The Making of a Cancel Culture

Russell Blackford argues that a culture of cancellation has arisen that is unhealthy for democracy and academic life

By way of an introduction: The Bertrand Russell Case

In early 1940, Bertrand Russell was appointed to a professorial post at the City College of New York, scheduled to commence at the beginning of February the following year. He was assigned to teach courses in modern logic, the foundations of mathematics, and the relations between science and metaphysics – all topics on which he was an acknowledged authority. In his younger days, Lord Russell had been a principal figure in establishing and consolidating analytic philosophy as a formal academic discipline, and in 1940 he remained one of the most important philosophers in the world. For what it’s worth, all of his students at City College would have been male under the excluding – and obviously sexist – arrangements applying there at the time.

Alongside his achievements in technical areas of philosophy, Russell was, by 1940, the author of a controversial body of work examining such topics as war, educational reform, the nature and substance of morality, and the claims of religion. By today’s standards, most of his views seem eccentric at worst – and actually rather mild, if not timid. Still, his critique of religious faith, and in particular his observations about nudity, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and other issues related to human sexuality and sexual morality, seemed shocking to American conservatives.

As is well documented, including in his own autobiography, Russell could be hard-hearted, or worse, in his private romantic behaviour. It was, however, his publicly expressed ideas that got him into trouble. They prompted a furious campaign against his appointment at City College. This was led by high-ranking Episcopal and Catholic clergy, and it featured relentless character assassination by various churchmen and politicians, and from the local press. The vitriol was so extreme as to appear comical eighty-odd years later, but at the time, it led to litigation that stopped the appointment in its tracks.

On the whole, City College stood firm, and Russell received widespread support from many individuals and organisations. However, one member of the public filed suit in the New York Supreme Court, seeking to have his appointment blocked on a mix of technicalities and a claim that Russell was a morally vicious individual who was a threat to society. The court, in the person of Justice John E McGeehan, agreed on all counts. His Honor described Russell’s writings as “filth” and accused him of unlawfully inciting criminal acts (for example – omigod! – adultery). In what now seems like self-indulgent detail, McGeehan’s judgment portrayed Russell as the sort of person whose mere presence would corrupt the youth of New York City.

Through various legal and political shenanigans, the judgment stood without ever being subjected to a proper appeal hearing, but Russell went on to continue his remarkable career elsewhere. This included the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

By even earlier standards, of course, he got off lightly. Contrast the fates of other famous dissenters from local orthodoxy, such as Jan Hus, Michael Servetus, and Giordano Bruno (all burned at the stake) or Galileo (who also got off a bit lightly, with a life sentence of house arrest after being “vehemently suspected of heresy”). Or compare the dire outcomes for dissenters in twentieth- and twenty-first-century totalitarian regimes. Russell was not physically harmed, and he easily found appointments elsewhere. All the same, such incidents keep occurring, and they show lesser lights what views can bring down trouble on their heads. In Russell’s time, for example, his relatively tolerant and sympathetic attitude to homosexuality was not safe for most people to express. In dissenting from Christian belief, and especially long-standing Christian sexual morals, he came up against an ideology that maintained much prestige in 1940 and has significant power and influence even today.

If we varied the facts of the situation, might there have been a better case for driving Russell out of City College? In this instance, we’d need to change them considerably. Perhaps the situation would appear slightly less ludicrous if he’d been hired to teach female as well as male students, and if he’d been allocated classes in moral philosophy. In that case, there would have been more plausibility to the worry, expressed by his enemies, that his mere presence would encourage sexual encounters between young men and women. Even postulating those alternative facts, however, such a worry now seems absurd. Moreover, Russell had much to say about questions of metaethics, and of practical or applied ethics, that now seems prescient and would have qualified him well to teach moral philosophy.

Whatever areas of philosophy he was assigned to teach, he’d not have been a mere charlatan, propagandist, or provocateur being passed off as a serious scholar and a major twentieth-century thinker. Bertrand Russell was the real deal.

Waves of zealotry

Though it has a long prehistory going back at least to early modernity, academic freedom as we know it today was born in the late nineteenth century, then developed more formally in the century that followed. Throughout this time, universities in the Western world have sought to protect their academic staff from successive waves of zealotry, perhaps beginning with attacks on Darwinian evolutionary theory. The story of these waves of zealotry is well told by Neil Hamilton in his 1995 book Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Cultural Perspective.

For many decades, attacks on academics and their scientific or scholarly views were led and orchestrated by forces based outside the academy, as with the church leaders and others who vilified Bertrand Russell in 1940. Appalling though Russell’s plight undoubtedly was, it did have a positive aspect in the support he was given from within the College itself: from administrators, faculty, and students. This was, therefore, a classic situation where academic freedom was under threat from external forces, but the institution involved sided with the embattled individual.

