An American experiment

I understand why conservative writers are unhappy about "cancel culture" and "woke-ism"—just not what they think complaining about them will accomplish. So I asked. And someone answered, on the condition of anonymity.

This exchange began this week on my personal blog, Writing Boots. I thought to move it to Pro Rhetoric, to bring the professionals into the conversation.DM

A lot of white friends—mostly conservative, and mostly men—are finally clearing their throats and finding their voice, now a couple months after George Floyd. With increasing frequency, they are writing social media posts decrying “cancel culture,” and comparing “woke-ism” to McCarthyism.

As a white friend myself, I don’t have a hard time seeing the world from their point of view. But as a communicator, I am struggling to figure out what they think they’re trying to achieve, or who they think they’re talking to.

A conservative friend of mine posted a quote from Wall Street Journal column complaining that what’s happening with the protests is “about more than statues and history. Those who control the symbols of political discourse can dominate the culture and control the collective consciousness.” 

Well, yes—that’s why traditional historical narratives and the statues they celebrate are being challenged, Thurston! Because you have been dominating the culture and controlling the collective consciousness for a very long time, and others are demanding a turn.

There are legitimate questions about the current moment and mood, of course—about the social sustainability of cancel culture, the wisdom of woke-ism and the viability of a society that attempts to hold everyone‘s truth to be self-evident. Can the center hold in a vastly multicultural civilization that can’t agree a central founding myth or the shape of its historical narrative? Or can that civilization somehow come together and form a new shared story to bind it together as a nation? 

This phrase “a more perfect union,” that we’re always hearing—that always sounds like tinkering, at a moment when it seems we might need an engine rebuild. But if you’re American, you’re supposed to be up for big experiments. You’re supposed to be up for the American experiment

This is part of that.

And general griping about “woke-ism” and protester vandalism and cancel culture—excessive and simplistic and reckless as these phenomena may sometimes be—reminds me a little of a story Evel Knievel used to tell, about his “great great great great great great great great great grandfather,” who was dragged out into the middle of the Roman Colosseum and buried up to his neck. When Caesar arrived and took his seat, a lion was released. The lion charged at the senior Knievel, but before he could maul him, Knievel turned up his head and bit the lion’s balls off.

As the dentally neutered cat whimpered away, over the roaring crowd Caesar was heard to yell, “Fight fair, Knievel!”

Whether you agree with them or not, you the cancel-culturists and the woke-ists—from #metoo to BLM—firmly feel they’ve been buried up to their neck all these many years. And they will not sympathize with your apparent belief that they are actually Caesar and you are the man in the dirt.

You must understand that.

So—honest question—who are you trying to reach with these sorts of posts, and what are you trying to achieve?

“What am I trying to achieve?” replied a conservative writer friend. “The right, not merely the privilege, to experiment with ideas in public, which is the engine of progress.” He continued:

Why not just experiment in private? 

Because in public I can get feedback and find out where I am right or wrong, or with or against consensus. I can hear from people I otherwise might not meet. 

And this works. 

If I say “let’s talk about the pluses and minuses of topic X,” the answer should be, “Okay, let’s.” And later, “Ideas X, Y,  and Z, are appalling. Let’s not explore them further.” And “X isn’t as awful as I thought. Let me think about it.” And “Z is just as bad as I expected.” And “Y is great—I was wrong about it.”

Instead—and as puzzled as you are by my position, I guarantee I’m even more puzzled at yours—you’re standing with those who say, “If you say X and I am offended by it, by my own personal standard, I shall gin up a mob to injure you professionally and personally.” Then they say, “This is the consequence of free speech, Mister Free Market Man. Hoisted on your own petard!”

And the standard is whatever it needs to be. Said something dumb when you were 16? Call Carson King about that, the security guard who won $1 million and was roasted over a tweet. (Fuck Twitter.) Can we listen to Randy Newman’s “Christmas in Capetown” anymore? It’s anti-racist, but there’s no patience for subtlety, just surface. “Gone with the Wind” is problematic now? I guess the old “Wagner problem” is settled at least—though he had the right enemies, as the Rev. Farrakhan would say (low blow, I know). Or the NYT editor fired for publishing an essay from a sitting senator voicing opposition to the paper’s position. Or call Bari Weiss—no conservative, she. Or let’s investigate the folks beyond our white-collar world who cannot survive a firing and still pay the rent. We’ll never hear about the guy with the woke supervisor who decides to strike a blow against that guy he’s always hated.

I propose a standard: I hate what you say, but I defend until death your right to say it.

The answer is not external censorship. The answer is internal governance. Being kind to people with our words. And then, when we hear things that offend us, drawing attention to them in the realm of words, not violent deeds. If we cannot speak and err without profound consequence, we cannot say much of anything. I’ve already stopped. (Whether that is a loss is another question. Let’s assume no big whoop, hah.)

Man, you have the highest ratio of My Respect to Agrees With Me on Politics of anyone I know. I figured early on you’d be the guy on the front lines for unfettered fawkyoo free speech. Even if you were afraid to be that in public I figured you’d be that guy behind the scenes, after a drink or two. But, and forgive the tone, which you know I do not mean as nasty, but your reasoning sounds more like half-hearted excuses for anti-intellectualism disguised as compassion. What you say fails to take on the meat of the question: Shall we be free from dire consequences for simply speaking against the culturally powerful? 

