Confronting the real face of cancel culture (opinion)

You hear a lot of talk about “cancel culture” around universities these days. The term creeps into faculty meetings, sometimes to be met with muted gasps. From time to time, you hear it whispered in campus hallways, as if the mere mention of the term will summon a mob of angry protesters. Some colleagues obsess over the exact wording of a sentence in a lecture slide or a tweet to avoid a potential “canceling.”

But what does it mean to be canceled?

There is the Ivy League professor who faced a sharply worded letter and the threat of having an honorary title revoked because of his tweets on gender and race (he went on to use the controversy to promote his new book). There is the postdoctoral fellow who made controversial comments on the nature of gender and didn’t get a tenure-track position in a job market with a less than 15 percent success rate, despite being a co-author on retracted scientific publications (only to end up with a job as managing editor for a conservative online magazine). There is the British philosophy professor who faced public criticism for her views on transgender’s rights and was awarded one in the highest honor of her country (only to end up voluntarily stepping down from her university position and going on a media tour). There is the geology professor who had an invitation to give a lecture revoked because of his comments about diversity initiatives (only to end up giving the lecture at another university).

These high-profile examples make it seem as if an alleged victim of cancellation is a unique kind of victim. You don’t have to be fired for your statements to claim being canceled. You don’t have to be jailed for your opinions to claim being canceled. You don’t have to be physically assaulted or threaten with physical harm to claim being canceled. All you need is some pushback against your positions, and you are hereby classified as canceled.

These responses to criticism, however sharp and vocal it may be, seem particularly hyperbolic coming from academics, given how much criticism is ingrained into almost every aspect of our job. Our grant applications are meticulously deconstructed by a panel of experts that diligently point out all the flaws in our proposed research. Our papers are only accepted for publication if we can address all of the Several pages of line-itemed criticisms from reviewers. Our professional talks are regularly met with comments like “You didn’t think of this previous work” or “How could you miss this major flaw in your design?” or “I really don’t see how your conclusions are justified at all.” Yet this isn’t personal. Our work gets rigorously scrutinized and criticized (sometimes harshly) because it helps our ideas. Critiques point out weaknesses that can be refined, holes can be filled and theories that need to be discarded.

Indeed, criticism is embedded into the very nature of higher education itself. Vociferously challenging the status quo has been a tradition in modern universities since at least the Enlightenment. Whether it is confronting norms around speech, pushing for civil rights, demanding better environmental policies or fighting systemic economic inequality, college students are consistently at the forefront of pushing for change. What we are seeing today in student activism is no different than what we saw in the past. It might be more energized than we have seen in recent history, but then again, today’s students and recent college graduates are facing a much more dire present and future than their parents faced at the same age.

Now I realize that it might be uncomfortable to be criticized under the changing social norms of a younger generation. This is a natural part of growing old. At some point or another, those of us in the position of educating the next generation will face pushback on some of our views. In fact, as a college professor, it should be seen as part of our job that we will inevitably confront this. Good educators will find ways to cultivate the challenge as an educational experience for ourselves and our students.

But the fact of the matter is that criticism is not canceling.

This slippery use of victimization as a defense mechanism is particularly pernicious when you take a step back and examine actual attacks on intellectuals and educational institutions. Xu Zhangrun, a constitutional law professor at Tsinghua University, was canceled when he was placed under house arrest by Chinese authorities for his criticisms of President Xi Jinping. Ilhan Uzgel, a professor of international relations at Ankara University in Turkey, was canceled when he was fired for his political views, one of thousands of Turkish academics and university employees who were summarily terminated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the mere hint of disloyalty. Abdul Latif Mayah, a professor at Mustansiriya University in Iraq, was canceled when he was assassinated on the streets of Baghdad as part of a larger assault on academics in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion.

Indeed, violence against academics and institutions of education is pervasive. According to the latest report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, between 2015 and 2019, more than 8,000 students, teachers or educational staff were killed, injured, abducted, threatened or arrested as members of the intellectual or educational class across 37 countries . Over this same time period, there were more than 7,300 direct assaults on schools.

This is what real cancel culture looks like.

Even closer to home, we have clear examples of real cancel culture. Nikole Hannah-Jones was canceled when the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill decided to override the will of the faculty and administrators and deny her tenure on the grounds that her work on “The 1619 Project” displeased a prominent donor . James Whitfield, a principal at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, was canceled when he was fired simply for the accusation that his school promoted critical race theory (which he denied). Matt Hawn, a teacher at Sullivan Central High School in Tennessee, was canceled when he was fired for assigning his students an essay by the Black author Ta-Nehisi Coates about race and the 2016 presidential election.

These incidents of cancel culture emerge against the backdrop of a rapidly accelerating anti-intellectual movement targeting education and academic freedom in the United States. In 2020, former president Trump banned federal employees from using training materials that discussed critical race theory or “white privilege” and signed an order establishing a commission to create executive a “patriotic” curriculum designed to whitewash important of American history. Although this executive order has since been recinded by President Biden, an estimated 41 states have either passed or proposed laws restricting how the history of race in America is taught. School board across the country are becoming hostile—in some cases, marred by threats of threats—over ideological lines, with conservative protesters demanding the right to dictate what educators can teach in the classroom or public health guidelines should be followed. These efforts to control what is taught in schools have been amplified by conservative activist groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Discovery Institute. It has reached such a level of hostility that last fall the Department of Justice announced it will get involved to address the safety of educators and staff in our schools.

Attacks on academic freedom in the United States have even become a mainstream political strategy. Last November, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the race for Virginia governor in part by weaponizing fears of critical race theory and pushing for legal restrictions on what can be taught in public schools (he has since signed an executive order banning “inherently divisive concepts”). Although the actual efficacy of this campaign strategy is disputed, given its perceived success, similar attacks on academic freedom can be expected to as a central theme in the midterm elections this fall. It is not hard to see how a bill like Texas’ House Bill 3979 or New Hampshire’s House Bill 2, both formally dictating what schools can or cannot teach with regard to race, could become a national law in the not-too-distant future.

Yet we do not hear a call to arms against bans on what can be taught in schools from the celebrity academics who claimed to have been canceled. You will find few words of compassion for those academics and educators who have been fired, jailed or killed from the public intellectuals so loudly bemoaning canceling culture on college campuses. You do not see the so-called exiled thought leaders standing on the front lines of protests over the firing of educators for simply teaching a history that is not centered on the perspective of white (often male) figures.

But then again, why would we expect to see them standing up? Confronting the true face of cancel culture would be bad for their brand.

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