cancel culture
Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture by Dan Kovalik. Photo credit: Hot Books

Cancel culture is the enemy of free speech. One would think that liberals who lived through the red-baiting of the McCarthy era in the 1950s — the apogee of cancel culture — would know better. But according to Dan Kovalik, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, they are some of the worst offenders. 

Kovalik, labor lawyer, professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and author of Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture, makes the case that it is progressives who should be leading the charge against cancel culture and favoring a fact-based, objective approach to verbal transgressions. Instead, he points out that Twitter’s loudest voices are setting the ground rules on what is, and is not, acceptable speech.

Kovalik explains why, to today’s virtue purists, intention no longer matters. What rules the day are subjective feelings about someone’s speech, rather than any objective analysis. He argues that worrying about small microaggressions and “safe spaces” — a contrived concept from academia — takes the focus away from the real work of making a difference in the world. 

Responding to hurt feelings, he says, has become a substitute for genuine activism.

In Kovalik’s view,cancel culture has become a kind of false religion, which enthusiastically practices shaming and punishment — but allows no avenue for redemption.

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. It has always been conventional wisdom that we have free speech in America, just so long as that speech does not endanger others. It’s only in authoritarian nations, we’re told, that one can have their life destroyed or at the very least changed forever by saying the wrong thing. But that’s not the case. Not for comedians or actors or journalists at The New York Times or for authors or executives, who might even by accident or even back in their youthful college days, say the wrong thing.

Because if they do, if they dare cross the guardians of cultural purity, they can say goodbye to their careers and often to their lives as they know it. Just as these past five years have given us one political party that has embraced authoritarianism as an end in itself, where, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has recently put it, the cruelty is the point, the left has also engaged in the terrorism of cancel culture.

But why? Why are those who have long professed good liberal values, been so quick to shame or punish and to extract cruelty on those that may not tow the party line? This is our focus today as I’m joined by Dan Kovalik. Dan is the best-selling author, most recently of the critically acclaimed Plot to Scapegoat Russia. He has been a labor and human rights lawyer since graduating from Columbia Law School, and has represented plaintiffs arising out of egregious human rights abuses in Columbia. He received a mentoring fellowship from Stanford law school and his newest book is Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture. Dan Kovalik, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Dan Kovalik: Thank you, Jeff. Great to be back.

Jeff: First of all, define cancel culture, because it’s one of those words, as you well know, that gets used by everybody these days and it’s taken on so many different meanings. Let’s clarify first what we mean by it.

Dan: Yes. I think there’s different types, but the one that I focus on, I think the most common one, it’s a phenomenon in which someone, as you mentioned, typically says something or writes something, for example on social media, that people find offensive or claim to find offensive, many times because they view it as racist or sexist. Essentially, for lack of a better word, a mob of people gather quickly to attack that person, again, many times on social media, but sometimes in other ways as well, through petitions or whatever, to shame the person and in some instances, and in many instances, to try to get that person fired from his or her job, or deplatformed in some other fashion,

Jeff: One of the things that’s clear about this in so many cases, is that whatever it is that was said that created this mob response, that created this cancel culture response, was not something that really harmed anybody. It just may have made somebody feel bad.

Dan: Well, yes. That’s the thing. In this cancel culture, I think what is a problem that I see, is that forms of speech are not distinguished from one another. That is to say that maybe an aggressively racist, violent message from a white supremacist is somehow treated the same as, again, a slip of the tongue by a very well-intentioned person, who’s treated as if they’re as bad as a white supremacist. In fact, many will say that intention doesn’t matter, right? That if you say something that someone subjectively finds offensive, right? It doesn’t have to be objectively offensive, which we used to talk about in those terms, right?

Because probably, in any given instance, you could find someone who’s offended by pretty much anything. There has to be some objective measure, but now it’s any individuals feeling like, “That offends me”. Again, they claim it offends them, sometimes I’m surprised if it really does, is enough to provoke a very quick and sometimes, very destructive result.

Jeff: How did we get to this point, particularly where something like intention doesn’t matter, and even something said 20 years before when somebody may have been in college or may have been extremely young, that doesn’t matter either.

Dan: Well, that is an interesting phenomenon that we’re seeing. I have a number of theories for this. I do think that no doubt social media and the internet have allowed for this culture to develop and to percolate, because it does allow for people to act very quickly from their bedrooms, in their fuzzy slippers, at their computer, many times anonymously. You can attack another person without any real risk to yourself.

In the old days, people would come out with pitchforks and torches. You actually had to leave your house and mob somebody. Now you can do it from the comfort of your home, anonymously. I think that has definitely propelled the situation, but it’s not the only thing that has. Some of this, I do think, comes from a certain fatalism of the left in the west.

