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Canceling the Cancel Culture: Enriching Discourse or Dumbing it Down?

Photograph Source: eddiedangerous – CC BY 2.0

The “cancel culture” has been all the rage in U.S. media over the last week. Depicting colleges as hotbeds of intolerance, Donald Trump threatened to remove their tax-exempt status if they don’t stop engaging in “radical left indoctrination.” Trump’s lament calls upon notions of bias and unfairness that have commonly been used to suggest that U.S. academia is a hotbed of radicals, who have little concern with freedom of inquiry or expression. Additionally, although it didn’t mention it by name, the recent Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has been widely discussed in the media within the framework of the “cancel culture.” But my interest here, first and foremost, is not with the Harper’s letter. Rather, I want to engage in a larger discussion about what has become known as the “cancel culture” – a catch-all term referring to attempts to shame those engaged in controversial or bigoted views. Elements of “cancel culture” are said to include the deplatforming of individuals engaged in controversial speech via removing their opportunities to communicate with large audiences in college settings and in the media, individual and group shaming of public intellectuals and other public figures who indulge in bigoted or otherwise questionable statements, and the firing of people who engage in embarrassing public acts such as displays of racism, belligerent refusals to wear masks, and other incendiary behavior. This “cancel culture” is condemned by many on the right as an assault on civility norms, and as representing a threat to open debate among competing voices and contrary opinions.

With regard to political discourse in America, the Harper’s letter puts forward many worthy goals, related to ideals of free speech, exploration of competing viewpoints, civility, the elevation of reasoned debate, and the need to engage with empirical evidence. But one challenge that arises is that free speech seems to mean different things to different people. On the one hand, virtually every American I know agrees that we should embrace free speech in principle. But different individuals have different ideas of what precisely that means in the real world. What J.K. Rowling appears to mean by free speech may be very different from what Noam Chomsky means. In the latter case, it is the idea of exploring diverse and competing views openly and in good faith. Worthy goals to be sure. In the former case, however, free speech seems to be closer to feeling liberated to maintain the privilege of a mass media platform of followers and to say whatever you want, even prejudiced claims against trans persons, without fear of criticism or repercussions. These two views of free speech seem pretty incompatible.

Seeing as most everyone agrees on the value of free speech in the abstract, I think it’s better to try and elevate the discussion to identify what responsibilities come along with free speech, assuming our goal is to promote an open discourse that’s based on good-faith engagements with available evidence. One problem we face as a nation is how to “engage openly in all sides of the debate” in a post-truth era defined by rampant propaganda, manipulation, and misinformation. My main point here is simple: just because people have the freedom to make all types of controversial, hateful, or dubious arguments, doesn’t mean they have the “right” to benefit from a mass platform to convey those messages. The distinction between denial of rights and deplatforming here is crucial, particularly considering that the two are commonly conflated in national debates on free speech.

Distinguishing between good-faith and bad-faith debates is a defining challenge in American political discourse. No one ever says that they are offering a bad-faith argument. And yet bad-faith arguments – made completely free of evidence and often with the intent to manipulate – have become standard operating procedure in the post-truth era. It’s extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to seek the “truth” through open engagements with political actors who engage in bad-faith arguments, and who routinely rely on fabrication and lies. Put another way, how do you engage in a productive discussion with people who embrace a post-truth philosophy that views empiricism, data, and evidence-based reasoning with contempt?

To what extent do we as a society have a responsibility to entertain absurd claims, and how do we benefit from engaging in debates with bad-faith actors whose end goal is to obscure basic facts and truths? In such situations, engaging in extended debates doesn’t enrich discourse – it makes people dumber by popularizing misinformation and ignorance. And that’s exactly the point. As Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes document in their seminal book, Merchants of Doubt, fossil fuel corporations and tobacco companies sought for decades to obscure basic truths – including the conclusions that cigarette smoking causes cancer and that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and is a threat to livable ecology. In both cases, American corporations acted in bad faith by promoting junk science that they knew was fraudulent, to stifle public understanding of these basic and existential threats to humanity. And these big businesses accomplished their goals – for decades in the case of big tobacco, and to this day with fossil fuel companies – by taking advantage of mass exposure in media and political discourse, and benefitting from the naïve notion that there are “two sides” to every “debate” that are worthy of serious discussion, no matter how ill-informed or ridiculous one of those sides may be. It’s worth pointing out that the only thing that stopped said manipulation by big tobacco was when journalists, intellectuals, and the mass public finally had enough, and stopped taking industry spin seriously. Only then were such voices deemed beyond the pale.

