Cancel Culture

How To Tell If You're Being Canceled

Kindly Inquisitors author Jonathan Rauch on the never-ending battle to defend free speech


In 1993, Jonathan Rauch wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, an influential defense of free speech and open inquiry that was excerpted in Reason. The book took aim at would-be censors on campus and off and made a staunch case for the virtues of radical speech. Reviewing Rauch's book in The New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that "what sets his study apart is his attempt to situate recent developments in a long-range historical perspective and to defend the system of free intellectual inquiry as a socially productive method of channeling prejudice."

Nearly 30 years later, attacks on free thought have persisted and in some ways become even more pervasive as cancel culture has become part of the American lexicon. We live in a world where a Boeing executive was forced to resign over a 33-year-old article opposing the idea of women in combat and a respected art curator was pushed out of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for saying he would "definitely still continue to collect white artists." Earlier this summer, the editor of The New York Times opinion page left his job after publishing an article by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.).

What, exactly, does it mean to be canceled? Is free thought under unprecedented attack? And if it is, what's driving the repression? Rauch, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who is working on a book tentatively titled The Constitution of Knowledge, spoke to Reason's Nick Gillespie to answer those questions and discuss the best way to engage today's censors and cancelers.

Reason: In preparing for this, I reread Kindly Inquisitors. You've been covering this beat for basically 30 years. Is something different? In Kindly Inquisitors, you were talking a lot about Salman Rushdie, who had a fatwa put against him. He was under a death sentence put out by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Is that a more serious threat than what we're facing now?

Rauch: I would argue that structurally, the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie was in fact the prototype of the modern cancel campaign. We didn't have that vocabulary at the time. We called it international terrorism, which it kind of was. We called it Islamist extremism, which it also was. If you look at it, what it was actually was an action to cut off an individual from society, make not only that individual but anyone who had anything to do with him toxic.

Here's what I think canceling is and why it's different from criticism—because people always say, "Look, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. People are criticizing Jonathan Rauch. He doesn't like it, so he calls it canceling." Criticism is expressing an argument or opinion with the idea of rationally influencing public opinion through public persuasion, interpersonal persuasion.

Canceling comes from the universe of propaganda and not critical discourse. It's about organizing or manipulating a social environment or a media environment with a goal or predictable effect of isolating, deplatforming, or intimidating an ideological opponent. It's about shaping the battlefield. It's about making an idea or a person socially radioactive. It is not about criticism. It is not about ideas.

The people who went after Rushdie had never read The Satanic Verses and were proud of it. In a typical cancel campaign today, you'll hear the activists say, "I didn't read the thing. I don't need to read the thing to know that it's colonialist or racist." They're not using physical murder now. They're using a kind of social murder of making it very difficult for someone to have a job, for example—to lose their career, or to endanger all their friends. That, of course, is not physical violence, but if you've interviewed people who have been subject to it, and I have, you know that it is emotionally and professionally devastating.

The Nick Cannon case came up recently. He is a TV host and impresario. He had a podcast where he had on Professor Griff, who got bounced from the rap group Public Enemy in the late '80s for being anti-Semitic. Professor Griff traffics in the idea that African Americans are the real Jews, so he spends a lot of time attacking "so-called Jews," which would be people who identify as Jewish. Nick Cannon trafficked in a bunch of that on his podcast, and he got fired by Viacom. He's still on with Fox. 

Should he be able to just say that without having any repercussions on his career? If he shouldn't, what's wrong with canceling people more broadly?

You and I do our jobs within notions of implicit and explicit boundaries. If I start writing socialist articles for Reason, I think Reason will stop publishing me. That's part of what publishers do. I don't think in a case like that we're necessarily talking about canceling. I think we're talking about ordinary editorial discretion.

I'm working on this book. I sat down and said, "How do we know if something is canceling vs. ordinary criticism?" I came out with a list of six things, kind of the warning signs of canceling. If you've got two or three of these, it's canceling and not criticism.

First: Is the intent of the campaign punitive? Are you trying to punish the person and take away their job, their livelihood, and their friends?