Chris Hedges talks about this as well. I think some of this comes from a feeling of futility of being able to create real social change, to really stop a war. People after 2003, after some of the biggest anti-war protests ever in the world to try to prevent the Iraq war, once it started, I think a lot of people felt, again, a certain sense of futility. We live in a world in which we have a very powerful police state, a powerful military, powerful government, a powerful technocratic world that we can’t control. I think many people on the left see this ability to cancel other people as at least some way to change the world. They substitute this for real activism, is what I oftentimes see.

Jeff: One of the things about that though, and this is the inherent irony in it, is that it has exactly the opposite effect. One, it turns off so many people that would be allies, and number two, it becomes a huge distraction and takes time away from doing anything that would create meaningful change.

Dan: That’s right and that’s what’s so destructive about this, that as you say, it becomes a distraction, it turns people off. The interesting part about it, like with the occupy movement that was started in 2012, they had their slogan, the 99% versus the 1%. The 99% of us who have to work for a living versus the 1% who control half of the country’s wealth. I thought that was a very good slogan. That was a good way to see the world. This was a way to try to bring everyone into the tent despite differences of opinion over many different things.

But saying, “Hey, we all have this common cause because we’re all being exploited by this 1%.” It was a very Marxist view, truthfully, of the world.” The newer left is not trying to bring all the 99% into the tent. They now actually spent a lot of time trying to push a lot of people out of the tent. It’s a certain tribal concept, in fact, Freud had a name for it, the narcissism of small differences. That people get this feeling of belonging by essentially outing and shunning others for small differences.

Again, instead of trying to bring together people, you’re trying to weaken your numbers, which is an interesting thing, but there is some psychological benefit that people get from that, even though as you say, by definition, that is going to prevent real social change.

Jeff: It also takes out of the equation any real exchange of ideas, any kind of dialogue where one tests one’s ideas against others in the marketplace of ideas.

Dan: That’s what’s so dangerous about it, because we’re confronted with so many crises right now. One is the pandemic that is still ongoing. There was a lot of canceling that happened over what positions people took on the lockouts, for example, and people who were from the left wing perspective or the left side of the political spectrum, what I saw is people who questioned the lockdowns, or how they were carried out were often attacked as being somehow anti-vaxxers or granny killers and all this, when in fact we had never confronted this type of situation in living memory.

There was a lot happening that was destructive of our economy, destructive of small businesses, very harmful to workers and yet there was very little debate on how to deal with this, how to have a lockdown, if you have one at all, in a way that is fair and doesn’t benefit simply the Walmarts of the world, which is what it did.

The big companies were essential. The little guy, many were thrown out of business. It was legitimate to talk about those things and to question those things, but that type of questioning wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t allowed within the left who tended to be more pro-lockdown, and it wasn’t allowed in the right who tended to be in a lockdown. Both sides were pretty hunkered down in the view that they had, when in fact there were a lot of nuances that could have been discussed and that need to be discussed, because this pandemic isn’t over.

Even if it does end, there’s probably another pandemic behind it, so we need to talk about how to address this type of situation and learn from our mistakes and I fear that the lack of debate is going to prevent that.

Jeff: Is this just an extension of tribalism that we see in our politics today and is there any difference between the tribalism that supports lies and misinformation on the right and this kind of cancel culture on the left?

Dan: They’re very similar and I talk about this. The right is fairly accused of being anti-science and anti-truth. They had their QAnon conspiracy. They tend to deny global climate change. These are anti-science, but the left has its own anti-truth and anti-science aspects. I think truthfully the whole Russiagate scam, which was horribly overblown to say the least, became a religion for the left. Anyone who challenged that was canceled.

What has resulted is a belligerence we now have towards Russia that is very dangerous because it could lead to a nuclear war. Yet this vilification of Russia, which is completely irrational and lacking in facts, has captured the left in a way that, for example, the QAnon conspiracy theories captured the right. I think the left has a lot of soul searching to do itself about the lies that it tells.

Jeff: How much different does it get when the whole conversation with respect to cancel culture and what we’ve been discussing, particularly on the left, when it becomes about the issue of race? It seems to take on a whole different patina at that point.

Dan: Yes. The issue of race is obviously critical in America. It’s one of the essential driving forces of inequality and oppression, but again, it’s an issue that we need to be able to talk and discuss freely about. I quote a former law professor I had, John A. Powell, an African-American who worked the ACLU who also argued that you don’t want to be regulating speech on issues of things like race, even if they’re arguably offensive, because we need to be able to talk about these subjects without fear of reprisal.

I fear that the people are so afraid to talk about race now, except in very formulaic ways, in sloganeering, to really talk about their true feelings about race. The people frankly become more racist, become afraid to talk to people of a different race for fear of offending them or whatever. I don’t think that the goal of making us less racist is being advanced by a culture that punishes people so quickly for the smallest perceived missteps in discussing these issues.

