The Liberal Answer to Cancel Culture

Cultural socialism and its accompanying religion of woke are geared toward engineering equal outcomes and emotional harm protection for historically disadvantaged race, gender, and sexual identity groups. This ideology has been tearing through Western culture at a breakneck pace.

Are we in the midst of an insignificant “culture war” between pointy-headed obsessives? No. As the classical liberal authors of two new books painfully explain, woke ideology threatens the freedoms we hold dear. More than this, it represents an attack on equal rights, truth-based institutions, and social cohesion that hampers our response to material issues such as health, social mobility, and crime.

Since Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s 2015 article and 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, important new literature has sought to understand where this cultural tornado came from, where it’s going, and what to do about it. I recently reviewed two books for this publication by conservative Millennials Chris Rufo and Richard Hanania. Rufo fingered post-1960s cultural Marxism and its “long march through the institutions” as pivotal while Hanania pointed to the unintended evolution of civil rights law as the powerhouse behind the rise of woke. Though their diagnoses are different, both advocated using elected government to curtail the power of activist bureaucracies.

Following closely on the heels of these conservative accounts are two classical liberal works, Yascha Mounk’s The Identity Trap, and Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott’s The Canceling of the American Mind.

Identity Synthesis

Mounk is an egalitarian-minded liberal and associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, a centrist department. Though identifying as a strongly anti-Trump Democrat, he is better described as a liberal moderate who has broken ranks with left-liberal intellectuals by consistently criticising progressive illiberalism and the left’s abandonment of the idea of inclusive nationhood. As a German Jew who felt somewhat of an outsider in his native land, his initial worldview was that of a pro-immigration, pro-European supporter of the Social Democratic Party. However, his opposition to populism subsequently inclined him toward inclusive patriotism as a bulwark against ethno-nationalism. He thus comes across as a left-tinged Francis Fukuyama, blending classical liberalism with Tocquevillean civic nationalism.

His anti-populist side expresses itself strongly on his Good Fight podcast, as well as in his books The People vs Democracy (2018) about the risks of populism and The Great Experiment (2022) on inclusive multi-ethnic nationhood. While he has expressed concerns about cancel culture in his books and in his online publication Persuasion, this is his first book-length treatment of progressive illiberalism. He eschews “woke” for political reasons: the left finds it distasteful. Yet he stresses that the new ideology must have a name, and the best he can devise for this new compound of ideas is the uninspiring “identity synthesis.”

The Identity Trap delivers a detailed and original intellectual history of woke ideology as well as a compelling account of how it took off and why it undermines the liberal principles that have been so vital for human flourishing in the West. Mounk asks us to think of the identity synthesis as a trap, whose promise of social justice for historically disadvantaged groups lures in the idealistic while offering minority groups a sense of solidarity, meaning, and recognition.

The fact equal treatment has yet to produce equal results among identity groups is what fed an impatient “system is rigged” response from the progressive left, who came to advocate for special rights instead of equal rights. Their success in short-circuiting neutral rules by instituting group privileges is producing a backlash from both the aggrieved majority and from minorities who resent being pigeonholed into disempowering one-dimensional victim identities. This ideology may make progressives feel good, but is fragmenting America’s diverse society along group lines, eroding freedoms, and deepening divisions while doing nothing to improve the lot of the disadvantaged.

Mounk is unsparing in his criticism of the new progressive illiberalism. To dispel those who would dismiss woke as a sideshow or right-wing panic, he responds that it killed many during the pandemic. Western countries outside America responded to Covid in a fair way, seeking to protect medical staff first, then the elderly, making scarce vaccines available according to mortality risk. “Only one country radically deviated from this plan: the United States.” The reason was that older Americans are relatively white while an ill-defined category of 87 million “essential workers” was more diverse, and therefore, from the cultural leftist worldview, more deserving. In hock to its ethic of diversity, the CDC was willing to sacrifice more people (including older minorities) than if it had followed the triage protocol used elsewhere. From life-saving drugs to farm subsidies, the CDC and the Biden administration fixated on skin colour as a paramount consideration, alienating many and engendering a mistrust in elites.

Like Chris Rufo, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, Francis Fukuyama, and others, Mounk locates the source of woke in the post-Marxist left. Khruschev’s revelation of regime atrocities following Stalin’s death prompted a considerable degree of soul-searching on the left, with Daniel Bell declaring “an end to chiliastic hopes” of revolution. In this climate, a number of Marxist intellectuals broke ranks in a process that would lead them away from class and toward subaltern race, gender, and sexual identity groups as the radical agents of societal transformation. Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, for instance, trod this path in the early ’60s.