Second: Is the intent or predictable outcome of the campaign to deplatform someone and to get them out of the position that they hold where they can speak/be heard and out of any other such position?

Third: Is the tactic being used grandstanding? Is it not talking to the person about their point of view? Is it basically virtue signaling, posturing, denunciation, and sort of ritual in nature?

Fourth: Is it organized? Is it in fact a campaign? Is it a swarm? Do you have people out there saying, as is often the case, "We've got to get Nick Gillespie off the air" or "We've got to get this asshole fired"? If it's organized, then it's canceling. It's not criticism.

Fifth: A certain sign of canceling is secondary boycotts. Is the campaign targeting not only the individual but anyone who has anything to do with the individual? Are they not only saying, "We think what Nick Cannon is saying on the air is inappropriate"; are they going after the company by saying to boycott it? Are they going after his friends and professional acquaintances? If there's a secondary boycott to inspire fear so that no one wants to have anything to do with the guy for the fear that they'd be targeted, that's canceling.

Sixth: Is it indifferent to truth? Well-meaning criticism is often wrong, but if it's wrong, you're supposed to say, "Oh, gee. I'm sorry that was wrong." You're supposed to pay attention to facts. Cancelers don't. They'll pick through someone's record over a period of 20 years and find six items which they can use against them. This is what literally happened to [Harvard psychologist] Steve Pinker. Tear them out of context and distort them, and if they're corrected on them, they'll just find six other items. That's not criticism. That's canceling. These are weapons of propaganda.

I think what you described in Nick what's-his-name's case does not sound like a propaganda campaign.

That helps clarify things for me. But how about Goya, the Latino-owned food products company? The head of Goya said some good things about Donald Trump. Now there's a boycott against Goya products. Does that count as canceling in the same way as the effort to get Steven Pinker, a well-known public intellectual, thrown out of a professional association of linguistic scholars? Are these all the same thing, are they on a continuum, or are they separate?

All of the above. They're all the same. They're all different. They're all on a continuum. I think the spirit of the Goya campaign is not consistent with the spirit of an open society where people can disagree. I think it's legal, but it's misguided. It's already backfiring, as these things almost always do. I put it in the same spirit of intolerance as everything else.

You mentioned the open society in Kindly Inquisitors. In your work more generally, you often cite Karl Popper, who popularized the term the open society. What do you mean when you invoke that idea?

Dean Alexander
(Dean Alexander)

An open society is a place that has a lot of intellectual pluralism and a lot of diversity of viewpoints. Instead of trying to eliminate bias by eliminating biased people, or instead of eliminating wrong hypotheses by eliminating the people who hold those hypotheses, it instead tries to pit bias and prejudice against other biases and prejudices.

It does that by forcing contention, forcing critical argument, and forcing people to persuade each other over time. That's really what science is. It's really what journalism is. It's what all the professions that are engaged in the reality-based community are ultimately trying to do: use these tools of critical comparison and discourse to persuade each other. It takes physical coercion off the table. One way to prove that Nick Gillespie is wrong would be to shoot him, right? That's the most traditional way to do it. It gets rid of the hypothesis. It does not advance knowledge.

Karl Popper, among others, pointed out that the open society is incomparably better at producing knowledge than any other society, because it allows us to make errors and not be punished for making errors. It allows us to make errors, in fact, much more quickly. That's the secret of science. You make errors much faster.

It's also a more peaceful society, because you're settling differences of opinion without using coercion to do it. You're marginalizing bad ideas. If Nick Gillespie continually says really stupid things, people start ignoring him. They just don't pay attention to him in a properly constructed society. The death rate and the oppression rate go down dramatically. I call it "liberal science" in my book. It's the third great liberal social regime, the other two being market economies and democracies.

You wrote for The Atlantic when James Bennet was the editor. Bennet later became the op-ed page editor at The New York Times who got pushed out after running an op-ed by Tom Cotton, the conservative senator from Arkansas. The article was about calling out troops to stem what he assumed was going to be a lot of rioting in cities around the nation. Bennet was forced out after a bunch of New York Times people, particularly black staffers, said that they felt unsafe as a result of that op-ed being run. How does that fit into the way you think about cancellation vs. open debate?

