As cancel culture spills over from the world of social media into academia, politics, business, and religious rights, we spoke to experts about the menace. Their conclusion? If you speak up, you could be canceled next
As Americans celebrated July 4 this week with fireworks and barbecues, for a growing number — and not only militant Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters — the hymn to the “land of the free” rang increasingly hollow.
On the right side of the political aisle, the rise of “cancel culture,” an amorphous trend of social media attacks on those who express unprogressive views, has led many to question the cost of voicing the “wrong” opinions on race, gender, and politics.
Even for those who don’t engage in or put much stock in social media traffic, there’s a broader trend of silencing, shaming, or disenfranchising those who don’t march in lockstep with the leftist beat. In the long American culture wars, this is gearing up to be a crucial battle, where everything from politics, the media, higher education and business are arenas for conflict.
Recent victims range from the famous, like author J.K. Rowling, for supposed bigotry against gender-fluidity campaigners; to officials like Cormac J. Caney, a district judge in California, who according to the Los Angeles Times was forced to resign after praising an African-American clerk as “street-smart”; to a Latino man in San Diego who lost his job after being videoed unwittingly trailing his hands in what was claimed to be a white-power gesture.
In fact, no part of America’s cultural legacy seems safe. First statues of Confederate generals were targeted, and then came Abraham Lincoln’s turn, for supposedly being a white supremacist. There were calls for Mount Rushmore, a presidential monument in South Dakota, to be changed to reflect America’s ethnic diversity. “Aunt Jemima,” a brand of pancake syrup sold since 1889, was canceled for being a racial stereotype. Corporate giants like Coke and Starbucks caved to the Cancel Mob by boycotting Facebook for allowing Donald Trump’s supposedly racist tweets. Even LEGO announced that they were pausing marketing of police-station sets.
What Vox, a liberal website, sees as “an extension of civil rights activists’ push for meaningful change,” the right sees as evidence of the far-left’s frightening domination of what’s now culturally acceptable to say or think. Cancel culture, they say, is not so much a boycott technique as a larger assault on America’s very identity.
Across the Atlantic, that concern was echoed by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, who said that the war leader’s statue outside parliament in London would be better off in a museum, where it would be safe from attack by local surrogates of America’s BLM movement.
Alarmism over the left-wing takeover of American institutions has a long history. The Closing of the American Mind was a 1987 bestseller describing the relativism taking over American universities. But this moment feels different. The current brand of militant liberalism is closing off all debate by writing off social conservatives as bigots — and therefore irrelevant, unworthy, and illegitimate.
Conservatives are using fatalistic language to discuss the almost total takeover of the mainstream media, academia, and corporate worlds by left-wing groupthink. “Jacobins” and “Red Guards” are the terms du jour for the left-wing thought police. Writing on Quillette, a conservative website, Professor Eric Kaufmann of London’s Birkbeck College (a left-wing bastion) concluded that “faced with neglect or hostility from the media and educational establishment, conservatives should use civil society institutions, associations, and media to keep the country’s customs and traditions alive in recognizable form.”
While most of the frum world is not exposed to the vitriol and mob rule of social media, the threat of the cancel wars should matter very much. As the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, religious Jews have been early victims of liberal intolerance.
As cancel culture spills over from the world of social media into academia, politics, business, and religious rights, we spoke to experts about the menace.
Their conclusion? If you speak up, you could be canceled next.
Canceled in Academia
A Silenced Academic Speaks
Professor Jason Hill, a Jamaican-American philosophy lecturer at Chicago’s DePaul University, has drawn left-wing fire as a strong advocate for Israel’s right to extend sovereignty to the West Bank, as well as for being a critic of environmental activist Greta Thunberg.
You’ve experienced a backlash for speaking up strongly in Israel’s defense. How does that manifest itself on campus?
I’m mid-lawsuit against DePaul University because after I came out strongly defending Israel’s right to Judea and Samaria and classified the Palestinian Authority as terrorist, I was censured by the university, and almost put into a racial-sensitivity training workshop. I received death threats, was called racist, genocidal, and a warmonger.
If I’d taken the reverse position, I would have been lauded by the university, and I suppose that as a person of color I’m expected to identify with the Palestinians, but I think Israel is awe-inspiring for building such a country after surviving persecution. I am now facing a boycott against my classes with four to seven students attending when there should be 30.
How did we get to the point that free speech is so absent in universities?