The dumbing down of political discourse is not a noble endeavor; it has a toxic effect on the ability of Americans to think critically and fulfill the expectations of an active and informed citizenry in a democracy. And in the age of Trumpian Orwellian propaganda and post-truth, manipulation has become a tool of corporate elites, utilized without shame to promote mass false consciousness, and to deter public awareness of basic facts that, if widely understood, represent a threat to corporate power and white patriarchal power structures.

Not every claim rises to the level of an argument. In my professional life as a college professor and scholar, I can think of lots of scholarship and popular writing that’s so shoddy and poorly researched that I wouldn’t waste the little time I have with my students and in class engaging with it. My and my students’ time is finite, and I don’t want to throw it away on works that fail to seriously engage with available evidence and data on important political issues of the day. I use my professional discretion to make decisions about what evidence and arguments that students should engage with, while filtering out statements, utterances, and assertions that don’t rise to the level of thoughtful arguments. It’s my job as an expert on the subjects I teach to differentiate between serious scholarship and unfounded claims. Such decisions are inescapable, given the time and resource constraints teachers face. They’re a normal part of being a professional educator.

Below, I sketch out four examples of reactionary claims that, while useful in stifling critical mass consciousness, don’t even reach the level of an argument, and which would be irresponsible to entertain in any extended fashion in a classroom learning environment, or any learning environment, if the goal is to elevate political discourse. The nation hasn’t been helped by having these “debates.” To the contrary, Americans would have been better off if they had never occurred. The reactionary claims that have characterized these discussions have been used to reinforce corporate power and to further repressive, anti-science, and authoritarian views that represent serious threats to the struggle for humanistic and democratic principles. And we as a nation are dumber for having entertained these bad-faith “debates.”

Debating Public Safety Measures in a Pandemic

At Lehigh University where I teach, administration has instituted a mandatory rule on campus this fall – all students, faculty, staff, and others occupying university buildings are required to wear masks whenever they’re indoors. No doubt, there will be some individuals who falsely believe that masks cause “carbon dioxide poisoning,” or that they’re a “tyrannical threat” to “liberty” and personal freedom. I would ask: what pedagogical value is there in inviting anti-mask “reopen” advocates to campus, who if effective in their efforts, will encourage a growing number of students to disregard basic safety protocols, in the process needlessly threatening human safety and lives? What is gained by arguing face-to-face with a student in my classroom who insists I’m a “sheep” and a “tool of the system” for wearing a mask, when arguing would mean indulging an individual who is a potential threat to the safety of myself, my family, and other students? The “mask debate” that’s taking place in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century is a classic example of a political discourse with zero upside – one that empowers a small minority of individuals to endanger public health, at the expense of the vast majority of individuals, and despite these individuals having active contempt for any notion that they need to engage in good-faith in the available evidence regarding the importance of masks to protecting against the spread of a deadly virus. If I encounter a student who refuses to wear a mask, the most prudent course of action is not to engage, but simply to walk out of the class and inform my students that future classes will not be held until all individuals opt-in to taking basic safety precautions.

The fact that there’s even a national debate about whether masks are a health risk is evidence of the severe deterioration of American political discourse, and of the significantly anti-intellectual nature of American culture. Tens of millions of Americans, encouraged by right-wing media and reactionary pundits, have elected Republican leaders to office who demonstrate complete contempt for safety measures that would have saved tens of thousands of lives. The “reopen” movement, which received disproportionate coverage in U.S. media, artificially amplified the voices of a very small number of Americans who would rather put “the economy” ahead of human lives. All this, despite compelling evidence that the choice between these two options was always a false one, since the economy can’t return to any sort of normal functionality until the pandemic is addressed. In hindsight we might ask: what value came from excessively amplifying “reopen” voices, when the effect was that basic safety precautions like wearing a mask were transformed into “legitimate” partisan “disagreements?”

