Even in the midst of disaster, it’s good to know that Americans have not stopped arguing about the freedom of – and limits on – speech. The latest is the ongoing debate over “cancel culture.”
For those of you not keeping up, according to dictionary.com cancel culture “refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.” Cancel culture has raised the hackles of many in the intelligentsia, including many whom I admire.
In a show of indignation, a group of mostly liberal intellectuals (including many whom I admire) recently published
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s
decrying “the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.” There have been specifically Jewish responses, too.
Rudoren may be a great editor-in-chief but she’s a lousy historian. Jews have a long history of “defining people out of the debate.” Elsewhere in the Forward, Conservative rabbi David Wolpe – who should know better – described cancel culture as “un-Jewish.” Well maybe Rabbi Wolpe doesn’t like it, but un-Jewish it is not.
Ever heard of Elisha ben Avuya? You won’t find his name in the Talmud because following his excommunication as a heretic, he was known solely as “the Other.” Baruch Spinoza, one of the luminaries of the early Enlightenment was also canceled in Jewish circles, expelled from his community with curses and damnations. While the Dutch ultimately named their highest scientific award after him, to my knowledge the only Jewish program that ever honored his name is located on Twelve Mile Road in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
Plenty of Jews have been canceled by other Jews throughout our history. They were not victims of phony-baloney modern social media disapproval. They were canceled by people in charge because they dared to challenge authority. For my money, that’s the real and more dangerous version of cancel culture.
These two men were actually canceled (though never forgotten) by the authorities of their times. That’s real cancel culture. What critics of popular cancel culture are talking about is the public criticizing of rich or famous people and companies that never lack for platforms and opportunities, no matter how unacceptable their behaviors or words may be. By focusing on modern popular cancel culture, the writers of the open letter, Rudoren, and Wolpe, are all ignoring the real dangers to freedom of speech.
Americans have watched as thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against racist police violence — only to be tear-gassed and beaten. Video after video shows journalists, clearly identifying themselves as such, being hit and dragged, knocked over and arrested. The most challenged book in American libraries last year? A children’s book about a trans child.
… At the end of the day, “cancel culture” is a term full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s certainly not about free speech; after all, an arrested journalist is never referred to as “canceled” nor is a woman who has been frozen out of an industry after complaining about sexual harassment. “Canceled” is a label we all understand to mean a powerful person who’s been held to account. It’s a term meant to re-center sympathy on those who already have privilege and influence — a convenient tool to maintain the status quo.
As for me, I’m going to put my energy into defending the free speech of those who are not celebrities, public figures, and corporations.