Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He is a regular columnist for The Huffington Post and has appeared as a contributor on TV shows including CBS Evening News, Fox & Friends, The Today Show, and Stossel. He received the 2008 Playboy Foundation Freedom of Expression Award and the 2010 Ford Hall Forum’s Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award on behalf of FIRE.
Rikki Schlott is a journalist and political commentator. She is a research fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), host of the Lost Debate podcast, a columnist at the New York Post, and a regular contributor to numerous publications and television programs. Her commentary focuses on free speech, campus culture, civil liberties, and youth issues from a Generation Z perspective.
Below, co-authors Greg and Rikki share 5 key insights from their new book, The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All―But There Is a Solution. Listen to the audio version—read by Rikki—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Cancel culture is real and at a historic high.
Believe it or not, neither Greg nor I like the term cancel culture. It’s been abused and dragged through the mud, but we agreed to use it anyway for a simple reason. It’s a term the vast majority of Americans know, and using terminology that doesn’t speak to the typical person would be a waste of time. We define cancel culture as the measurable uptick beginning around 2014 of campaigns to get people fired, expelled, deplatformed, or otherwise punished for speech that is or would be protected by the First Amendment.
Despite what many might claim, cancel culture is very real and happening at a historic scale. In his 22 years defending academic freedom at FIRE, Greg has seen it firsthand time and again. In the last decade, FIRE has tallied 1,000 attempts to get professors fired or otherwise targeted for their speech. About two-thirds of those attempts succeeded in getting them punished in some way, and almost 200 professors got fired. That’s twice as many professors as were fired during the Red Scare. In fact, there’s no historical comparison since academic freedom was legally established. People saying cancel culture isn’t happening are being willfully blind.
2. Cancel culture is winning arguments without winning arguments.
Cancel culture lets you off the hook from actually refuting ideas you don’t like by allowing you to attack the person presenting the idea instead. Counselors shrug off the responsibility of actually engaging in a meaningful, substantive, and intellectual way. Abusing ad hominem attacks is a way to avoid arguments and avoid being proven wrong or finding any common ground. Cancel culture is so common because it’s so effective. It makes an example of any person who was targeted. Taking away someone’s platform or career makes it more likely that no one else will dare to tread the same ground.
“It was only after I began sharing my views publicly in op-eds that I realized how many people were quietly biting their tongues.”
The looming threat of being torn down creates a culture of fear and conformity. It’s an extremely effective way to squelch out dissenting voices. This is something that I saw as a college student just a couple of years ago. Very few people dared to challenge prevailing viewpoints on campus. It was only after I began sharing my views publicly in op-eds that I realized how many people were quietly biting their tongues. Countless people reached out to say, “I agree with you, and thanks for saying that, but please don’t tell anyone we had this conversation.”
3. The perfect rhetorical fortress.
Both the political left and right engage in their own forms of cancel culture and dysfunctional methods of argumentation. We use a metaphor of rhetorical fortresses to describe the way each side insulates themselves from inconvenient arguments.
The left’s version is called the perfect rhetorical fortress. It’s an intricately constructed series of walls that protect those inside from having to engage with someone’s point by boxing out the speaker based on personal attributes. The first wall lets you tune out anyone who’s conservative regardless of what they have to say. Then comes layer after layer of demographic eliminations. Is the speaker white? Are they straight? Are they cisgendered? You can use all these characteristics to avoid having to take into account their point of view.
The perfect rhetorical fortress is an enormously effective way to tune out any idea that challenges your own point of view. Sadly, it distracts us from debating each other’s viewpoints, or better yet, finding common ground.
4. The efficient rhetorical fortress.
We dubbed the right wing’s equivalent the efficient rhetorical fortress because, well, it’s far more efficient and a lot less of an elaborate construction. Those inside the right’s fortress protect themselves with just a few walls. If someone’s a liberal, an expert, or a journalist, they’re simply not worth listening to. And those in the MAGA wing add an additional layer that blocks out anyone critical of Trump. If you can label someone as woke in any way, shape, or form, then they’re totally done.
“If someone’s a liberal, an expert, or a journalist, they’re simply not worth listening to.”
Some people who we know personally who are quite right-wing have been called woke or RINO, (Republican in name only), for deviating even a little bit from the current right-wing orthodoxy. People like David Frum and David French come to mind here. Someone who concedes that there are problems in policing, for example, or who denies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen can immediately have their conservative credentials revoked and get totally tuned out. That’s the entire point of the rhetorical fortresses. They let you win arguments without actually winning arguments and attack your opponent rather than debate them.
5. There’s a way to push back against cancel culture.
Free speech culture is the antidote to cancel culture. Free speech culture can be encapsulated in idioms that were once core to the American identity, such as to each their own, walk a mile in a man’s shoes, and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. We all need to do our part in re-embracing these values that underpin a diverse, pluralistic, and healthy society.
The solution is simple, but it’s often difficult in practice. Commit yourself to arguing towards truth, avoid the cop-out of ad hominem attacks, and focus on the argument, not the person. That way we can engage in meaningful debate about contentious issues and learn from one another. In the words of John Stuart Mill, “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.”
We all must do our part to help maintain a free speech culture. If we get complacent, we may succumb to all the forces constantly working against the maintenance of a free society.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Rikki Schlott, download the Next Big Idea App today: