing versions of the same story over and over claiming that cancel culture isn’t real. The progressive line is that cancel culture doesn’t exist, it’s just that some people are finally being held accountable for their bad behavior. Meanwhile, evidence of this sort of “accountability culture” going too far continues to pile up on a weekly basis. It’s an untenable situation for anyone willing to stray outside the leftist bubble.

So some progressives like Michelle Goldberg aren’t outright denying that cancel culture exists these days, instead they are arguing it’s a) not a significant problem and b) not a left-wing problem. And so you get the column the NY Times published yesterday in which Goldberg aims to minimize rather than dismiss the idea of cancel culture:

A few weeks ago Anne Applebaum published a piece in The Atlantic titled “The New Puritans,” about people who have “lost everything” after breaking, or being accused of breaking “social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago.” Around the same time, The Economist published a cover package about the illiberal left, warning that as graduates of elite American universities have moved into the workplace, they have “brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and canceling allies who have transgressed.”…

In a sharp essay in Liberal Currents, Adam Gurri looked at empirical evidence that might tell us how big a crisis academic cancellations really are, and he came away nonplussed. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example, documents 426 cases of scholars “targeted for sanction by ideological adversaries” since 2015, a relatively small number given the size of American higher education. “If any other problem in social life was occurring at this frequency and at this scale, we would consider it effectively solved,” writes Gurri.

I wrote about Applebaum’s piece in the Atlantic when it was published earlier this month. What she described was how life-altering it can be to have a mob of ideologues go after your career, leaving you with no job and no recourse to reclaim your reputation. I actually felt the piece, while insightful, didn’t go nearly far enough. Applebaum certainly identified the seriousness of cancel culture to its victims, but skipped very lightly over it’s ideological source.

Since writing about it, I’ve had some conversations with progressive friends about the ways in which the new left have effectively taken over schools and corporate America. These are people who happily voted for Joe Biden and would do so again but even they voiced some concerns about what they are seeing, i.e. the often extreme anti-racist training that is now becoming a requirement among white collar workers. Of course they would never say anything critical about it in public or at work because doing so could have consequences.

And that’s a big part of the story that Goldberg misses. It’s not that cancel culture is rare, it’s that most people are so fearful of it they carefully self-censor to avoid becoming the next victims. Put another way, you don’t have to cancel everyone who violates the new orthodoxy, you just have to make examples of enough of them that everyone else falls silently in line.

As for the idea that 426 cases of cancellation is such a paltry figure that the whole question isn’t worth our time or attention, that’s pretty ironic. Does Goldberg know how many unarmed black Americans have been fatally shot by the police over the past 6 years? According to the Washington Post database, the number is 137 or about 23 incidents per year. Quite literally, more people are killed by lightning strikes each year. And yet, police killings of unarmed black men has become the defining social issue of the past seven years, starting with the death of Michael Brown and the rise of Black Lives Matter up through the death of George Floyd last year and efforts to defund the police which are still ongoing.

Of course being killed by a police officer is a far more serious incident than losing your career over old tweets. I’m not claiming the two are directly comparable and I’m definitely not suggesting the issue of police shootings has been solved or should be downplayed and ignored. But that is effectively what Goldberg is arguing about cancel culture, i.e. since it impact a relatively small number of people we can consider it “effectively solved.” I don’t think so. That’s not at all what the progressive zeitgeist has been on other social issues.

Fortunately, some of Goldberg’s readers have written comments to point out where she has missed the mark. As always, I’m starting with the comments that have the most upvotes from Times’ readers.

My daughter is a tenure-track assistant professor at a well-regarded liberal arts college. She has acquainted me well with “cancel culture”. As a millennial she shies away from making any statements that might be misinterpreted, for fear of just the type of overreaction that Ms. Goldberg describes…I love these young people’s energy. But they need to start re-directing it in a much more serious – and meaningful – manner.

This comment is my favorite, from a professor who feels “scared.”

I’m a humanities professor, and I am middle-aged (55, to be exact), but I don’t feel sad. I feel scared. Scared because I am a progressive who is nonetheless not a knee-jerk thinker, and because I do not (and cannot) repeat current orthodoxies as starkly as many of my students would like to hear. I have stopped teaching a popular lecture class (which numerous students told me had enticed them to major/ minor in the subject) because not every author on the syllabus was woke enough for the students, some of whom would indict me by association. The author(s) in question are radical, and it is clear to me that in many cases, the students are not doing the reading but rather mouthing platitudes they have heard in other classes or on line. I assigned a writing project on archival materials so students could draw their own conclusions about various trends in activist history: many actively ignored the contents of the materials and repeated truisms. What is not being discussed enough is this: cancellism and wokeism are forms of intellectual laziness. I cannot teach such students, because trying to break through the orthodoxy (even to arrive at various subtler condemnations of racism) is, to them, tantamount to a racist exercise in itself. Michelle Goldberg, your appraisal is incorrect. I’m all for not catastrophizing, but I fear for the future of the humanities if students no longer deign to read anything except texts that appear to sanction the woke orthodoxy.

Another reader points out that the number of cases isn’t what matters.

It’s not about the “number of cases”. It’s about whether those cases produce enough fear in other academics (or in other industries) where people feel they need to censure or silence their opinions on controversial topics. And in many instances, they do.

Remember the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist”? At its peak it had 150 names to it; a small fraction of the entire entertainment industry. But the effect was to basically sanitize the industry of any perceived political dissent.

