One of the most hotly debated questions among my friends and acquaintances lately is this: Is America headed for a future in which just about everyone has been canceled?
Fortunately, while "cancel culture" and political correctness have become stronger and more influential over the past few years, these movements have built-in limitations. They will prove to be a durable element of American culture, but by no means a dominant one.
How do I know? I don't, of course, but consider which recent developments have most captivated young people and grabbed their attention. The first is the gaming ecosystem Fortnite, with about 350 million global users. The second is the short video platform TikTok, which now has 80 million active users in the U.S. alone.
Both are huge worlds unto themselves, and both resist easy generalization. But it is safe to say they are not bastions of political correctness.
The primary purpose of both is to entertain their users. While Fortnite offers non-egalitarian competitive gaming, based on violent combat, TikTok rewards brashness and irreverence. One of the main characteristics of PC culture is humorlessness. In a world where attention is dominated by entertainment, along with social bonding and networking, political correctness will not be the major cultural influence.
So what to make of the apparent growing strength of cancel culture and affiliated movements? Here is the fundamental point: With the rise of social media and low-cost communications, virtually everything that can be said will be said.
It might be said on Twitter rather than on the evening news, or on 4Chan rather than on Facebook. But the sentiments will be out there, and many of them will be disturbing. The world has arrived at a place where just about every politically incorrect statement — and a response to it, not to mention every politically correct statement and a response to that — is published or recorded somewhere.
So the policing of speech may be vastly more common than it was, say, 15 years ago. But the discourse itself is vastly greater in scope. Political correctness has in fact run amok, but so then has everything else.
As a general principle, people notice what disturbs them more than what doesn't. Therefore opponents of political correctness — and I include myself in this group — have a never-ending supply of anecdotes to be concerned about. I am not suggesting that this cycle will end well, but it does put the matter in perspective.
The issue is how social norms will adjust to cope with a world where everything is being said all the time. That path will not be smooth — but anxiety about it is different from fear of political correctness simply swallowing up everything and canceling everybody.
I'm no optimist. In fact, I suspect it will be harder to rein in the chaos and bewilderment from the say-whatever-you-want culture — have you checked out the pandemic discourse lately? — than to curb the intemperance of the you-can't-say-that culture.
Consider also the evolution of Internet communication. For all of its diversity, there are significant trends toward centralization. The English language is more focal than before, national politics command more attention than local politics, and the U.S. itself has more soft power in some crucial directions, thanks to its central role in the Internet's intellectual infrastructure. It is striking, for example, how much the entire world responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That means Americans will be subject to more cancellations and to more political correctness than people in the rest of the world. For better or worse, Americans are the central nexus that so many others are talking about, not always favorably. To quote Joseph Heller: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you — and Americans have good reason to be paranoid these days. If you published your politically incorrect column in your local Croatian newspaper, the rest of the Internet just wouldn't care all that much.
Yet note the underlying assumption here — namely, that American soft power is indeed growing. And if you are an American intellectual, your relative influence around the world is likely to be growing as well. With that greater influence comes greater scrutiny, and greater risk that you will be treated unfairly by the PC brigades. Is that really such a bad trade-off?
I too am concerned about the growth of the PC movement, including in my own sector of academia. That doesn't mean, however, that the movement's critics are identifying its problems with sufficient acuity - or that America's future is destined to be filled with cancellations.
Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University; he writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.