The ghost

of Joe McCarthy

The universities have surrendered on free speech again



How cancel culture undermines trust, destroys institutions, and threatens us all GREG LUKIANOFF AND RIKKI SCHLOTT

464pp. Allen Lane. £25. TRIGGERED LITERATURE Cancellation, stealth censorship

and cultural warfare JOHN SUTHERLAND 272pp. Biteback Publishing. £18.99.


W E S T E N D 6 1 / G E T T Y


IT S E E M S O BV I O U S that we live in the era of cancel culture, but what does that mean exactly? To many on the left “cancel culture” is merely a whiny, self-defensive term offered by justifiably banished academics, writers and celebrities – “cis white intellectuals”, as one online writer disdainfully put it – who face no realistic threats to their freedom or livelihoods. Others think it is an overblown label for the eternal ideological wars between the left and the right, in which each extreme complains that the other side is censoring them while working hard to censor that other side. Or is the term something new, describing a phenomenon that has become far more insidious, widespread and dangerous for free speech and democracy? Spoiler alert: I’m going with the last of these.

Let’s stipulate at the outset that most people would prefer their political opponents, intellectual enemies and annoying challengers to their opinions to just shut up and go away. There’s nothing new about that desire, which has manifested throughout the centuries in the censorship, shunning, banishment or imprisonment of those daring to differ. In my own lifetime I have observed a dizzying turn of the academic and political wheels, as ascendant conservatives try to oust commie-pinko-oversexedsocialist liberals until ascendant liberals try to oust fascist-racist-puritanical-authoritarian conservatives. I was born in the heyday of the Red Scare (1947–57) and grew up watching the censorship or ostracism of anyone remotely tainted with membership in, or even holding supporting opinions about, left-wing groups. My older half-brother was dishonourably discharged from the US Army in the early 1950s because of his prolonged and unrepentant association with a “known member of the Communist Party” – our father, who had briefly joined the Party in the 1930s. (The Supreme Court eventually overturned that discharge and my brother was able to teach again.)

Observing these right-wing efforts to stifle or expel liberals (defined as anyone less ideologically conservative than they, including other conservatives), I was optimistically, if delusionally, certain that the liberal commitment to free speech, open debate and scientific evidence would prevail if the tables were ever turned. It was clear who the enemy was. In sexology, it was and remains religious fundamentalists eager to ban any research on sexuality that they fear and detest (actually, all of it, but especially evidence of the normalcy of childhood

FEBRUARY 9, 2024

sexual play, premarital sex, homosexuality and masturbation). I could not have imagined, as Pogo, the star of Walt Kelly’s great comic strip said, that “we have met the enemy – and he is us”. I could not have imagined how many l i bera l sexologists and other scientists today would be eager to ban research on sexuality that they fear and detest (especially evidence that disputes transgender a c t iv i s t s ’ c l a ims about t he s a f e t y and necessity of adolescent medical interventions). And not just to ban this research, but to excoriate, expel and attempt to cancel the careers of those who conduct it, including the eminent sexologists Kenneth Zucker (for showing that most gender nonconforming young boys grow up to be gay, not trans) and Stephen Levine ( for questioning the claims of “gender affirming” therapies), and the evolutionary biologists Carole Hooven and Colin Wright (for arguing that there are two biological sexes).

I remember the first straw in the pile that would eventually disillusion me. In 2007, at my alma mater, Brandeis University, Donald Hindley, an esteemed professor of political science who had been at the university for forty-five years, was explaining to his Latin American politics class the origin of the disparaging insult “wetback” – a slur against Mexican migrants entering Texas by swimming across the Rio Grande. One or two students were offended and immediately complained to the provost, who, in the words of Hindley’s eventual attorneys, “indulged the students’ fantasy that they were crusaders against racism”. She told Hindley that “The University will not tolerate inappropriate, racial and discriminatory conduct by members of its faculty”, also accusing him of inflicting “significant emotional trauma’’ on hi s students by forc ing them to hear such an offensive term. As punishment a monitor would sit in on his classroom for the rest of the term and he would have to attend racial-sensitivit y training classes. This Hindley refused to do.

The university was barraged with messages from outraged faculty and alumni like me, along with public mockery and condemnation. I wondered if Brandeis still offered the brilliant course I had taken years earlier on the history of antisemitism, which caused no end of “significant emotional trauma” in every class meeting and reading, though we called it “education”. The provost backed down, ultimately telling Hindley that the matter was closed and she trusted he had learnt his lesson, whatever that was.



Looking back, I see that all the seeds of cancel culture – the impulse to punish or expel anyone who says the wrong thing or holds the wrong beliefs – were present in Hindley’s story:

Indulging the student’s inability or unwillingness to speak to the professor directly, in the classroom or privately, instead rewarding the student for going to a grown-up to solve a complaint for them.

Indulging the student’s self-r ighteousness in punishing a “racist”; failing to enable the student to separate an emotional association with a word from an intellectual understanding of its origins and usage.

According a word the same trauma-generating status and seriousness as an action, along with blurring a speaker’s intention and motivation. I like knowing the varied and surprising origins of the ethnic slur “kike”, but don’t call me one.

Holding c l osed-door committee meetings i n which a professor’s sins are debated and determined in the absence of any avenue of participation or defence from the accused.

Humiliating a professor, in this case one with a lifelong commitment to social justice for the poor and minorities, by demanding he attend racialsensitivity training and accept a babysitter in the class to make sure he doesn’t say another bad word.

Establishing “racial sensitivit y” workshops as punishment and virtue-signalling without pausing to assess their methods and outcomes. Do these programmes achieve their goals or do they make their involuntary participants stubborn and angry? Come to think of it, haven’t a few other institutions and governments tried to forcibly re-educate disobedient, troublemaking citizens? How did those work out?

Today Hindley’s experience seems mild compared to the deluge of cases that followed. After all, he was not suspended or fired, nor was he a victim of social media mobs out for blood as compensation for a scratch. Mobs, real and virtual, have made it hard, if not impossible, for university presidents, company CEOs and publishers to maintain positions of integrit y and defend open debate, but mob influence is new only in the technology that allows it to congeal in a nanosecond and get that offender gone. At the New York Times in 2021, more than 150 young staffers felt entitled to howl for the firing of an honoured older colleague, Donald G. McNeil, who had dared to say the wrong word, even in an educational context. “Our community is in pain”, they wrote. They couldn’t possibly work with him and feel safe, they said. And they prevailed. No doubt they would look at my list of the elements of Hindley’s story that distressed and infuriated me and say: “So? Brandeis did everything right”.

That is why cancel culture is so worrisome: not because i t reflec ts the familiar politic al divide between left and right, but because it reflects a generational war between old and young, a war bet ween l i berals and i l l i berals ac ross par t i e s . Liberals in my generation are surprised, and not a little uncomfortable, to find themselves opposing illiberals to their left and supporting conservatives to their right, sharing concern about cancel culture’s methods and the take-no-prisoners ideology that justifies them.

The Canceling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott’s extensive assessment of the origins and extent of the problem, documents case after enraging case that escalated in the years since Hindley. (The “American” mind extends to Canada and the UK.) Lukianoff, a lifelong liberal who joined the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) in 2001, and is now its CEO, is well positioned to survey the changing landscape and report from the trenches. Schlott, a “right-leaning libertarian”, is a Gen Z journalist. Their collaboration is the point: left and right staking out a path between extremes of both sides.

Lukianoff and Schlott’s definition of cancel culture is broader than the individuals who are “fired, disinvited, deplatformed, or otherwise punished” for speech that should be protected by America’s