The historical antecedents, I think, are the postmodern relativism and nihilism that began in the 1960s. There was an attack on the capacity of reason to adjudicate among disputes as an oppressive construct of white males. The only criteria to adjudicate is subjective feelings, so anything that offends is grounds for annihilation.
In an article in the Hill, you wrote that the gravest internal threat to the US is leftist professors who are waging a war against America and teaching young people to hate the country. As an academic for over two decades, would you say that universities are beyond repair?
It’s very systemic. When students in my political philosophy class refuse to study John Locke because they consider him a white supremacist, there is no lower level of educational hell. There are very few people willing to come out as I have and talk about systemic discrimination against rightist views. Cultural Marxism, anti-capitalism, and anti-Semitism are rampant in universities. In the social sciences, they’re a constitutive part of the identity of the professoriate. Indoctrination has superseded presenting a multiplicity of opinions.
Have you received any support from colleagues and beyond?
Individual colleagues from various departments who are tenured and have been in academia for 40 years tell me that they support me, but won’t come out in public for fear of social ostracism. The David Horowitz Freedom Center has supported me, as has Rabbi Yaakov Menken of the Coalition for Jewish Values, but no one within the academic system has joined them.
Given your identity as Jamaican-American, what are your thoughts about the wider picture of the riots and looting of a few weeks ago, and the lack of a strong law-and-order response to it?
I want to emphasize that there is a role in free societies for peaceful protests, like those inspired by Martin Luther King, to bring about change. But there’s an ethical distinction between peaceful protests and indiscriminate looting and rioting. The women’s movement didn’t kill men or topple statues of men.
I’m afraid that in the culture of fear of exercising power to restore law and order, the very measures that will be necessary to restore law and order will be taken as proof of justice for those calling to dismantle the police.
Canceled in the Business World
Out of business on social media
Orthodox trademark lawyer Ron Coleman of Mandelbaum Salsburg is involved in the battle to prevent companies using trade laws to shut down criticism and represents individuals banned by social media. Here he discusses what he sees as the major concerns in the age of cancel culture.
What has your work litigating for users against social media companies taught you about these platforms’ openness?
Well before the era of cancel culture, I built a practice in the use of trademark and copyright claims as a way of shutting down criticism. Companies that didn’t appreciate online criticism on “gripe sites,” for example, tried to shut them down by saying that mentioning their brand names in a negative context was a trademark infringement. Judges had little trouble seeing through these claims, though, and those lawsuits stopped.
When social media became popular there was an influx of terrible people. I myself was exposed to vicious Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. Twitter made good strides to get rid of that.
But then the political left realized that describing anyone they don’t agree with as engaging in “hate speech” or being an “extremist” could be an effective tool against the right and anyone they disagree with. Truthfully, they’ve been doing this for decades — long before social media existed. They accused Reagan of anti-Semitism; they called George W. Bush “Hitler.” Social media, though, makes this weapon — shutting down debate by denying the other side’s legitimacy, or any entitlement to a “platform” even to defend themselves — much more powerful. Now they use these labels to silence opponents by getting them off social media.
How have you encountered this trend in your professional life?
Exhibit A is the ongoing case of Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, which was meant to be a conservative boys group like the original version of the Boy Scouts. They were quickly accused by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a self-described anti-racism organization, of being white supremacist thugs, but that’s unfounded. The present head, who I know well, is Afro-Cuban. The bylaws of the group prohibit any racist conduct or involvement with white supremacists, but the truth is irrelevant, especially when you are kicked off all forms of social media and can’t defend yourself.
So Gavin and the Proud Boys were kicked off social media. Gavin is an immigrant, he’s married to a Native American, he has me on his show to discuss Yiddishkeit all the time. It doesn’t matter — he has been de-personed. There’s a cascade effect: When one social media company suspends you, they all do.
Yet most of these cases — and cancel culture in general — involve celebrities.
The best-known cases affect entertainment, but they show the dynamic of what’s happening. There was the recent case of the football coach whose players objected to him wearing a shirt with the logo of One America News Network (OAN), a conservative news channel. They didn’t demonstrate that there was anything wrong with OAN, they just made OAN poison by asserting it was a white supremacist outfit. Well, I’ve been interviewed on OAN about legal matters. There is nothing white supremacist about it at all. But to keep his job, this coach humiliated himself with an abject apology, tacitly accepting the accusation. Once he had done that, of course, his comments were seen as a confirmation of the accusation against OAN. Having gotten that from him, the mob persisted, and he lost his job anyway.