(You’ve said that the consequences are overstated. I think it’s clear they’re not.)

As you have said, friend, help me make an effort to understand. (Soon available wherever fine books are sold.) I am lost on your position on this, but I’m willing to be persuaded.

My friend, thanks for writing—and for making an effort to understand. A marriage is only over when the two stop arguing, and regard each other with cold contempt. A country, too.

Let me begin with one area in which you and I are in perfect agreement: The Voltairean principle that you paraphrase but that originally read: “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.” I think a hell of a lot about this phrase. I try to remember when I learned it. I am sure I was 10 years old or younger. I remember actively turning that over in my maturing mind—making myself understand it, making myself accept its bedrock rightness. To the deathyou would defend someone’s right to express an offensive idea! It felt so connected with America—partly, I think, because I thought erroneously that it came from Patrick Henry. But it still feels terribly connected with my own patriotism.

I deal a lot with people who do communication for the presidents of colleges and universities. Their stories about students’ attitudes about free speech, and expectations about not having to be exposed to it suggest to me that these kids arrived at university unfamiliar with the Voltairean principle. I believe that making them familiar with it now is too late. Like a lot of ideas, probably, this idea is one that you want to introduce to a brain just old enough to understand it. I think it is absolutely terrible and tragic if young American minds can’t grasp this notion, because it’s a cornerstone piece of legislation in the “internal governance” that you rightly suggest is paramount in a civilized democracy.

So: I’m right there with you, in principle—Voltairean, that is.

I have also been close-once-removed to a once-prominent artist who I believe has been unfairly canceled as part of the #metoo maw. I have spent much time pondering and contemplating that person’s fate: The personal horror, the implications to the broader culture, the corporate cowardice that made it possible. 

And I have also contemplated how little it really matters in what my mother would call, “the great cosmic wash.” (But Mom, it’s Sister’s turn to set the table! “Sweetie,” she’d rasp with a Barclay cigarette dangling from her mouth, ashes flaking into the overcooked pork-fried rice, “It all works out in the great cosmic wash.”)

I have wanted to say to this artist: I am sorry this happened to you. Yes, it is unfair. You got caught in the wrong time and the wrong place, doing a thing Norman Mailer probably did every Sunday before breakfast. There is a fever in this country—and it’s not going to break at least until admitted pussy-grabber is ejected from the Oval Office. Also: There are larger tragedies than this, and I’m not going to spend any more time on it. I’m certainly not going to be caught dwelling on it, or championing you, in public. Again, I am sorry.

(Just as you picked egregious examples of cancel-culture’s overreach, there are also examples of its forgiveness: Did you know that CNN reporter Caitlan Collins called people “fag” on Twitter when she was in college in this decade, and apologized for it and kept her job despite Log Cabin Republicans’ objections?)

Back to your letter: It really is hard to talk about this in hypotheticals. “If you say X and I am offended by it, by my own personal standard, I shall gin up a mob to injure you professionally and personally.” Well, what is X? Is X, “I think saving people’s lives by destroying their livelihoods is not a humane thing to do.” Or is X, “If anything, cops don’t beat Blacks as much as they should”? 

Regarding that first position—especially early in the coronavirus lockdown, we would have benefitted from a full philosophical airing. But a number of my conservative friends were afraid to utter it publicly. I think they should have used the time they spent complaining about the unpopularity of their ideas, trying to build a convincing philosophical case for them. You and I went back and forth on this privately at the time—again, at my behest—and I actually thought your ideas were nuanced, reasonable and refreshing. I also explained why I thought they were practically unrealistic. And no one got hurt, and I think we both felt better for hearing one another out.

But if you’re talking about ideas which might be described as monstrous (which I don’t believe you harbor)—I would defend your right to say them—your legal right, your social right. Nor do I think I would be inclined to “gin up a mob” to injure you. But do you really expect or hope to live in a society where your social and professional prospects don’t dim a little after it’s known that you have uttered something barbaric? I mean, if you use your influence and credibility to say something and I think you are a dangerous asshole to say it—do you believe in a world so immaculate that ideas expressed don’t create feelings received, and reactions resulting? 

Which leads me to my final argument: You answered my second question about your general grousing about cancel culture, “What are you trying to achieve?” But you didn’t answer my first: “Who are you trying to reach?” 

Are you trying to reach like-minded folks, to incite them to help you fight for “the right to experiment with ideas in public”? Or are you trying to reach the cancel-culturists and woke-ists, to convince them that this time they’ve gone too far? Or are you trying to get to the money guys, and tell them to stop cutting their losses by canceling politically incorrect acts? Each of those causes seems more lost than the last. 

It does occur to me to suggest that just because you’re afraid to say a thing—that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being oppressed. It might mean that you realize the thing you want to say is out of step, not useful, tone-deaf, unnecessarily hurtful, missing the moment or actually just fucking wrong.