For those familiar with the literature on the New Left, this is nothing new. Yet where Mounk truly shines is in the way he unpicks the conundrum of how the amoral post-modernism of the ’70s and ’80s segued into the moralist absolutism of the 2010s cancel culture. Postmodernism initially seemed the obverse of left-utopian moralism. In a 1971 debate, Foucault poured cold water on Noam Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist utopianism, averring that it was impossible to replace the flawed existing order with a better one—all one can do is expose and deconstruct existing narratives. Subsequent cultural theorists eagerly drew on Foucault to tear down the existing order, but slipped a new “grand narrative” of cultural socialism in the backdoor. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) sought to replace Eurocentric perspectives with those of marginalized non-westerners, imploring his readers to alleviate suffering and tackle oppression.

Even so, the seminal move was made by Indian-born literary theorist and feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Building on Said, she acknowledged that categories such as race and gender were social constructs, but qualified this in the mid-1980s with a call for the left to act as if these were real in order to mobilize minorities for political action. Mounk calls her critique ”strategic essentialism,” a vital bridge between the postmodernists’ relativist view that all political programmes and narratives are a mirage of self-serving elite constructions, and the absolutist moral certainty of today’s woke ideologues that they are on the ”right side of history.” Critical race and gender theorists who emerged in the ’90s are the heirs of the latter, moralistic, narrative.

Mounk’s account of the spread of these ideas is also distinctive. Social media—notably Tumblr, alongside opinionated news sites such as Vox and Buzzfeed—incubated a victimhood-obsessed youth culture that developed a vulgar version of critical theory for mass consumption. Established institutions and news outlets kowtowed to these young influencers because woke youth drove the social media trends that moved markets and headlines. Organizations hired a phalanx of new graduates from elite universities who were steeped in woke ideas. These cadres staffed the ranks of affinity groups, spearheaded internal identity crusades on employee Slack channels, and set the tone in organizational town hall meetings. The rise of Trump also mattered: he helped unify Democrats behind the “resistance,” inhibiting internal criticism of leftist extremism.

Mounk urges progressives to return to a universalistic, rules-based, colour-blind liberalism, however imperfect. While Mounk does not follow Chris Rufo and Richard Hanania down the path of viewing monitoring outcomes by race or sex as misguided, he has more in common with them than he thinks. Namely, that we need a restoration of the Enlightenment-cum-American Founding ideas that made America and the West great. For Mounk, this procedural liberal framework is the only durable way to make diverse societies work and advance a realistic social justice agenda.

The Identity Trap and The Canceling of the American Mind do an exemplary job of critiquing woke ideas, but neither offers an evidence-based argument against elected governments intervening to reform corrupt public institutions.

Mounk, at times, is optimistic that those who fell for the identity trap can be deprogrammed. He cites the cases of Eboo Patel and Maurice Mitchell, two figures from the progressive nonprofit world who came to realize that identity synthesis ideology results in negativity, paralysis, and division. He lauds the new free speech editorials from woke-aligned newspapers like the New York Times and the fact some firms are backing away from cancel culture. On the other hand, in view of a continued stream of cancellations, he cautions that the most likely scenario is that identity politics will remain entrenched in institutions—even as its worst excesses are contained by the new pushback.

Rhetorical Tricks

Mounk approaches his subject as a social scientist who takes the power of ideas seriously. By contrast, Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott are civil libertarians in the trenches of the battle for free speech. Lukianoff runs the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), an uncorrupted version of the ACLU, and Schlott is a FIRE research fellow, podcast host, and journalist. Lukianoff has also been influenced by the psychological approach of his sometime co-author, Jonathan Haidt, who penned the foreword to this book. As a consequence, their book reads less like a thesis and more as a series of thematic forays fleshed out with evocative reportage. Rather than excavating and defining an ideology the way Mounk, Rufo, or Lindsay do, The Canceling of the American Mind speaks more pragmatically of “Cancel Culture.” This draws on Jonathan Rauch’s 6-point definition of the term and Lukianoff’s important concept of ”free speech culture” as distinct from the free speech law of the First Amendment. The book juxtaposes free speech culture and cancel culture as contending sets of discursive practices, focusing mainly on deconstructing the rhetorical tricks of the cancelers.

Its most important contribution is to expose the intellectual deceit of those who prefer to stick emotional labels on their opponents rather than honestly discuss their ideas and evidence within the rules of Socratic debate. They list the most common rhetorical techniques used to dodge arguments: wrapping oneself in the mantle of the underdog, strawmanning an opponent’s claim by denuding it of complexity, or using motte-and-bailey arguments to conceal the radicalism of one’s position. My personal favorite is “minimization,” which invokes the canard that cancel culture is too rare to worry about. As the authors retort, “Americans should absolutely believe their eyes and dismiss the gaslighters who say there’s nothing to see when it comes to Cancel Culture.” Noting that more have been fired and targeted than under McCarthyism, they add that, ”Historians will be studying it in fifty to a hundred years” like the Red Scare and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The number of academics who self-censor at least somewhat in the US stands at 91 percent whereas a mere 9 percent did during the McCarthy era.

