Cancel Culture Is Not the Problem; Conformity Culture Is

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For every high-profile cancellation, there may be dozens who are intimidated into self-censorship.




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reg Patton — a business professor, for now, at the University of Southern California, who committed the outrage of repeating a Chinese expression that sounds similar to a racist slur in English — is the latest scholar to fall prey to campus cancel culture. His case also serves as a warning that, while cancel culture is a real phenomenon that presents a clear and present danger to academic freedom, a more insidious peril lurks: the soft despotism of presumed conformity.

Patton’s name is now known, and should be, to defenders of academic freedom. His case illustrates the bizarre entanglements to which cancellation is prone. He was educating students about Chinese language and culture, yet was canceled in the name of cultural diversity. Patton’s lesson pertained to the use of language, yet his dean, Geoffrey Garrett, misused the obligatory word “safety” (Oxford English Dictionary: “the state of being protected from or guarded against hurt or injury”) to describe the anxieties offended students felt.

All these episodes are problematic. They invert the purpose of learning, which inherently entails discomfort, as well as a baseline condition for scholarly inquiry, which is academic freedom. Patton’s cancellation occupies a special, and perhaps especially absurd, category in the sense that he did not even express a controversial idea of the sort academic freedom should protect.

But there is an advantage to these explicit illustrations of cancel culture: They are visible and known. The more egregious they are, the more attention they draw. A larger question looms behind them: Who never speaks in the first place? One can imagine junior faculty, in particular, treating Patton as a cautionary tale: Offend students, get suspended. But even that is rooted in the shock and awe of prominent cases.

The more difficult cases — largely unknown because they are, unlike discrete and reportable events, unknowable — are those in which scholars restrain their own language not out of fear but rather out of weariness. For them, the question may be less what consequences will ensue from controversy than whether they have the time and energy to engage in it. Resistance is not futile; it is simply exhausting. Purported offenses and the silencing that attends them are identifiable events that tend, at least in the circles that care about them, to make news. Self-censorship, if it is even self-conscious, is the dog that never barked and is not news precisely for that reason.

The dynamic of cancellation, too, is at least tangible. People are offended. They protest audibly and demand redress. Often, their intent is reeducation and suppression. But we know when it occurs and can oppose it. To be sure, cancellation is a cudgel for conformity. Its influence as a background condition is undeniable.

But the intent of those who seek compliance more softly is not necessarily hostile or heavy-handed. They may, on the contrary, sincerely perceive themselves as charitable. The resulting dynamic is less severe and arguably more insidious: those who police, or rather shape, speech not with an intent to suppress dissent but rather on what they view to be the benevolent assumption that everyone agrees with them.

This attitude is familiar in academia and, doubtless, beyond. It is evident in conversations that are not intended to reeducate but rather to reenforce what everyone assumes everyone else already believes. Many proponents of critical race theory — whose animating idea is that race is the one thing needful, the single lens through which all other phenomena should be viewed — are indeed trying to compel compliance. But even more simply operate on the belief that everyone agrees with them. For this crowd, that is an act of sincere charity: Reasonable people agree with me, and the people I encounter are reasonable.

One suspects, for example, that the training in critical race theory that President Trump recently suspended in federal agencies is often less intended to force every individual to comply than to reflect an assumption that everyone already does. True, that gives it a bizarre cast: uniformity in the name of diversity; education centered on what is purported already to be known. But while the tone of news reporting tends to pit proponents of critical race theory against its adversaries, the most common purveyors of the softer approach to conformity may not be social-justice warriors. Warriors relish the fight. This is less war than bureaucracy. It assumes a uniformity of opinion that requires no fight, only repetitive procedures that reflect a victory already achieved. It is a mindset likelier to be puzzled than outraged by Trump’s move.

That manifests in the steady deflation of language. Programs based on critical race theory, in a recent Politico headline, were matter-of-factly described as “racial equity training.” Did the headline writer consciously intend to render the language benign so as to conceal the controversy that actually surrounded it? Perhaps. But, and this is the subtler and therefore more dangerous possibility, perhaps not. The casual and uncritical repetition of terms such as “systemic racism” suggests similar assumptions. Why, one might ask, are Americans signing petitions demanding individual indictments when those individual behaviors are the product of “systems”? Journalists have an interest in the integrity of words. They are a writer’s raw materials. A business model that devalues them will not long sustain purveyors of those goods. A polity that traffics in contradictions will become further divided because many people will see themselves as speaking another language.

Similarly, coverage of Professor Jessica Krug — a white George Washington University professor who posed for years as African-American — paid no heed to the flagrant inversion of language in the Maoist self-denunciation (“you should absolutely cancel me; and I absolutely cancel myself”) she posted on Medium.com. Krug confessed to lying. A lie (OED: “a false statement made with intent to deceive”) involves the misuse of words. Yet so did the confession.

One need read no further than the headline over Krug’s Medium.com post — “The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of My Lies” — to see that no one gave a second look to the fundamental fact that she admitted lies by deploying words as instruments of will rather than meaning. Yet on what grounds do those for whom words are fungible denounce lies? Krug’s body of scholarly work was manifestly and ideologically pro-black, at least as she conceives the term. Her “lies,” consisting of words, were not “violent.” Among the premises of political life — Aristotle: “man is by nature a political animal”; “man alone among the animals has speech” — is that words are an explicit alternative to violence.

The inattention to some of the more shocking assertions in the post — “I don’t believe that any anti-Black life has inherent value” — may reflect an assumption of consensus both as to what constitutes being “anti-Black” and the irredeemable consequences of those so characterized.

There was a similar inversion of words in a recent online town-hall meeting at Northwestern University’s law school. It featured the spectacle — at once bizarre and predictable — of individuals denouncing themselves as racists and promising to “do better” in the future. Here, too, the Maosim was chilling. So was the accompanying degradation of words. The whole point of the exercise was to demonstrate that the individuals were not racist. The only way they could prove it was to declare exactly the opposite.

There is no small element of virtue signaling in all this. But the signal can be received only on a frequency on which it is presupposed to be virtuous. That notion of virtue is undermined by the inability to protest what is unjust without limitlessly extending the scope of accusation.

In that vein, it is worth noting two facts. One is that society is reckoning with issues of race right now because acts of racism are immoral and unjust. These acts should be confronted on their own terms.

Yet the premise of critical race theory is that race permeates everything. The second fact is therefore inescapable: On issues of race, the history of the United States is one of progress. The story is uneven, but the trajectory is upward. This does not mean that enough progress has been made or that acts of racism should not be confronted. But it is revealing that we are discovering that race permeates everything around us at exactly the same moment that permeation is at or near a historic low, viewed in the broad sweep of historical time. That is different from saying it is low enough. But the trajectory of allegation is almost precisely the opposite of the trajectory of progress. Among those most committed to the idea that race is everything, is it possible that race becoming less prominent is a threat?

The consensus these softer advocates of conformity assume is a twist on Tocqueville’s “omnipotence of the majority.” Tocqueville predicted that majority opinion would silence dissent in democracies, if only by making egalitarian individuals doubt their own opinions exactly because the multitude, composed of their equals, disagreed. Yet the assumption behind this softer and more insidious version is that no one disagrees to begin with. It is not an attempt to tyrannize through dominant opinion. It rests, rather, on an unreflective presupposition that dominant opinion is universally shared. This is not cancel culture. It is conformity culture. Each fuels the other, but the latter may prove to be a more corrosive force.

Greg Weiner is a political scientist at Assumption College, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author, most recently, of Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence.