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Cancel Culture And Being Better

If you liked Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind you will like Lukianoff’s new book (with Rikki Schlott this time) The Cancelling of the American Mind. I can say this with confidence, as it is a bit of a re-tread. To quote, the 90s English band Pulp, it’s “Like the Stones since the Eighties”. It is a bit disappointing, there isn’t much new, but some of the classics are still worth a listen. In the book Lukianoff and Schlott talk about cancel culture and being better. They give lots of interesting case studies and offer some advice on what we all should do differently.

Important Points About Cancel Culture And Being Better

I came into the book thinking that there is undoubtedly a problem with attacks on free speech in the US (and elsewhere). They certainly offer some stories that are a cause for concern.

To start with the positive, the stories in the book are great. Many of the tales they tell you might have heard already if you follow US news but they are worth repeating. Their overarching argument is important. We need to support free speech. This involves giving rights to people who may be offensive. I agree that this is an important message.

In the corner against free speech, they describe the left’s ‘perfect rhetorical fortress’. This allows all views one doesn’t like to be dismissed through a series of questions about the speaker’s identity. There are questions such as: is the speaker conservative? male? cis? etc… No one alive could avoid giving a reason to be dismissed by those using the perfect rhetorical fortress.

When the right wants to cancel they have their own ‘efficient rhetorical fortress’. This is much more parsimonious — it has fewer barricades but they are really big ones. This fortress allows the right to dismiss any views that come from 1) liberals, 2) experts, or 3) journalists, or anyone who is simply perceived of being from one of these groups.

The Perfect and Efficient Rhetorical Fortresses

Random Discussions

Beyond the case studies the book is a bit more disappointing. There is a lot of discussion of the problems at universities but I wasn’t convinced much thought was put into how hard it is to run a university. For example, the authors argue universities should avoid taking stands on contentious issues but the discussion doesn’t go to the hard bit. For example, imagine you have professors at your university working on climate change. Should the university have no opinion on whether the work their professors produce is higher quality than any random opinion on Twitter? After all, the authors don’t want the university to take sides in contentious issues. We need free speech partly because life is complex. Their advice isn’t.

They suggest, “Keep your corporation out of the culture war” (page 249). Why? I think it is just that they don’t like it. The discussion was superficial and didn’t reference any business performance metric.

One of the strangest parts of the book was their advice about parenting. I don’t think it was bad advice but it seemed random. There was no indication given that they had special expertise on the topic. One is a lawyer, who does have kids, and another is a younger person who is yet to graduate. I am pretty sure parents can find more authoritative sources if they need any parenting advice.

They do see schools as a problem. Part of the solution they want is more school vouchers in US. I don’t aim to get into this contentious debate in the US but I would say that they don’t build a case or share any deep knowledge on the subject. I think it is great that they can discuss any subject they want — yeah for free speech — but I’m not sure why we should listen to their thoughts over anyone else’s you might bump into propping up a bar.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

Part of the message I think we need to send to promote free speech is that people need to calm down. People say stupid things and people say offensive things. The authors would (rightly) say this doesn’t make the speakers terrible people whose opinions should never be listened to. That is a key takeaway from the book, and a good one. Yet, their book did have a rather panicked tone throughout. At the risk of harping on the stylistic, they really like to use the term ‘shocking’ about things that don’t seem shocking. The authors describe as shocking that the Coinbase CEO offered a payoff to those employees not on board with his view of the company’s political stances and 5% of staff took the offer and left. I’m not shocked, I suspect at many workplaces if decent money was offered to leave a chunk of people would take it regardless of any connection to their political views.

There are other examples of how they need to dial back their shock. Look at this one:

…a shocking 55 percent of YA [young adult novels] readers are adults…

Lukianoff and Schlott (2023) page 244

Maybe I’m just a jaded old man, but I’m not shocked. I’m not even surprised.

Gaslighting Implies Bad Intentions

The authors also aren’t impressed with anyone who says cancel culture doesn’t exist. They call such people gaslighters. Remember an aim of the book is to encourage us to respect other people’s opinions and not attack their motives. To this end, they tell the reader to avoid accusations of bad faith (page 98). They should take their own advice. Instead, they suggest that those who don’t agree with them over the prevalence of cancel culture are engaged in an attempt at “an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control” (according to Psychology Today). If you think cancel culture is less of a problem than they do, they apparently think that you are a monster messing with people’s perceptions of reality. It seemed a tad hypocritical.

Part of the advice to destroy cancel culture involves giving jobs to those who didn’t go to elite universities. Indeed, Greg seems proud of himself for hiring Rikki, who is yet to graduate college. Sadly for the power of this story, Rikki came to prominence when she was studying at NYU and hasn’t graduated yet because she seems admirably busy with her media work. She is now finishing her degree at Columbia. Between Rikki’s NYU and Columbia background, I’m not 100% convinced Greg is doing a perfect job of hiring those who didn’t go to elite universities. Indeed, although the authors a number of times say they want you, the reader, to think beyond elite schools they seem pretty obsessed with elite schools throughout the book.

What Is The Scale Of The Problem?

It’s hard to overstate just how bad the cancel culture situation has gotten on campuses…

Lukianoff and Schlott (2023) page 26

At the end of Lukianoff’s earlier book, The Coddling of the American Mind, I was left with questions about the scale of the problem. I believed that there is a problem but contrary to their assertion it certainly seems possible to overstate how bad cancel culture is on campuses. Unfortunately, it is a tricky problem to establish the extent. One challenge is that suppression of free speech can lead to self-censorship. You will never know what someone might have wanted to say but didn’t. I think every workplace influences people to toe perceived lines; establishing the extent of this ‘encouragement’ is really challenging.

My personal issue is that in my work as a professor I don’t encounter the dramatic case studies they highlight. So is it just me missing things? Possibly, I am in a business school in a purple state, so I would not expect to be the epicenter of the problems described.

Data is a way to get beyond the anecdotal and personal experience. Sadly, their numbers aren’t the final say on the topic. They have conducted surveys, which is good, and these certainly highlight that a problem exists. The magnitude is still unclear, however. These surveys seem likely to be influenced by self-selection bias, only those with strong feelings answer the questions. We might also expect demand effects to influence respondents to report problems when asked about problems. Most people tend to want to give the questioner the “right” answer when questioned.

Is It Worse Than McCarthyism?

The authors talk about the complaints they receive at FIRE (their institute). These are going up. This may be due to an increasing problem but more complaints to FIRE might be expected as FIRE becomes better known. If so, this is a reason to feel proud of the marketing of their institute but not as strong an argument for overall prevalence. Throughout the book, the data is not as strong as one might hope.

Indeed the number of professors fired during the age of cancel culture (2014 to July 2023) is nearly twice the common estimate of the number fired during Mcarthyism.

Lukianoff and Schlott (2023) page 317

Are we supposed to conclude that professors are in more danger than in the McCarthy era of the 1950s? Surely not. There are loads more professors now, so we must adjust for the increase in professors working who are available to get fired. A better metric would be the incidence (%) of professors having a problem rather than the raw number of firings.

My disappointment is that I still don’t know the extent of the problem. The authors may be right, but after a couple of books by Lukianoff I’m left hoping for more. I don’t want to be too negative. There are some interesting stories and the authors do have a number of good points. Maybe their work can get people thinking about the importance of free speech which is valuable. Still, I can’t help thinking that this book was a bit of a missed opportunity.

See here for Lukianoff’s earlier book.
Read:  Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott (2023) The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution, Simon and Schuster

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