In recent years, America has witnessed the rise of a terrifying “cancel culture.” Those who dare question the left’s stifling orthodoxy on issues like transgender identity, institutional racism, and claims of systemic oppression have found themselves subject to an outrage mob and censured, fired, or worse. Earlier this week, 1960s-style liberals like J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky wrote a letter in Harper’s lamenting this cancel culture’s attack on free speech. On Friday, 163 pro-cancel culture journalists, academics, and activists shot back with a letter of their own, accusing the likes of Rowling and Chomsky of using “coded language” to try to silence supposedly marginalized voices in the name of “free speech.”
In an Orwellian manner, the letter uses a Marxist analysis to claim that the culture of free speech is the real “cancel culture” because it supposedly institutionalizes the silencing of racial minorities and transgender people. Tellingly, it emerged at The Objective, an online journalism project dedicated to confronting “inequities in coverage that have been recognized as rooted in the notion of ‘objectivity’ since the 1950s and continue today.”
In order to so thoroughly twist the Harper’s letter, the Marxist respondents descend to outright lies about the letter and about recent incidents of cancel culture. Yet the heart of their argument is based in identity politics and claims of institutional racism and transphobia. America’s free speech culture doesn’t count unless it provides equal space to “marginalized voices.”
“The [Harper’s] letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry,” The Objective letter argues. “The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform. They are afforded the type of cultural capital from social media that institutions like Harper’s have traditionally conferred to mostly white, cisgender [that is, not transgender] people. Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.”
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In other words, when the Harper’s signatories defend free speech, they are really engaging in “coded language” to protect “bigotry” and the “systems” that allegedly alienate racial minorities and transgender people. Apparently, the author of The Objective letter can read minds.
But the letter gets worse. It claims that cancel culture incidents “are not trends.” Apparently, it is not a trend when a professor faces an investigation for reading from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a church loses its lease because the pastor “liked” a couple of tweets, a professional soccer player gets fired for his wife’s tweet, and former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet resigns amid backlash for publishing Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Mo.) op-ed calling for law and order in the George Floyd riots.
Furthermore, the letter claims that “the signatories [of the Harper’s letter], many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country.” Yet the Harper’s signatories do not claim to fear for their own jobs or voices but for America’s free speech culture.
For instance, the Harper‘s signatories claim “We are already paying 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.” Even so, The Objective letter continues to insist that the Harper’s letter is all about protecting those in power, not standing up for free speech.
While The Objective letter acknowledges that a black man spearheaded the Harper’s effort, it complains that “the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.”
“In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the [Harper’s] signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive,” the letter states.
The Objective twists recent episodes of cancel culture out of recognition. For example, that letter defends the backlash James Bennett, the former New York Times editor, faced for agreeing to run Tom Cotton’s opinion piece. The Objective engages in an outright lie about Cotton’s op-ed, claiming the piece “called for the use of the nation’s military against its own citizenry for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
This statement is patently false. Cotton’s op-ed makes a clear and important distinction between peaceful protests and dangerous rioters. “A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants,” he argues. The article calls for the National Guard to put down the violent riots, not to attack peaceful protesters.
Yet the twisting is not limited to Tom Cotton. The pro-cancel culture letter also condemns Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, claiming she “has spouted transphobic and transmisogynist rhetoric, mocking the idea that trans men could exist, and likening transition-related medical care such as hormone replacement therapy to conversion therapy. She directly interacts with fans on Twitter, publishes letters littered with transphobic rhetoric, and gets away with platforming violent anti-trans speakers to her 14 million followers.”
What the letter demonizes as “transphobic rhetoric” is really Rowling’s logical — and, dare I say, feminist — objections to the radical transgender movement. Rowling is a moderate on the issue, claiming that some people do indeed benefit from hormones and surgery in pursuit of a transgender identity, but warning that the movement poses various dangers to girls and women and to society as a whole. Women who formerly identified as transgender have spoken up about their deep regret and the permanent scarring they suffer from cross-sex hormones and surgeries.
The letter in The Objective complains that Harper’s signatories like Rowling “have championed the free market of ideas, but actively ensured that it is free only for them. It’s ironic that the letter gives highly sought-out space to some of the most well-paid and visible people in media, academia, and publishing.”
Yet the whole point of the Harper’s letter was to convince the worlds of academia and journalism to oppose cancel culture, so it rallied leading writers with enough ethos to convince others.
The Objective letter accuses Harper’s signatories of having “gone out of their way to harass trans writers or pedantically criticize Black writers.”
“What gives them the right to use their platforms to harass others into silence, especially writers with smaller platforms and less institutional support, while preaching that silencing writers is a problem?” the pro-cancel culture letter asks.
Ultimately, the letter charges that “under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, [the Harper’s letter] appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism. There are only so many outlets, and while these individuals have the ability to write in them, they have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories.”
Like good Marxists, the signers of The Objective letter suggest that everything is about power. Dialogue and discussion are not about coming to the truth, but about redistributing influence. Cancel culture zealots know that any disagreement with their ideas is rooted in unthinking prejudice against people, whether it be racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or whatever. They will read into their opponents’ words, twisting facts and quotes to suit their narrative.
Thus, Tom Cotton’s call for law and order in the face of violent riots is a call to silence “First Amendment Rights.” J.K. Rowling’s thoughtful objections to transgender activism are “transphobic and transmisogynistic rhetoric.”
These activists aim to silence their opponents in the name of a revolution against the horrific bigoted status quo. It does not matter to them that the signers of the Harper’s letter are left-leaning and criticized Trump in the very first paragraph. No, these 1960s-style liberals are now “The Man” and must be condemned as oppressors.
Any opponents to cancel culture must be canceled forthwith! (Thus proving their point.)
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.