As Hamilton describes, however, the picture began to change in the 1960s, with the first stirrings of censorious zealotry from – in broad terms – the political and cultural Left, and from inside the academy. Decades later, we see a wide variety of cases, with some of the most sensational involving liberal or left-wing figures pursued by zealots and purity police from their own side of traditional electoral politics.

In the past fortnight, as I’ve worked on this essay in October and November 2021, we have seen another eminent philosopher, this time Kathleen Stock, driven out of her position. Stock was hounded from her professorial post at the University of Sussex. She resigned in desperation after a campaign of targeted hate so intense that no one could have been expected to endure it day after day. To his credit, the university’s Vice-Chancellor issued some strong statements in support of Stock and her academic freedom. We might, nonetheless, wonder whether this was too little, too late, and whether the disaster might have been mitigated or averted by earlier and more decisive support from senior university administrators.

As viewed by her attackers – seemingly students from the university itself – Stock’s crime was defending a moderate form of gender-critical feminism. In her recent book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (2021), and in other writings and public appearances, she examines the concept of “gender” – which has become pervasive and largely unquestioned since the early 1990s – and defends the reality and importance of biological sex as a characteristic of our species, Homo sapiens. One might think this last point would be uncontroversial, but that is now far from the case. In Material Girls, Stock shows obvious care and sympathy when discussing the problems and issues faced by trans women and trans men. No fair reading of her book could support the smear that she’s a bigot motivated by hatred for transgender individuals. But that has been the party line.

As with the Bertrand Russell Case, this was nothing like a university handing a megaphone to a charlatan, a propagandist, or a provocateur. Stock’s analysis is careful, multifaceted, and properly philosophical – which is not to claim it is perfect – and she’s a thinker and scholar who would bring distinction to any educational institution that employed her. Given her profile and obvious talent, I find it difficult to imagine that she’ll be driven completely from public life.

But the poisonous, and deeply personal, nature of the vilification that she’s endured – especially with its tactical success in driving her out of her job – can only inspire fear in other philosophers who hold similar views. Younger or less established scholars, and even older ones who value a quiet life, inevitably draw conclusions about their own careers. Anyone working in today’s universities who doubts the coherence, or the empirical foundations, of contemporary queer and transgender theory will need to be very brave before publishing on such issues, let alone engaging on this topic with the wider public. After all, there are many safer questions to investigate and many stances that are orders of magnitude more likely to bring plaudits and rewards. As with the Bertrand Russell Case, all those decades ago, we’ve been warned.

Bluntly, there’s an environment of fear on university campuses. How do I know that? Because people are aware that I write about this stuff, and they confide in me. I’m here to tell you, lots of them are scared.

A culture of cancellation

In an important article on no-platforming, published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Neil Levy rightly emphasises universities’ responsibility to reserve their prestigious gigs for speakers who are genuinely credible – whether because of personal expertise, an ability to package and convey the expertise of others, or some other characteristic that makes them worth listening to.

Not everyone can be granted prestigious platforms, any more than everyone’s letter to the editor can be chosen for publication by a major newspaper, or everyone can be selected to the Australian cricket team. In these situations, and many others, there has to be some criterion for selection, even if it’s unsatisfyingly vague. We might hope that universities would look for excellence, difficult though that is to define.

Furthermore, as Levy explains, there can be dangers in holding out uncredentialed speakers as expert or credible. This depends on the circumstances, but when an authoritative body such as a university does this – perhaps by giving a prestigious gig to a charlatan, a propagandist, or a provocateur, or even to a sincere and brilliant, but wrongheaded, crank – it can distort public discussion.

Thus, we should be careful before giving platforms to anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, proponents of Intelligent Design, and doubtless many others whose popularity, charisma, and rhetorical skills might vastly exceed their scientific credibility. Without due care, we can hand them an unearned advantage in the public controversies that so involve their energy. But as Levy acknowledges, that is not a conclusive reason to campaign to deplatform individuals, even in these sorts of cases, once they’ve signed on to make an appearance.

Part of the problem is that so many cases are not like this – and that’s become well known. So many cases are more like those involving Bertrand Russell or Kathleen Stock. In fact, Levy provides a list of individuals who have been somewhat recent targets of deplatforming campaigns – certain campaigns more whole-hearted, and some definitely more impactful, than others – including Peter Singer, Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, Julie Bindel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Charles Murray. Whatever might be said for or against any particular individual (Levy seems to think there was some merit in the campaign against Murray), all of these people were credible or even personally expert.

I could add numerous other examples of credible people who’ve been subjected to one or another kind of cancellation campaign, whether it was to have them fired from their current jobs, to have their future careers upended, to have peer-reviewed articles retracted after publication, to have public appearances cancelled or physically disrupted, or merely to have individuals unfairly discredited (the ever-present opposite of certifying them with undeserved credibility). I discuss many such examples in my 2019 book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism. More examples crop up every week, such as a very recent (unsuccessful) attempt to deplatform Singer – this time from an online interview conducted in September 2021 under the auspices of the Philosophy Department of Rhodes College.