You’re old enough to remember who used to censor ideas, before social media? Media! The editors of newspapers and magazines, who either thought your ideas had merit or did not. They did not want to publish your thought experiments, either. They wanted to publish your thought creations—and only if they judged their readers would ultimately appreciate them. But now you expect your family, friends, colleagues, Twitter followers and absolute strangers to receive whatever you have to say with placid equanimity and respond with kindness and generosity and rationality. 

I think that’s unrealistic, Buddy.

I look forward to your response—reading it, and publishing it.


And my friend responds:

Resolved: One sin, even if we regret it, even if it’s in the distant past, is grounds to erase the rest of a life. 

In other words, to hell with forgiveness

Or, as you put it, what’s one life in the great cosmic wash?

I don’t think you mean what you wrote. If someone comes after you, my old friend, for an ill-considered comment, I will not stand by. I won’t be anonymous anymore. 

Your life has value not just because you are my friend – I love you, and you love me – but because it is a life. The whole slow, claw-forward history of human goodness is built on that ignored truth. It’s what we’re fighting for today, right? Black lives matter and women’s lives matter because they are human lives. That is the bright, hard core of decency worth fighting for.

How shall we fight? There’s the rub. Many have decided that the perpetuity of the offense is so deep that anything goes, no matter who gets hurt or how badly. But to avoid acknowledging that, you’re conflating “prospects dim a little” with the orchestrated end of a career. A minor example: I don’t care for Al Franken’s politics or his personality for that matter but he got a raw deal. He made a crude joke, he apologized, and for that his colleagues demanded his resignation. That was wrong (they were inoculating themselves against the “this only goes for conservatives” charge, but setting that aside) because as a human he deserved better. So did the person he hurt, but is this a just swap? Who benefited?

Then there’s the utilitarian side of this: his cause lost a powerful voice that could have been more powerful precisely because he would have been more understanding of their plight than whoever came after. His allies could have pointed to him every day as the Mao-style model for reform. And they could have shown their generousness of spirt – to be better to him than he was to others.

But, no. Self-righteous theater was more fun. Another canceled fellow. But it all comes out in the cosmic wash. What’s one guy? I don’t think you believe what you wrote.

Next: you’re conflating calling out open bigotry with the calculated suppression of ideas. Bari Weiss didn’t write anything bigoted, but she wrote ideas that are in opposition to the politics of the currently powerful plurality, and the newspaper of record sent her packing. New York Times Editor James Bennett is as woke as they get, and he’s on the street because he published somebody else’s controversial – not bigoted, just controversial – ideas about foreign policy. He thought we might see the error of Senator Cotton’s ways by simply hearing him out. Whoops! And here’s a scientific paper retracted because it did not sufficiently genuflect to assumptions about racial motivation. We can go on in this vein. 

People’s lives aren’t being “canceled” only over ugly words about race. They’re being canceled for opposing what culturally powerful people believe.

Here is the nut of it, my old friend: you, especially you, and I have jobs (hell, we have a free society) only as long as there’s open space for speaking against the grain. These anarchists, fresh to power, are tearing that down every day, and your reply to this is to hide inside your own good intentions, to separate yourself from the destroyers beside you in every way except one that matters, and leave it to the “cosmic wash” and more than a whiff of “they had it comin’.” I don’t think you mean what you wrote.

And you think I’m afraid to speak because I know my ideas are “out of step” or “tone deaf”? How long have you known me? When in the eternal fuck has that stopped me from saying whatever I want to whomever I please? That I’ve stopped now should tell you something, because what I say that makes people’s heads snap back wasn’t some minstrel-show bit. Here’s a survey that says 50 percent of “strong liberals” support firing Trump donors. Many – most, I imagine – readers of this sentence just said, “Hell, yeah!” to themselves. This is the philosophy of “Shut up,” he explained.

The price of free speech is to be offended, sometimes greatly, sometimes terribly. And, no, it’s not too late to learn that after college. If no one told me until a year after I bought a car that it needs oil every few months, I wouldn’t just keep driving it. I’d buy some oil.

And it’s not too late here. But it’s so fucking fashionable to cancel unpopular people – and let’s be honest: it’s not just anti-racism anymore, it’s power is so much fun! – that it won’t stop anytime soon.

The white male patriarchy of history did many horrible things. Awful, evil things. And all that physical and economic shit began with philosophical shit; in particular, foreclosing on their opponents’ ability to speak their minds, even when it’s unpopular, even when it’s hurtful, even when they’re wrong. This is the path it always takes, as you and I know. First words, then deeds. It’s all coming soon, one more time. One more time. Step 1: rationalizing another mouth sewn shut. 

When the buzz wears off, I hope the woke realize they have become the oppressors of speech that they despised.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.


Speaking of bosses, my first boss Larry Ragan used to forbid his editors from answering the letters we printed with our own comments, because: “We’ve had our say; let the readers have theirs.” Obviously this conversation could go on. But I believe I’ve essentially had my say. So I’m going to let my friend’s response close this out, at least as it appears here at Writing Boots (and now, over at, too). I’ll look forward to hearing other voices, as well. DM

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