The emotional safety argument is at the core of what's going on. In the book I'm writing, I give it no quarter at all. The emotional safety argument, I argue, is fundamentally illiberal, and there is really nothing about it that can be salvaged. It is just inconsistent with the open society. The reason for that is it says that the most sensitive pair of ears in the room gets to decide what everyone else gets to hear or what everyone else gets to say.

The notion here is that emotional injury is a kind of harm like physical injury, and because it's a kind of harm it's a rights violation. The problem is this is a completely subjective standard, and it makes any form of criticism potentially subject to censorship and cancellation and lumps science into a human rights violation.

There have been various versions of what's now emotional safety over many years. In 1993, in Kindly Inquisitors, I wrote about it. I called it the humanitarian challenge or the humanitarian fallacy—the notion that words are like bullets. Harmful ideas are like a form of violence. Emotional safety is just the newest form of that. I would argue that it comes from, actually, out of all places, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] under the George H.W. Bush administration.

Can you explain that? 

The EEOC in 1989 or 1990 promulgated a notion of hostile workplace environment as being a civil rights violation. They intended to define hostile workplace environment fairly narrowly. It was supposed to have to be targeted to an individual, and this was conduct which would make you, a reasonable person, feel discriminated against or harassed in the workplace. As these things do, this concept quickly spread. By the mid-1990s you had cases, for example, where an employer was brought up under a hostile environment complaint by an atheist employee, because the employer was putting Bible verses on his paychecks. You had a Christian employee bring up a hostile environment complaint because a gay employee had a picture of himself with his partner on his desk. You had an art exhibit in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where paintings were taken down because a city employee said she had to walk past the paintings, and that created a hostile environment. Things very rapidly started moving out of control.

And colleges adopted it. We haven't talked about universities. We probably should. That's the other big arm of cancel culture. Colleges adopted it, and it took the form of, "Well, you're creating a hostile environment for students if you say oppressive and discriminatory things." That led to a series of things like formal speech codes. It also led to this notion of "a hostile environment is an unsafe environment."

If you have to have a safe environment, then you have to proactively scrub the environment of microaggressions, offensive and bigoted statements, and anything else that might cause the environment to become unsafe. That's a doctrine which has, even conceptually, no conceivable limits. That's where we wound up.

What's the appeal to people? Obviously I agree with you when you talk about a liberal society being a good one. The idea of intellectual or ideological pluralism, I'm all in. But people who are saying, "That's a false front for a system that is rigged against trans people, against black people, and against other types of racial, ethnic, ideological, or sexual minorities"—how do you engage them when they are not interested necessarily in hearing what you have to say?

What are they doing? What do they think they're doing? This is a subject of dispute and conversation.

One view is that these are well-intentioned people who are moral campaigners who want to make the world a better place. They're idealistic and they think they have the right answers. Like all people who think they have the right answers, they want to make the world safe for those right answers.

Another view is that these are neo-Marxists who are using, essentially, the levers of power to intimidate others because they can, and because it's what people do when they have power over other people.

A third reading is that we're talking about a classic public choice problem, where you have an organized minority that can effectively influence, intimidate, or silence a larger majority by picking specific targets and caring about them more than anybody else. What's happening here is kind of like lobbying, right? That's why the rice subsidy still exists: because rice growers really want it. They demand it, and they'll hurt you if you try to get rid of it. Factions in places like universities or the internet can do that as well, and they get something for it. They get prestige in their communities. They may get someone silenced or fired.

Then, there's a fourth answer, which is that it's all of the above. I think that's the right answer. I think it's all of the above, and it varies by individual. I don't assume that people are cynical when they come after the curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I assume that they're idealistic. On the other hand, it doesn't matter. Motives are not the issue here. The issue is the social effect of the regime in which these kinds of things are happening.

