There Is Only Culture

The rebranding of "political correctness" as a new moral panic

I have a message for my detractors:

If you publicly object to my writing and encourage others not to read it, you are trying to cancel me.

If you publicly object to my politics and encourage others to condemn me, you are trying to cancel me.

If you write to the Arc Digital editors urging them to no longer publish my writing, you are trying to cancel me.

You are obligated to allow my writing to find its way to your inbox, or you are trying to cancel me.

Substack is obligated to allow me to write on its platform, or Substack is trying to cancel me.

Any editor or platform who refuses to run one of my essays is trying to cancel me.

Anyone who opts out of their Arc Digital subscription, or encourages others to do so, because of my writing is trying to cancel me AND Arc Digital.

None of these statements are true.

There is no such thing as “cancel culture”; there is only culture, the collective formation of preferences and tastes within the broad framework of free speech, a free press, and freedom of association, as established by the First and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Free speech, a free press, and freedom of association include an editor’s right to refuse to publish a writer, a private corporation’s right to refuse to advertise on a particular program, a social media platform’s right to refuse to host content inconsistent with the public image the platform is trying to maintain.

Those refusals don’t amount to “cancel culture.”

Threats to boycott a company, or a platform, or a publication don’t amount to “cancel culture.”

The attempt to organize some kind of collective objection to speech is simply plain old American culture at work, contesting the values at stake in the public square. As long as this contestation is constitutional—as long as it is not an effort of the government to suppress certain forms of expression and favor other forms of expression, but is instead the free effort of private citizens to influence the public discourse—it is as lofty an expression of liberty and the classical liberal value of freedom of speech as it is possible to imagine.

Now, writers on this platform and many other platforms are free to continue to insist that “cancel culture” is real. They are free to insist that it is not only real, but also new, or newly powerful. They are free to insist that this real, new, powerful “cancel culture” is the greatest threat to free expression or the thoughtful interchange of ideas we face today. In short, they are free to be wrong.

But I would ask them a simple question: please explain how “cancel culture” is different from “political correctness.”

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You remember “political correctness,” don’t you? This is a term with a long history as both a sincerely held political doctrine and a snarkily observed inside joke; the term gained broad prominence in American discourse in 1990 and 1991, particularly after George H. W. Bush gave a commencement speech at the University of Michigan lamenting how “political correctness” was shutting down free speech.

Some of my liberal readers may have even participated in efforts in the 1990s to combat “political correctness” as the greatest threat to free speech and freedom of expression. This battle against “political correctness” was happening at the very same time that cultural conservatives were trying to get Murphy Brown pulled off the air for its positive depiction of pregnancy by an unwed mother, or to get Ellen pulled off the air for its positive depiction of a gay woman. When a television show is pulled off the air, one would say that the show has been “canceled.”

Is this the so-called “cancel culture” today’s alarmists are talking about? The social fragility of the religious right, and fundamentalist Christians’ insistence that lifestyles and values they deem offensive should not have any place in mass media? Perhaps not.

Rather, isn’t today’s “cancel culture” simply a rebranding of yesterday’s “political correctness,” a term tossed around in the 1990s and early 2000s to gin up a moral panic among those in the chattering class who were accustomed to having their views accepted as an “objective” starting point for all discourse in the public square?

This appears to be the valence behind “cancel culture”: the rebranding of an older complaint that was utterly unfounded, because some of those 1990s complainants—Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, William Bennett—are still warning America that people with their views and values are being silenced.

I would love for those horrified by “political correctness running amok” to grace us with an explanation of the fine distinctions between “political correctness” and “cancel culture.” Of course, to concede that “cancel culture” is a new name for an old phenomenon would be a fatal blow to the argument that “cancel culture” is both new and different. Thus I anticipate a preciously ornate taxonomy.

As to the old argument that “political correctness” was going to be the ruin of conservative speech or, as some might put it today, “viewpoint diversity” in the public square, how has that panned out? How many media outlets with a national audience consistently published extreme right-wing views or even moderate right-wing views in the 1980s and 1990s? Do you think the opportunities for right-wing thought to enter the mainstream are fewer now than they were in 1988 or 1991?

What about “moderate” thought? You know, plain old consensus liberalism, the kind that frequently appears in the pages of The New York Times? Has liberalism been driven from the field? Has “identity politics” rearranged the face of the Grey Lady? Or is it not the case that the Times is still an unfailingly conventional establishment outlet? What about The Washington Post

What about The Dallas Morning News? That’s my local paper. I live in the Dallas area, which appears to have contributed more than its fair share of domestic terrorists to the January 6 treasonous insurrection. Have you heard of some leftward lurch of DMN editorial policy that I and other subscribers have missed?

As far as I can tell, conservative and moderate viewpoints have not been “canceled” from any of these newspapers. Columnists may come and go, but the pages read pretty much the same as they ever have.

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But what about the 1619 Project, you say?

Well, what about it? Whom has that canceled? The American founding?

The Times took a bold editorial step in foregrounding the question, “What would American history look like if we considered Black people central to the story at every stage of the country’s past?” As a professional historian, I can assure you that such “what if” questions are absolutely routine in historical study. We call them “lenses”: looking at the history of the United States through the lens of immigration, or through the lens of newspaper publishing, or through the lens of women’s experiences, or through the lens of foreign relations. These are dirt-common ways of seeing something new about the past that was there all along but that we didn’t notice because we were wearing a different set of lenses: electoral politics, or technological change, or conservationism.

The Times gave many members of the public a completely new perspective on the American past. Is this cancellation?

Have the critics of the 1619 Project been silenced? Has no outlet aired their views? Have we available to us no arguments against the 1619 Project? Has the matter of fully telling the story of America’s past been finally settled, never again to be contested in the public square.

No, the matter of fully telling the story of America’s past has not been settled.  It never will be settled—not as long as the rights of free speech, a free press, and freedom of association are protected by the government.

The only institution with the power to “cancel” any kind of discussion in the United States is the government, and the government lacks the authority to do so, because the people have denied it that authority through the First Amendment, which restricted the scope of the federal government’s power, and then through the 14th Amendment, which has affirmed that the same rights we have as citizens of the United States are our rights also as state and local citizens. Congress can make no law restricting free speech or a free press … and neither can the city council. Or, for that matter, the local community college.

Only sustained government oppression could shut down the free-for-all of American public debate. There is no other single entity in the United States, nor any collection of entities, with the power to do so. If Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all adopt similar community standards—if they all ban, say, anti-vaxxer misinformation—anti-vaxxers will still find or make a platform for their views. 

And the critics of “cancel culture” know this. They also know, I suspect, that cries of “cancel culture!” function exactly as cries of “political correctness!” functioned decades ago. If those cries are sincere, they are sincerely mistaken about where the danger to free expression lies. 

Ask me how I know.