Jeff: In fact, as we saw this past week, even in companies now, the default position is becoming not to even be allowed to discuss politics at all, as we’ve seen with Coinbase and with Basecamp in the past week.

Dan: What’s happened is that the companies and the employers have seized on this cancel culture mood to get rid of people they don’t like on a pretext that they’ve done something wrong in terms of saying something wrong, something perceived to be offensive. In fact, as I mentioned in the book, the Trump National Labor Relations Board, the most reactionary board we’ve ever had, and I can say that because I was a labor lawyer for 26 years, they seized on this moment to change board law, which had been very protective of employees’ speech made during the context of union activity and bargaining and strikes, to overrule years of board law that protected that speech, even when it was offensive, and to now give employers an amazing amount of power to fire someone for the smallest perceived offense and speech, even if it happens in collective bargaining.

In this case, it’s called General Motors, the General Motors case. An African-American was disciplined and the board upheld his discipline because he feigned being a slave during collective bargaining negotiations, to make the point that the employer was being cheap, for lack of a better word. He said something like, “Yes, master.” The company said, “We find that offensive.” Even though he was black. “No, we think that’s racist,” and the board upheld the discipline based on that.

This is all being turned against the left, which again was pretty predictable. It’s being turned against free speech, but it’s also being turned against solidarity. Because now it’s perceived within the left as somehow activism if you collude with fellow workers, with management to get a fellow worker fired, and that is quite troubling.

Jeff: How much of the origins of this, at its worst, comes out of academia?

Dan: Well, I think this did come out of academia and it bled into the rest of the society. A lot of people trace this back to the postmodernist movement of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, which began to question whether there was an actual truth in the world, actual facts, and began to rely more on people’s subjective notions and feelings about what is. It rejected in large part class analysis, that had been popular up to that time in the form of Marxism, for example. It began to elevate people’s differences in regarding race, gender, above class similarities.

It created this atmosphere in which students felt empowered to go after other students and their professors, again, for the smallest perceived offenses. That only grew over time. Again, now that’s been leaked out into the general population where you now have questioning of whether there is an objective truth. Now it’s, “If I feel this way, it is.” I think it’s very dangerous and it also makes it very hard to have a rational discussion.

Jeff: Then there’s this whole vocabulary that surrounds it, that also has come out of the academic exercise about safe spaces and about microaggressions. Talk about that.

Dan: It ignores macro aggression, the real problems in society of people being super-exploited by people banking billions of dollars while you have homeless encampments in major cities, like San Francisco for example. It ignores those things in favor of dissecting every social interaction for some sort of perceived aggression. Again, not only does this ignore the real enemy, the class enemies, and the real problems in society, it divides us. It makes it impossible for people to really navigate socially and to have meaningful relationships because everyone’s afraid to be accused of this so called micro-aggression.

Jeff: There’s also the aspect of shame and punishment, which seems to be the object of so much of this. Much as cruelty seems to be the object of the exercise on the right.

Dan: Well, it’s interesting. We live in an age in which formal religion is dying. Less people go to church now than they ever did, but it’s still, a religiosity of some sorts still permeates our society and the left, much of the left, has embraced the ideology of wokeness and cancel culture. In which as you say, like a traditional religion, a key component of controlling your members and your ranks is by shaming people and judging them, and in some cases shunning them like the Amish do, if they are perceived not to be towing the line. This is an important aspect of this kind of quasi religion. The only difference I see in it with other traditional religions like Christianity, is it doesn’t have much of a notion of forgiveness or redemption. Once you’re out, you’re out.

The traditional religions have a notion that you can be Saul but you can have a redemptive moment and become St. Paul. In this religion, you’re stuck, once judged to be bad Saul, you’re that for the rest of your life, and you’re gone. It is a religion with a lot of judgment and shaming, but very little redemption, which I don’t know who would want to be part of that type of religion, frankly,

Jeff: The other question is, how does that line get set? Who sets the line? That’s where it’s different than traditional authoritarianism, where you can point to an individual or group of individuals. Here, it’s a little more amorphous how that line gets established.

Dan: That’s a great question, and I think, this is where again, I think it’s a bit scary. I think it’s dictated by the people who speak the loudest, it’s dictated by the mob, really. Again, it looks very much like an old fashioned witch hunt in that way. It’s not clear who’s in charge of it, and it’s not clear who determines what type of language we can use, and that language, that acceptable language, seems to change very often and very quickly. If you’re not caught up with that, you can quickly find yourself in hot water. Again, why? Is there some grand pooh-bah who is controlling this? No, it seems to be a fairly organic mob-like situation, which again, I think makes it even more troubling.

