As the most surreal year of our lifetime draws to a close and we take stock, one story that deserves attention even amid bigger and more dramatic events is the battle for intellectual freedom and the pushback against so-called "cancel culture" in America. It is hardly the biggest story of 2020, but it is one whose relevance will continue for the foreseeable future.
Midway through the year, a "Letter on Justice and Open Debate" posted on the website of Harper’s Magazine and later appearing in the print edition sparked an intense controversy, partly because of the big names attached, including novelist Salman Rushdie and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. (I was also among the signers.)
The letter noted that "free exchange of information and ideas ... is daily becoming more constricted" and deplored "public shaming and ostracism." While it mentioned "the intolerant climate ... on all sides," its focus was on liberal and progressive culture — particularly in the wake of the protests against racial injustice that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
The letter mentioned editors fired for controversial pieces, books withdrawn, researchers and professors investigated or dismissed. All those incidents are real and documented.
The left-wing backlash was swift, with charges that the letter was merely defending the right of privileged people to express harmful views (e.g., ones perpetuating racism, misogyny, or anti-transgender bigotry) without being criticized or challenged. But some critics also complained that the signers wanted people to be able to express offensive views "with impunity" or "without consequences." In other words, this isn’t just a question of criticism or challenge, but about retaliation such as professional damage, loss of livelihood, and/or social ostracism.
Most of us agree that some forms of speech, while legally protected, are so odious they deserve ostracism (e.g., defense of genocide). But in a free society, the range of shunned speech should be extremely narrow, and no one should be "punished" for opinions on which there are mainstream disagreements: whether concerns about police brutality should focus primarily on racism, or what therapeutic interventions are appropriate for children who identify as transgender.
"Cancel culture" may be an overly broad label, but the issue is real. And while the "cancellation" of Republicans who oppose President Donald Trump has been a serious problem on the right, the intolerant climate in liberal institutions ostensibly dedicated to intellectual and cultural freedom is a greater blight.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.