How do you engage with them? The single most common question I get when I talk about free speech and open inquiry on college campuses comes from a student—usually it will be a freshman, sometimes it's a sophomore—who says, "What do I say, Mr. Rauch, when I try to speak up in a conversation and I'm told, 'Check your privilege. You can't say that.' What do I do when I'm disqualified from the conversation because I don't have the minority perspective?"

I used to try to say all kinds of things that they could say: "Try this. Try that." That wasn't a good answer. Then I began telling them, "Well, you figure it out. You know how to talk to your generation. I don't." That wasn't a good answer.

The answer that I finally settled on—though the first two were also partly true—was: "It doesn't matter all that much what you say to them, because they're not listening. That's what they're telling you. They're not listening. What matters is that you not shut up. They do not have the power to silence you if you do not allow yourself to be silenced. Insist on your right to continue the conversation to say what you want to say. Don't slink away. You won't necessarily persuade those people, but, as we found in the gay marriage debate, your real target is that third person on the periphery of the circle of the conversation who is seeing one person acting rationally and reasonably and other people acting irrationally and unreasonably. You're probably winning the heart and mind of that third person, so don't shut up."

In Kindly Inquisitors, you posed one question that you said was the nut of it. "Do gays and Jews benefit from toleration of homophobic or anti-Semitic claptrap?" You answered, "Yes." You also wrote that any hate speech law that might have passed at that time would have targeted gay people in the name of defending children. Do you feel like that argument works at all in the current moment? Or is that not really operative anymore?

It doesn't seem to be super persuasive to people under 30, but I don't know what is, really. I figure my job is just to try to say what's true and to speak from my own experiences—30 years in the trenches fighting for gay equality and same-sex marriage, understanding that the only thing we had was our voices, the ability to make our arguments, and the ability to hold up our opponents and show the kind of people they were, which we would not have been able to do in an environment with stifled speech. I figure the best I can do is make that case again and again. Who knows what works?

It's so improbable, if you think about it. The freedom of speech in America, the government guarantee, has strengthened over the past 250 years and not weakened, despite the fact that I think, to this day, if you put up the First Amendment to a public referendum it would probably lose. I just tell people, "We don't know what works. Hang in there and just keep making the case, because in the long run we are doing astonishingly well."

To go back and look at your work on free speech is both depressing and enlivening. It's depressing, because everything you're saying about the instinct to shut down speech that somebody finds disagreeable seems like it's gotten worse and more intense. On the other hand, you talk about how this is an ongoing process. It never ends. It never stops. That's kind of heartening. Are you optimistic that five years from now we'll be in a better place? Do we get closer to the truth or to more of an open society?

We definitely get closer to truth, because science is broadly defined to include what you and I do. Journalism and the test tube of ideas is a cumulative process. It's the human species' great secret to success—the ability to accumulate knowledge and improve knowledge across generations over a period of now hundreds of years. That's not going away.

On the free speech front per se, I'm optimistic. I think we're already seeing pushback against the excesses of cancel culture. People are wising up to the tactic of targeting peoples' employers and getting them fired. I think as people wise up to that, they'll develop some immunity. There'll start to be some counter-pressures on employers. Why did you fire this person? How can you justify that? How can you destroy this person's life? I think it's a question of constant social adaptive learning. The enemies of the open society, the adversaries, always find new tactics and new ways to come at it. There's always a response to that. It develops sooner or later, hopefully sooner.

The important thing to discover is that this is not a fight between one set of people and another set of people. It is also a fight within ourselves. There are ideas that each of us hates. It's very hard to restrain ourselves from ganging up on [those ideas] in an illiberal way.

I'm optimistic in the big picture, because here we are. The idea that wrongheaded, dangerous, heretical, and blasphemous ideas should be not only allowed but protected is preposterous. It's ridiculous. No society has ever had that idea until about 250 years ago. It shouldn't work, but here we are.

The reason is because, despite its ridiculousness, it has the one great advantage of being the single most successful social principle ever invented. What I tell people is, "Me, you, your children, your grandchildren, and their grandchildren will have to get up every morning and explain all of these principles all over again from scratch. You know what? We just have to be cheerful about that."

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.