Going back to social media, where do you draw the line? Should it be open for any bigot and racist to air their views?
Clearly not. Social media works best when decent conduct is regulated. Gab is an excellent example of a social media environment that is not regulated, and I never use it — it’s crawling with neo-Nazis. These platforms have a right to have draconian terms as private companies, but Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act requires them to apply those regulations in good faith.
Just last week YouTube banned my friend Gavin, giving no explanation, and it also banned Stefan Molyneux, who unlike Gavin is probably not a friend of the Jews. But by banning people, they send them underground, making them martyrs, especially when they refuse to justify or explain their actions. And it isn’t “good faith” to do that on the one hand but to permit Louis Farrakhan, an open anti-Semite, and David Duke, a notorious white supremacist, to maintain their platforms.
No content threatening, celebrating, or wishing violence and destruction toward the State of Israel, or toward Jews if Israel is used as a rationale, is taken down by these platforms. At the same time, anyone even accused of espousing views that don’t meet with the approval of the SPLC or the Anti-Defamation League gets taken down. Twitter, Google, and YouTube have no problem with the right kind of hate speech, and they have no fear whatsoever of regulation.
So how should conservative influencers get out their message?
Liberals say that if you don’t like the terms of social media companies, build your own. But against network effects, incumbents are almost impossible to compete with. That is exactly what the antitrust laws — the Sherman Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act — are meant to remedy. Part of what they are doing, as in the case of the attacks and boycotts coordinated on social media against outlets such as OAN and Fox News, is to undermine and if possible eliminate not only conservative messages but also conservative competitors to established media companies. And so far these multinational corporations, which control massive components of commerce, communications, and discourse, and which coordinate their efforts, have not been touched or even threatened with enforcement under the laws that protect competition.
Canceled in the Religious Realm
Religious rights on the rocks
Attorney Avi Schick, a former deputy attorney general of New York and current partner at Troutman Sanders law firm, represents the Jewish community in religious-freedom cases, including last year’s successful defense of yeshivah education in New York.
Cancel culture doesn’t directly target religious issues, but is it stretching things to see a common denominator in society’s growing contempt for religious rights?
I don’t know that I would tie anything to this movement directly, but it has certainly flourished in the current environment in which there’s no longer an ability to disagree and see two opposing but potentially meritorious viewpoints.
Today, debate means targeting one viewpoint as illegitimate and forcing it out of the public square. Religion is now on the receiving end of that push. It regularly gets equated with discrimination and is characterized as evil, primarily because religious values clash with other rights and values. There is no effort made to grapple with competing or conflicting rights or to come to some societal balance. Instead, religion is called immoral because it is in conflict with other rights.
Where do you see that trend in evidence in the legal realm?
Just this past week, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza vs. Montana that states that provide funding to private schools can’t discriminate against religious schools.
But although that’s a major victory for Jewish education, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), founded to “defend the Jewish people,” criticized the decision because it would benefit schools (meaning yeshivos) that, in the words of the ADL, “discriminate,” including with regard to lifestyles inconsistent with Torah values.
So it is now acceptably mainstream for a prominent Jewish civil-rights organization to invoke the culture wars against Jewish institutions that stood to benefit from a Supreme Court decision prohibiting discrimination against religious institutions. That’s the basis on which cancel culture operates: Instead of looking at us and seeing people observing their own religion out of fealty to G-d, they insist on seeing us as affirmatively discriminating against others. They refuse to attempt to reconcile or balance competing values, because they insisting on seeing things in terms of good and evil.
Given that underlying fact, are we headed for more clashes?
Unfortunately, we can expect more trouble. In New York Orthodox Jews have been extraordinarily comfortable, but as we look to the future there is no question that we are being reminded that we’re still in galus. The gulf between mainstream and frum values is growing wider, while at the same time tolerance for differences is getting narrower. That is going to present challenges to frum communities in New York, New Jersey, and across the country.
What changes does this new environment demand from the religious community?
We’re going to have to become more active in defending religious rights. We went to court a year ago to push back on efforts of the State to take control of yeshivah curriculums. Of necessity we’ve had to resort to the legal system, and we will unfortunately probably continue to see that happen. But as a practical matter, we need to enhance our activities on the shatdlanus front. We have to figure out ways to work within the existing political and legislative system to ensure that our rights and our communities are respected and protected. That means finding allies and making alliances. Litigation is only a last resort, when all else fails.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 818)
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