Culture Friday – A liberal rebuke of cancel culture

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 10th of July, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. It’s being called the “cancel culture letter.”

On Tuesday Harper’s Magazine released a public statement, signed by 150 writers, professors, and activists, in support of free speech. 

The letter warns of increasing demands for “ideological conformity” and says “It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

It also says: “The free exchange of information and ideas…is daily becoming more constricted…an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.”

That’s a mouthful but pretty powerful.

BASHAM: Yes it is, and I’d encourage everyone to read it. We have it linked in the transcript.

Well, not surprising, a number of conservative and libertarian writers and academics like David Brooks and Francis Fukuyama endorsed the letter. But what might surprise some is how many people who would typically be viewed as left-wing also signed on:

Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Fareed Zakaria…I could go on. But it’s Culture Friday, so rather than do that, let’s bring John Stonestreet into the conversation. He’s President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

John, good morning.


BASHAM: So John, despite some sort of anti-Trump boilerplate at the beginning of the letter, it still created swift negative reaction. And it was really interesting to see how many other writers and intellectuals immediately lambasted it. I’d like to know how you would respond to some of the most common objections I’m seeing.

So bear with me here as I quote from a couple of responses that were representative of many.

“[Cancel culture] doesn’t really exist. It’s a myth created by people who have been used to saying whatever they want without being challenged and are now surprised when there are consequences to their words.”

So that was one response.

Then there’s a New Republic essay that argues the letter improperly favors free speech over another important liberty: Free association. This essay acknowledges that groups are increasingly joining together to demand firings or loss of book contracts and the like for speech they find offensive. But the author says this is simply oppressed people using the power of the collective to demand accountability from their oppressors.

How would you respond to these arguments?

STONESTREET: Well, it was really a stunning letter and it was really a left-leaning letter. I mean, there were some conservative voices but the vast majority would be center, center-left and certainly those that kind of enjoy kind of a protected position. So for them to actually stick their necks up like this, and we’ve seen what happened. I mean, really, the only person on the list that I could see—at least that I know of that’s really taken the hit for having a culturally unpopular view—is J.K. Rowling. The fact that they included her in the list of signatories is actually a very important point on how serious these folks actually are. And other than that, I was just really happy to see them realize this. I mean, a lot of us have said this sort of thing exists for quite some time. It’s harder to dismiss it as just kind of a whiney sort of position for people who have enjoyed cultural power just because these folks have everything to lose that are sticking their necks up like this and calling for this letter.

So, I really appreciate it at one level. I mean, it was a little weird to have kind of the boiler plate like required slam of Donald Trump and I’m not really sure what that has to do with any of this that they’re trying to communicate. But, hey, I can get—it was just weird, but I can get past it in order to get to this. 

Now, the New Republic essay is a little bit more interesting because the First Amendment holds all the first freedoms together, including freedom of religion, which has been violated in order to cancel people. Freedom of Association and Freedom of Speech, I mean, that’s all kind of right there in the First Amendment. But our founders understood that those things shouldn’t be in opposition to one another. This isn’t an either-or or a zero-sum game. Like, let us associate and you can’t talk. Or let us talk and therefore you can’t associate. Associate all you want. Make the case all you want. But don’t steal public debate, particularly on things that offend you that haven’t been culturally decided upon. That’s what happens in cancel culture is that the real debate is preempted. And that was a big part, I think, of what the signers of this letter were trying to say.

BROWN: John, the one word that seems to keep coming up in tweets and articles in response to this letter is hypocrisy. We don’t need to get into the weeds, but I read several tweets accusing some of the signers and even the magazine’s leadership of doing the very things that are being exposed. Is that kind of backlash predictable and unavoidable?

STONESTREET: It is. And it’s true. I mean, there is a hypocrisy to it. For example, as the letter calls for free debate, there are plenty of issues that many of these signers would think is beyond the pale of a liberal progressive society and is not worthy of debate. I mean, for example, Margaret Atwood who’s the reason we have so many protesters now dressing as puritan women. Thanks, Margaret. But she would say that debating abortion is beyond the pale. It’s not actually something—she would never actually take seriously a conversation with a pro-lifer and she’s proved that in how she has written. 

I’m thinking of Jonathan Rouch who signed this. He has debated, as a gay man, the LGBT issue and the same-sex issue. I moderated one of those debates. Some of these are not hypocritical in saying this. But many of them are responsible for creating the culture that has led to this kind of trend of cancellation. But, you know what, I still welcome them on board because what they’re pointing out is still the right thing to point out even if they are being hypocritical.

And God help me. I’m glad I still get to sign onto things and say things from the Scripture that I’ve been hypocritical on.

BASHAM: You know, while we’re on subject of backlash, I saw a television critic at claiming that the letter makes people, specifically trans people, less safe. There was no mention of transgenders or transgenderism in there, by the way. But one of this person’s co-workers, the left-wing writer Matt Yglesias, had signed it. So the person was calling on Vox bosses to respond.

This is something we see a lot in these cases. New York Times Editor James Bennett lost his job after running Tom Cotton’s essay because Times’ staffers claimed the essay made black people less safe.

Can you talk about that a little bit? Why is couching these arguments in terms of personal safety such an effective way of shutting down debate and what’s the response to it?

STONESTREET: You know, that response and the claim of loss of personal safety is exactly why this letter is necessary in the first place. That’s the irony is that now I can claim because you said something that I don’t agree with, you’ve made me unsafe. It has been a tactic used by plenty on the left, but it’s not been used by anyone more than the transgender community. Can you imagine a group of people that daily look in the mirror and see something that is not there and then demand everyone else agree with it? And at some level I think we’ve got to get down to that and so that’s why at some level when we say, you know, hey, let’s have a conversation about whether we should just open the door to the end of female sports or let’s have a conversation about just asking why we should believe someone’s internal sense of reality and not their body parts rather than their body parts and not their internal sense of reality? Let’s have a conversation about that. And the debate goes out the window and the cry is a cry of safety. And the reason is there’s literally no evidence whatsoever for their deeply held convictions about these things except this inner sense of who they think they are. 

So, I think at some level that’s why the retreat to this call of personal safety has been so common from the transgender community because there’s really nothing else to resort to. And, of course, we’ve seen—in a culture that feels instead of thinks—that calling someone mean is far more effective than calling someone wrong. And calling someone happy is far more effective than calling someone right. So, that is very much a—should we call it a pre-existing condition of the American culture? That when you build a culture around emotivism and away from rational, logical thought and certainly moral norms, that’s what I think you get when you dig below the surface of this kind of claim of being harmed.

BROWN: Finally John, changing topics before we go. The Supreme Court just issued a ruling in favor of the Little Sister’s of the Poor in the Obamacare contraception case. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion. Have you had a chance to digest that yet and what it will mean for religious liberty going forward?

STONESTREET: I have a little bit and let me just say first off that please maybe this can be the time that the government will just leave these poor nuns alone. Like, good heavens, stop harassing these poor women. I do think this session of the court is going to have a huge impact on how our country proceeds on religious freedom. And I think it’s something we need to continue to look at because here’s what we had: We had the court continuing a trend to strongly protect religious institutions, allowing them to be religious institutions.

At the same time, what the court effectively did is draw this line on religious freedom between “religious institutions” and non-religious institutions, which is a fundamental change in how we have seen religious freedom applied, religious freedom rights applied in the American context. And I think it is a net win for religious institutions, but overall we’re going to see this term as a loss for religious freedom per se.

BROWN: Well, John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, thanks as always for being here.

STONESTREET: Thanks so much.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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