Jeff: I think it was Barry Weiss that said after she was essentially fired by The New York Times, that Twitter has become the ultimate editor of The New York Times and every other newspaper.

Dan: Yes, that’s absolutely right. They gauge what the mood of the country is based on the social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and they seem to pander to that. Again, the idea of having some sort of objective news reporting is really becoming a thing of the past. It’s almost all opinion now. My news source that I tend to go to is NPR and in truth, it’s almost one hour of commentary. There’s very little news. It’s commentary posing as news and I find it very troubling.

Jeff: It is interesting too that liberals who engage in this, given what went on in the ‘50s with reds baiting and McCarthyism, should somehow know better.

Dan: Well, you would think. You would think that they would understand that it’s the left that tends to lose out mostly in these battles against people trying to suppress free speech, but I think they feel at this moment that they’re winning. That is to say that they have the upper hand in most of the media, in most of the power centers, in social media and even in corporate boardrooms.

Again, while the corporations are more exploitative in terms of amassing wealth through labor exploitation than they’ve ever been, they do embrace, or at least claim to embrace this woke ideology. Again, liberals feel that they have the upper hand in the boardrooms and in government, for the most part, and so they have this illusion that the censorship isn’t going to fall on them, it’s going to fall on their enemies, and I think that’s a mistake.

Although the other interesting part, you mentioned McCarthyism, is a lot of people who were attacked on the left, are the same type of people who were being attacked under McCarthyism, that is, Marxists who have a class analysis. One interesting guy is Adolph Reed who I mention in the book. An African American professor who retired recently from the University of Pennsylvania, a longtime civil rights activist. He’s been deplatformed, almost completely silenced because he urges that people look to class to explain a lot of what’s happening in America, and argues that race is being overused to explain those things, and no one wants to hear that.

Very well respected professor, again, it’s very hard to find his writings or him being interviewed, because very few people will give him space. It’s interesting that, in fact, you have very similar people being being censored as were during McCarthyism.

Jeff: How much does identity politics and the way that has emerged in the last 40 years, how much has that been a catalyst for this as well?

Dan: I think it’s a part and parcel of it. I’m not sure if it’s a catalyst or a symptom of a movement, again, of this post-modernist movement. What I see again is, I’m in my 50’s, just to be forthcoming, is an older Marxist. Is that the postmodern movement in many ways was an attack on the old left, and on socialism, on real existing socialism. Again, what has replaced that is this identity politics, which elevates people’s racial and gender identities above all else, and rejects the class analysis for the most part, and rejected real existing socialism in the form of the USSR and Cuba, and that sort of thing.

Again, is the identity politics a catalyst, or more a part of of this overall refocus of the left? I think it’s more that. One of the greatest examples of how this works, of course, is the recent CIA recruitment ad, which I think everyone’s seen by now. Which is just this word salad of woke language, trying to appeal to people to join the CIA, and a certain group of people. It’s appealing to liberals and leftists, because it uses their language to promote working in the CIA. When we know of course, the CIA has done more to undermine the rights of people of color and of the poor and of the global south, than maybe any other institution in the world.

Somehow the CIA feels that they will get more of a hearing amongst the left and liberals than amongst conservatives, and that is pretty fascinating. It shows how really far the left has moved away from its roots of class struggle, of anti-imperialism, of fighting war, and actually tends to embrace the intelligence agencies now like the CIA and FBI, in some ways more than the right does.

Jeff: How much of this do you see as generational, and is this something that will pass? Is this an arc that we’re going through now, and that we will pass through it or is this something more permanent, more institutionalized?

Dan: It is definitely generational in large part. Often the cancellations are of older people by younger people. That’s almost a truism. It’s interesting because while obviously as a progressive person, I believe, and I was a student activist and wanted to be taken seriously by the elder leftist and I was. I also saw that they had something to teach me. That is to say, I didn’t feel like I came out of the womb fully ripe. As an activist and intellectual, I learned a lot from the old leftist. I still do. I tend to like those folks a lot. Now there’s a total rejection of one’s elders as if they know nothing. As if an 18 year old now has a monopoly on wisdom and there’s a certain narcissism to that.

I do think that that is part of all this. Now, whether this is going to pass or not, I can’t say. I fear that it won’t pass soon. I think the dynamics of our political landscape really encourage this, how divided people are along party lines and other ideological lines, that continues to sharpen. I think that will continue to encourage this cancellation of people usually within their own ideological groups, again, in order for them to essentially purify their ranks in their view.

Jeff: Dan Kovalik. His book is Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture. Dan, I thank you so much for spending some time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast

Dan: Jeff, it was my pleasure. I look forward to next time.

Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Carlos Smith / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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