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A Détente in the Cancel War

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AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Last week, a group of prominent public intellectuals released a public letter “cancelling” cancel culture – proving that once in a while, double negatives are socially acceptable (if not grammatically correct). Although it’s tempting to cite the Martin Niemöller poem (“first they came for the socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist,”) and yell “where have you been until now,” it’s probably better to just welcome these celebrities to the fight.


The milquetoast statement – which, to be clear, still managed to insult “right-wing demagogues,” “the radical right,” and President Trump – was immediately met with sniping from the hedgerows. A response letter was published, asserting that the original letter “reflect[s] a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.” Calling out high-profile industry names might be considered a risky career move, but lest anyone be impressed by this bold stance, note the disclaimer that accompanied the names at the bottom: “Many signatories on our list noted their institutional affiliation but not their name, fearful of professional retaliation. It is a sad fact, and in part why we wrote the letter.” To the authors of the original letter, some of whom have faced death threats from the Ayatollah (Salman Rushdie) and the Kremlin (Garry Kasparov), this “bravery” must seem laughable.

In a different post, another critic asserted that “a good number of the people attached to the letter — which presents itself as an objective defense of free speech — are those eager to excuse their own bad behavior and bigotries.” She cites several individuals who’ve said or done something bad in their past...like write an obituary for a journalist who also might have done something bad many years ago. (Shame! The wicked don’t deserve obituaries!) In these pure times, one sin means you’re forever fallen – and there’s no opportunity to learn from a mistake or to be forgiven.


Correct me if I’m wrong, but saying someone deserves to have their life ruined because of something they did used to be called “victim-blaming.” Apparently, that’s passé now.

It turns out there are now “rules” for coping with cancellation – and they don’t include “disagreeing with the premise thereof.” Philippa Soo, who played Eliza in the cult-favorite musical Hamilton (which, it’s worth noting, has also been cancelled), tweeted “If you are ‘cancelled’ but do not wish to be, you must WORK to EARN back people’s respect by owning up to the thing that cancelled you in the first place, LISTENING to others, EDUCATING yourself, and ADVOCATING on behalf of the people that you have offended/harmed.”

Good thing that’s cleared up. Some light flagellation, a reeducation program, and maybe a work release program. Nothing too odious.

Obviously, this is a lot easier for people who hold the correct opinions on controversial topics like politics and religion. Yet even the most woke need to be on guard, because the goalposts are constantly shifting – and woe betide you for being on the wrong side of history. The virtue-signaling mob has an insatiable bloodlust, and they’re just getting started.


Remember: judging the past according to current standards means that everyone has committed wrong think at some point. Nobody’s perfect – not even the politicians who the progressive left looks up to. Does anyone remember that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were against gay marriage before 2012? Those cancellations are probably on the to-do list, right?

But remember: even though high-profile people like J.K. Rowling and Fareed Zakaria might be “cancelled,” they’re still insulated from the full force of social opprobrium thanks to their fame. Of far greater consequence is when the online mob attacks some hapless high school or college student. Sadly, some celebrities have chosen to use their platforms to facilitate “exposing” teenagers for alleged racism – inevitably leading to mass bullying, threats, and taunts about suicide. Gone are the days of youthful indiscretion or learning from past mistakes – they’ve been replaced by terrified self-censorship, now that everything you say can and will be used against you.

Cancel culture is the equivalent of societal mutually-assured destruction, except in this setting everyone has a finger on the nuclear button. At some point, the mob will come for you too – it’s inevitable. It’s time to put down the apps, so that everyone can live. After all: dox not, lest ye be doxxed.


Nicole Neily is the president and founder of Speech First, a nationwide membership association that defends students' First Amendment rights.

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