To make matters worse, large numbers of Americans who are fundamentally contemptuous of the very idea of medical science are making a return to “normal” life impossible. Alarmingly, recent polling shows that only half of Americans say they will get a Coronavirus vaccine if one becomes available, while most of those who say they will refuse a vaccine believe that it will have harmful health effects and cause them to contract Covid-19. There’s nothing to celebrate in any of these anti-vaxxer and anti-mask/reopen discourses. And from my countless experiences debating with anti-vaxxers and anti-mask advocates, they have zero interest in any of the available medical evidence. Those who talk about this evidence are dismissed out of hand as tools of “the system.” In these situations, it isn’t possible to engage in a good-faith debate with people who reject the very idea of medical science out of hand, and who rely on polemics, obfuscation, diversion, and name-calling to win a “debate.” At a certain point, we have to move past the faux debates with people who refuse to wear masks and take vaccines, and recognize that individuals don’t have the “right” or “freedom” to infect others with deadly viruses because of their own scientific ignorance. We’re rapidly moving toward the day where the “solution” to this “debate” will have to come in the form of forced vaccination (if one becomes available), in order to achieve mass compliance and to protect American lives.

Throwback Transphobia and Pedophilia Propaganda

J.K. Rowling was recently called out for engaging in blatantly transphobic claims that demonize and dehumanize non-gender conforming persons. She drew on long-discredited propagandistic fears that gender-neutral family bathrooms will empower trans individuals to molest young children with greater ease. It is widely recognized that such fearmongering has no basis in fact. It never has, tracing back to the days when the claim was used to dehumanize gay men as pedophiles, and to depict them as an existential threat to families and children. Universities, in the name of “promoting an open discourse” on trans issues, could invite someone like Rowling to campus to “debate” her reactionary transphobic positions. But I am not sure this would represent a “good-faith” debate, when we consider that her rhetorical attacks are mere retreads of baseless hatemongering campaigns from decades past. They don’t even rise to the level of an argument, in light of the complete lack of evidence that gay men or trans individuals represent a threat to children. Universities could promote such engagements, but the risk is that students would be more ignorant and confused in their aftermath. It would be a much better use of time and resources to set up events between scholars who produce actual empirical research on issues of trans identity and politics, providing a means for elevating the discussion of how trans individuals are treated in American society. Such engagements would do much to expose how trans people have been denied equal rights based on dubious “evidence.”

There’s no First Amendment free speech “right” to be invited to campuses and to be provided with a mass platform to promote hate mongering and discrimination. And we might also ask, what makes J.K. Rowling, who has no special knowledge about trans-related politics and identity, worthy of being provided with a mass media platform to convey her hatred, while that same platform is denied to millions of trans individuals who are dehumanized by the sort of hatred she espouses? Rowling should have the freedom to articulate any argument that she wants. But she doesn’t have a “right” to convey that message to a mass audience, or to be free from criticism while doing it.

“Death Panels” and the Plot to Kill Granny

Made infamous by a Sarah Palin Facebook post, the “death panels” conspiracy propaganda almost single-handedly destroyed prospects for health care reform during Obama’s first term in office. In Palin’s post, she warned that health care reform would result in government refuse[ing] to pay the cost” for necessary health services: “And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.”

As was recognized by fact checkers at the time, there were never any “death panels” in the health care reform bills considered at the time. There was a legislative provision that required doctors and hospitals providing end-of-life services to the terminally ill to consult with sick patients. But that was far from a “death panel.” And there was never any prospect of mentally handicapped children being denied essential health-related services because of legislative rationing.

The “death panels” claim was a lie. Yet, this propaganda was repeated endlessly in corporate media coverage of health care reform in late 2009 and 2010. My own research at the time found that saturation media coverage of the “death panels” faux controversy was accompanied by rising public confusion and misinformation for those following the national health care reform debate. As many as half of Americans fell into some form of the “death panels” propaganda, either claiming that they existed, or expressing uncertainty about whether or not Obama really wanted to murder granny and special needs kids. Those who more regularly consumed news on health care reform were statistically more likely to oppose reform in a toxic national discourse that relied heavily on unfounded fearmongering. Those who paid the greatest attention to the news on the reform debate reported being among the most confused about how health care reform was progressing.

In the process of fixating on the death panels and rationing propaganda, a larger discussion was missed about how the U.S. already engaged in rationing by health insurance companies, denying life-saving treatments to individuals with “preexisting conditions.” And the obsession with fictitious death panels impeded a sustained discussion of progressive health care reform options, including a “public option” in which government would provide insurance to all uninsured Americans, or Medicare-for-all, in which government and taxpayers would fund health care for all Americans as a basic human right. It’s obvious in hindsight how harmful this “debate” was, compared to the alternative discourses that could have defined media coverage of health care reform. The “debate” produced mass ignorance and misinformation, rather than an informed discussion about paths to policy change. And the consequences were dire. The nation was worse off, health wise, after having this debate, since it reinforced reactionary efforts to prohibit meaningful reforms that could have provided health insurance to tens of millions more Americans than received it under the Affordable Care Act.

