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Cancel culture is toxic. Solve it with humility and parenting.

  1. Free Speech

Cancel culture is toxic. Solve it with humility and parenting.

Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott’s new book The Canceling of the American Mind dives into cancel culture’s origins and ways to fight it.

Free Speech Authors Offer Solutions To End Cancel Culture

The ability to put forth, question, and debate ideas sustains society and fuels progress, but it's become clear those principles are under attack. Even Taylor Swift addressed how cancel culture infects every corner of society, from schools and businesses to social media and Hollywood.  

Cancel culture uses mob mentality to punish, fire, and silence people for their beliefs, which threatens the free expression that is essential to human growth. Increasingly, cancel culture is keeping Americans from discussing the ideas and policies we need to move forward as a society.  

In their new book "The Canceling of the American Mind", Greg Lukianoff, president of the national civil liberty organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), and journalist Rikki Schlott examine cancel culture's rise, why it is toxic, and how to end it. While cancel culture is a relatively new phenomenon, it has created havoc in academia and in private life. It has ended lives and livelihoods and undermined Americans' confidence in the country's postsecondary education system. Responsible citizens and parents can end cancel culture, and the authors offer a how-to for vanquishing the movement.  

Nearly 60% of Americans believe cancel culture is a threat to democracy, because more and more people are scared to speak out. The authors say it is a threat to human progress because it omits the debate that is necessary to refine ideas. It is "an approach to winning arguments by skirting them," say Lukianoff and Schlott. "In this sense, cancel culture should be understood not as an isolated phenomenon but rather as part of an embrace of cheap argument tactics that rely on … attacks on a person rather than the point they are making."  

The personally destructive nature of this approach is just one reason why cancel culture is toxic. 

Why cancel culture is toxic 

Lukianoff and Schlott are not the only public figures who have argued cancel culture is personally destructive. They cite music icon Taylor Swift, who in 2019 told Vogue, "When you say someone is canceled, it's not a TV show. It's a human being. You're sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or … kill yourself." 

The authors detail how cancel culture has led to a loss of life, a loss of human dignity, and a loss in the belief in the value of postsecondary education by eroding academic freedom. It has affected Americans in their daily lives, from the dinner table to the workplace.  

Lukianoff and Schlott detail the social media furor that led to University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor Mike Adams taking his own life. Throughout the book, the authors offer other stories, including one about a young woman who had her college admission revoked after a classmate posted a three-second racially insensitive video the girl had made several years before (when she was 15).  

The authors cite a FIRE survey of faculty that found 16% of professors say they have been threatened or investigated because of their speech.  

"That means that more professors have been terminated during the era of cancel culture than the era of McCarthyism," the authors note. 

Students also feel pressure to conform. The authors cite a 2021 FIRE study that found 80% of college students say they have self-censored their beliefs. Slightly more than that, 81%, say they feel pressured to avoid discussing controversial subjects in class.  

"Cancel culture has devastated the trust we have in the very institution we rely on to produce knowledge … and to educate future generations of Americans," say Lukianoff and Schlott.  

Students are not the only ones feeling pressured to hold back opinions or to conform. Sixty-two percent of American adults, including a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, don't feel comfortable expressing their opinions in public, the authors say, citing Cato Institute data from 2020. That poll also found that 32% think doing so could diminish their job prospects or could get them fired.  

Another reason why cancel culture is toxic is it increases divisiveness. Lukianoff and Schlott examine several studies that show when social media organizations ban groups or individuals from their platform, those voices simply move to outlets with less intellectual diversity. The result is increased radicalization.  

"When you're dealing with people who believe there's a conspiracy to shut them up, do absolutely nothing that looks anything like a conspiracy to shut them up," advise Lukianoff and Schlott. "Censorship doesn't change people's opinions, it encourages them to speak with people they already agree with, which makes political polarization even worse."  

To remedy this phenomenon, we first need to ask when and how cancel culture started. 

When did cancel culture start? 

The philosophical origins of cancel culture are more than a half century old, but what the authors define as cancel culture began about a decade ago.  

It has grown quickly and forcefully since that point.  

"The rise of Cancel Culture was not gradual," say Lukianoff and Schlott. "On campuses across the country, it struck like lightning."  

The authors say cancel culture began around 2013, "hit its stride" in 2017, and then exploded in 2020. Over the last decade, the number of professors, speakers, and students being fired, disinvited, or deplatformed has risen exponentially. In 2010, FIRE saw 20 attempts to get professors punished for their speech or scholarship. From 2014 to 2023, there were at least 1,000 attempts, about two-thirds of which were successful.  

"We'd have to go all the way back to the 1950s to see anything even remotely on this scale," say Lukianoff and Schlott. (During the Red Scare of 1947 to 1957, 100 to 150 professors were fired for their speech.)  

While cancel culture is a new phenomenon, its intellectual underpinnings date back to the mid-20th century to Herbert Marcuse and his 1964 essay, "Repressive Tolerance." 

"[Marcuse] argued that tolerance for speech is only useful in a totally equal society — and that getting to that point paradoxically requires intolerance and suppression of certain viewpoints," explain Lukianoff and Schlott in their book. Curtailing speech is not an act of oppression, but rather a "remedy for oppression," the authors continue.   

History shows the opposite. Governmental and institutional authority are never more dangerous than when they infringe upon freedom of thought and expression — even when the motivation is (as Marcuse believed) noble, the authors say. And, as the book explains, for most of U.S. history, this view was the prevailing one. That free speech is necessary to protect the marginalized.  

Trigger warnings, speech codes, politicized college orientation programs, and campus bias response  — in addition to the overt efforts to silence certain faculty, speakers, and staff — are all outgrowths of the Marcusian belief in "repressive tolerance," the book suggests.  

Lukianoff told Politico that, despite the rapid rise and proliferation of cancel culture, he is optimistic about Americans' desire and ability to end it.   

How do we end cancel culture? Advice for parents 

Americans recognize that cancel culture is not only a threat to their self-expression and to the institutions of society, but also to their well-being. For the 82% of Americans who think cancel culture is a problem, Lukianoff and Schlott offer solutions. 

The authors start with advice to parents, including parents who are concerned about their children's mental health. 

"The ever-present threat of being canceled harms friendships, undermines trust, and fosters paranoia," write Lukianoff and Schlott. Cancel culture is one reason Americans, particularly teens, are increasingly anxious, depressed, and lonely, the authors argue. 

They outline a multi-step guide for raising children who have the courage to discuss difficult issues. That playbook begins with the revival of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you — particularly on social media.   

"Parents need to make their children aware of the power they wield over one another thanks to social media," the authors write. "They need to emphasize that every kid has the ability to ruin the lives of their friends and enemies alike."  

Parents also should talk to their children about the myriad differences between human beings and model how to examine both sides of an argument. 

For the rest of us, the campaign to end cancel culture involves rediscovering humility.  

"The only way we can stop [cancel culture's] progression is by developing a cultural immune system that allows us to resist or simply prevent its replication," the authors write. "Scholarship, science, and democracy itself all rely on a humble realization: that we may all be wrong. Therefore, rather than cancel our opposition, we must listen carefully to what they say. Then we can refute it, accept it, or come to a new position." 

FIRE is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America's biggest problems. 

Learn more about Stand Together's free speech efforts and explore ways you can partner with us. 

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