On the left, discursive dishonesty manifests as the ”Perfect Rhetorical Fortress.” This involves an edifice of emotive tactics. Speakers are summarily dismissed if they are conservative, white, or male. Any opposition to woke claims is excluded as “phobic.” Other tools in the progressive drawer include using emotional blackmail, accusing someone of “dogwhistling,” or pronouncing them guilty by association. This thicket of rhetorical dodges is dense enough to avoid having to debate. The right’s strategy, by contrast, is to engage in a much simpler Efficient Rhetorical Fortress composed of four simple pillars: 1) You don’t have to listen to liberals, 2) You don’t have to listen to experts, 3) You don’t have to listen to journalists, and 4) You don’t need to listen to anyone who isn’t pro-Trump.

The book grasps the woke gemstone and rotates it to view it through its institutional facets: universities, journalism, psychotherapy, science, medicine, and comedy. Lukianoff and Schlott concentrate somewhat more on progressive than conservative illiberalism but there is plenty here on the excesses of the censorious right—whether in the guise of red state legislators, university trustees and donors, or campus watch groups.

Canceling nicely combines qualitative accounts of cancel culture such as the tragic case of professor Mike Adams—who was driven to suicide by the effects of activism and administrative persecution—or the unhinged Stanford student reaction to conservative judge Kyle Duncan’s speech in March 2023. Among the high points of that event was the slogan ”BE PRO-NOUN NOT PRO-BIGOT” with the official justification for this illiberalism furnished by the woke Equity Dean of Stanford Law, Tirien Steinbach.

Powerful anecdotes are usefully fleshed out using quantitative data from FIRE’s databases and surveys. These chart the staggering increase in illiberalism over the past decade through data on the surge in the prevalence of bias response teams, diversity statements, and book bans. While cancel culture has taken off in recent years, the authors remind us that it is not new: in 1988, UCLA suspended a student newspaper for making fun of affirmative action; a year later, Tufts limited speech to designated ”free speech zones”; hundreds of speech codes were in force on American campuses by the early ’90s; and in 2007, fully 350 cases of speech suppression were reported to FIRE. This number jumped after 2015, but the recent period is quantitatively rather than qualitatively different.

What’s Next?

Like The Identity Trap, The Canceling of the American Mind sees signs that the tide is turning against cancel culture. Coinbase, Netflix, and comedian Andrew Schulz stood up to it and won. Yet Lukianoff and Schlott, like Mounk, are realistic about the challenge ahead. What should be done? Here we find clear water between the Rufo-Hanania call for government intervention to break the power of the administrative state, and the laissez-faire approach of civil libertarians such as Mounk, Lukianoff, Schlott, or David French.

The liberal books adopt a self-help approach focusing on individuals and institutions rather than government. Mounk urges liberals to be confident that they, not the woke, stand on the right side of history. This can help summon the intestinal fortitude to resist the emotional lure of the identity trap. He wants corporate leaders to embrace colorblind values, conduct surveys that elicit the views of the silent majority, and resist the temptation to cave to the demands of activists. Lukianoff and Schlott call for university trustees and donors to condition their support for universities upon guarantees of academic freedom. They counsel that feedback from employees should take place in small groups rather than in town halls where radicals can grandstand. To counter the appeal of cancel culture to young people, parents need to allot more unstructured time to their children and encourage self-reliance and conflict resolution rather than always running to the authorities. Their one concession to policy is to provide school vouchers in order to encourage competition and pluralism in education.

Both steer clear of government regulation. Canceling, in particular, criticizes the excesses of “divisive concepts [in education] bills” in red states, or the banning of books from libraries. As applied to higher education, such bills are unconstitutional, and in schools, they are so vaguely worded as to be open to abuse, chilling legitimate discussions about American history and the family. Lukianoff and Schlott admit that the content of K-12 education is subject to democratic will, but they view attempts to regulate the content of teaching as a band-aid that does not address the fundamental problem of a breakdown in free speech culture which has affected some teachers.

I remain unpersuaded. These books do an exemplary job of critiquing woke ideas, but neither offers an evidence-based argument against elected governments intervening to reform corrupt public institutions. Next to the concrete steps laid out by Hanania and Rufo, their cultural exhortations betray an abdication of responsibility for the fate of so many who have lost their expressive freedom in the current institutional climate. Lawfare is, at best, an expensive tool that is unlikely to protect people from intimidation or give them back the freedom to speak their minds.

That said, these liberal writers are surely correct that unless new generations can be persuaded of the merits of free speech, no laws can protect society from descending into progressive tyranny.