Cancellation Is a Real Fear

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It’s good for a laugh. And lots of people are snickering at Josh Hawley’s essay in the New York Post. “Senator Josh Hawley claims to have been silenced; he makes the claim from the front page of the New York Post.”

In my reading of events, Hawley has merited the pushback from his critics. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) But it would be wrong to start writing off concerns about “cancellation” just because they can be put to cynical use. I would bet millions of people are starting to worry about cancellation as a tool of political control and punishment, and it’s important to understand the nature of our objections to cancel culture and what politicians can and can’t address about it.

The young senator from Missouri invokes the example of the Chinese social-credit system — a complex system of state-run social conformism for the digital age — and complains that his own social-credit score dropped when people reacted poorly to his objection to the recognition of Pennsylvania’s electoral system and results. Some of his events are canceled, some of his donors are angry with him, and his book was dropped from the imprint of a mainstream publisher, only to be picked up later by a conservative one.

He writes:

Like the old-fashioned kind of credit score, your social credit requires a lot of maintenance. You’ll need to get good grades in school and stay out of trouble with the law. But that’s just the start — you have to earn your right to live in polite society these days. So if you want to get a good job, stay at hotels and be served at restaurants, you will need to do a few other things. You will need to voice the right opinions. You will need to endorse the right ideas. You will need to conform. That’s what the corporate chieftains tell us, anyway.

The results, he says, are ever-declining social trust and people simply shutting up.

Now, what’s striking about this passage is that it conflates a few related but distinct phenomena.

First there is the general social approbation and disapprobation of views and attitudes. Depending on what you mean by it, “polite society” has always had a set of rules and opinions attached to it, and polite society has found ways of extracting a cost for not conforming to them. Objecting to this phenomenon is no different than objecting to human civilization itself. Second, there is the problem of access to jobs, either getting them or keeping them. This seems to be where the hottest concern is for the Right. And last, there is the access to facilities — whether social-media platforms or public spaces.

Untangling this is going to require a bit more work. There are people who seem to profit from their cancellation or attempted cancellation — usually people who are already famous and can use the attempt as a fulcrum for rallying their own supporters. Hawley may be one of those figures. And these cases seem to muddy the waters. Some progressives took aim at the home-improvement lifestyle celebrities Chip and Joanna Gaines a few years ago, criticizing them for membership in a church that preaches traditional Christian moral teaching on sexuality and marriage. The Gaines family seems to be doing just fine.

The example of people profiting from cancellation, and others simply getting social sanction, makes it easier to dismiss it all. Many people want to write off conservative concerns about cancel culture as just futile moaning against unpopularity. You say something that embarrasses your company, then when you’re fired it’s just the market at work. But this tends to compress cancel culture into just the broader phenomenon of social approval and disapproval.

And in fact, many times people expressing a characteristically left-wing disdain for politically conservative or religious people and ideas can be “canceled.” Left-wing complaints about something like cancel culture go back to Gamergate, a bizarre media controversy that they believe pioneered the model of bad-faith complaints being used to harass and punish progressives.

But just before Gamergate there was the case of Brendan Eich, then CEO of Mozilla, an open-source software company. It was leaked that he had supported Proposition 8 in California, which narrowly won, adding the line, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California” to that state’s constitution.

Eich was eventually forced out after protests. And the protests focused on a few ideas, namely that someone of his views could not represent the company justly, and that someone of his views could imperil employees. There was no evidence that Eich had ever discriminated against or mistreated an employee, but it was taken as axiomatic that he might. And finally the decision was wrapped up in the language of “safety.” GLAAD issued a statement upon his dismissal: “Mozilla’s strong statement in favor of equality today reflects where corporate America is: inclusive, safe, and welcoming to all.”

The language of safety points directly to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But Eich’s threat to safety or motive for discrimination was also entirely notional. It was based on his actions, which were evidence of an unapproved identity. One basic concern animating both religious conservatives and many non-religious skeptics who dissent from the emerging orthodoxies on transgenderism is that civil-rights litigation basically makes hiring them or retaining employees with their views a legally perilous risk. That is, the white-hot fear is that views on sex, marriage, or biology that people are obliged to hold by their religion or reason could render them a legal liability. They further view the private initiatives of companies to get “statements of support,” or the awkward attempts at social training done by HR, as threats that could explode them.

Most people simply don’t have access to Chip and Joanna Gaines’s fame to withstand an outrage campaign, and even to thrive in it. If what a pastor says in a sermon is likely to get members of his flock fired, opportunists and hatchet men will begin trolling through church podcasts for reasons to campaign against their co-workers. One wonders if the law is shaping behavior in this way, as some studies show that even in the American South, signs of any overt religious affiliation hurt one’s changes of obtaining a job. It is simply not possible to untangle the fall in prestige for religiosity from the increase of legal trouble surrounding rather common religious convictions. Each drives the other.

So conservatives have a double fight on their hands. Politicians may not have all the tools to fight the drop in social prestige that religiosity has suffered, but they do have the ability to clarify whether speech and actions in adherence to a Christian catechism, or what one believes to be the inescapable logic of biology, are legal liabilities for employers. There is a way in which Title VII litigation outsources government-approved censorship and self-censorship into the private sector. Politicians do have the ability to clarify whether mayors have the right to discriminate against businesses led by people with religious convictions they don’t like. They have the ability to stop campaigns of trollish legal harassment.

Of course there are matters on the edge, and cases that are hard to resolve. But it’s only by clarifying these matters that we can allow a great majority of people of goodwill to rebuild a workable consensus and set of conventions that allow people who disagree passionately about important matters to work together productively. And clarifying them should make clear that being forced to take your book to another publishing house is not the same as being asked by the bosses to sign onto statements of moral and religious import while working at a corporate office.

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