How to convince your relative who believes cancel culture is a hoax

How to convince your relative who believes cancel culture is a hoax


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If you’ve ever felt gaslit by a friend, aunt, uncle, or pundit who dismisses cancel culture as a non-issue or a hoax, I’ve got something to share with you. “The Canceling of the American Mind,” my new book with Gen-Z journalist Rikki Schlott and featuring a foreword by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has an important message for those people.    

“Canceling” conclusively shows that cancel culture not only exists but thrives on college campuses at an unprecedented scale, that it is part of an unhealthy approach to “winning arguments without winning arguments,” and that it wreaks havoc on institutions and erodes public trust in expertise.  

In my 22 years defending freedom of speech both on and off campus, I’ve found that those who attempt to downplay or deny the existence of cancel culture typically lack knowledge about the history of free speech and academic freedom. They also often start with the presumption that cancel culture can’t be true and then work backward.  

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Others simply believe that the coverage cancel culture gets in conservative media means it must be a “right wing hoax.” Indeed, George Washington law professor Mary Anne Franks recently published an article claiming that not only is cancel culture a right wing hoax, but people who argue that it’s real are “Neo-Confederates” and, of course, “fascist.” 

“The Canceling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott.

Rikki and I define “cancel culture” as the measurable uptick, beginning around 2014, of campaigns to get people fired, expelled, deplatformed or otherwise punished for speech that is — or would be — protected by the First Amendment. And this uptick is no minor blip.  

According to a survey developed by my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), about one in 10 college students say they have been threatened with disciplinary action — or worse, actually disciplined — for their speech. Ten percent of the total undergraduate population in the U.S. equals well over a million students, a truly unprecedented scale.   

For professors, it’s even worse. FIRE’s 2022 survey of college faculty tells us that about one in six professors report having either been threatened with punishment or actually investigated for their academic freedom or free speech, while one in three report having been pressured by colleagues to avoid researching controversial topics.  

Just from 2014 to July of this year, we know of more than 1,000 campaigns to get professors punished for their speech. About two thirds of those campaigns succeeded, and almost 200 professors ended up fired or forced out. To put that in perspective, that’s about twice the number of professors fired during McCarthyism according to the largest study done at the time.  

You’ve likely encountered the argument that what people call cancel culture is actually “accountability culture.” This generally means that they haven’t genuinely delved into the topic, are unwilling to explore it, and lazily assume that everyone who has been targeted has deserved it.  

You cannot read our book and conclude that everyone targeted with cancelation had it coming. In fact, scores of innocent people have had their lives upended for saying things that might very well have been true. Take Jennifer Sey, who was pushed out of Levi Strauss for making the argument that COVID-19 lockdowns would be devastating to kids — particularly underprivileged kids.  

Cancel culture should be opposed even when it’s weaponized against someone who gets something wrong, but it’s particularly galling when it’s leveled against someone who turns out to be right. Experts now agree the lockdowns were harmful to kids in any number of ways.   

A tragic case that shows how flippant the dismissal of cancel culture as “accountability, culture” truly is, is that of my friend and former University of North Carolina Wilmington professor Mike Adams. Adams’ provocative, in-your-face style of conservative commentary often angered people, and as a result, he was targeted multiple times throughout his tenure.  

In 2020, he was once again put in the crosshairs after he posted a tweet addressing state governor Roy Cooper that compared North Carolina’s COVID-19 restrictions to slavery, writing “Massa Cooper, let my people go!” Knowing they’d likely lose in court if they fired him, UNCW offered Adams early retirement along with a financial settlement, which Adams accepted — and which further enraged the mob. The harassment continued and was eventually too much for Adams, who killed himself less than a month later.   

Still, some people treat, “actually it’s accountability culture!” as a serious argument when, in fact, it’s a perfect example of one of the many kinds of evasive deflection we address in “canceling.”  

Another common response from those who wish to minimize the reality of cancel culture is, “It’s just marginalized people taking back their power!”  

Again, no. The schools with the highest rates of attempted professor cancelations are the nation’s top 10 schools and elite colleges, which often serve more students in the top 1% than in the bottom 50 or 60 of the economic distribution.  

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These campaigns are often facilitated by administrators who are far from powerless, as we’ve seen time and time again. Indeed, it’s the collaboration between some administrators and some student activists that has fueled some of the most notorious cancelation campaigns in the country.   

Recent events regarding pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian speech on campus have also put to the forefront the idea that something is wrong in our institutions of higher learning. Welcome to the party, folks. Anyone who thinks that now-former University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill’s and Penn professor Claire Finkelstein’s calls for restricting more speech on campus are new developments needs to read this book yesterday.  

Knowing they’d likely lose in court if they fired him, UNCW offered Adams early retirement along with a financial settlement, which Adams accepted — and which further enraged the mob. The harassment continued and was eventually too much for Adams, who killed himself less than a month later.   

The truth is, speech policing on campus has been a disaster for decades — not days, weeks, or months. Leaning into censorship and cancel culture has been tried, and it is clearly not going to solve any of the problems we’re seeing on campus.   

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As I discussed two weeks ago on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” if one good thing came out of the last couple months on campus and the disastrous antisemitism testimony in congress, it is that almost nobody is trying to deny that there’s a problem on campus anymore.  

Our book helps explain how it got so bad and what can be done about it, and will provide you with all the data and examples you need to prove that cancel culture is not just real, but happening at a historic scale. And for those who still refuse to believe that cancel culture is anything but a hoax, here’s a humble suggestion, “Canceling of the American Mind” will look just great under their Christmas tree.  

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