When it comes to matters such as this, the number persecuted is not how we should weigh the effects. It should be weighed by the numbers afraid of speaking for fear of persecution.

The left’s woke absolutism is turning off people who normally side with them (this comment has been upvoted more than 2,000 times):

I had a conversation about this with a friend who is a college professor. She received a lengthy screed from a student who dropped her class after two days because the student had been made to feel “stupid” for being challenged on her views — which is the very point of college, at least when I attended.

I have two teenagers, one of whom has gone all in on the Woke Brigade. Teenagers often don’t have a lot of capacity for nuance, but it seems that young adults will not even accept the notion of debating or dissecting topics: you’re either with them or against them. I could dismiss this as just kids being kids–but these ideas are coming from somewhere and that “mob” that Applebaum refers to wields incredible power in the fear it instills.

I am pretty liberal; however, I am increasingly repelled by the absolutism of the very far left and identity politics almost as much as I am by the neo-fascist right.

From another college teacher:

Clearly, Michelle Goldberg doesn’t actually work on a college campus. I do. The teaching environment is fraught with the fear of saying something that is taken completely out of context. This makes it very difficult to engage in robust discussion and debate on any topic, whether it’s literature or data.

How do young people learn to think critically without hearing different points of view, without justifying or challenging another in respectful dialogue?

A retired professor says these are “scary times.”

I’m retired but I worked for decades as a scientist in industry, and also taught for many years as an adjunct in both community colleges and at a private university, going clear back to 1972 and through 2016.

I like many have seen unbelievable changes over those decades.

Anyone who doesn’t think that the politically correct “thought police” control the agenda, and what is allowed to be discussed at most colleges today doesn’t have a clue.

If you don’t largely align with the “woke” and their agenda and view, you shut up, or your career is effectively over.

Few if any really speak their minds today. They may agree with some but not all of the views and goals of the PC, but you don’t express that. There is no real debate about any cultural, political or social issue among faculty today. And you guard what you express in class of course.

It’s insane. And those in academia today know well of what I’m saying. We’re not headed in a good direction as far as having a climate where honest differences in views can be expressed and discussed in colleges today.

Today, the “woke” define what is right and acceptable. If you disagree, one way or another you’ll be cancelled. They of course think they’re right and you’re totally wrong.

Most with any sense see the hypocrisy and fascism. Scary times.

This one comes from a college staffer as opposed to a faculty member but she reports the same thing:

I am a staff member, not faculty, in academia. The current political environment can be stifling. not just from students, also from faculty and staff. I am, by all accounts, an anti-racist liberal Democrat. I announce my pronouns on my badge, name tags, at meetings, etc… And even I have been shut down at meetings for expressing ideas not liberal enough by people whose beliefs have no flexibility, who cannot hold space to consider ideas that don’t fit neatly into their own box of what they consider acceptable, and who don’t care to inform themselves about nuances of the past. If it came from a white male, it’s out, no matter who that white male was. The liberal progressive left has become just as close minded as the ultra conservative right. The whole point of the Academy is to explore ideas informed by education. And there just isn’t any of that these days. There is a large cadre of students, faculty, and staff, who consume Memes on social media and that is the extent of their education and their ideas. They are absolutely willing to end someone’s career over nothing more substantial than an image with a slogan.

I really could go on for days and in this case I think I will. “Please believe those of us that are sounding the alarm.”

This from a liberal college professor — this article is a straw man argument. Suppression of open expression of ideas on campuses today is very real, but subtle, involving lots of self-censorship and careful navigation by both professors and students. Please believe those of us who are sounding the alarm. We are not, as this opinion piece would have you believe, just sad old liberals whose worldview has fallen out of fashion. We are defending fundamental rights of open inquiry and the principle of tolerance. We mostly fear the rise of a dangerous right-wing authoritarianism in this country, but are also forced to fight a rear guard battle with a strain of highly intolerant and reductionist progressivism. If you don’t believe me, try this: ask a college student you know to opine “but maybe the real issue is class, not race” in a class on social problems and then ask them how it went.

This is some of the best material the Times has published on this topic.

The problem with cancel culture is that it is mob justice. Combined with what appears to be many young people’s tendency to feel that anything they think must have validity, and what they don’t like must be wrong, it’s a pretty toxic stew. The ability to unify around solutions to real-world problems, is one of the characteristics of a successful, resilient society. On that score we aren’t doing well at all. When gangs of entitled ignorants run around policing dialog and debate in this country in the name of moral purity, it’s time to bring back some form of national service so its younger citizens can experience shared sacrifice first hand.

Another college professor:

I’ve been teaching at a mid-sized, liberal arts college for 20 yrs and agree with Dre. You can feel the pall that has descended over both faculty and students when it comes to open expression, let alone disagreement. It’s born of fear.

As a lit prof, the most stimulating, productive element of a class occurs during class discussion. In recent years, that has fallen to nothing. Students are fearful of questioning or of disagreement. Faculty do walk among trip wires.

Goldberg may not think it’s a national emergency, but when you have large numbers of future voters who are not learning to analyze, question, or disagree rationally, that’s a sizable threat.

I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of Goldberg’s own readers think she missed the mark. That’s not surprising if you’ve been reading her previous takes on cancel culture. I guess you can give her some credit for at least admitting this is something that exists. Now the next step is admitting it’s actually not a minor problem. I’m not sure Goldberg can get there. It’s a long way from her comfort zone of blaming everything on the right.