Climate Change Denialism and the Threat to Humanity

Any substantive debate over whether anthropogenic climate change is real ended more than a decade ago, when surveys of climatologists revealed almost unanimous agreement that the earth was warming and that humans were primarily responsible. The only serious debate now is over how bad the effects of climate change will be, and the extent of the threat to ecological sustainability and human and civilizational survival. But looking at national reporting on climate change over the last few decades, one would hardly know that the debate over whether climate change is occurring is long over. That’s because of the large number of denialists who’ve been provided with a massive platform, via the news media, to disseminate misinformation and propaganda. What’s worse, the fossil fuel companies that have been funding climate denialism have recognized since the 1970s that the claims they’re putting forward in public discourse are fraudulent, and are motivated simply by efforts to prohibit a transition away from a fossil-fuel based economy.

Considering these damning facts, the continued faux debate over climate change represents a classic example of an “argument” that’s being put forward in bad-faith. By late-2019, an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans agreed that human activity have contributed to climate change. Still, 30 percent felt that humans hold only “some” responsibility, while another 20 percent say humans have little to no responsibility for a rapidly warming climate. Despite rising public awareness of the threat, appallingly large numbers of Americans remain ignorant about the extent to which humans have contributed to the threat, while many are still totally unaware. And because we have chosen to elevate climate denialists to the status of serious intellectuals, we remain the most ignorant on this issue of all publics in the first world. What value comes with stoking propagandistic “debates” about whether climate change is real, especially in a world where sustaining this discourse represents an existential threat to life? Certainly individuals are “free” to embrace climate denialism, even if such misinformation is the product of false consciousness and fossil-fuel funded propaganda. But it’s increasingly difficult to entertain notions that plutocratic actors who are intent on suppressing awareness of our environmental calamity are contributing in a positive way to a productive discourse on the environment and what can be done to combat climate change. What reason do universities or journalists have to indulge climate deniers, when even those funding their “research” have admitted that the claims are bogus, are being fueled by corporate greed, and are designed to inhibit our understandings of the realities of climate change? Educational institutions, including schools and media outlets, would be better served by casting these charlatan contrarians into the dustbin of history, as they did with bogus “researchers” who denied the link between smoking and lung cancer.

Rights and Responsibilities; Free Speech vs. Deplatforming

Freedom of speech doesn’t include the “right” to be taken seriously, especially when someone indulges in blatant falsehoods, propaganda, and misinformation, or when they traffic in bad-faith claims. It’s possible to dilute discourse to the point where the “debates” we’re engaging in aren’t worth having in the first place. Under these conditions, people don’t benefit from toxic discourses; they become dumber. This seems increasingly difficult to deny in the Trumpian post-truth era. Nearly half of Americans endorse a president who traffics in constant falsehoods, lies, and manipulation, and whose non-response to the Coronavirus pandemic – based in his complete contempt for medical science – represents an incalculable threat to the nation’s security. Their blind support for a serial liar in the White House is proof positive of the perils of dumbing down national discourse to the lowest common denominator.

Democracy becomes impossible when our national discourse is perverted by steady streams of lies and distortions. And justifying elevating those lies to the level of mass discourse under the guise of free speech is a bad idea. It’s time that we as a nation shift from discussing questions of what our rights are under free speech, to addressing what our responsibilities are in promoting rational and reasoned political debates, particularly in k-12 and collegiate educational settings and in mass political and media discourses. Mass platforms are a privilege, not a right, and with them should come specific social responsibilities to engage in critical discussions based on serious evidence and good-faith debate.

Instead of embracing right-wing rhetoric about the perils of the “cancel culture,” we should elevate the discourse to a higher level in which individuals are expected to engage in reasoned arguments based on evidence and data. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the severity of the threat when anti-science flat-earthers are placed into prominent positions of political power. The bankruptcy of the post-truth “one position is equal to another” discourse has been laid bare. Whether we can move past such propagandistic “debates,” however, remains to be seen.

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Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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