Such tactics and episodes constitute a culture of cancellation: a culture where cancellation even of good-faith, appropriately credible, speakers is taken for granted as legitimate political praxis. Even when a particular effort at deplatforming an obvious charlatan might seem justified in isolation, we might reasonably balk at contributing to this culture and praxis, giving them unwarranted credibility.

Sacralising politics and theory

In this essay, largely aimed at academic philosophers, I focus on university campuses. However, the present-day culture and praxis of cancellation extend much further.

In many cases, we’re entitled (relative to widespread norms of free and candid speech) to express ideas that are not especially scholarly, or not scholarly at all, but have a place in the rough-and-tumble of everyday debate. Some kinds of vilification of individuals or groups, or violations of personal privacy, might lie beyond the pale of democratic toleration, but wherever, exactly, the boundaries lie, this should still leave a vast zone of expressive freedom. When the stakes seem high enough, however, it’s tempting to contract the zone of what feels tolerable, and to excuse cruel behaviour to people who seem like our enemies. This helps explain many disproportionate – at best – actions outside of the academic world, such as Google’s firing of James Damore in August 2017, for calmly expressing some mainstream (if dubious) views about sex differences in psychological traits. Likewise for Lucasfilm’s firing of the actress, and sometime mixed martial arts star, Gina Carano in February 2021, for some social media posts that were not calm, but were not unusually inflammatory by the standards prevailing on Twitter and Instagram. Again, it would be easy to multiply examples of these sorts of “cancellations.”

In Carano’s case, the last straw was a post that analogised what she perceived as the vilification and persecution of American conservatives to the early stages of the Nazi assault on the Jews. However absurd this analogy might be, she was not justifying the Nazis’ persecutions, or expressing racial animus of any kind. (Let’s not even mention that firing her made her point more plausible.) As it happens, I’d like to see a general moratorium on hyperbolic comparisons with the crimes of the Nazis, but many other people get away with them without such consequences (not least, many groups that campaign against Peter Singer – who comes from a Jewish family and had grandparents killed in the Holocaust).

None of this is intended to suggest that today’s cancellation efforts come only from the Left. In some settings, for example, the Right will go after you if you trenchantly criticise Israel. In Australia, be very careful how you speak about our semi-sacred day, Anzac Day, which commemorates Australia’s first major involvement in war between nations. Today’s right-wing culture warriors complain – much like their forebears who tormented Bertrand Russell – about “filth,” “perverts,” and “degenerates.” They detect manifestations of paedophilia that are invisible to others, as with their failed cancellation campaign against the French movie Mignonnes, or Cuties (2020). Nonetheless, whatever the Right is doing, there’s a cancel culture within the Left. This might seem puzzling, since the Left traditionally viewed itself as the party of toleration and civil liberties. To borrow an old phrase, why is it so?

In search for an answer, we might reflect on the political ideologies of the past two centuries. By my definition, these do not exactly count as religions. They do not, for example, show various characteristics of religions identified in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). But such ideologies can play a similar role in their adherents’ lives to that played for others by more clearly religious systems of belief, ritual, and canons of moral conduct. This was especially true of revolutionary Marxism, which has often been understood as a kind of political religion and – for many people – a successor belief system to Christianity.

Marxism is now passé. Today, as an artifact of history, a converging set of political priorities and politically inspired social theories has become the new successor belief system. For many people on what passes for the Left, it’s a successor not only to Christianity, but to older ideas and ideologies such as Marxism. Especially in academia and some related sectors and milieux, these priorities and theories have gained a status much like that of religious dogmas and sacred texts. Thus, a left-wing, feminist, lesbian thinker such as Kathleen Stock can now be regarded as blasphemous, or simply evil, when she dissents from just one part of the brave new orthodoxy – that part constituted by politicised theories of gender. Her careful dissent in Material Girls and elsewhere then justifies almost any outrage against her welfare as a fellow human being.

Conclusion: The road we’ve taken

Meanwhile, old-fashioned intellectual honesty is deprecated. For many activists – probably for Stock’s detractors – it’s unthinkable to examine today’s politicised social theories with scientific detachment. Within the Left’s cancel culture, expedient but unproven ideas are held as Truth, not regarded as useful myths and metaphors, and certainly not as what, at best, they are – as conjectures or provisional explanations that are fair game for conceptual and empirical challenge. In this new world, Professor Stock is speaking the wrong language. She might as well have said “Sibboleth” instead of “Shibboleth.”

All of this is unhealthy for democracy and for academic life. The upshot is that decent, smart, thoughtful people are self-censoring, expressing their real views on many topics only within close and trusted circles. And that is exactly what J.S. Mill called, in On Liberty, “the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.” Sadly, this was the road we took. This is where we’ve arrived.

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Russell Blackford is Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, NSW.